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.
His race-baiting is impulsive and unpopular, not a brilliant strategy to win white votes.
Some columns spring from inspiration, some from diligent research. And some you’re prodded into writing because of what the other columnists are arguing about.
This is the third kind. With the Democratic debates in the spotlight, there has been a lot written on this op-ed page about the Democratic Party’s ideological evolution, its leftward march on many issues, and how this might help Donald Trump win re-election. Which in turn has prompted a recurring argument from certain of my liberal colleagues that anyone writing about the supposedly extremist Democrats should be writing about Trump’s extremism and unpopularity instead.
So this will be, as requested, a column about Trump’s extremism and unpopularity. But it’s not going to be a mirror image of the columns about the Democrats’ move leftward, because I don’t think policy substance matters as much to Trump’s prospects as it might to the party trying to unseat him.
It matters less because Trump in 2020 won’t be a change candidate. Instead, like every incumbent, he’ll be a candidate of the policy status quo — only much more so in his case, because his legislative agenda dissolved earlier than most presidents and the prospects for continued gridlock are obvious.
That means Trump probably won’t be campaigning on what he promised across 2016 — the kind of infrastructure-building, “worker’s party” conservatism whose ambitions vanished with Steve Bannon. But he also won’t be campaigning on the Paul Ryan agenda that the Republican Congress pushed in his first year, or reviving unpopular Ryan-era ideas like entitlement reform on the 2020 trail.
Instead Trump’s policy argument in 2020 will be, basically, let’s keep doing what we’re doing. That status quo includes a
- deregulatory agenda,
- a tariff push and a
- harsh border policy that are all unpopular.
But it also includes:
- free-spending budgets,
- easy money and a more
- anti-interventionist (for now) foreign policy than past Republicans, all of which are relatively popular.
And in the context of a strong economic expansion, a Trump re-election effort that rested on this record while warning against Democratic radicalism could be plausibly favored.
Except that this isn’t the kind of campaign that Trump himself wants to run. He wants the
- racialized Twitter feuds, the
- battles over Baltimore and Ilhan Omar, the
- media freak-outs and the
- “don’t call us racist!” defensiveness of his rallygoing fans.
He feeds on it, he loves it, and he’s as obviously bored by the prospect of a safe, status-quo campaign as he is obviously uninterested in the conservative intellectuals trying to transform Trumpism into something intellectually robust.
And here I agree with the left that there’s a media tendency to give Trump’s race-baiting impulses more credit as a strategy than they actually deserve. After each Twitter outburst his advisers try to retrofit a strategic vision, to claim there’s a master plan unfolding in which 2020 will become a referendum on Omar’s anti-Semitic tropes or the Baltimore crime rate. And the press gives them credence out of an imprinted-by-2016 fear that the president has a sinister sort of genius about what will help him win.
But this is paranoia, and the retrofitting is Trumpworld wishful thinking. There was, yes, a sinister genius at work when Trump used birtherism to build a primary-season constituency in 2016. But since then, his race-baiting has clearly contributed to his chronic unpopularity, and his re-election chances would almost certainly be far better if he talked like George W. Bush on race instead.
Second, in 2016 Trump won many millions of voters who disapproved of him. But in recent 2020 polling, Trump is performing below his job approval rating in many head-to-head matchups, which suggests that voters who would be responsive to the “policy status quo” argument keep getting turned off by the president’s rhetoric. The supposedly-brilliant strategy of racial polarization, then, is probably just a self-inflicted wound.
None of this means that Trump cannot be re-elected. But it means that if he wins again, it will likely be in spite of his own rhetoric, not as the dark fruit of a white-identitarian campaign.
In this sense both NeverTrump-conservative and liberal columnists can be right about the basic situation. The liberals are right that Trump is defiantly outside the mainstream — that every day, in a particular way, he proves himself extreme.
But this is a fixed reality for 2020, and the NeverTrump side is right about the variable: The campaign may turn on how successfully the Democrats claim or build an anti-Trump center, as opposed to appearing to offer an unpalatable extremism of their own.
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.
An inflexible agenda and a global retreat.
But what if American liberals, while unfortunate in the Electoral College, are luckier than they think in other ways? The fact that populism is flourishing internationally, far from the Electoral College and Fox News, suggests that Trump’s specific faults might actually be propping up American liberalism. If we had a populist president who didn’t alienate so many persuadable voters, who took full advantage of a strong economy, and who had the political cunning displayed by Modi or Benjamin Netanyahu or Viktor Orban, the liberal belief in a hidden left-of-center mandate might be exposed as a fond delusion.
.. The strategic flaw in this reading of the liberal situation is that politics isn’t about casually held opinions on a wide range of topics, but focused prioritization of specifics. As the Democratic data analyst David Shor has noted, you can take a cluster of nine Democratic positions that each poll over 50 percent individually, and find that only 18 percent of Americans agree with all of them. And a single strong, focused disagreement can be enough to turn a voter against liberalism, especially if liberals seem uncompromising on that issue.
A pattern of narrow, issue-by-issue resistance is also what you’d expect in an era where the popular culture is more monolithically left-wing than before. That cultural dominance establishes a broad, shallow left-of-center consensus, which then evaporates when people have some personal reason to reject liberalism, or confront the limits of its case.
None of this needs to spell doom for liberals; it just requires them to prioritize and compromise. If you want to put climate change at the center of liberal politics, for instance, then you’ll keep losing voters in the Rust Belt, just as liberal parties have lost similar voters in Europe and Australia. In which case you would need to reassure some other group, be it suburban evangelicals or libertarians, that you’re willing to compromise on the issues that keep them from voting Democratic.
Alternatively, if you want to make crushing religious conservatives your mission, then you need to woo secular populists on guns or immigration, or peel off more of the tax-sensitive upper middle class by not going full socialist.
But the liberal impulse at the moment, Buttigiegian as well as Ocasio-Cortezan, is to insist that liberalism is a seamless garment, an indivisible agenda that need not be compromised on any front. And instead of recognizing populism as a motley coalition united primarily by opposition to liberalism’s rule, liberals want to believe they’re facing a unitary enemy — a revanchist patriarchal white supremacy, infecting every branch and tributary of the right.