The prevailing intellectual culture is becoming more and more convinced that concepts like liberty do not have any reference in reality.
Those who live in a bubble had best admit it, and apparently I do. I never thought Trump would be elected President. Not even on election day. Why is this? I guess spending as much time on a college campus as I do has rendered me relatively blind to what’s really going in our democracy.
Now, I’m not a typical professor, insofar as I often vote Republican and resist, on behalf of genuinely liberal education, the reduction of all of higher education to the twin imperatives of competency and diversity. Even so, my “viewpoint” has turned out not to be wide enough for a comprehensively American view.
I can see that a core group of Trump voters—skilled labor—have contempt for the members of a professional elite who can’t do anything real, who are very short on personal virtue (especially courage and honor), are blind to the proud dignity of most American lives, and live a great distance from the shared experiences that used to unite most American citizens and children of God: church, military service, civic organizations, and socioeconomically diverse public schools.
Still, I can’t do anything real—even change a tire or drive a car with a stick shift—and I’ve managed to avoid situations that require personal (at least physical) courage my whole life. I also don’t hang out much with men who drive pick-ups and work with their hands, and so I have no direct knowledge of the subtle and disciplined intelligence required for motorcycle repair or home construction. Only living on the periphery of a failed Southern mill town (the precinct I voted in went roughly 80 percent for Trump) allows me to say I don’t spend every waking moment in the professional/academic bubble.
I respect most Trump voters, as much or more than the academics who voted Clinton who surround me on campus. So many of these voters are my hard-working and loving neighbors, with the best of Southern manners and morals. I know enough to know they’re neither irredeemable nor deplorable; I have seen that they are motivated to practice charity toward the most lonely, needy, and wounded among us by their genuine belief in personal redemption. But I’m not with them enough to have experienced for myself the attraction they have toward Donald Trump, who moves me not at all.
So I’ve found myself stuck in maybe the most narrow and insular of factions. Like a few others, I thought of myself as standing outside the contest that was the campaign. I was a “Never Trump,” but not at all for Clinton. “Never Trump” turned out to be a miniscule group of Republicans who couldn’t see what was really going on on either side. It was the most unrealistic of positions from which to make any accurate predictions. Most Americans unhappy with the two choices still made a choice. They found reasons to be with him or with her.
Most Never Trumpers thought that Trump would lose, probably big, and they would be there to teach the relevant lesson and purge the Republican Party of any trace of the alien interloper. So most of them hoped Clinton would win, and expected she wouldn’t need their help to do so. One particularly eminent Never Trumper—James Ceaser—has termed the day after the election 11/9. The momentous occasion we experienced 15 years ago was, of course, the lawless, destructive violence of the few. Now it’s democracy—or the lawful, destructive mischief of the many. Without denying for a moment how terrified maybe we should be of the very idea of Donald Trump, commander-in-chief, it’s surely an overreaction to say that 11/9 brought the end of the world as we know it (implied by the comparison with 9/11). It was, however, quite the existential crisis for the Never Trumpers, who are compelled to face straight on how marginalized and politically homeless they are. For many conservatives—such as George Will or Bill Kristol—Trump’s victory was a fiasco, more so than for most Democrats, who are still at home in their party. It was certainly not so great for me to notice that, already alienated from the class of professors, I also had no place in either of our great political movements.
The insistent argument of Will and others was that the Republicans shouldn’t and wouldn’t nominate Trump once he was outed as “not a conservative.” I knew enough, from the beginning, to see that that objection by itself couldn’t take Trump out. Then, too, many Republicans, beginning with those who run the Wall Street Journal, thought the “big donor” platform of cutting taxes and regulations to incentivize job creators was enough to win the primaries and again in November. Why did they think that ordinary men and women could be animated by the combination of cutting taxes and trimming the entitlements and other safety nets on which so many depend?
The pro-growth agenda identified with Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan used to work as the foundation of the “opportunity society” in which everyone shares, but, truth to tell, nobody much thinks of the hugely rich as getting the job-creation thing done any more. And the general perception is that most people think their taxes are already pretty bleepin’ low. Conservatives, in short, had come to seem too oligarchic, too much from the rich and for the rich.
I also knew enough to say that the Republican route to victory in November, with someone other than Trump, required learning from Trump’s populism. The GOP has been, especially in recent years, a coalition of conservatives and populists, the latter known as Reagan Democrats. And the former had been parasitic on the latter for too long. Most Republicans are a good distance from being George Will-style—or basically libertarian—Republicans. Most do not share the “donor class” vision that deemphasizes various social issues and is open to various forms of unmediated global capitalism, beginning with open borders. This was a tough year for “classical liberalism,” in part, because the Republican leadership had become too exclusively classically liberal. Still, I also thought that Trump’s crude, pandering populism would be so unattractive to libertarians, moderate Republicans, and swing voters that he couldn’t possibly bring together the coalition that produces victory.
Not long before the election, I was arguing with the (equally clueless) Clinton supporter Damon Linker over whether her landslide would be a strong mandate for the change she believes in or merely a “negative landslide.” Yes, it does seem foolhardy in retrospect but in our defense we were doing that on the basis of a poll or two that disagreed with most of the others. The conventional wisdom at that moment—poor debate performance, the bragging-about-groping tape, and the childish talk about the system being rigged—was that Trump’s campaign had collapsed. Anyone could see he’d been no match for the Democratic establishment, which included the mainstream media.
But as November 8 approached, I could see that the landslide was way off, and that Trump had recovered much of what he’d lost. Then again, it’s natural for a contest to close in the final days, as Republicans come home and all that. I still thought Clinton would win, despite some polls at the national and especially at the state level that showed otherwise.
I told my students that the worst conceivable result—Clinton winning the popular vote, Trump the electoral vote, and the Republicans keeping Congress—was worth thinking about as a possibility. I assured them, though, that they shouldn’t lose sleep over it! Well maybe a little, because that outcome would be accompanied by demonstrations in our cities and on our campuses, even to the point of civil unrest that couldn’t readily be contained. Fortunately, I wasn’t even completely right when I was right. The convulsions we have now aren’t nearly as bad as I predicted.
I also thought, truth to tell, that it would be best for the country, given all the distrust in every direction, if Clinton won decisively but not overwhelmingly, but the Republicans stayed in charge in Congress. I was assuming considerably more ticket-splitting than there actually was. Naturally I turned my somewhat far-fetched wish into a prediction, a prediction shared by many Never-Trump pundits.
A large part of my error was in overlearning the lesson of 2012. Then, Romney stayed close to Obama in the polls until the very end but Obama won with surprising ease. The explanation was that the Democrats were more astutely organized. They used their vast amounts of campaign money well, what with their vaunted ground game, big data, and subtle strategizing. It seemed to me that this time around the Democratic Machine was worth at least a point or two for Clinton.
What was most inconceivable to me was that a very amateurish—“in over his head”—candidate like Trump could possibly defeat an alliance of all the parts of our country’s elitist respectable establishment. Nobody who was anybody was for him, except the rogue gay Silicon Valley billionaire, Peter Thiel. I believed something like “they” (meaning the people really in charge) just won’t let him win. That’s pretty close to “the system is rigged.” I didn’t believe Trump when he said it but I held a version of that view.
Trump’s victory was almost entirely his own. He has revised everything we know about how to wage an effective campaign—proving, for example, that money isn’t all that important in politics after all. We can’t forget, of course, how lucky he was in certain ways, beginning with the FBI director’s strange behavior. Clinton has been far too easy on herself to blame that for her defeat, although she might well have won without it. It’s not for nothing that so many Christians believe that the hand of God touched this campaign, in much the same way that the Red Sea was once parted. That, however, would attribute far too little to Clinton’s errors and to Trump’s innovative savvy.
One good thing we learned: The system isn’t really rigged. Another good thing: that Clinton and President Obama graciously accepted its unwelcome outcome. That’s what we should all do, acknowledge the rightful authority of President Trump, and pray that God will give him the grace to behave better than he has in his whole life so far. Those who wanted change voted for him with no illusions about his major shortcomings. His mandate is mitigated by the fact that he didn’t receive a popular vote victory, but people now expect a lot of him, change rooted in nostalgia, making America great again.
It’s important to consider what the “change” vote was against. Even a year ago, pundits were writing about the convergence of our two major parties. The Democrats were becoming more accepting of the free market while the Republicans were moving away from their obsession with the social issues, and more accepting of claims for personal autonomy. The convergence, it was said, was pretty libertarian. That might mean that the future—the millennials—would end up herding around Rand Paul.
Didn’t happen. Not just Trump’s voters, but those who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, voted against that affirmation of the dynamic of the global competition marketplace. Not only did Senator Paul’s campaign go nowhere, the major Republican donors had no candidate on whom to lavish their money. Their candidate from four years ago had been viewed as an oligarch by working class Americans and members of unions. These voters—who had been fine with voting for their African American President, having been persuaded that he had their back against Romney and his party out to cut their entitlements—flipped this time and so the GOP candidate won the Rust Belt.
The most astute observers are now talking about a libertarian and liberal alliance against the coming authoritarianism of the President-elect. That does make sense on certain issues, such as legal reform and immigration. It might even be regarded as the alliance of what Tyler Cowen calls the “nice,” or those who adopted the manners and morals of displaced cosmopolitanism, against the “brutal,” or those who increasingly embrace a kind of tribalism and an unreasonable attachment to the more honorable and even violent virtues not prized in the conscientious and compliant world of the service industry. But one problem with this alliance would be that “niceness” isn’t the opposite of unbridled brutality. The opposite is the manners and morals of ladies and gentlemen. Donald Trump’s brand—as described by the gentleman Harvey Mansfield, of “not a gentleman”—has mistakenly caused too many decent Americans to confuse being virtuous with being politically correct or even promiscuously sensitive.
But it seems to me that plenty of Trump voters, if not Trump himself, were voting for the ordinary dignity of the relational lives of ordinary men and women that was so well described by the late Christopher Lasch. There’s still room for a conservatism that exists in the mean between libertarianism and authoritarianism—for a coalition in which conservatives refine and enlarge, without in any way dissing, the genuine concerns of the populists. The Republicans, to have a future, still have to learn from Trump without hoping (it’s okay to wish, though) for Trump’s own learning curve bending in the direction of the gentlemanly virtues of magnanimity, generosity, and charity—a humane concern for all his fellow citizens.