As the nation awaits the inauguration of the Donald Trump presidency – now less than 18 hours away – a force is massing to protest and attack it.
Many good people are documenting the activities of that force. But I confess, I haven’t been able to get very interested in it. It’s all the same old stuff that the same old people have been mounting against Trump for the last year and a half. It hasn’t derailed him yet. There’s no reason to think it will do so this time.
Paying attention to the repetitive noise is a waste of time. You have to take good care what you fill your mind with. And besides being discouraging and dark, focusing on the “protest” horde is very rearward-looking. It’s a way of insisting that the past keep weighing us down in an endless cycle of grievance and extortion, until we all drown.
But tomorrow, America gets a do-over. The sense that we’re making a clean break with something is palpable, and justified. Some people are alarmed and deeply unsettled by that, fearing the worst about what it might portend. I’ll take a few sentences to state why I’m not.
First, because in terms of the logic of politics, America needs the exit from the grievance-extortion dynamic more than we need anything else. We badly need the jolt of confidence and optimism that will come from blowing off that carapace. If we want more mature political thinking from Americans, they first need to see that there’s an alternative to the way we’ve been living, blinded to the insane size and scope of politics in our lives.
Second, because none of us knows what lies ahead. Plenty among us think they do, but with due respect to them, they’re wrong.
Moral principles for human life will not change. But huge material certainties – demographic, geopolitical, geo-historical – are changing all around us. This is not your father’s 1930s we’re in. The generations of 1815 and 1648 would freak out too. 1453 may not be far enough back to serve as a touchstone. I’ve been thinking A.D. 800 lately, but I may be shooting low.
That said, it’ll be the same old us walking around throughout this inflection point of history. We will shape what it becomes, by what we do.
This is why I am actually more reconciled than I was a year ago to the inauguration of a decidedly unorthodox president. On both sides of the political aisle, we’ve been making a god of our policy conventions, and even on the right, have forgotten the real genius of our Founders. Their project was not to endow us with a government that would have all the best policies. It was to endow us with a government that would live within limits.
They knew what we have forgotten: that on principle, government is not the answer to human woes. It has useful functions, but transforming the people and remaking their world is not one of them.
I know Donald Trump hasn’t articulated that limited-government philosophy. You don’t need to tell me that. But do tell me how being able to articulate it has been winning the battle of politics in the last century.
Look – as Ted Cruz likes to say – translating “conservative” principles into government policy, within the conventions we have come to accept as a political straitjacket, has not been working for a while now. The people have paid an enormous price for that.
But how to break the pattern? Before the hold of orthodoxy can be broken on our politics, it has to be broken on our own spirits.
I suspect America is being blessed, to have an opportunity to break out of the mindless, lab-rat conditions we all inhabit today, and do it before the rut-like comfort of those conditions is taken away from us by things we have no control over, bombarding us from without.
Here’s what my eyes see. The new Trump administration is about Trump, sure. But it’s not mostly about Trump. It’s about the American people. It’s about America. It’s about the things not dreamt of in our complacent, materialist, post-Enlightenment philosophy. It’s about us not seeing where everything is headed – which, manifestly, we do not. It’s about being denied the option of continuing to do the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.
The next four years won’t really be about knowing who Donald Trump is. They’ll be about asking ourselves, each and every one of us in the tabernacle of his own heart, who we think God is. Government isn’t going to work in the Pavlovian way we’ve come to expect. Which is not a “constitutional” way, but a conventional way. Over the last century, those two adjectives have diverged in their meaning more and more with each decade.
Government isn’t the source of stability and reassurance we want it to be. That’s OK. We’ll be forced to look elsewhere, and find out if what we believe about God gives us hope, or doesn’t.
For America as for only one other nation – Israel – is such a prospect, in the truest sense, a do-over. If you don’t know that this is a most quintessentially American opportunity, you don’t know the real history and origin of our nation.
The blessing Trump will be to us is that he will not demand of us the kind of false-god-worship we have for decades been conditioned to, in our relationship with the government.
The blessing he will be for the intellectual right is that his presidency will break our yearning for emotional dependence on a government whose policies we delight in. Better to just keep government limited, and its policies uninteresting. God is much more fun as a source of hope, and focus of moral aspiration. And everything else He endowed us with – spirit, will, love, marriage, family, friendship, work, discovery, vision – preceded government, and is more important than government.
We on the right need (almost) as badly as the left does to stop thinking of government as a cross between temple, monument, and Disneyland, a nexus of social fulfillment for mankind. Having a president who doesn’t fit one of our theoretical molds will help considerably with that.
For what it’s worth, I also think Trump is going to come with a big jolt of economic benefits, a much-needed reward for the long-suffering American people.
There will be much to dispute, debate, and get our heads around in the coming days. But tomorrow, 20 January 2017, is a new beginning. There are understandable reasons for misgivings about it, but I don’t think President Trump should be the focus of our worries. (The media will labor to vilify and undermine him, but either your mind is already fortified against that or it isn’t. What the media try to do is not about Trump; it’s about them.)
We can let our hearts be high. This is opportunity knocking at our door. Opportunity never comes with guarantees or a perfect path; in fact, expecting those things is exactly what we need to break ourselves of. We are all having ruts cut in our souls right now, and they hurt. But I recommend this, dear friends: let them be cut. They’re planting furrows, for a rich harvest. The American people – the Deplorables – elected to change course, in perhaps the biggest national choice since 1860. And for that reason, the harvest will have a chance.
Welcome, President Donald Trump. Let freedom ring.