How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.
What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.
Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.
But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.
Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.
By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.
And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.
Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.
One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a
- more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
- foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
- decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
- our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.
But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.
So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.
The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.
But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.
What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.
In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.
This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.
Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.
In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”
I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.
Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.
Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.
But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.
Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.
This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.
Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senioradviser Jared Kushner he did a lot ofdefending the president on a lot ofdifferent topics on an interview withAxios on HBO so let’s get right into itbecause I want to show you what happenedwhen Kushner is asked whether he hasseen Trump do anything racist or bigotedtake a look so for the answer is noabsolutely notyou can’t not be a racist for 69 yearsthen run for president be a racist andwhat I’ll say is that when a lot of theDemocrats call the president a racist Ithink they’re doing a disservice topeople who suffer because of real racismin this country I’m so imagine you havethe same reaction everyone else didwatching that luckily Jonathan Swan theinterviewer in this he had a pretty goodfollow-up take a look was birtherismracist um look I wasn’t really involvedin that I know you wouldn’t mm-hmm wasit racist like I said I wasn’t involvedin that I know you won mm-hmm was itracist um look I know who the presidentis and I have not seen anything in himthat is racist so again I was notinvolved in that did you wish he didn’tdo that like I said I was not involvedin that that was a long time ago allright so that’s his answer to thefollow-up I forget who did it my name isJohn King who was like there was anormal interview going on and then rightafter this series of questions beganJared forgot how to speak like how tospeak in complete sentences so hard tolie I mean it is obviously affecting himJared who I didn’t think was capable ofhuman emotions I’m not sure I thought hewas capable of hunger maybe thirst okayfear okay I guess that might have beenthe driving factor there but like that Ijust break down every single thing aboutwhat happened there first he says thatthe president was not racist for 69years nice or however long it was rightand then suddenly is racist right butbut he has been raisedrefusing to cop to that so was thatracist I wasn’t a part of this nobodyasked you you just claimed to knoweverything about this man for the past69 years yeah so were you there were younow every single day absolutely he’sthat kind of guy and then he says itdoes a disservice to people who havesuffered from actual racism which islike an attempt at the kind of argumentsthat conservatives try to make in orderto just confuse people it’s like using atriple negative they’re just like I haveno idea what you’re sayingright but you seemed confident as yousaid it but when you want to talk aboutpeople who were actual victims of racismhow about all the people that weren’tallowed to move into Trump buildingsbecause he had racist tenant policiesabsolutely ridiculous I guess I don’tknow how else his son-in-law is supposedto answer a yes or no question thateveryone knows but we have video proofthere are federal documents from of whatyou’re talking about there’s a full-pagead in The New York Times in 1989 like wehave actual proof of his racism there’sa video of him on the campaign trail youknow so there’s actual proof but I guessI can’t imagine his son-in-law answeringit but any other way wouldn’t it begreat if Jared was like yes thank youfinally yes he’s so racist right exactlyand then he went to dinner with GeorgeConwayit’s just with that relationship Iwonder how Trump can be okay with hisdaughter marrying such a wiener suchlike a limp wiener like that’s what itis and the answer is probably uh he’sfrom a big real estate family who didbetter than mine but he’s never gonnachallenge me as the dominant figure inmy daughter’s lifegreat that’s I think this is the firsttime I’ve really been able to figure outwhat that relationship is like and allhis confidence in Jared Jared might justbe like an okay project manager butnever anything else and what we’ve seenover and over again is that you’re okayuntil you’re not he would Trump yeah sowho knows what the future holdsyeah I don’t know but I wouldn’t skipahead a little bit and talk about Russiaokay okay because uh he was also askedabout that infamous Rushmeeting and like just you know straightup a flick why didn’t you report this tothe FBI why did you go why and there wasa bit of a back-and-forth it’s a I wantto show you here so the question fromswan is does it not set off some alarmbells when you see an email that theRussian government wants to help thecampaign Kushner says the email I got onmy iPhone said show up at 4:00 I didn’tscroll down so on reminds him that ithad Russia in the subject line and thenstill no copping to the reality of thesituation is right there you knew whatthe meeting was gonna be about and so weasked him if this happened again wouldyou report it to the FBI take a look athis answer call the FBI happen again Idon’t know it’s hard to do hypotheticalsbut the the reality is is that we werenot given anything that was salaciousthis wouldn’t be hard for me to dohypotheticals that is any precisehypothetical where you say yes I wouldbecause you’re hiding behind thisconcept that you don’t know the rulesright and you’re just new to this butthe hypothetical answer should be Iwould report it to the FBI it’s theeasiest thing to do unless youconsistently do get invites like thisand just don’t want to cop to that factright you’re right like you know thatit’ll happen again and you you know thatyou won’t report it to the FBI otherwiselike I don’t see how this isn’t sayingyes immediately isn’t a good look forthe administration say yes of course wewould because we didn’t know what wasgoing on we had nothing to do with thatso of course we would but he doesn’twant to answer any questions whatsoeverpursue I mean I just that moment whenthey asked about the racismyeah just like what what would you dowhat I was not involved in that so youyou can’t make an assessment ofbirtherism or any racist act whether itwas racist whether you wanted it tohappen whether you endorsed it becauseyou weren’t involved in it first of allthat’s like the tacit acknowledgementand crappiness that allows racism topersist because people aren’t able tojust say oh no that was bad it wasabsolutely races it was absolutionabsolutely racially motivated and and heshould just cop to thatthank you for watching this clip fromthe damage report for more content fromthe show and access the TYT Networkmembers-only exclusives go to ty-t-dot-com / Brooke wait no it’s twhitey dot-com / John go to t whiteycalm / John to sign up
Trump inmany ways built his career by suggestingthat the life story of his politicalnemesis Barack Obama was a fraud it wasthe birther stuff it was Trumpsuggesting Obama had gotten affirmativeaction to get into Harvard I mean thereis a parallel here to Trump’s life storyis now thanks to your colleagues greatreporting known to have been a fraud andI think that this is one thing that youhear from people talking about the Trumpcampaign and what it will look like theysay a lot of stuff with Donald Trump isbaked in his view the way he speaksabout women this it’s not gonna changevoters they know who he is and theyaccept who his supporters accept it theylike what he’s done in the economy andand they they’ll overlook it but storieslike this that delve deep into hisbackground mean that you know you thinkyou know who Donald Trump is and itturns out that you don’t exactly knowwho Donald Trump is that it’s differentand the question is will this actuallychange that baked-in stuff so they saymaybe I don’t know who this isin terms of not paying taxes for a outof those ten years I don’t know I meanI’ve heard in the past when we heard hedidn’t pay taxes there was supported hissaid it makes him look smart that he gotto beat the systemanother another version of this thoughas a candidate is now he is the systemhe is the establishment so that’sanother problem for him running as theestablishment candidate not the guy whorails against the establishment that hewas able to beat as aa businessman but we’ll see how itaffects how it affects voters views ofhim of who they think they know andinteresting last one here I mean DonaldTrump’s force we can always tell whenhe’s been caught doing something andeven he knows this true he’s pushed backto your colleagues reporting wasn’t thatit was inaccurate it was I’m so smartI’m so smart I wrote these off so you’reright the story goes on