Has Donald Trump changed the American mindset, or has he merely revealed an American mindset that had long been established?
Recent events in American and world history have shown that conservative principles, as they have been known and understood for centuries, face challenges unlike any other in the past.
The unique situation of conservatism today is that it is being challenged both by those who oppose it openly, and those who profess to uphold the principles of conservatism.
No event has been more revealing of this fact than the 2016 presidential election. Last year’s election proved to be an intellectual challenge to people on all ends of the political spectrum, and the results have perhaps been even more challenging. The political emergence of Donald Trump, facing off with Hillary Clinton for the Presidency, has caused a deep intellectual upheaval in America.
And while those on the Left (or the #Resistance) are having their day in the sun criticizing the Donald, it would not be unwise to analyze the negative effects Donald Trump has had on conservatives and conservative principles.
For one thing, Donald Trump is not a conservative, and yet he has somehow managed to be identified as a conservative, at least if we term conservatism in the traditional sense, that is
What is Conservatism?
Think, for a moment, about what Russell Kirk–and and with him Edmund Burke–thought of conservatism. Kirk, in echoing Burke, listed various conservative principles, such as belief in a transcendent order, revering the traditions and wisdom of past generations, and recognizing that radical change can be very dangerous.
But if we distill these principles a bit further, we arrive at one fundamental principle of conservatism: Conservatism is the discipline whereby we elevate Reason over mere passion or appetite. At the heart of the word conservatism is the word conserve; wherefore, conservatism is just that, a conservation. But a conservation of what? Conservatism is a conservation of Man as Metaphysical Man.
Aristotle made the point that Man is a rational animal, thus implying that Reason is what separates man from the animals. Man’s endowment with the powers of Reason allow him to conserve himself as a metaphysical being that is created in the image of a Creator, not merely as his appetites and instincts allow him to conserve himself as animal.
It is the restraint and rational principles with which Man has been gifted that has allowed him to establish civilization in the first place.
Donald Trump and Conservatism
Enter Donald Trump. Trump has challenged contemporary conservatism not from without but from within. The question we must ask ourselves is this: is Donald Trump even a conservative?
By all metrics that we understand of conservatism, the answer is an unequivocal no. Trump, rather than being an agent of Reason, appears to be an agent of base passion. Think, for example, of how the infamous Donald Trump twitter conversations and posts. His outrageous and seemingly unrestrained character suggest that he is far from being a conservative in principle.
To be sure, we have him to thank for the nomination and subsequent confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. And he has also done well to scale back many overreaching government regulations and bureaucracies. But we must also remember that conservatism is not a party platform, or, as Kirk Put it, “a fixed and immutable body of dogmata.” Conservatism is, rather, a way of life and a discipline of character.
In other words, Donald Trump is not a conservative just because he has done things in his presidency that are consistent with certain conservative principles, or that bode well for conservatism in the future, for conservatism is so much more than just policy and platform ideals.
And yet millions of Americans voted for him by being under the impression that he was a champion of conservative values and principles. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that Republicans have long been drifting away from the traditional understanding of what conservatism means. I suspect that far too many Republicans view conservatism as a merely political concept, and perhaps in that regard Donald Trump really can be identified as a conservative.
Donald Trump and the American Mindset
But Trump has not only revealed many of the flaws on the Right, he has also revealed many flaws in the general American mindset. The rise of Trump among conservative Americans is certainly a matter of concern, but we must not forget that the reaction to Trump’s political rise is equally, if not more disquieting.
The way in which the Left has opposed and “resisted” Donald Trump has been almost as chaotic and brutish as Donald Trump political rise itself. If I were to buy into every narrative of Donald Trump published by the left-leaning news media, I would swear Trump were the literal Hitler of our time. I would swear that he were a Russian double-agent working under direct orders from Putin himself.
Trump is certainly not beyond the harshest of criticisms, but many of the criticisms and narratives that are being pushed about him are utterly ridiculous. Many of the methods which the Left has employed to oppose Trump are merely an abandonment of Reason.
And hence, political polarization is deepening in America. But that is perhaps a discussion for another day. What is worth discussing here, however, is mania that has ensued in the wake of the 2016 election.
Donald Trump and the End of Civilization
I can’t help but wonder if all the political mania that we are seeing today in America and elsewhere is something that we all implicitly desire. When we start to examine how news media ratings have improved since the political rise of Trump, it’s hard to imagine that the news media outlets would have a hard time in restraining themselves from peddling such mania. It is as if it has been set in the general American mindset that we want the mania.
To be sure, the Left was vehemently opposed to Trump during the months leading up to the election, and most thought it was a foregone conclusion that Hillary was going to win. But now that the Left has to square away with the fact that Trump is President, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something in that fact that the Left implicitly enjoys.
I also can’t help but wonder that many of those who voted for Trump voted for him because they wanted the mania that would follow in the wake of his presidency. Something tells me that there are those both on the Left and on the Right that implicitly desire the mania of a Trump presidency, as if the mania were something that they have long been secretly yearning for.
It seems to me that the Left gets a kick out of being a part of the #Resistance, or out of believing that we are facing the despotic reign of a tyrant. Something tells me that many on the Left and on the Right secretly enjoy the madness of Trump’s statements and tweets. Something tells me that the Left wants to believe that Trump is a Russian double agent not because that would be an impeachable offense, but because it’s a sensational and scandalous story that allows them to believe that they are part of something bigger than themselves, which thereby allows them to escape the boredom and mediocrity of everyday life.
It is for this reason that perhaps the 2020 election results will be even more revealing of the contemporary American mindset than the 2016 election results already have been. America has now seen Trump as president, and I can’t help but wonder if the mania of his presidency is leaving us all wanting a little bit more, and perhaps the 2020 election results will lend credence to this theory.
As I further contemplate this implicit American desire for chaos, I can’t help but think of the words of Richard Weaver in his scathing review contemporary culture in his book Ideas Have Consequences:
“It is said that physicians sometimes ask patients, “Do you really wish to get well?” And, to be perfectly realistic in this manner, we must put the question of whether modern civilization wishes to survive. One can detect signs of suicidal impulse; one feels at times that the modern world is calling for madder music and for stronger wine, is craving some delirium which will take it completely away from reality. One is made to think if Kierkegaard’s figure of spectators in the theater, who applaud the announcement and repeated announcement that the building is on fire.”
Weaver’s words seem to echo more loudly today than they did when this book was published seven decades ago. Perhaps the subtle materialistic philosophies of our time really are causing us to implicitly desire the end of civilization. This is not to say that Trump signals the end of our civilization, but his rise could mean that we secretly desire something of that nature.
It is for this reason that I doubt Trump’s rise has really changed anything in the American mindset. It seems more probable to me that Trump has only brought out what was already there: a subtle and implicit desire for madness, or even a subtle and implicit desire for the end of civilization.