Trumpism, Radicalism, and the Dangers of the Movement Mentality
The Preacher wisely said that "there is nothing new under the sun," and however aghast our pundits may be at the sudden rise of Trumpism, we really have seen it all before. The radicalization and fragmentation of the Republican Party that we are witnessing follows familiar patterns of radical movements in both state and church. Indeed, it fits eerily with one of the first diagnoses of the social psychology of radicalism, that which Richard Hooker offers at the outset of his Laws. Before getting to that, though, and then to a discussion of how Hooker provides us for resources to move beyond it, let's examine Trumpism on its own terms.
Trumpism, it should be noted, is simply the culmination of a disgruntled radicalism that has been brewing in the Republican Party since at least the election of Obama in 2008; it is the chickens coming home to roost for the Republican leadership, which has actively fomented an anti-intellectual anti-establishment anti-government message for the past seven years. What are some of the basic features of this tendency, and its dark apotheosis in Donald Trump (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Ted Cruz, and even Ben Carson)?
Most obviously, the Movement is characterized by a profound distrust of authority--first and foremost, perhaps, governmental authorities in the positions of most centralized power (the White House, Supreme Court, Federal Reserve, and various federal bureaucracies above all, then the Senate, then the House of Representatives, and only then state governments), but then, not far behind, and closely connected, various forms of intellectual authorities--media, academic scholars and economists, and especially scientists. In place of these discredited authorities, the Movement embraces the wisdom of the common man and the neophyte. With the center clearly corrupted, one must look to the periphery for purity; experience is a liability, and inexperience an asset.
The most trusted figures of all are those who, untainted by prior experience in government or credentialed expertise, can articulate in the most fearless and undiluted terms the common sense of the common man, heightening as much as possible its contrast with the voice of the Establishment. Around such trusted figures, promising to clean house and govern autocratically by their own individual vigor and insight, personality cults rapidly develop, fueled by the invigorating language of liberty even while quietly evacuating it of much of its traditional meaning. The personal leadership of the demagogue, who speaks after all for the common man, is in many cases to replace the heavy-handed, inefficient, and compromise-ridden rule of law.
For if there is one thing the Movement distrusts most of all it is compromise. After all, once the truth and the right course of action have been discerned, what could compromise be but a concession to falsehood and corruption? What could motivate it except cowardice? The Movement, after all, is quite confident that the truth and the right course of action have been grasped--not, to be sure, by the arrogant and overeducated Establishment, which after all is probably just using its truth claims to mask its will to power (the Right, it seems, has learned their Foucault as well as any Berkeley protester)--but by sanctified intuition of the Common Man. This intuition, being an intuition, prefers to operate at the level of broad, sweeping, generalizations--it is uniquely gifted at connecting the dots and discerning the underlying corruptions that lie behind the myriad evils afflicting the commonwealth. Details can be easily postponed to be dealt with later; what matters is grasping the big picture of what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. This truth, even if only a minority have grasped it, is not complicated or difficult to discern--that is indeed one of its recognizable hallmarks, and the introduction of nuance, complexity, or doubt is one of the surest signs that one has been tainted by the Establishment. As certitude of the Common Wisdom takes hold of the movement, the Movement develops an ironclad shell of defense against any attacks, which actually serves only to strengthen it. Given the obviously self-serving character of the Establishment, attacks by any of its representatives (whether political leaders, scholars, or reporters in the media) on the Movement and its anointed leaders simply serve as proof that the Movement has hit a raw nerve, has discovered some deception. The Movement's certainty of its own truth and righteous cause increases with every contradiction from "above," and as internal criticism is mere evidence of defection to the enemy motivated by self-interest, it can no more gain a hearing than external criticism. Attempts by the Establishment to reassert its power and stamp out the menace of the Movement are recognized as the persecution which every righteous movement must expect, and so only succeed in confirming its confidence and even adding recruits to its number.
So what is the common root of this malaise, if there is one (recognizing, self-critically, that the search for a single common root can itself be a manifestation of Movement mentality)? Perhaps the most common diagnosis, and one in which I have indulged several times myself, is that what we have is a stark individualism that reflexively eschews all forms of social solidarity that might take institutional form. I myself have often made this diagnosis, and of course, we would be foolish to ignore the centrality of such individualism to the modern Western social imaginary. But its very centrality suggests that, even if this might be a necessary condition in any explanation of contemporary radical conservative movements, it is hardly a sufficient condition. After all, is not such individualism just as dominant--nay, more so--on much of the contemporary left, and in the center? Is it not well-developed in the European countries, where one is hard-pressed to find constituencies that resemble the current US Republican Party? Our political rhetoric, to be sure, is still deeply infused with Cold War-era tropes, in which the Right stands for individual liberty and the Left for various forms of collectivism or communitarianism, but everyone knows that communitarianism nowadays is even scarcer on the Left than on the Right. Tea Party types are perhaps more likely to be embedded in strong communities, defined primarily by faith and family, than are the "liberals" they decry. Nor is the radical Right today defined by private judgment to the extent that both its advocates and opponents might claim--rather, any number of fiercely held, if usually unwritten, orthodoxies dominate its ranks and tend to stifle any internal dissent: orthodoxies about the fictitiousness of climate change, the imminent explosion of the national debt and the collapse of the welfare state, the dangerousness of Muslims and immigrants in general, the self-regulating power of the market, etc. So what is really going on? We'll explore an answer to this question in our next post.
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.