I look forward every week to reading the new Tom Edsall column in the Times. His data-driven political analyses always give me something to think about. This week’s column is no different, though I interpret the data slightly differently, as you’ll see.
Here’s how his piece opens:
However often President Trump strays from his favored political strategy, he faithfully returns to it like a dog to a bone: first, polarize the American electorate along racial, cultural and economic lines, then exploit the schisms that have supplanted the class divisions that were once central to both American and European partisan politics.
On one side of the divide are those whom the political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart describe in a 2016 paper as comfortable with “an inexorable cultural escalator moving postindustrial societies steadily in a more progressive direction.” This new direction amounts to what the authors call
an intergenerational shift toward post-materialist values, such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, generating rising support for left-libertarian parties such as the Greens and other progressive movements advocating environmental protection, human rights, and gender equality.
On the other side, Norris and Inglehart write, is a counterrevolution, a
retro backlash, especially among the older generation, white men, and less educated sectors, who sense decline and actively reject the rising tide of progressive values, resent the displacement of familiar traditional norms, and provide a pool of supporters potentially vulnerable to populist appeals.
Economic distress, they argue, reinforces cultural alienation to produce fertile terrain for Trump. “Fears of economic insecurity, including the individual experience of the loss of secure, well-paid blue-collar jobs, and the collective experience of living in declining communities of the left-behinds” combine to make voters
more susceptible to the anti-establishment appeals of authoritarian-populist actors, offering simple slogans blaming “Them” for stripping prosperity, job opportunities, and public services from “Us.”
The collision of these forces has produced the emergence of an American authoritarianism. In their book, “Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism,” which comes out later this week, Norris and Inglehart write that Trump has assumed leadership of this authoritarian movement,
defined as a cluster of values prioritizing collective security for the group at the expense of liberal autonomy for the individual. Authoritarian values prioritize three core components: 1) the importance of security against risks of instability and disorder (foreigners stealing our jobs, immigrants attacking our women, terrorists threatening our safety); 2) the value of group conformity to preserve conventional traditions and to guard our way of life (defending “Us” against threats to “European values”); and 3) the need for loyal obedience toward strong leaders who protect the group and its customs (“I alone can fix it,” “Believe me,” “Are you on my team?”).
Something is not quite right about this. I agree with Pippa and Englehart that we are on a “cultural escalator leading societies in a more progressive direction,” only to the extent that values are shifting fast to the Left. Notice the language they use to frame this shift: an “escalator” takes people to a higher place. What looks like advancement to some people — say, political scientists who teach at Harvard (Norris) and the University of Michigan (Inglehart) — looks very much like to decline to others.
I also don’t understand what the duo means by the young shifting to “postmaterialist values.” Maybe they have a technical meaning for this, but if you read the sociological analyses of Christian Smith, the young have by and large abandoned religion, and taken up the hedonistic, individualistic values of consumer culture. As I wrote in The Benedict Option, quoting Smith:
An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
Again, I’d have to see how they define “postmaterialist,” but I’m skeptical. What is “postmaterialist” about “cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism”? It seems to me that “multiculturalism” means “identity politics,” which is about as materialist as you can get. I looked at the first couple of pages of the Norris and Inglehart book, which is as much as Amazon will let you see, and I find that they attack Trump for threatening the “liberal norms underpinning American democracy.”
More Norris and Inglehart:
::::Puts face in palms, vigorously rubs, looks up, types::::
What on earth do these political scientists think the progressive Left is doing with their identity politics?! You want to see threats to the liberal norms underpinning American democracy? Go to campus! Go speak to the human resources departments at major American corporations, and ask them about their hiring policies, and about the kind of culture they are building within their companies! Read the major media and see how they cover left-wing in groups, versus groups left-wingers despise. If you don’t think our media, with the way they covered (for example) the Covington Catholic boys, are threatening the liberal values that underpin American democracy, you are so deep inside the bubble that only a Navy SEAL extricating team could get you out.
Seriously, though. Seriously. I honestly cannot grasp how Trump is considered the real threat to democratic norms here. I mean, yes, I do see that he has an authoritarian personality, one that is hostile in many ways to liberal democratic norms. But Trump did not come from nowhere. It is precisely the Left’s hostility to liberal democratic norms via identity politics that gave Trump’s candidacy fuel among many on the Right. There is nothing liberal or democratic about the tribal politics on the Left — but it appears that Pippa and Inglehart can’t see this. (I say “appears” because I haven’t read their entire book; if you have, I welcome correction.)
They fault Trump and Trump supporters for searching for “collective security for the tribe — even if this means sacrificing personal freedoms.” Wait … what? Do they really expect us to believe that left-wing identity politics, which is the dominant form of progressive politics, places individual freedom over the supposed needs of the tribe? To cite an extreme (but not isolated) example, I recently wrote about a Princeton scholar in the Classics who, at an academic conference, openly called for white male Classics scholars to be shut out of publishing in academic journals to make space for women and persons of color. This kind of thing happens all the time in academic circles, and was happening when Donald Trump was nothing but a reality TV star.
Do Norris and Inglehart seriously not see the threats things like this pose to liberal democratic norms? If so, their cultural escalator has elevated them to Cloud-Cuckoo Land.
What’s more, they fault Trump as an “authoritarian” because he, like all authoritarians, emphasizes “the importance of security against risks of instability and disorder.” Okay, but what the devil do they think socialism aspires to do? A core appeal of socialism is to give ordinary people a hedge against security and disorder. Why do I get the feeling that Bernie Sanders’s emphasizing the importance of security against risks of instability and disorder doesn’t alarm these political scientists?
There’s nothing wrong with trying to give people who live in chaotic and unstable times help they need to keep from losing everything. Since the Great Depression, ordinary American politics, both Left and Right, have not been about whether or not to have some version of a welfare state, but how far it should go. If we are going to have maximal security against the risks of instability and disorder for the greatest number of people, then we are going to have to lose a great deal of individual economic liberty. You can’t have it both ways. Normal liberal democratic politics negotiates the middle way between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. It is certainly true that classical Fascism emphasized security over the individual, and did so from the Right, but if you are going to pin the Fascist tail on the Trump donkey because he supposedly emphasizes security against risk of instability and disorder, how on earth are you going to give our socialist, and quasi-socialist, Democratic Party presidential hopefuls a pass?
Anyway, back to the Edsall column. (For those who don’t read him regularly, his column is always more analytical than polemical or prescriptive.) Edsall takes up the question, in conversing with political scientists, about whether or not the Democratic Party presidential candidates are taking a risk of going too far left economically, alienating the center, where the election will be decided.
The answer — again, according to political scientists — is no, they aren’t. Citing statistics, they show that the Democratic primary voters are solidly on the Left (goodbye, Clintonian centrism!), and that a majority of Americans are to the left of the GOP on some pretty basic issues. What’s more:
Jacobson of UCSD strongly agreed, arguing that Democrats’ intense dislike of Trump will make them willing to forgive a candidate who fails to adopt all their favored policies if the candidate looks like a winner:
Most Democrats will have as their prime goal — far more important than positions taken by the candidates — making sure Trump does not have a second term.
The national election survey cited above reveals the depth of the electorate’s divisions on a range of issues in the Trump era.
The column concludes that Trump himself will be the central issue in the 2020 presidential election. It’s hard to argue with that, though let me qualify my support for it. Trump has been at best a disappointment as president. He was given a great opportunity to reshape the country and reshape the Republican Party, but has pretty much blown it because he can’t resist causing pointless dramas, and because he doesn’t really care about governing. And, to be fair to him, the Republican Party leadership has not seemed to grasp the meaning of Trump’s victory, insofar as it signals the end of the Reagan era and its outdated free-market dogmas. People really are much more economically insecure and unstable as a result of structural economic changes, and if the Republicans don’t respond to that with meaningful policies, people are going to be lured away by socialism, or socialism-lite.
Anyway, Edsall is correct to say that Trump’s failures will weigh against him in 2020, but personally, I believe that, in the same way most Democrats will overlook whatever flaws their party’s 2020 nominee has, the same thing will happen with most Republican voters and Trump. Why? Let Erick Erickson explain it to you:
This week in 2016, I declared I would be “Never Trump.” A friend suggested I use a hashtag that had started circulating on Twitter, i.e #NeverTrump. The piece exploded and pushed me into a whirlwind of coverage. Despite lots of pressure, protestors literally on my front porch, and harassment directed towards my family, I did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016. I voted third party.
Some of my concerns about President Trump remain. I still struggle on the character issue and I understand Christian friends who would rather sit it out than get involved. But I also recognize that we cannot have the Trump Administration policies without President Trump and there is much to like.
More, about the Democrats:
We have a party that is increasingly hostile to religion and now applies religious tests to blocking judicial nominees. We have a party that believes children can be murdered at birth. We have a party that would set back the economic progress of this nation by generations through their environmental policies. We have a party that uses the issue of Russia opportunistically. We have a party that has weaponized race, gender, and other issues to divide us all while calling the President “divisive.” We have a party that is deeply, deeply hostile to large families, small businesses, strong work ethics, gun ownership, and traditional values. We have a party that is more and more openly anti-Semitic.
The Democrats have increasingly determined to let that hostility shape their public policy. They are adamant, with a religious fervor, that one must abandon one’s deeply held convictions and values as a form of penance to their secular gods.
On top of that, we have an American media that increasingly views itself not as a neutral observer, but as an anti-Trump operation. The daily litany of misreported and badly reported stories designed to paint this Administration in a negative light continues to amaze me. Juxtapose the contrast in national reporting on the President and race or Brett Kavanaugh and old allegations with the media dancing around the issues in Virginia. Or compare and contrast the media’s coverage of the New York and Virginia abortion laws with their coverage of this President continuing the policies of the Obama Administration at the border, including the Obama policy of separating children from adults. Or look now at how the media is scrambling to cover for and make excuses for the Democrats’ “Green New Deal,” going so far as to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the outline of policy initiatives was an error or forged.
Here at TAC, we are not allowed to endorse any specific political candidates or ballot initiatives, so you will not see me doing it. I did not vote for Trump in 2016, or for any presidential candidate. I can say this, though: if I vote for Trump in 2020, it will be entirely because I see him as a dike holding back the Leftist tide. It will not be because I especially believe in Donald Trump; it will be because I do believe that the Democrats will do exactly what they say they will do, and that those policies will be disastrous for people like me, and the causes and institutions I care most about. Given what the Democrats have become — a party of Left-wing authoritarianism under which, to use a favorite phrase of Erickson’s, “you will be made to care” — voting for Trump can be seen as entirely a matter of self-defense.
My basic point, contra the Edsall column, is this: Trump didn’t polarize our country. Our country was already polarized; Trump just exploits and exacerbates what’s already there.
In Christian theology, there’s a term from one of St. Paul’s letters, katechon. It means “one who withholds,” and is meant by St. Paul as an unspecified restraining force that holds back the advent of the Antichrist. The term has migrated into political usage, because it’s a politically useful term. In an entirely non-theological sense, I see Trump as a katechon. I do not believe that the political forces he holds back can be restrained for much longer, simply because they are growing in popularity. It is self-deceiving to think that any politician, even a charming Philosopher-King (which Trump is not), could turn back a vast cultural tide. The best small-o orthodox Christians and other cultural traditionalists can hope for is that our political leaders (in whose number I include federal judges) can hold back enough of it, for long enough, to give us an opportunity to build institutions and other structures that will allow us to ride out the deluge ahead. This is why I wrote The Benedict Option. If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020, it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.
If political scientists and newspaper columnists really are so blind that they can’t see that the Left in this country is guilty of almost everything of which it accuses Trump, then they are blind to an extremely important part of the political story of our times. The Left is polarizing the American electorate along racial, cultural and economic lines, and exploiting the schisms — but analysts on the Left can’t see it, because inside their bubble, left-wing politics are normal. The fact is that liberal democratic norms are under attack from all sides. It’s not only a left-wing or a right-wing thing; it has a lot to do with global economic shifts, and cultural changes. I don’t dispute that illiberalism is on the rise, but I strongly dispute that the illiberalism is a right-wing thing only.
Readers, before you comment on any of this, I hope you’ll give Edsall’s column a read.