A Nobel-Winning Economist Goes to Burning Man

Amid the desert orgies, Paul Romer investigates a provocative question: Is this bacchanal a model of urban planning?

BLACK ROCK CITY, Nev. — It was dusk on the opening night of Burning Man, and the makers and misfits were touching up their art projects and orgy dens. Subwoofers oontz-oontzed as topless cyclists draped in glowing LEDs pedaled through the desert. And Paul Romer, a reigning laureate of the Nobel Prize in economics, sat on a second-story porch at the center of it all, marveling at a subtlety of the street grid.

The roads narrowed as they approached small plazas around the impermanent city. How clever, he thought, this way of funneling pedestrians toward gathering places. And most Burners probably didn’t even notice — what with the art projects and orgy dens.

“It’s just like every other city,” Mr. Romer said. “Except in this other way, it’s like no city ever.” White-haired and 63, he was dressed in black gear he’d bought at R.E.I., figuring black was the thing to wear at Burning Man. It was the first time that Mr. Romer, the former chief economist of the World Bank, had attended the annual bacchanal.

A week earlier, there was hardly anything here, in the remote desert of northwest Nevada. Then tens of thousands of people had just shown up, many in the middle of the night. They had formed an instant city, with a road network, and a raucous street life, and a weird make-do architecture.

It was an alluring sight for an economist who has talked of building cities from nothing. And Burning Man has been more and more on Mr. Romer’s mind lately, as world politics have made him gloomier. He is ill at ease behaving like a traditional academic. He’s not particularly interested in publishing papers. He doesn’t want to give speeches cheerleading his field. But he believes winning the Nobel has expanded his possibilities. More people will listen to what he has to say, if he can just decide where he wants to direct our attention.

Maybe it’s here.

Mr. Romer came to the desert imagining himself as an objective outsider: de Tocqueville among the Burners. But Black Rock City started to rub off on him. One morning, a man who called himself Coyote, who was responsible for surveying the city’s streets, took Mr. Romer around. At the far edge of town, they found a roller coaster that looked likelier than most things at Burning Man to harm you. It was designed for one fool at a time, strapped into an oversized car seat that shot down one side of a 31-foot wooden U shape and up the other.

Mr. Romer, surprising himself, walked up to it.

“Should I do this?” he asked Coyote. “If you kill a Nobel Prize winner, it’s on you.”

Then he climbed the stairs to the top of a contraption that had been constructed just days before, in a city with no building codes. Heavy metal was blaring. Mr. Romer was trussed into place. A guy with “PEE HERE” painted on his back took his glasses. And then someone gave him a push.

Dawn in Black Rock Desert, Nev., last month, on the spot where Burning Man would soon be set up.
CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times

Burning Man, to catch up the uninitiated, takes place for a week in the Nevada desert every August into early September. Thousands of avant-garde revelers come to bend their minds, shed their clothes and incinerate a large wooden effigy. The event is tamer than it used to be, with more Silicon Valley types and fewer anarchists, but it’s still wild territory for a staid academic.

Mr. Romer, who appreciates a bit of shock value, has been showing aerial images of the city in public talks about urban growth for several years. The world, he says, needs more “Burning Man urbanization.”

By 2050, developing-world cities are projected to gain 2.3 billion people. Many of those people will move to makeshift settlements on the edge of existing cities, tripling the urbanized land area in the developing world.

“To be a little grandiose about it, this is a really unique moment in human history,” Mr. Romer told me last year. “We’re likely to decide in this time frame what people are going to live with forever.”

Urbanization in the developed world has largely come to an end; nearly everyone who would move from farmland toward cities already has. This century, the same mass migration will run its course across the rest of the world. And if no one prepares for it — if we leave it to developers to claim one field at a time, or to migrants to make their way with no structure — it will be nearly impossible to superimpose some order later.

It will take vast expense, and sweeping acts of eminent domain, to create arterial roads, bus service, trash routes, public parks, basic connectivity.

That prospect agitates Mr. Romer, because the power of cities to lift people out of poverty dissipates when cities don’t work. To economists, cities are labor markets. And labor markets can’t function when there are no roads leading workers out of their favelas, or when would-be inventors never meet because they live in gridlock.

Mr. Romer’s answer is to do with this moment what Burning Man does every summer: Stake out the street grid; separate public from private space; and leave room for what’s to come. Then let the free market take over. No market mechanism can ever create the road network that connects everyone. The government must do that first.

The history of the Manhattan street grid, drawn in 1811 over all the land from Houston Street to 155th, offers similar lessons. But Mr. Romer fears that Manhattan sounds like a chauvinistically American example. And so when skeptics say that it will be too hard to plan for large new waves of urbanization, he says this instead: “Look at Burning Man! They grow to 70,000 people in one week.”

And then 70,000 people go home, and they do it all over again the next year. The planning requires no major expense, he argues. He’s not talking about laying sewer lines, or even paving the roads. Just draw the street grid on the open desert.

When he first proposed this to me — Burning Man as template for the next urban century — I asked if he had ever, well, been to Burning Man.

He had not. And so we made two trips there in August: first to see the city surveyed, then a few weeks later to camp in it. He would see firsthand if his provocative argument held up.

Order underlies the chaos of the festival. Streets are exactly 40 feet wide; plazas steer people into common spaces; the 430 fire extinguishers around town each have their own QR code.

CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times

Mr. Romer’s logic is connected in a roundabout way to the work that won him the Nobel. Macroeconomists used to think about the world by tallying up quantifiable stuff: capital, labor, natural resources. They weren’t sure how to account for ideas. But Mr. Romer, in a seminal 1990 paper, showed that ideas were central to progress. His model of economic growth incorporating them enabled economists to ask entirely new questions about the modern “knowledge economy”: Where do ideas come from? How do they spread? Why are cities such hotbeds for creating them?

By the late aughts, Mr. Romer was sure that cities were the urgent subject of the 21st century. He had a new idea: charter cities” that would be built in the developing world but governed by nations with more advanced economies and more rules protecting, say, property rights and independent judges. He was picturing British-era Hong Kong, replicated 50 times over.

Some developing-world politicians were intrigued. Critics cried neocolonialism. Libertarians largely misread Mr. Romer’s intentions: They saw new territory where capitalists could shrug off government rules. To Mr. Romer, the idea was about seeding the right government rules.

The proposal forced Mr. Romer to learn the mechanics of cities. He persuaded N.Y.U. to create a new institute devoted to them, and two planning experts gave him an education. Shlomo Angel taught him the foundation of good street grids. Alain Bertaud gave him a framework: Urban planners design too much, while economists cede too much to the market. The answer lies in between — in drawing the street grid on the desert.

“The beauty of the mind of Paul is that he sees patterns where we don’t see them, because he sees patterns across examples which have nothing to do with each other,” Mr. Bertaud said.

Mr. Romer looked at the Manhattan street grid, the imagined charter city, Black Rock City. He was doing this even in his short tenure at the World Bank, where he worked from 2016 to early 2018. He took the job quietly hoping to persuade the institution to back a new city. (It did not.)

In all of this, Mr. Romer has been creeping further from the economists toward the urban planners. By the time he got to Burning Man in August, he was thinking of himself as a University of Chicago-trained economist, once indoctrinated in the almighty free market, now in open revolt against his roots.

Burning Man is an even better model for Mr. Romer’s purposes than he knew. The event began in 1986 as a rejection of rules: There was no central authority, no prohibitions, no assigned camping spots.

In the early years on the Black Rock Desert, after the event outgrew Baker Beach in San Francisco, people brought fireworks and guns. They raced through the desert night with headlights off. They fired hunting rifles from moving vehicles at vacant cars.

“A lot of people — and I was one of them — thought that Burning Man was about this crazy feeling you could have, being with really creative people that are all anarchists, and there is no order, and it’s just amazing what can come out of that,” said Harley K. Dubois, who attended those early years. “And what came out of that was some people getting hurt.”

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The 1996 plan for Black Rock City.
CreditBurning Man Project
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This year’s plan.
CreditBurning Man Project

In 1996, a man on a motorcycle playing chicken with a large vehicle was killed. Then a rave set up two miles north of the main camp got out of hand. Three people inside tents were run over and seriously injured.

The Bureau of Land Management kicked the event off public land. Longtime participants split over whether a more organized Burning Man could be Burning Man at all.

Today, the event’s six “founders” are the people who reconstituted Burning Man after 1996, including Ms. Dubois. The anarchists drifted away. And the founders created a street grid, an early version of what would become a semicircular city with all arterial roads converging on a giant, flammable human figure in the center.

They “invented a sense of superordinate civic order — so there would be rules, and structure, and streets, and orienting spaces, and situations where people would feel a common purpose together; where people could become real to one another,” Larry Harvey, one of the founders, recounted in an oral history before his death last year.

It had gone beyond a bit of pranksterism in the desert,” he said. “We had made a city, and no one wanted to take responsibility for it.”

To Mr. Romer, this was a teachable moment. “Anarchy doesn’t scale!” he said.

Most of the structure that has been added since feels invisible to the people who come: the streets that are surveyed to be exactly 40 feet wide, the plazas that steer people together without crowding them, the 430 fire extinguishers around town, each tracked by its own QR code.

The goal now, one planner explained to Mr. Romer, is to make Black Rock City just safe enough that people can joke about dying without actually dying.

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The office where all the signs are made for Black Rock City.
CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times
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A view outside the Burning Man staff quarters.
CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times

“It’s a metaphor for my sense of economics,” Mr. Romer said. “I picture an economist showing up at Burning Man and saying: ‘Oh, look! This is the miracle of the invisible hand. All of this stuff happens by self-interest, and it just magically appears.’ And there’s this huge amount of planning that actually is what’s required beneath it to make the order emerge.”

On this point, the economist and the Burners kept converging: Freedom requires some structure, creativity some constraints. But it was becoming clear there was more to the structure and constraints at Burning Man than Mr. Romer imagined. As he learned that, he inched even further toward the urban planners.

After 1996, the founders also began putting up a fence around the city, a pentagon with perfectly straight sightlines. Nominally, it is a “trash fence,” catching debris before it blows into the desert. But it also defines the edge of the city, so that it is possible to stand at the boundary line and stare out into an open desert uncluttered by tents or plywood art. The fence is an urban growth boundary. It is as much about keeping out interlopers as keeping people in.

The Black Rock Desert is one of the flattest places on earth. The land demands that you drag race. It is the perfect setting to shoot off rockets. The desert then returns any mischief right back, playing tricks on people who come.

Three weeks before Burning Man began, Mr. Romer and I drove 100 miles north from Reno to the tiny nearby town of Gerlach, then 15 more miles north onto the parched mud of the playa, arriving, at last, at precisely the spot in the middle of nowhere where the man statue would stand.

Over the city’s center point, Coyote had set up a theodolite, a surveying instrument he used to locate 6,000 small red flags that marked the city’s street grid. The flags made their own mirage of disorder in every direction. But if you caught them at just the right angle, future streets came into view.

Paul Romer surveying the land that would become Black Rock City.
CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times

It had taken a crew of about 20 people, sleeping under the stars, a week to survey the city. “I wake up in the middle of the night, and I’m staring into the Milky Way, and I realize that it’s moved — oh wait, I’m the one who moved,” Coyote said. “Some people come out here just for the survey.”

When I had first explained this spring that I wanted to come out to the desert with a famous economist to see the parts of Burning Man people take for granted, no one was surprised. Two years ago, word of one of Mr. Romer’s talks at the World Bank mentioning Black Rock City had found its way to people here. They were equally curious about him.

When Reporting an Economics Article at Burning Man, Be Prepared for Things to Get Weird

Mr. Romer’s nerdy interest delighted everyone. He recited details of their city plan, photographed their traffic cones and accepted one of their wooden street pegs as if it were an honorary degree.

“I think they have some experience in doing this that’s maybe unique in the world,” he said the next day at dawn. He was watching a crew raise the trash fence, their pile drivers ringing like cowbells across the desert.

Mr. Romer was beginning to incorporate these characters into his thinking. What they do here is a model for any place with few resources but just enough volunteers to survey new neighborhoods on the urban periphery. But on a grander scale, if he ever persuades someone to build a new city, maybe the people to call are at Burning Man.

Before we left town on that first trip, we visited Will Roger and Crimson Rose, two other Burning Man founders who have a home in Gerlach. In their living room, Mr. Romer sat in a leather armchair opposite Mr. Roger. A lineup of small animal skulls looked over his shoulder from the shelf behind him.

Mr. Roger warned Mr. Romer that he had decided he didn’t like cities. At least, not those in what he called the “default world,” away from Burning Man.

“All the energy and the helter-skelter and lack of connection to the earth, the energy of all those humans compressed into one space implodes on my own spirit, on my own sense of who I am,” Mr. Roger said.

This is a funny thing to say to an economist. Helter-skelter is a decent description of the force from which economists believe ideas emerge. When people live close to one another, rather than close to the land, they hatch plans, they trade services, they discuss terrible ideas until they eventually arrive at good ones.

This is more or less what happens at Burning Man, too. But other cities have become symbols of greed and consumption, Mr. Roger said. And that greed is killing our Earth Mother.

“I think I have some of the same anxieties, but I’m coming to the view that it’s the market which is the danger, not the city,” Mr. Romer said.

I’m afraid economists have really been serious contributors to this problem. This whole ideology of ‘government is bad, government is the problem’ has I think provided cover for rich people and rich firms to take advantage of things for their selfish benefit.”

He has been trying to figure out how to atone for that. As Mr. Romer’s conversation with Mr. Roger took on the air of a therapy session, I got the impression that he had also come to the desert to work through his angst with economics.

Mr. Roger, sympathetic, poured him his first taste of kombucha.

Survey flags marked a future road in Black Rock City.
CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times

Three weeks after the survey, Mr. Romer and I returned. The dusty streets were now clearly defined as the space between what people had invented: at one intersection, a “passport office” for Burners who wanted to record their adventures around Black Rock City. On another corner, a troupe of fire performers from Canada was camped, and on another a half-dozen drivable pieces of art were parked. There was also a row of 36 portable toilets, and behind that, “Brand-UR-Ass N More,” a camp where it was possible to get both a drink and a faux branding of the Burning Man logo.

While we were standing at the intersection, a man in a great beard and a blond wig approached with a hug. Levi, 35, was part of a camp running a 24-hour bar up the street, and we learned that he had lately been riding motorbikes across Africa but was about to apply to graduate school to study cognitive science.

Levi, who did not know whom he was talking to, mentioned to Mr. Romer that his hero was Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 winner of the Nobel in economic sciences.

“Well, I won the Nobel prize last year,” Mr. Romer said. “So Danny is a fellow laureate.”

Levi’s face lit up, and we then spent the next 45 minutes wandering around the neighborhood talking about economics and human behavior and scarcity. Nearly everything in Black Rock City is effectively free. But you’re supposed to respond with some type of gift to the people around you: a piece of advice, a turn in a hammock, a hot dog.

At Levi’s bar, we were given cups of something cold and orange and alcoholic. Mr. Romer, in a comparable act of generosity, then offered Levi his email address. He would happily write a recommendation for grad school, he said. Levi, floored, went in for another hug.

Theirs was exactly the kind of encounter that a city generates, over and over again, until someone gets into grad school, and someone else finds a job, and someone else begins to earn more than $2 a day.

Dust clouds swept across Black Rock City. Within another week, all of this would be gone.
CreditEmily Badger for The New York Times

In Mr. Romer’s Nobel lecture, he implored people to think of cities, especially in the developing world, as places where people get the benefits of interacting with one another. A global economy built on ideas no longer has to be zero-sum, he argued. Everyone can use ideas at the same time. Someone living in America benefits if someone in India becomes better off and invents a vaccine.

But we have to make the cities viable first, in this moment when it’s still possible to draw what they might become.

“If we take a pass on this,” he warned, “the opportunity will be gone.”

He did not mention Burning Man. But that was before he saw the place in person.

Conservatives Are Hiding Their ‘Loathing’ Behind Our Flag

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.

The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?

At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.

Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.

Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.

The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.

The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.

Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”

“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”

Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.

The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.

Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”

But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the

  • black culture of Compton, the
  • Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
  • Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
  • Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
  • Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
  • Cuban culture of Miami and the
  • woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
  • conservative culture of the white small town.

But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.

Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.

To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.

Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.

Anti-Semites Don’t Just Hate Jews. They’re Targeting Freedom.

No wonder gunmen are coming for us.

Since ancient times, in every place they have ever lived, Jews have represented the frightening prospect of freedom. As long as Jews existed in any society, there was evidence that it in fact wasn’t necessary to believe what everyone else believed, that those who disagreed with their neighbors could survive and even flourish against all odds. The Jews’ continued distinctiveness, despite overwhelming pressure to become like everyone else, demonstrated their enormous effort to cultivate that freedom: devotion to law and story, deep literacy, and an absolute obsessiveness about transmitting those values between generations. The existence of Jews in any society is a reminder that freedom is possible, but only with responsibility — and that freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all.

People who hate us know this. You don’t need to read the latest screed by a hater to know that unhinged killers feel entitled to freedom without any obligations to others. The insane conspiracy theories that motivate people who commit anti-Semitic violence reflect a fear of real freedom: a fondness for tyrants, an aversion to ideas unlike their own and most of all, a casting-off of responsibility for complicated problems. None of this is a coincidence. Societies that accept Jews have flourished. Societies that reject us have withered, fading into history’s night.

I don’t know what to tell my children about this horror, but I do know what to tell you. The freedoms that we cherish are meaningless without our commitments to each other: to civil discourse, to actively educating the next generation, to welcoming strangers, to loving our neighbors. The beginning of freedom is the beginning of responsibility. Our night of vigil has already begun.

Acceptance: Dying Before You Die (Richard Rohr)

To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom. The freedom, first, from attachment to the things of this life that don’t really matter: fame, material possessions, and even, finally, our own bodies. Acceptance brings the freedom to live fully in the present. The freedom, finally, to act according to our highest nature. . . .

Only when we accept our present condition can we set aside fear and discover the love and compassion that are our highest human endowments. And out of our compassion we deal justly with those about us. Not just on our good days, not just when it’s convenient, but everywhere and at all times we are free to act according to that which is highest in us. And in such action we find peace.

Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’

You said recently that conservatives and Christians should stop electing nice guys. Aren’t Christians supposed to be nice guys?

Of course, of course. But that’s where people get confused. I almost laugh out loud when I hear Democrats saying things like, “Jesus said suffer the little children to come unto me” and try to use that as the reason we should open up our borders.

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

So, the government you want is one free of religious association?

Yes. The government should be led by somebody who is going to do what’s in the best interest of the government and its people. And I believe that’s what Jesus thought, too.

In 2016 you wrote in a Washington Post editorial that voters in the 2010 and 2014 midterms sent a message they were “tired of the leftist agenda.” What message did voters in the 2018 midterms send?

This midterm, the president did better than the average president does in his first midterms. So I think the message is that the American people are happy with the direction the country is headed and happy with the economy, happy with our newfound respect in the world. It’s a better result than you normally see in the first midterms.

.. You and other white evangelical leaders have strongly supported President Trump. What about him exemplifies Christianity and earns him your support?

What earns him my support is his business acumen. Our country was so deep in debt and so mismanaged by career politicians that we needed someone who was not a career politician, but someone who’d been successful in business to run the country like a business. That’s the reason I supported him.

The deficit and debt have increased during his first two years.

Yeah, Congress, the spending bill that they forced on him in order to get the military spending up to where it needed to be — he said that would be the last time he signed one of those. But he had no choice because Obama had decimated the military, and it had to be rebuilt.

Is there anything President Trump could do that would endanger that support from you or other evangelical leaders?

No.

That’s the shortest answer we’ve had so far.

Only because I know that he only wants what’s best for this country, and I know anything he does, it may not be ideologically “conservative,” but it’s going to be what’s best for this country, and I can’t imagine him doing anything that’s not good for the country.

Is it hypocritical for evangelical leaders to support a leader who has advocated violence and who has committed adultery and lies often? I understand that a person can be forgiven their sins, but should that person be leading the country?

When Jesus said we’re all sinners, he really meant all of us, everybody. I don’t think you can choose a president based on their personal behavior because even if you choose the one that you think is the most decent — let’s say you decide Mitt Romney. Nobody could be a more decent human being, better family man. But there might be things that he’s done that we just don’t know about. So you don’t choose a president based on how good they are; you choose a president based on what their policies are. That’s why I don’t think it’s hypocritical.

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

You’ve been criticized by some other evangelical leaders about your support for the president. They say you need to demand higher moral and ethical standards. You disagree with them on that?

It may be immoral for them not to support him, because he’s got African American employment to record highs, Hispanic employment to record highs. They need to look at what the president did for the poor. A lot of the people who criticized me, because they had a hard time stomaching supporting someone who owned casinos and strip clubs or whatever, a lot them have come around and said, “Yeah, you were right.” Some of the most prominent evangelicals in the country have said, “Jerry, we thought you were crazy, but now we understand.”

Richard Rohr Meditation: The Source of Action

The effectiveness of action depends on the source from which it springs. If it is coming out of the false self with its shadow side, it is severely limited. If it is coming out of a person who is immersed in God, it is extremely effective. The contemplative state, like the vocation of Our Lady, brings Christ into the world. —Thomas Keating [1]

.. I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987 because I saw a deep need for the integration of both action and contemplation. Over the years, I met many social activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, the need to look good—attached to a superior, politically correct self-image.

They might have the answer, but they are not themselves the answer. In fact, they are often part of the problem. That’s one reason that most revolutions fail and too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Without inner transformation, there is no grounded or lasting reform or revolution. When subjugated people rise to power, they often become as dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power hasn’t been exorcised in them.

We are easily allured by the next new thing, a new agenda that looks like enlightenment. And then we discover it’s run by unenlightened people who, in fact, love themselves first of all but do not love God or others. They do not really love the Big Truth, but they often love control. Too often, they do not love freedom for everybody but just freedom for their own ideas.

Untransformed liberals often lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create foundations that last. They can’t let go of their own need for change and cannot stand still in a patient, compassionate, and humble way. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Untransformed conservatives, on the other hand, tend to idolize anything that lasts, but then avoid the question, “Is it actually bearing any fruit?” This is the perennial battle between idealism and pragmatism, or romanticism and rationalism.

If we are going to have truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach them some way to integrate their needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart. I’m convinced that once you learn how to look out at life from the contemplative eyes of the True Self, your politics and economics are going to change on their own. I don’t need to teach you what your politics should or shouldn’t be. Once you see things contemplatively, you’ll begin to seek the bias from the bottom instead of the top, you’ll be free to embrace your shadow, and you can live at peace with those who are different. From a contemplative stance, you’ll know what action is yours to do—and what is not yours to do—almost naturally.

Fusionism Today

Fusionism was an idea championed most forcefully by Frank Meyer, the longtime literary editor of National Review. He argued that libertarianism — then often called “individualism” — and traditionalism are the twin pillars of conservatism and, more broadly, of a just and free society. The chief obligation of the state is to protect individual liberty, but the chief obligation of the individual is to live virtuously. Coerced virtue is tyrannical: Virtue not freely chosen is not virtuous.

.. But as both a philosophical and a prudential matter, we understand — just as Meyer did to some extent — that freedom is a concept with limits, that each principle must be circumscribed at the extremes by other important principles. A society where literally everything is permitted isn’t free except according to some quasi-Hobbesian or fully Rousseauian or Randian theory about the freedom inherent in a state of nature or an anarcho-capitalist utopia. Some forms of authority must be morally permissible, even to the lover of liberty.

.. Decisions made by others can profoundly affect the ease or difficulty of one’s pursuit of virtue or salvation. If I tell my daughter that her mother and I will not punish her if she uses drugs or ignores her responsibilities, I’m making it harder for her to live a decent, virtuous life. She will have the ultimate choice, but as an authority over her, I can make some choices easier or more difficult.

.. Here’s how I think about it: When presented with a political or philosophical challenge, the conservative, particularly the conservative of the Buckleyan variety, asks two important questions: Does the challenge threaten freedom? Does it hinder the practice of virtue? And he asks the same questions about the proposed response to the challenge.

.. Rothbardians, Randians, and other hyper-individualists are often inmates of their single idea, refusing to temper it with others. “An individualist,” Ayn Rand wrote, “is a man who says: ‘I’ll not run anyone’s life — nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone — nor sacrifice anyone to myself.’” When thoughts are presented in such stark light, all nuance is lost in shadow. It is fine and good to say one will be neither master nor slave, but what about brother or sister, father or son? What about neighbor, friend, or simply fellow citizen? Social solidarity, whether at the intimate level of the family or the broad level of the nation, requires a vastly complex ecosystem of obligations and dependencies that fall to the cutting-room floor when we apply the razor of hyper-individualism.

.. The American tradition, as Tocqueville most famously chronicled, is a stew of both extreme individualism and remarkable associationism. Visitors such as Tocqueville have an easier time seeing this than do native-born Americans themselves. When you grow up in a tradition, that tradition becomes, if not entirely invisible, then certainly recessed into your background assumptions about how the world works.

.. Meyer understood that the strongest metal is an alloy. Steel is stronger than iron because of its blended nature. The Western tradition from antiquity onward was a conversation between two imperatives,

  1. freedom and order,
  2. liberty and virtue.

Prior to the Enlightenment, these imperatives were less of a tension and more of a process. Virtue was the way in which one achieved liberty, rightly understood. This conversation, Meyer wrote, was a “dialectic between doctrines which emphasize opposite sides of the same truth.”

.. When intellectuals such as Bozell and Rothbard emphasize one side of the coin, each side appears as a negation of the other. But, in reality, “on neither side is there a purposeful, philosophically founded rejection of the ends the other side proclaims,” Meyer wrote. “Rather, each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in.

.. The place of its goals in the total tradition of the West is lost sight of, and the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgotten.”

.. In short, tradition is not a philosophy but the arena in which competing philosophies shape the civilization around them. Libertarians and conservatives, despite all of their disagreements, can find common ground because they share some assumptions that Marxists, Randians, and others do not.

.. The libertarian individualists of the 1960s were more virtue-oriented than they appreciated. The traditionalists of the period were more concerned with freedom than they often let on. And many of the arguments about fusionism amounted to the sorts of squabbles we associate with the faculty lounge; they were so vicious because the stakes were so low.

Meanwhile, the more relevant debate was between populists and elitists. I say “elitists,” not “elites,” because this debate was also fought almost entirely among elites as well.

.. Kendall was an unapologetic majoritarian who believed that the masses were the virtuous citizens of “We the People.” He described himself as an “Appalachians-to-the-Rockies patriot.”

.. Conservatism, and America generally, got through the McCarthy period all right, in large part because elite institutions continued to play their role in constraining and channeling popular uprisings — though, as the 1960s demonstrated, there were also considerable failures. On the right, the competing elite factions disagreed about the extent to which populism should drive conservative political projects, but it was always assumed — if not always stated — that elites in the form of statesmen, intellectuals, etc. would still play an important role in channeling popular passions toward productive ends.

.. That system has largely broken down. The Internet and cable television deserve generous portions of blame, as do our educational system and the media generally. America is not immune to the tendency toward populism when high levels of immigration meet low or nonexistent levels of assimilation. The market itself is part of the problem, too. Division and anger are easily monetized, while moderation and prudence struggle to find a customer base.

..  Talk radio, cable news channels, and various PACs and interest groups have replaced the parties as the main educators of voters and drivers of turnout, and they have done so by stoking partisan anger, often collecting a tidy profit in the process. Much of the conservative movement has become a de facto consultant class for the Republican party, and any effort to provide intellectual correction from a critical distance is deemed an act of betrayal or heresy. What was once a healthy tension has become a kind of co-dependence, and in some instances little more than a racket.

.. Simply put, we live in a populist moment when many of the gatekeepers have either abandoned their posts to join the mob or stand lonely vigil at gates that are no longer needed because the walls are crumbling.