His breathtaking election victory has unleashed a dangerous new populism. But shrill denunciations are not the answer
First there was Brexit, then came Donald Trump. The Dutch general election is scheduled for March, the French presidential election in late April and early May. In September, the German establishment faces its voters. Expect more of the same. A politics of meaning is upstaging the politics of interests.
Analysts will sift through voting data – including the exit polls that showed that 52 per cent of Catholics voted for Trump – to explain his stunning victory. Many already fix on the economic distress caused by globalisation. Others speak about turnout among voters who are working class (to use that increasingly archaic and ill-suited term).
These and other ways of thinking about Trump’s victory are legitimate. But they miss the larger trend. Voters feel vulnerable and abandoned. “I want my country back,” they say. Pundits claim this reflects a nostalgic desire for factory jobs and white, male supremacy. Wrong. It’s a plaintive, metaphysical cry for something solid and enduring, something that commands our devotion, and in so doing ennobles our lives.
As I observed last month in these pages, our culture is now dominated by a disenchantment both endorsed and advanced by Western elites. In the Anglosphere – which after 1989 became globally dominant – progressives and conservatives alike interpret almost everything in terms of the politics of interests, even the fundaments of public life. Patriotism? A mask for ethnocentrism. Marriage? A patriarchal institution serving male interests. Vocations? Doctors offer services to customers; teachers cater to educational consumers. Even the natural difference between men and women has been reinterpreted as an instrument by which some (the “cisgendered”, ie those not transgender) exercise power over others. Our political imaginations wilt in the metaphysical desert of a simplified Foucault and debased Hayek.
We should have known that men would not tolerate this poverty forever. Populism is sweeping through the West. It defies traditional categories of left and right, if by those terms we mean the interests of labour as against those of capital. It is, however, always described as “right wing”. This is because populism seeks a consolidation of the collective will to break the power of the status quo.
This stands in contrast to contemporary progressives, both left and right. Today, the left is the party of “diversity” and “inclusion”. The right advocates market freedom and “innovation”. Both aim at a cosmopolitan, post-political utopia of ever-expanding opportunities, for self-invention on the one hand and economic growth on the other. This requires the weakening of collective loyalties, common loves and other strong consolidating, unifying forces in society.
In the face of growing populist sentiment, we need to be clear-eyed. Yes, it’s dangerous. In 2016, however, the greatest threat to the Church – and to human dignity – is the weakening and disenchantment that morcellises all loves and loyalties into individual choices. Given this reality, today’s populism needs to be led responsibly, not denounced and critiqued.
Solidarity against an indifferent ruling class, the recognition of the claim our home makes upon our souls and patriotic loyalty – however unstable they may be and prone to excess, these impulses are the embers of love’s desire for something higher than self-interest.
Our job, as Christians, is to encourage and ennoble these desires with more enduring and higher loves, rather than joining the ranks of those quick to denounce. Today’s populism needs to be anchored and purified, rather than weakened and disenchanted.
The anchor comes from a renewal of marriage and family. A danger of populism stems from the expectation that politics must deliver an all-encompassing meaning. It is the atomised, unattached and lonely person who becomes vulnerable to propaganda that promises ecstasies of collective unity, purpose and superiority. A life richly grounded in family responsibilities is less vulnerable, putting politics in its rightful place.
Faith’s transcendent loyalty is more important still. It purifies our earthly, natural loves, reminding us that they serve a greater, supernatural love of God.
Just a few days after Trump’s victory I attended a conference at Notre Dame University. The Masses were attended by many of us who were involved in politics as advisers, commentators and intellectuals. Not a single homily mentioned the election. It was exactly the right approach. The affairs of men wax and wane, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Donald Trump is disrupting the political establishment in the United States, not leading a putsch. His presidency may fail as a result of corruption, incompetence and ongoing trench warfare between Republicans and Democrats, but it will not, in itself, damage the constitutional system, which retains a remarkable, quasi-sacred authority.
Nevertheless, I am worried, not just about America, but the West more broadly. The currents of populism, manifestly at work in Trump’s victory, are almost certain to surge more powerfully. I fear that the political imaginations of our post-Christian elites are “desertified”, to borrow an arresting image from Pope Francis. They will be unable to understand, much less master, the passions driving today’s populism.
In the months after the September 11 attacks, crowds of mostly young American tourists in New York’s Times Square – people who did not know each other – spontaneously united to chant “USA! USA! USA!” This crude and inarticulate expression of solidarity invariably put my European friends on edge.
I’ve come to see that the repetitive chant did not express a nativist emotion too raw and powerful to permit more nuanced expression. Instead, “USA! USA!” came from the mouths of young people made primitive by our postmodern culture of disenchantment and weakening. Over-determined by fears of collectivist passions, their elders have deliberately refrained from teaching them patriotic songs.
This has been part of a broader refusal to transmit the language of love’s devotion. It deprives our societies of more refined expressions of our natural human need for something to which we can be loyal, something that transcends the important (but penultimate) contest of interest and consecrates our common life, thus giving politics meaning.
Donald Trump is primitive as well. His populism is demotic. It evokes from his supporters crude chants: “Build that wall! Build that wall!” He is in that sense, sadly but inevitably, a man of our disenchanted times. Having been deprived of a traditional vocabulary of loyalty, honour and sacrifice, the 21st-century West becomes inarticulate, blunt and brutal in ways that coarsen public life.
Our work will not be easy. There is much peril ahead. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is one of America’s emblematic anthems. It expresses an invincible sense of America’s divinely ordained, messianic mission, and does so in militant, martial terms. One must be innocent of any knowledge of 20th-century history not to flinch before the capacity of such songs to enflame patriotic passions and infuse the political with sacred urgency. This is why The Battle Hymn of the Republic is no longer taught to American schoolchildren.
But pedagogy of this sort misjudges human nature. St John Paul II taught us a deep truth: we seek to give ourselves away in love. That fundamental, defining desire will not go away.
In our postmodern culture a great deal has been disenchanted and dissolved. Deprived of articulate and sophisticated traditions of love’s loyalties, we are left with crude effusions and ersatz expressions. Thus the dangers we face, which are only made worse by the great and the good who issue increasingly shrill denunciations of the halting efforts of ordinary people to recover their full humanity.
The West needs to free itself from the illusion that public life can be disenchanted by decomposing it into a contest of interests. Russell Kirk once observed that “Imagination rules the world.” St Augustine said something similar: “My love is my weight.” The politics of meaning is returning. The future of our societies will turn on our ability to humanise and divinise that return. Those of us who have felt the fulfilment that comes from love’s obedient self-abnegation, whether in marriage, parenting or faith, have a decisive role to play.
This article first appeared in the November 18 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here