This essay must start with a human and personal point, which is that I value and have often enjoyed and profited from the writing of the conservatives I’ve been reading throughout my life. Nothing here is about attacking or despising other writers. For what it’s worth, I think everyone in this mix is doing the best he or she can, at a time when things are happening that are much bigger than we are.
Donald Trump isn’t the reason for the big happenings. He is, rather, a beacon in them, a sort of lighthouse that keeps dragging us back to reality through the fog of our elaborately constructed viewpoints, and against their powerful underwater currents. As a force, he isn’t what our cognitive baffles expect to see. He is what we need to see.
The prompt for this article is a piece by Conrad Black at NRO, posted on 9/11/2019. In it, Black opens with these words: “This is the time for President Trump to deprive his enemies of the last weapon that could be employed against him that could cause him any harm: the largely false, but still troublesome, issue of his personality and routine behavior.”
Black finds much to praise in the effects Trump is producing, and he makes the point in fairness that “In Trump’s defense, no president since Richard Nixon’s last days in office has been subjected to such malicious and widespread hostility as this one.” Allegations of wrongdoing by Trump keep coming to naught as well, whereas some against Nixon remain unadjudicated. The sheer unfairness of the malice and hostility against Trump is unprecedented.
But these next fatal words are, in due course, uttered: “[H]e [Trump] is yet too bombastic and evidently egocentric to maintain the dignity of his great office.”
“Egocentric.” If there is anything that ever proved an axiom, it’s this charge against Trump. The axiom? We don’t see Trump as he is. We see him as we are.
Almost every man-Jack and woman-Jill of us is wired to perceive egocentrism in others. Other people’s behavior always looks egocentric, unless it is hedged about with an elaborate set of mitigating rituals. We call these rituals virtue, but for the most part – especially where a culture is broadly adopted, well developed, and old – they are more perfunctory signals than anything else, learned and rotely deployed like a familiar mechanism. We learn to reflexively eschew the appearance of egocentrism, by sending certain expected signals as tokens of self-constraint.
For modern America, and the rest of the West, these rituals have become an interstitial space in which actual virtue is being dealt away from us. Observing them has been producing the wrong results for years. In fact, they are frequently hijacked for purposes that contribute to our destruction.
One category of such results is our inability to recognize when socially-lubricating euphemism has hijacked a blunt reality out from under us. This category has many, many examples in it.
Just consider the earnest fatuity with which Democratic candidate Andrew Yang’s “campaign” offer on Thursday night, of $1,000 a month for a year to ten households, has been discussed in the public infosphere. This isn’t forced on us. It’s by reflexive, common agreement.
It’s so ordinary that Time had to come along and report, as a troubling possibility, that such an offer may be illegal. Yet a sensible, minimally educated people, unbaffled by our ritual cognition clues, would have recognized immediately that it’s much worse than that. Yang, who wants to “highlight [his] plan for the federal government to give people $1,000 per month,” is offering bread and circuses, like any bloody tyrant of ancient Rome or Athens. And we’re sitting still for him to get up on a stage and do it.
That’s largely because we’ve been doing that already for years, conditioned as we have been to not see that the welfare state is mostly an elaborate mechanism for bribing voters with bread and circuses. Our implementation of it has been specialized for decades. Yang’s proposal is to generalize it.
To a startling degree, we don’t see the truth because it’s been so long since we had to translate the concepts of the welfare state for anyone who needed them explained. The battles of principle over this were surrendered years ago. We now all speak the same, unexamined language of “morality” and “virtue,” one that compels us but that we rarely question.
Trump’s strongest supporters have a powerful, innate sense about that. It’s what drew them to Trump almost immediately back in 2015. His communication and self-presentation are not hijacked in that way. That doesn’t mean they slice finely through well-ordered propositions. It means they vault over the interstitial space of cognitive ritual, in which our perceptions are now routinely hijacked without our even realizing it. The interstitial space bogs us down in what constitutes a welfare state; vaulting over it preserves the focus on the welfare state’s perennial, evil consequences for public corruption.
Trump supporters vibrate to that laser focus on consequences, and Trump is a consequences and results guy. Trump comes across to me less as touchy, in the egotistical sense, than as determined to not be driven by the winds others can manage to blow. He won’t be hijacked, meaning his will is set against it. When he counterattacks, he’s not reacting, in the petty, jerky way others assume they would be “reacting”; he’s hunting down and trying to thump out sources of interfering winds.
This makes some of his communication crass, hurtful, and personal. No question. The point here isn’t to contradict that. The point is that we don’t see Trump’s communication as it is; we see it as we are. We see it as what we would be doing if we engaged in Trump’s behavior.
And we are mostly in a poor position to judge. Here’s the crucial thing our more “normal” communication has stopped doing: it has stopped having any useful effect. We’re now chasing each other around in circles, framing everything we say as an accusation over what other people’s stance is on Donald Trump. No matter where you come down on Trump, that particular point is useless as regards things like putting food on the table and de-weaponizing government against the people.
It’s merely a continuation of uselessness for conservatives, for whom the marauding in the interstitial space of ritual cognition has been an adverse factor for decades. Every time you hear that a conservative who advocates freedom of thought is “homophobic” or “anti-LGBTQ,” for example, you are seeing the hijacked interstice in action. It’s an untruth built into the lingua franca of the media in the public square. Yet no conservative argument makes headway against that prejudicial formulation of language. It has to be vaulted over.
Where gay people, or those who identify as members of an LGBTQ community, are reconciled to conservatives, it seems to be mostly a matter of awakening to the self-destructive resentment of far-left activism, and discovering by meeting live, human conservatives that conservatives don’t actually hate them. The stories of such encounters at Trump rallies are surprisingly numerous.
Communication is a very broken thing in the world of 2019. On one hand, it has been ritualized and hijacked for so long that making headway through its conventions is impossible. On the other hand, the only way to be heard outside of those conventions is to use a fearless, deliberately tactical approach that will inevitably be called bombast and accused of egotism.
What I appreciate about Trump’s communication is that it is a reliable guide to what his priorities and intentions are. It’s almost inexpressible how rare that is at the moment. He’s not that hard to read. Where he attacks, he means to discredit and throw his target into disorder. Where he praises, he means to encourage, and keep hope and dialogue alive. If he is silent on a topic that merits talking about, he doesn’t want to tip his hand. His brief, direct points about policy are what he wants the people to hear.
None of this is to say that he is a genius of rhetoric, poetry, or politesse. But I don’t see the geniuses having the significant, reverberating effects Trump has – nor, frankly, are they able to convey points that stick and move the needle in political dialogue. Trump does both.
I don’t think conservatives will get back to comfortable enforcement of tribal cognition-and-speech rituals until we have acknowledged that the rituals have been a wide-open door of vulnerability for far too long – and that they shouldn’t be our first priority anyway. Ordered catechisms and approved answers are suited only for a people whose first reflex in seeking guidance is not to look sideways, but to look up.
It’s an important question how much Trump looks up. But it’s clear he’s not much for looking sideways. And that’s important too. It’s the difference-maker with his presidency.
Our culture’s current, sideways-looking mechanism for approving cognition and social demeanor is itself the gravest danger to us. It is self-satisfied and yet bankrupt; it has to be broken off of us. We have to stop speaking that common language – let it go, and don’t make it our highest priority to articulate and then enforce a new one.
We’ll need something to steer by in the meantime. For myself, I have to navigate by the voice of God resonating in my spirit. That, and not agreement with other conservatives, is where peace, balance, and confidence come from. This leaves me unalarmed by Trump’s affect – if also with no aspiration to mimic it.
For Trump’s self? Let him be what he is. With his tweets, his impromptu pressers on the White House lawn, and his rally homilies, he is a better guide to where events are going than anyone else is. We can be thankful to God that we have him. I’d rather be able to see the truth of where where we are than be comforted by the forms of politeness.