“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
A friend and I have been discussing what presently holds America together. It’s a grandiose question full of dire import (the end of the Republic, the death of America) and the potential for overwrought hand-wringing and silly wishful thinking (if only we had a George Washington!).
Both Left and Right and had staked out their territory on their respective positions and demographics. As of 2016 we seemed heading towards a turning point: would the Left finally triumph in a definitive sense? Was this the Flight 93 election? The tribes were well-established, the battle lines drawn, but then along came Trump who not only rewrote the political playbook, but re-framed American politics and national identity. What has he done?
Whither Have We Come? Whither Shall We Go?
From the start, America was a pragmatic and propositional nation. The early colonies didn’t exactly get along with each other. The constitutional convention was called for out of necessity, and the resulting constitution bears the marks of compromise. To call the American founding purely pragmatic, though, would be to miss the significance the Founders and their compatriots placed on ideals (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and the importance of sound character (Never tell a lie. Early to bed, early to rise…etc.). Bereft of these propositions, Americans feared a descent into tyranny. The Founders were optimistic, though wary of human failings. The Constitution itself was designed to keep human ambitions and passions in check but was not sufficient to curb abuse. Men must be self-governing. As Lincoln put it some years later, “If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher.” The American experiment could work if Americans remained good citizens.
What is a good citizen? What is the nature of man? At the heart of the culture war lies diverging answers to those questions. The Left’s ascendancy seemed all but guaranteed a few weeks ago. Conservatives were battening down the hatches, staring at the coming tsunami out the portholes of their leaky vessel. Would their ship flounder and sink? It seemed assured. And yet, contrary to expectations, the orange-haired Poseidon calmed the storm. But he is a strange champion and in no way solves diverging visions of the good citizen. Or does he?
What happens when a propositional nation can no longer agree on its propositions? Sure, both sides speak the language of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but they mean drastically different things. The words, having become empty vessels, are now filled with whatever one desires. New wine in old wine skins, conservatives protest, does not work. Human nature is fixed. The words of the Constitution have real meaning. The liberal laughs. Reality is developing, in flux, growing. Do not be constrained with old metaphors rooted in a faulty, fixed view of nature.
But the Left, so confident, is no longer laughing. The metaphor of inevitable victory, of being on the right side of history, fails (at least for the moment) in the post-Trump world.
And yet Trump is hardly a conservative. As I wrote a bit before the election, Trump is the smashing ball that destroys the Left-Right paradigm as he declares, “Enough with the political correctness! Transgenders can use my bathrooms, and evangelicals can choose who to associate with! Shut up and sit down, children!” Further, he is the first openly pro-gay marriage president to be elected to the presidency—as candidate of the Republican Party no less.
In a word, he short-circuits the culture war.
Shall We Wither?
But where does that leave us? What propositions does America stand for? What is a good man? How do we move forward?
When ideals are a muddle, you’re left with pragmatism. And when ideals totter, people go tribal just like the divided colonies threatened to do long ago. The Left figured this out before the Right did and have been building their tribe for some time.
According to the Left’s strategic paradigm, the culture war has been definitively drawn between a tribe of deplorable, white neanderthals that are dying out and a growing tribe of minorities and urban voters lead by progressive, forward-looking experts (chieftains). Donald Trump perfectly embodied the Left’s straw-man of conservatives: misogynist, racist, bigoted white nationalist. The Left was thrilled that Trump proved their caricature of the Right true (or so they thought) and now they had a chance to bury the conservative monster once and for all.
Ironically enough, not only did the Left lose, but Trump revealed himself to be the uniting candidate. How? He out-tribed the Left by declaring that the ultimate tribe was America itself. While Hillary harped on deplorables, Trump declared that he would make America great again. The Left scoffed, but they missed what Trump was up to. True, it was a grotesque, Reaganesque carnival performance, but Trump was nevertheless the optimist chieftain with a dirty mouth who would fight for everyone.
His base may have been white, but he showed the national-tribal focus in word and deed. He went to the inner city ghettos and courted the black vote. When was the last time a GOP presidential candidate did that? And it’s not because the GOP is racist despite what the Left says, it was merely a strategic decision. Along comes Trump and he destroys the paradigm. He also (however hamfistedly) reached out to Latino voters (taco bowl, anyone?) while telling them he was building a wall and would knock the hell out of his opponents (machismo, anyone?). He reached out to women (childcare write-offs) and displayed the swagger you’d expect from a billionaire that has women fawning over him and letting him do things to them. Simply put, he wasn’t the candidate of the whites. He had something for everyone and actively pursued minorities that the GOP has given up on and he outperformed his predecessor Romney with Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. Talk about unifier.
How did he pull this off? He put his finger on the one factor that cuts through cultural differences and on which Americans consistently vote: cold hard cash. What’s more American than that? The economy sucks, he tell’s us, so he’s going to fix it. He’s going to slash taxes, slash regulations, drill-baby-drill, drain the swamp, and get back American jobs. In the vein of Coolidge, JFK, and Reagan who all reduced government and taxation and presided over economic booms, Trump is promising us a return to (financial) greatness. Furthermore, he could hardly not win: when the economy is down, Americans vote the bums out. When the economy is up, they keep them in. The cycle is as American as apple pie
The Future Is….?
So what is this new Trumpian America? It has two parts: 1) Business 2) Live and let live.
As Coolidge once put it, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Folks working hard don’t have time for quibbling over your feelings or where you want to pee. Just get it done, ok, and make me a buck. Oh, and that buck should go in your pocket and not the governments. You earned it, not them. In that way, Trump has identified that the one thing we have in common is cash.
Such a materialistic vision lacks the Judeo-Christian center that conservatives pine for, but the emphasis on hard work, self-sufficiency, can-do attitude, resembles not only the old Democratic Party of union lore, but the Founders in a bizarre way.
As for the second part, the Right tried to stomp out the sexual revolution, and when that beast grew up, it in-turn tried to stomp out the Right. Enough, children, Trump declares. Get back to work and go party with the people you want to on the weekends.
But let’s stop. This question my friend and I were discussing (what holds America together?) is admittedly an odd one historically speaking. Most peoples are united by language, blood, music, art, history, and idiosyncratic customs and quirks. America, being a mishmash of people, has many a cultural strand.
Thing is, when a universal conception of man and nature is gone, all you’re left with is your kin and interest. The Left has been playing identity politics for a long time, and now they’re horrified by Trump’s falsely called white nationalism. Trump has gotten out ahead of all of this by declaring that his tribe is America itself.
In the end, we all share the plight of death and taxes. Trump can’t do anything about your death, but your pocket book and the American tribe, you betcha he’s going to try.