I thought I would revisit an essay I wrote for Commonweal in July on the rise of Trump. I stand by what I wrote there. Of course, like almost everyone else, I had assumed that Clinton would sail to easy victory. Now that we’ve all been proven wrong, I thought it would be good to assess where we stand. Clearly, the process of collective reflection is only beginning. So let me add my voice by pointing the finger in four directions—at the Democrats, at the Republicans, at ideology, and at (American) Christianity.
Blame the Democrats
First things first: Clinton was undone by a platform based on technocratic liberalism in economic policy combined with expressive individualism in social policy. She opted for a re-run of John Kerry’s sterile and dispassionate 2004 campaign. We all thought that it would be enough to beat someone like Trump. But we were wrong.
The real problem, as many are now pointing out, is that the white working class did not trust the Democrats because they were seen as preferencing the interests of the global economic elite. We should not think of this as malignant cronyism hatched in dark smoky rooms. Rather, it represents an attachment to what Pope Francis calls the technocratic paradigm rooted in cold utilitarian calculus – and to a groupthink among people who inhabit the same social, economic, and educational circles. Thus free trade is defended because we can demonstrate that its benefits exceed its costs – and we can always “retrain” the losers. Silicon Valley is defended because technocrats worship at the altar of technology. Wall Street is defended because it is a mecca for the smartest people (and “smart” is the highest form of praise in the technocratic paradigm).
I don’t want to turn this into too much of a caricature – the Democrats do indeed support many policies rooted in justice such as universal healthcare, decent safety nets, environmental protection, and financial regulation. And President Barack Obama in particular has some laudable achievements under his belt. But even here, this is inadequately rooted in a politics of the common good. It tends to be sold under the banner of self-determination and individual empowerment rather than civic responsibility and communal solidarity. And it is processed through a technocratic paradigm that is simply allergic to moral arguments (Bernie Sanders, unshackled by these norms, showed us what is possible).
On the other side of the equation: while not heeding the bread-and-butter concerns of the working class, Clinton went “all in” on expressive individualism—with a campaign centered on the most extremist abortion position in history, the unrestrained to freedom to love whoever you like and define your own identity, all in the context of a certain “illiberal liberalism” and a tone-deafness that came across as smug and even contemptuous. Again, we shouldn’t go too far here either - much of what we call “identity politics” coheres with the common good, especially gender and racial justice. But the root is still in individualism. And many of these issues, while deeply-held, are nonetheless the issues of the elites.
This was certainly on display at the anti-Trump protest I joined a few days ago. I stood at the sidelines of this protest, and not just because of my age and dislike of crowds. Although I supported the protestors, I couldn’t fully identify with them either. I joked that I wanted to hold a banner saying “civic communitarianism trumps libertarianism” – but the millennials, weaned on expressive individualism, wouldn’t get this at all, would they?
The bottom line is that the Democrats used to be the party of the worker and the underdog – of all races – and they must be so again.
Blame the Republicans
But let’s be clear. As I mentioned in my original essay, economic issues are by no means the only – or even the primary – reason for the election of Trump. Using the apt terminology of Van Jones, the election of Trump represented a “whitelash” against the real and perceived loss of economic, social, and cultural dominance. One of the most interesting facts to emerge is that a majority of the poorest white people – the ones facing the greatest economic strain – actually voted for Clinton. Trump’s base was more middle-class. It was certainly more pronounced among those without a college degree, but he won degree holders too. Even more shockingly, he won white women and white millennials. White. That is the operative word.
And let’s think about what drove that whitelash. This kind of thing often happens when groups and identities feel under threat. We know this from history. And it mirrors developments in Europe, especially in the face of globalization and an influx of culturally-distinct immigrants.
But let’s be clear: this did not arise organically either. It reflects decades of poison stemming from Fox News and talk radio, making a whole generation of older white people angry, bitter, and hateful. It reflects a tendency for Republican politicians to play with fire by winking at racism – overtly in the case of people like Jesse Helms, more covertly for Ronald Reagan and his fellow travelers. It reflects the destructive nihilism that dominated the Republican Party from the days of Newt Gingrich through the tea party and the frenzied attempt to delegitimize the first black president.
In the legitimate desire to move ahead after such a bitter election, let us not forget this. Let us not forget the despicable things Trump said and did during this campaign, cheered on by his white base. Let us not forget his elevation of the alt right and his winking at white nationalism – including by appointing this movement’s leader as his chief strategist as president. And let us not forget that, had a mere 107,000 votes swung the other way and tilted the presidency toward Clinton, Trump and his base would today be undermining the legitimacy of that outcome.
At the same time, it’s unfair to dismiss everyone who voted for Trump as racist. Too many were, that’s for sure, and they seemed almost gleeful that they could voice feelings long suppressed. But most weren’t. Most simply felt ignored, excluded, and marginalized.
We still have a problem, though. They lashed out without thinking about the consequences or caring about the consequences. Only a few days after Trump’s victory, we were inundated with stories of physical and verbal attacks on Latinos, Muslims, gays, and women. For sure, the vast majority of Trump’s supporters were not implicated in this. But they bear some moral responsibility. If you play with fire, you shouldn’t be surprised when buildings start burning down. And if they were surprised by the violence and the fear, then I would submit that the Democrats aren’t the only ones living in a bubble. As Leon Wieseltier once suggested, the downtrodden of white America deserve sympathy, but they must also be willing to give sympathy.
There’s a broader issue here, of course. Catholics are called upon to identify with the poor, the excluded, the marginalized - and in the United States, that means primarily low-income blacks and Latinos. The truly disenfranchised people are minorities, who tend to live in cities (and because of the quirks of an eighteenth century election system, their votes count less). And yet we rarely hear calls for the Republican Party to engage in soul-searching about why they have become an exclusively white party and why they are utterly indifferent to the concerns of minority communities. Just as with the drug war, the calls for compassion and understanding only seem to come when white people are captured in the net of exclusion. This must change. And as Meghan Clark put it, any reconciliation must be predicated on justice and the protection of the vulnerable.
There’s one question that not enough people are asking: why Trump himself? The world is sadly full of right-wing strong men, xenophobic nationalists, and mercenary populists. But they typically don’t look like Donald Trump – an oligarch who encapsulates the worst vices of the system he claims to oppose, and who exploits popular discontent to benefit his own class.
As people are now pointing out, if you voted for Trump because you think he’s anti-establishment, you’ve been thoroughly conned. None of this should be a surprise – with the exception of trade, Trump’s economic platform has always overlapped with Republican orthodoxy. He supports massive tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens, taking healthcare away from 22 million people, gutting the Dodd-Frank financial regulation, and halting all efforts to fight climate change. And today, his team is stacked with industry lobbyists and think-tank libertarians. His chief economic advisor is from Goldman Sachs. Wall Street traders are salivating over ways to make money from a Trump presidency. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
How did he pull this off? To properly answer that question, we need to talk about ideology – specifically the ideology of libertarianism and free market fundamentalism that rose to such prominence over the past few decades. That ideology did two things – it created fertile conditions for the backlash that forced voters into Trump’s arms, and it also made somebody who looked like Trump more acceptable than they would otherwise have been.
The first point is by now pellucid. We have indisputable evidence that libertarian and supply-side policies did not work as promised. They did not raise productivity or long-term economic growth. But they did raise inequality and financial fragility, they did contribute to wage stagnation, and they did lower trust and social capital. They contributed to the exclusion, despair, and marginalization that led to the rise of Trump.
But the ideology did more than that. It changed social norms in a way that turned somebody with the values and record of Trump into a viable candidate. It let him play tribune of the plebs while wallowing in ostentatious wealth and never letting go of his neoliberal goody bag.
This is a somewhat subtle point. It is based on the idea that human beings have tendencies that are both selfish and social, conflictual and cooperative – and that these tendencies can be stoked or primed. As an obvious example, we have a deeply-rooted instinct to preference in-groups and marginalize out-groups. Trump, like so many demagogues before him, managed to exploit this exceedingly well. But if Trump was able to stoke changes in what constitutes acceptable behavior in this domain so easily and so quickly, can you imagine the damage done to social norms from decades of exposure to individualistic and libertarian ideology? I’m talking about the incubation of anti-social values like self-interest, greed, materialism, hedonism, and zero-sum competition. The point is that this ideology not only gives rise to an economy of exclusion, but it prompts us not to care about the excluded. Pope Francis says similar things.
This degradation of virtue drives the rich to eschew any sense of social responsibility. And on cue, as Mike Lofgren noted a few years ago, the rich have almost seceded from America…as he puts it, they “disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well being except as a place to extract loot.” And they have proven remarkably successful at shifting the narrative in their direction. Over the last few years, as documented by Jane Mayer, a secretive cabal of financial and fossil fuel billionaires worked behind the scenes to torpedo Obama’s policies – to protect their own bottom line. They created the tea party, and they actually helped pave the way for Trump.
Related to this, one of Adam Smith’s great insights into human psychology was that we are driven to admire the rich, which harms moral norms. In his words, this “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition” is “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” This is because the rich can gain social approval without having to act morally, and others seek to emulate the unworthy rich, undermining moral norms all around. It makes sense that this corruption is worsened by decades of exposure to neoliberal ideology and rising inequality.
Is it any surprise, then, that - at least when they like the message - millions can rally around a “successful businessman” who wallows in his wealth, who brags about his greed, and who takes pleasure in dominating people in his business and personal life? And indeed, the analyses of the white working class suggest that not only have they been primed to blame government over market forces for their woes, but that they actually continue to admire the rich while despising the “professional” class.
This might help explain why Trump could tap into something that Mitt Romney - another extremely rich man - could not. Romney was too identified with the loathed managerial class. Trump, on the other hand, disdains the traits of the managerial elite and enjoys the show of being extravagantly and flamboyant wealthy. In this too, he benefits from the modern obsession with fame and celebrity, with a narcissism divorced from societal responsibility. And it goes without saying that he benefits from the mainstreaming of pornography and sexual hedonism.
Putting this all together, Trump is the candidate for a culture of self-centeredness and self-absorption. He is the candidate of neoliberalism, oligarchy, and the throwaway culture. But he is also the candidate of Kardashian culture, pornography culture, misogyny culture. He is the candidate of cultural decline. And he won.
Blame (American) Christianity
As soon as the election was over, it became clear that it wasn’t just white voters that elected Trump, but white voters who identified most with Christianity. Certainly in American evangelicalism, with its roots in Calvinism, there is a strong but perverted prosperity gospel tradition, which sees wealth and worldly success as a sign of divine blessing. It is no surprise that this tradition so easily embraced the libertarian ideology that became Republican orthodoxy.
Catholics don’t have this excuse, of course, but a majority of white Catholics still went for Trump. Some might even say they handed him his victory. How did this happen? Part of it reflects cultural assimilation, as (white) American Catholics look more and more like their evangelical neighbors and less and less like their global Catholic brothers and sisters. And over the past few decades, there has been a concerted effort among influential Catholics, backed by deep-pocketed ideological interests, to undermine traditional Catholic social teaching and make it hospitable to libertarianism.
Of course, the main reason many Catholics gave for backing Trump was abortion. But if Catholics were convinced through decades of habituation and misinformation that libertarian values were consistent with Catholicism, then it becomes easier to focus on this issue alone. And let’s face it, Clinton’s extremist stance left a wide opening here. But as passionate pro-lifers like Charlie Camosy have been pointing out, there’s something perverse and counterproductive about aligning the pro-life movement with a man who habitually divides the world into winners and losers, and whose last-minute conversion to the pro-life cause seems hollow and cynical. It seems obvious that the policies he espouses will increase the rate of abortion. It seems obvious that he will make “pro-life” an even dirtier word than it already is. More significantly, to defend Trump on pro-life grounds is to misunderstand the connections that constitute the throwaway culture—whereby the “choice” to have an abortion must be understood in the context of a self-centered consumerist culture based on individual freedom in which “choice” is considered a sacrament.
I would argue that Trump’s whole worldview is the very antithesis of Christianity. He is a vulgar Nietzschean who sees Christianity through his default lens of power and dominance. He has no use for mercy, repentance, or forgiveness. He despises the very people that Christians are called upon to prioritize. He has attacked both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. I would go so far as to say that, in his temperament and in his stated positions, he might be the most unchristian candidate ever to win the office of presidency.
Yet many American Catholic bishops and priests supported him, at least tacitly by framing the issues extremely narrowly. In doing so, they bear some of the blame for his victory. As they say in Hamilton, there’s reckoning to be reckoned.
The worst example, unsurprisingly, was Cardinal Raymond Burke who was practically salivating at the thought of a Trump presidency (on the very day that minorities around the country were feeling terrified). The country’s premier culture war bishop, Charles Chaput, while officially adopting a “plague on both their houses” position nonetheless echoed the extreme right by suggesting that Clinton should be under criminal indictment. He took the Russian-approved wikileaks bait, attacking lay progressive Catholics simply for trying to do what lay conservative Catholics have always done, but never criticizing the latter for their association with libertarianism and climate change denialism. In doing so, he fed the erroneous narrative that Clinton operatives were explicitly motivated by anti-Catholicism. And swimming downstream, many bishops and priests across the country adopted a pro-Trump tone – Michael O’Loughlin has a good run down. Most of these used an argument based on a selective set of non-negotiable values, an approach rejected explicitly by Pope Francis.
Speaking of Pope Francis, who is he again? A year ago, he gave a magnificent speech in Congress, in which he outlined his priorities for the United States – protect immigrants and refugees, abolish the death penalty, defend the poor, work for a better distribution of wealth, protect the environment, work for peace between nations, avoid fundamentalisms, and end the arms trade. How much of this featured in the political debate? How many bishops emphasized these issues? How many lay Catholics framed their political deliberation around them?
In that same speech, Pope Francis singled out four American role models – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Did the American Catholic supporters of Trump – including bishops and priests – internalize this? Because if they did, they would be forced to admit that Trump’s values are the polar opposite of the values of these exemplary men and women.
Let’s face it, I don’t see much concern among the Catholic Trump supporters about plans to break up millions of families, destroy the Paris agreement on climate change, or take healthcare away from millions. Yet these are pro-life issues too. Developing country prelates - less infected by ideology - understand this. Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, for example, said that climate change was tantamount to “criminal genocide” by the rich against the poor. Meanwhile, the man tasked by Trump to lead his environmental policy is a climate change denier who attacked Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, dubbing it “scientifically ill-informed, economically illiterate, intellectually incoherent, and morally obtuse.” He didn’t stop there – it was also deemed to be “theologically suspect, and large parts of it are leftist drivel, albeit couched in the vocabulary of Catholic social teaching.” You can be sure that if a leftist criticized Church teaching on sexuality in similar terms, that person would face an avalanche of angry purple. But here? Nothing.
This is a fateful moment for the U.S. Catholic Church. We will need to see what happens next. Let’s not forget the ruinous choices made eight years ago. After barely uttering a word about Bush’s catastrophic war and legitimization of torture, the U.S. bishops immediately declared war on Obama. In doing so, they allied themselves, however unwittingly, with the unsavory financial interests seeking to undermine his presidency for their personal financial gain.
Will they make the same mistake this time? There are some encouraging signs, at least around the protection of immigrants. But there is still no real appreciation among the bishops for the importance of climate change, or for the damage done to social cohesion from inequality and libertarian ideology. My hope is that a Trump presidency will act as a wake-up call. But I’m not optimistic. We have a long and hard road ahead.
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