Politics

The Age of Trumpshevism

Politics is no longer about ideas but polemics. Can we fix that?
March 29, 2019
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If someone had told me to me 20 years ago that Republicans would tolerate the leadership of a man such as Donald J. Trump as president, I would have fobbed that person off as a lunatic or making a dull reference to an episode of The Simpsons.

And yet, here we are.

To wit, Gabriel Schoenfeld writes about the bevy of pseudonymous responses via Twitter regarding his review of Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book. These aren’t actually thoughtful responses, just the screeching of Trumpshevik co-religionists who view their man as sacrosanct and all other perspectives as heresies.

This spirit isn’t a new one. When Soren Kierkegaard wrote The Present Age back in 1846, he might as well have prophesied today’s media environment as opposed to being the prognosticator of his own. In it, Kierkegaard makes the observation about those whose fanatical devotion to principle destroys the very fabric of common decency in the world:

It is acting ‘on principle’ which does away with the vital distinction which constitutes decency. For decency is immediate (whether the immediates is original or acquired). It has its seat in feeling and in the impulse and consistency of an inner enthusiasm. . . .

In this way everything becomes permissible if done ‘on principle’. The police can go to certain places on ‘official duty’ to which no one else can go, but as a result one cannot deduce anything from their presence. In the same way one can do anything ‘on principle’ and avoid all personal responsibility. People pull to pieces ‘on principle’ what they admire personally, which is nonsensical, for while it is true that everything creative is latently polemical, since it has to make room for the new which it is bringing into the world, a purely destructive process is nothing and its principle is emptiness — so what does it need space for? But modesty, repentance and responsibility cannot easily strike root in ground where everything is done ‘on principle’.

If one hears the screams of progressive and self-styled nationalists, and if one hears the echoes of the Tea Party and Antifa? You are not alone.

When I finally chose to become a conservative after many decades of my family’s working class RFK-style Democratic existence, it was primarily on the basis of my background as a Catholic. The Republicans were the party of life; the Democrats were the party who defended abortion as a moral positive. It is perhaps this distinction alone that keeps me from wandering too far afield from the postmodern GOP, if for no other reason than the Democrats are practically doing everything in their power to treat common sense in the same way some folks (and even a few politicians) treat vaccines.

Consider the immigration debate, which not at all debate but rather an article of secular dogma. Either you believe that “dey tuk er jerbz!” or you are in favor of “ayyymnasty!” Long gone is the middle ground of enforcing our laws and restoring legal pathways to citizenship; the argument is Manichean and total.

Of course, climate change is the illegal immigration of the left. One is hard pressed to find any sort of science that is “settled,” much less a discipline in which those in the modeling and simulation community continues to scratch their head as prediction after dire prediction continues to fail. Yet if you side with actual science and analysis and calm fears, one is immediately charged with “denierism,” which begs the question as to whether or not “warmism” is the appropriate rejoinder.

In both instances, opponents have no truck for actually weighing claims. In fact, those who are opposed to fanaticism in either instance are immediately slandered as either destroying the planet or destroying America. Careers can and have been ruined over denying climate change. Reject the hysteria over immigration, and watch in incredulity as the professional demagogue sweeps aside rational thought.

Politics is no longer about ideas, but rather about polemics and personality contests. People say horrible things to one another over the most mediocre of difference on social media, whether on principle or “for the lulz.” One can argue whether Trump himself is the cause of this plague or mere symptom. But there is no doubt he is the face of it.

The idea of warfare as an extension of politics may be as old as Clausewitz, but the conversewhere politics is an extension of warfareis a dangerous one indeed. If we actually prize moderation and ideas in the public square, and if that elusive worddecencyis ever to return to our lexicon, it might be worthwhile to recognize that our principles are worth arguing for, and might even be worth defending, but they are not worth fighting for.

Naturally, to stand apart from the mob is to invite its attentions. Yet above principles exists something better, namely the virtues that actually consist of American greatness. Wouldn’t it be nice if we fostered those values again rather than wallow in the muck of the mob?

Shaun Kenney

Shaun Kenney is the former executive director of the Republican party of Virginia and a graduate student at the Catholic University of America.