So let’s think about this seriously for a minute.
What could Trump get out of a new party?
Trump loves attention, chaos and suckers giving him money he doesn’t have to return or do anything for.
If he forms a party, a lot of his current followers will at minimum pay a lot of attention to him and show up at his rallies to get their infusion of emotional gratification by being with people who hate the same things and people that they hate. All the news networks will continue to report about him. Fox News, OANN and Breitbart won’t take the spotlight off of him. He’ll get the attention he needs like normal people need oxygen and water.
If he forms a party, he’ll take perhaps 10–15% of the electorate with him. His final job approval rating was 29%, but a lot of those people are tribal Republicans who loved Trump, not random people off the street. 10–15%, however, is enough to screw up political calculus in enormous numbers of states, which is of course sufficient to get lots of news and analyst attention (like this question and these answers, but writ large and glowing). Massive disruptions in electoral balance are chaos. He’ll have Republican families split down the middle and feuding. He’ll have Republicans fighting Republicans, with some joining him and some attacking him. He’ll revel in it. All that chaos, all his doing.
If he forms a party, he’ll be able to continue to spread his messages of chaos, disunity, hatred and white grievance. He’ll say that the Republican deep state kept him from meeting the needs of his flock, and while he’ll be pretty generic, the most extreme elements of the right such as the Proud Boys and the militias will think he’s talking directly to them. They’ll be even more emboldened, and buy into the notion that he’s their leader. There will be more right-wing extremism and insurrectionist acts inflamed by his rhetoric. More chaos.
And he’ll create a secular prosperity gospel movement, with him as the megachurch owner. He’ll invoke god, but it will mostly be the god of bling, the literal golden calf. He’ll undoubtedly continue to have all the evangelical leaders show up along with the pillow guy at his events and in his media drops, to give the illusion that he cares about Christians. And he’ll have all of those people send him money. He’ll get churches donating to him. He’ll get white Christian business owners donating to him. He’ll get a bunch of lottery-ticket scratching poor white people sending him their money. And he won’t have to give them a thing in return except feeding the howling void of biased ignorance inside them with things that make them feel good about themselves by pointing at all of the people they hate and supporting their loathing of them.
It will be a reality-tv political party, World Wrestling Entertainment-quality mental pablum, with all the histrionics and flamboyance, but none of the athletics. A lot of Americans will latch onto that and suck mightily at the teat of bile and disinformation. The Republicans have spent over 60 years creating and feeding those ignorant wedges, and Trump exploited them to take their party away from them in 2015. Now that he’s free of the inconvenience of actually having to do the job of President — however fitfully, poorly and incompetently — he’s free to exploit those wedges for the remainder of his life.
And he’ll have lots of help. Trump has no problem attracting venal, amoral people, leeches in human form, to his efforts. They arrogantly think that they’ll be able to get in, make their millions off the drippings from the table, and escape with their mostly non-existent souls and reputations intact.
As I said, arrogant, but not wrong in many cases about making millions. There are innumerable people who will line up to carve off as much of the proceedings of the long con into their coffers as possible. There’s been a steady conveyor line of them coming and going over the past 6 years, in and out of the Trump camp, in and out of Trump’s favor. Many of them will end up bankrupt because they’ll foolishly think that they can make deals and contracts with Trump and have them honored, greed blinding them to Trump’s entire history. He’ll con them too.
So how will this be different than the Republican Party?
Well, the RNC completely caved to Trump. Prior to the primaries last summer, they voted to be Trump’s lapdogs and support whatever he wanted, while continuing to block anything from the Democratic Party because partisan nonsense.
WHEREAS, The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda;
RESOVLVED, That the 2020 Republican National Convention will adjourn without adopting a new platform until the 2024 Republican National Convention;
Yeah, covfefe-level typo and all. Truly an inspiring document, laying out their positive vision for America. (Sarcasm mode off). It’s remarkable how sycophantic it is, which is probably why the RNC no longer allows people to see it on their site, and people like me have to cite it from Ballotpedia and other independent sources now.
So what are their options?
The first choice is to out-Trump Trump.
That would be to have Tom Cotton or Matt Gaetz or Tucker Carlson be the new Donald Trump, attacking him, attempting to be even more Trump-like than Trump. More brazen, more ignorant, more crude, more jingoistic, more nationalistic, more fact-free, more hating. That’s an entirely possible and probable path for the GOP. They aren’t winning Red states with reasonable and thoughtful policies, after all.
The second choice is to pivot to being a 21st Century center-right party.
The GOP has an amazing history, which they started unravelling in 1956 with In God We Trust. They were the party that freed the slaves, voted 76% to give women the vote, supported a strong Fourth Estate, were strongly for separation of church and state, were good fiscal managers of government, started the EPA, fought polio to the ground and established the national parks.
They could return to their roots, but in a 21st Century context. They could rebuild themselves as a credible alternative to the Democratic Party. They could accept climate change and offer center-right policies that were seriously thought through and communicated. They could reject the anti-vaxxers, leaving them to Trump. They could maintain an ecumenical council to gain the thoughts of religious groups, but stop pandering 24/7 to evangelicals. They could reject educational policies which intentionally made things horrible for the bottom 40% of the socioeconomic classes. They could embrace universal health care, something every western democracy has successfully done, something which has better outcomes at much lower costs. They could embrace police reform and demilitarization, but with differentiation.
They could embrace the better angels of their nature, returning to Lincoln for inspiration and guidance. They could look to the Angela Merkels of the world, right-wing leaders who are fully present in this century, not pining for a mythically glorious 1950s. They could reject the identity politics of being the party of white, Christian male grievance and embrace the vast diversity of America.
If they did that, they could carve off some of the Democratic Party’s more conservative members such as Klobuchar, Manchin and Edwards. They could make inroads into the cities. They could turn some purple states Red again, reversing the tide of history that’s seen them losing ground for decades.
The clearest sign that they would actually do this is if they vote to both impeach Trump in the Senate, and further invoke the option of disqualifying him for ever running for office again. This wouldn’t prevent Trump from pretending he was running, but it would divorce him utterly from the Republicans and limit the damage he could do politically to them in the future. I’m sure that at least three Republicans are advocating for this path out of the hundreds in Washington. It should be hundreds of the hundreds.
I think the Republicans becoming a 21st Century center right party is as likely as Trump fading quietly and humbly into the background, but they could do it.
Their last choice is to re-embrace Trump.
Instead of leaving him to kill their party, they reach out and negotiate to keep him in the fold. They promise him riches and adulation. They surround him with their organization and they stick their probing noses even further up the deep, deep divide between his buttocks.
This is basically the first choice, but with Trump as the even more Trumpy leader, leaving Gaetz, Cotton and Carlson frustrated from coupus interruptus. And then the spectacle continues, with even more craven and abject sycophancy from Republican leaders.
They preserve their electoral chances. All they give up is everything.
And Mitt Romney, while he talks a good game, would undoubtedly stay in the party, continue to be a gadfly with no power or influence and continue to get elected in Utah. A few more Republican congress members and Senators would elect to not run again over the next six years, and be replaced by even more craven Trump acolytes.
The only good choice for the Republicans is option 2. But the history of the past 70 years tells us that when presented with choices, they’ve inevitably taken the worst one for the long-term, but the one that gives them another shot for the next election cycle.
It’s been seven decades of craven weakness and unwise choices, not moral strength and foresight. There’s no reason to believe that they will change now.
He is not a liberal, he’s the end of liberalism.
A few months ago, I wrote a column saying I would vote for Elizabeth Warren over Donald Trump. I may not agree with some of her policies, but culture is more important than politics. She does not spread moral rot the way Trump does.
Now I have to decide if I’d support Bernie Sanders over Trump.
We all start from personal experience. I covered the Soviet Union in its final decrepit years. The Soviet and allied regimes had already slaughtered 20 million people through things like mass executions and intentional famines. Those regimes were slave states. They enslaved whole peoples and took away the right to say what they wanted, live where they wanted and harvest the fruits of their labor.
And yet every day we find more old quotes from Sanders apologizing for this sort of slave regime, whether in the Soviet Union, Cuba or Nicaragua. He excused the Nicaraguan communists when they took away the civil liberties of their citizens. He’s still making excuses for Castro.
To sympathize with these revolutions in the 1920s was acceptable, given their original high ideals. To do so after the Hitler-Stalin pact, or in the 1950s, is appalling. To do so in the 1980s is morally unfathomable.
I say all this not to cancel Sanders for past misjudgments. I say all this because the intellectual suppositions that led him to embrace these views still guide his thinking today. I’ve just watched populism destroy traditional conservatism in the G.O.P. I’m here to tell you that Bernie Sanders is not a liberal Democrat. He’s what replaces liberal Democrats.
Traditional liberalism traces its intellectual roots to
- John Stuart Mill,
- John Locke,
- the Social Gospel movement and
- the New Deal.
This liberalism believes in gaining power the traditional way: building coalitions, working within the constitutional system and crafting the sort of compromises you need in a complex, pluralistic society.
This is why liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren were and are such effective senators. They worked within the system, negotiated and practiced the art of politics.
Populists like Sanders speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt. Sanders was a useless House member and has been a marginal senator because he doesn’t operate within this system or believe in this theory of change.
He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination. This is how populists of left and right are ruling all over the world, and it is exactly what our founders feared most and tried hard to prevent.
Liberalism celebrates certain values:
- intellectual humility and
Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different:
- bitter and relentless polarization, a
- demand for ideological purity among your friends and
- incessant hatred for your supposed foes.
A liberal leader confronts new facts and changes his or her mind. A populist leader cannot because the omniscience of the charismatic headman can never be doubted. A liberal sees shades of gray. For a populist reality is white or black, friend or enemy. Facts that don’t fit the dogma are ignored.
A liberal sees inequality and tries to reduce it. A populist sees remorseless class war and believes in concentrated power to crush the enemy. Sanders is running on a $60 trillion spending agenda that would double the size of the federal government. It would represent the greatest concentration of power in the Washington elite in American history.
These days, Sanders masquerades as something less revolutionary than he really is. He claims to be nothing more than the continuation of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. He is 5 percent right and 95 percent wrong.
There was a period around 1936 or 1937 when Roosevelt was trying to pack the Supreme Court and turning into the sort of arrogant majoritarian strongman the founders feared. But this is not how F.D.R. won the presidency, passed the New Deal, beat back the socialists of his time or led the nation during World War II. F.D.R. did not think America was a force for ill in world affairs.
Sanders also claims he’s just trying to import the Scandinavian model, which is believable if you know nothing about Scandinavia or what Sanders is proposing. Those countries do have generous welfare states, but they can afford them because they understand how free market capitalism works, with fewer regulations on business creation and free trade.
There is a specter haunting the world — corrosive populisms of right and left. These populisms grow out of real problems but are the wrong answers to them. For the past century, liberal Democrats from F.D.R. to Barack Obama knew how to beat back threats from the populist left. They knew how to defend the legitimacy of our system, even while reforming it.
Judging by the last few debates, none of the current candidates remember those arguments or know how to rebut a populist to their left.
I’ll cast my lot with democratic liberalism. The system needs reform. But I just can’t pull the lever for either of the two populisms threatening to tear it down.
It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.
Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.
Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public square. Rod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.
Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularism” is actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.
Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”
This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it
- rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
- Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.
In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion.
Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.
More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.
Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.
Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.
But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”
For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.
Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”
The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.
The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”
For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”
Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.
To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.
A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.
First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.
Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.”
Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”
The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as
- unrestrained capitalist greed; as
- authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
- callous environmental degradation; as a
- superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
- petty “sanctimonious nationalism.”
In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:
We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.
But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
And here’s another:
In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.
By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”
If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.
But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today.
Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?
This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.
We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.
But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.
This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”
We need an uprising of decency.
If only …
If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal. If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s. If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.
But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.
Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.
He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.
following the publication last year of “The Blood of Emmett Till,” a book that says a key figure in the case acknowledged lying about events preceding the slaying of the 14-year-old youth from Chicago.
The book, by Timothy B. Tyson, quotes a white woman, Carolyn Donham, as acknowledging during a 2008 interview that she wasn’t truthful when she testified that Emmett grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances at a store in 1955.
Two white men—Ms. Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam —were charged with murder but acquitted in the slaying of Emmett, who had been staying with relatives in northern Mississippi at the time. The men later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview but weren’t retried. Both are now dead... Images of his mutilated body in the casket gave witness to the depth of racial hatred in the Deep South and helped build momentum for subsequent civil rights campaigns.
.. Ms. Donham, then known as Carolyn Bryant and 21 years old at the time, testified in 1955 as a prospective defense witness in the trial of Messrs. Bryant and Milam. With jurors out of the courtroom, she said a “nigger man” she didn’t know took her by the arm.
“Just what did he say when he grabbed your hand?” defense attorney Sidney Carlton asked, according to a trial transcript released by the FBI a decade ago.
“He said, ‘How about a date, baby?’” she testified. Ms. Bryant said she pulled away, and moments later the young man “caught me at the cash register,” grasping her around the waist with both hands and pulling her toward him.
“He said, ‘What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?’” she testified. Ms. Bryant also said he told her, “You don’t need to be afraid of me,” claiming that he used an obscenity and mentioned something he had done “with white women before.”
.. In the book, Mr. Tyson wrote that Ms. Donham told him her testimony about Emmett’s accosting her wasn’t true.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” the book quotes her as saying.
the foundational principles of the Law of Three:
- In every new arising there are three forces involved: affirming, denying, and reconciling.
- The interweaving of the three produces a fourth in a new dimension.
- Affirming, denying, and reconciling are not fixed points or permanent essence attributes, but can and do shift and must be discerned situationally.
- Solutions to impasses or sticking points generally come by learning how to spot and mediate third force, which is present in every situation but generally hidden.
.. The Paschal Mystery is another example, with affirming as Jesus the human teacher of the path of love; denying as the crucifixion and the forces of hatred driving it; and reconciling as the principle of self-emptying, or kenotic love willingly engaged. The fourth, new arising revealed through this weaving is the Kingdom of Heaven, visibly manifest in the very midst of human cruelty and brokenness.
Vice President Pence’s obsequiousness at a recent Cabinet meeting — “Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that is truly restoring this country. . .” and on, and on — might be appropriate at a Communist Party Central Committee meeting or at a despot’s birthday party.
.. The divestment of self-respect is a qualification for employment in the Trump administration. Praising the Dear Leader in a Pence-like fashion seems to be what the Dear Leader requires — not in the way we might need dessert after dinner, but in the way an addict needs drugs.
.. President Trump divides the world into two categories: flunkies and enemies. Pence is the cringing, fawning high priest of flunkiness
.. Any Republican president from the 2016 primary field would have appointed conservative judges, continued the offensive against the Islamic State, and cut taxes and regulations. (He or she would also, in all likelihood, have succeeded at an Obamacare replacement.)
.. Trump spent the political capital of his first year — the highest it will ever be — on a few, generic GOP goals.
- .. Trump has tried to undermine the credibility of important institutions — the courts, the FBI, intelligence agencies, the media — that check his power and expose his duplicity.
- He has used his office (and Twitter account) to target individual Americans for harm without due process.
- He attacks the very idea of truth in a daily torrent of despicable lies.
- The moral authority of the presidency is in tatters.
- He has made our common life more vulgar and brutal, and complicated the moral education of children.
- Racists are emboldened and included in the GOP coalition.
- He has caused a large portion of Republicans to live in an alternate reality of resentment and hatred,
- which complicates the possibility of governing and is likely to discredit the party among the young, minorities, women and college-educated voters for decades to come.
.. Almost all of Trump’s accomplishments are the work of traditional Republican policy staffers and congressional leaders. Almost all of Trump’s failures are functions of his character. And that isn’t going to change.