Twenty-sixteen was the year when American liberals confidently expected to consolidate the quiet political and cultural revolution they had been conducting for decades in the coming national elections. When the Republican Party nominated Donald J. Trump as its presidential candidate, the apparent miracle was enough (nearly) to cause the Democracy to reconsider the possibility of a Supreme Being, especially since, in the case of His Existence, He was obviously not simply a fellow liberal but a Democrat besides. But instead of victory, Election Year delivered them and their Gramscian agenda dating from the 1960’s a setback at the polls as considerable as it was shocking. God seemed suddenly to revert to myth again, a myth at once childish and sinister, a trick on religiously minded people who then employed it as a cynical means to rally the credulous opiated masses.
The “long march through the institutions” advocated by Antonio Gramsci after World War I, when the proletariat had vitiated Marx’s prophecy that international catastrophe would provoke the working class to rise up as a man against their capitalist-bourgeois exploiters by enthusiastically enlisting in the capitalists’ armies to fight on behalf of their native patriae instead, seemed to have been arrested by a contrary force the liberals immediately fingered as “populist.” Gramsci had argued that the workers had been corrupted by materialism and a “false consciousness” of their situation, deprived of the revolutionary spirit the Marxist dialectic attributed to them. Obviously, they were not the crowbar that revolutionary elites could employ to overturn bourgeois-capitalist society. But where physical violence on the part of the mob had failed even to materialize, subversive efforts by the revolutionary intelligentsia would succeed as they surreptitiously weakened all the major Western institutions (starting, and ending, with Christianity, which Gramsci and the like-minded fellows of the Frankfurt School correctly perceived as the ultimate Enemy) by discrediting and mocking the intellectual, philosophical, religious, and moral structures that had nourished and supported them for millennia. The program of the Frankfurt School, which moved to the United States in the 1930’s when its members were granted entry to America as refugees from National Socialism, was, essentially and substantially, the agenda of advanced liberalism today. And advanced liberalism was, roughly speaking, what the winning portion of the American electorate voted to reject when it elected Donald Trump president. Were it not for the fact that the vast majority of these voters had never been liberals (much less revolutionaries) in the first place, one might plausibly describe what happened on November 8, 2016, as “the American Thermidor,” just as Leon Trotsky described Stalin’s accession to power as “the Soviet Thermidor.”
The opposition of the moderate Girondins caused Robespierre and his fellow bloody-minded radicals of “The Mountain” to resort to the mass execution of the Girondins, the proximate cause of the onset of the Reign of Terror. The liberal reaction to the Trump presidency has not even remotely approached that, of course, though the rhetorical ferocity of Trump’s opponents does suggest that violence is in the hearts of many of them. It has nevertheless exposed the illiberality of modern liberal democrats and the societies they have built, and the profoundly reactionary nature of their response to “populist” opposition, especially when opposition is successful.
From the first day of President Trump’s administration, liberals and the left as a whole have been thinking like Burkeans, while conservatives and “populists” have tried to return politics in America to Burkean principles that acknowledge and respect the political competency and innate human wisdom of ordinary citizens. Modern liberals, who until a year ago praised and encouraged “authenticity,” spontaneity, “creativity,” eccentricity, free-spiritedness, originality, iconoclasm, “irreverence,” social and individual relaxation to the point of laxness (and beyond it), informality, sexual freedom, liberation from “structure,” and the abolition of “boundaries,” “rules,” “regulations,” and protocol, since then have professed to be shocked by the authenticity, spontaneity, iconoclasm, and irreverence shown by the Trump administration, from the President himself on down through his subordinates and in every department of the governmental, political, and diplomatic process.
No American president—probably no modern head of state anywhere—has been so utterly unconventional, so genuine, as Donald Trump has, yet his liberal critics persist in remaining steadfastly unimpressed. Indeed, they are overwhelmingly hostile. Nearly everything the President has said or done, at home or abroad, in public or privately, in his relations with federal employees or foreign leaders, has been met by a chorus of outraged protest from the left. “But that just isn’t how it’s done!” “He’s breaking with America’s decades-old policies toward our NATO allies!” “Senior diplomats at the State Department are leaving in droves!” “His recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel destroys the arrangement that has kept the peace in the Middle East for ages!” “He wandered over, just like that, and spoke with Putin without anyone else present—a breach of diplomatic protocol!” “He’s trying to reverse bipartisan policy toward Russia!” “But the whole world has been moving toward free-trade agreements for decades!” “He praised Western Civilization in Hamburg!” “Every other country in the world voted at the U.N. against recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel!” “He made fun of Dear Leader, Jr., at the United Nations! Another breach of protocol—he embarrassed the U.S. in front of the whole world!” “He rammed through the first comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. tax code in 30 years!” “He’s removing decades of regulations from the statute books that have accumulated over half a century!” “Communicating with the public by tweet is completely inappropriate for a President of the United States!” “Kellyanne Conway sat in the Oval Office with her feet on the gold sofa—lèse-majesté!” “He drinks Diet Coke and eats Filet-o-Fishes from McDonald’s!” (Big Macs were presidential and endearing when Bill Clinton was Chief Executive. And if Mr. Trump dined on caviar and champagne every noon he’d be accused of the elitism of the One Percent and running up the deficit in a single breath.)
You might think that liberals, who by nature find change, iconoclasm, and informality refreshing, would have applauded admiringly. The fact that they responded with spitballs and raspberries instead shows how profoundly reactionary, in the contextual sense at least, advanced liberalism has become in its desire for a very illiberal political and cultural stasis and strict regimentation in everything. For liberals, custom, habit, prescription, precedent, even prejudice (all revered and extolled by Edmund Burke) have become god terms, since liberals appropriated the once-despised Establishment and made it virtually unassailable by all challengers. The world, for decades until now, has been their oyster bed, and liberals are willing to fight to the death to hold onto it for themselves.
They intend to do it by consolidating their political victories, and the power and success those victories have won for them. Indeed, consolidation seems at this point the logical, necessary, really the sole choice available to them, since it is hard to see how the liberal ideology can advance, conceptually, much beyond the present welfare state (in which almost half the population pay no taxes and unwed mothers are married to the government), the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, gay marriage, transgenderism and the abolition of the two sexes and the invention of several new ones, the erasure of national borders, the melding and unification of national cultures, the globalization of the economy, absolute freedom of immigration and migration, forcible secularization and the persecution of Christians, and the replacement of learning and traditional education by insane propaganda ginned up in the advanced kindergartens that are dignified today by the name of universities. To a very considerable extent, liberalism has already succeeded in taking this agenda from mere concept to concrete reality. So it is hard to see what institutions remain for the left to march through, what priceless treasures within them to smash, as ISIS’s fighter did in Palmyra and elsewhere. It can only consolidate or retreat, something it will never do voluntarily but only under irresistible pressure and forcible assault.
In America, the liberal reaction to Trump’s presidency is more extreme than the response by British liberals to Brexit and even by German ones to the Alternative for Germany’s winning 94 seats in the Bundestag, though it is impossible to say how the French might have greeted the election of Marine Le Pen as president of the Fifth Republic. This may be owing to the fact that advanced liberalism in these postmodern times is in many ways more advanced in America, where it largely developed, than in France, whose Revolution at the end of the 18th century established liberalism and the left in their classical and modern forms that lasted for almost 200 years, and in England. (Though it is true that the European left can sound as deranged on the subject of Trump as its American counterpart does.) The literally hysterical opposition to the President at home may reflect (beyond the fact that he is, after all, the President of the United States) America’s greater social complexity produced by her continental extent and regional differences in geography and by the racial, ethnic, social, and religious diversity produced by two centuries of mass immigration from around the world. On the other hand, the relative intellectual and emotional restraint displayed by the conservative European opposition to the liberal establishment—the converse of the present American situation—may indicate that the oppositionists feel more confident than partisans of the liberal “Resistance” on the Western side of the Atlantic do, where the two-party system appears often to members of both parties as an all-or-nothing affair, at least for so long as the party in power controls the federal government; whereas, under a multiparty system, opposition parties (the Alternative for Germany, for instance) paradoxically feel a degree of security in their minority status, which may persist beyond the next election and into another coalition government. Also, because of the identity politics that has grown out of America’s greater racial and cultural diversity, the percentage of American citizens who are fundamentally anti-American appears a good deal larger than the percentage of Britons who are anti-British in the United Kingdom, of anti-French Frenchmen in France, and even of anti-German Germans in Germany, so many of whose citizens have been guilt-stricken for more than 70 years. (Hence it is fair to wonder whether the United States remains in any real sense a country at all, while Britain, France, and Germany—and the other nations of Europe—are still very much themselves, as their growing nationalist antipathy toward the European Union shows.) Finally, it is an interesting question whether the “populist” antiliberal movement in Europe has made greater progress against the left and liberalism than has its counterpart in the United States. But that is the subject for another time.
Over the past year or so much has been written on both sides of the Atlantic announcing the “end” of liberalism and speculating on the reasons for its failure. It seems only common sense to suggest that the future of liberalism, its intellectual and political systems, will depend on two things. The first is whether the majority of national publics—mainly in the West, but also elsewhere—will desire to continue to live under the regime that liberal government, liberal ideology, and liberal culture have constructed since 1945. The second—even if they do so desire—is whether advanced liberalism in government is simply too unrealistic in its aims, too self-contradictory in its commitments, too expensive in its operation, and too dysfunctional to survive; also whether it can, as an intellectual system, continue to satisfy intellectually the civilized minority who think seriously about serious human things in a supernatural context, including what used quaintly to be called “the Truth.” Among the many signs that the liberal system is self-destructive, and therefore unsustainable, is the mass hysteria that broke out several months ago following allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein and subsequently coalesced and exploded into the #MeToo movement grounded in the perception that all men are priapic monsters and the conviction that anyone who questions the stories women who claim to be victims of their priapism tell—often decades after the asserted incident—is a monster poised to strike priapically (if male), or (if female) a sexual quisling, probably a kept woman and certainly a traitor to her sex. It took a few months before resistance to the resistance took shape among the rational portion of the female population, including many feminists, who now argue that #MeToo is antifeminist in its assumption that women are fragile creatures who need defending, in the absence of strong and honorable men at their side, by the government and the courts, mostly male of course. Since the sexual-harassment problem, now endemic apparently in morally free-wheeling post-Christian society, is plainly among the many unanticipated by-blows of the sexual revolution, #MeToo reveals the logically and politically unresolvable confrontation between sexual libertinism for everyone—male, female, and other—and the claims of feminism. Here is but one of a myriad instances of the modern liberal revolution, the sworn champion of everyone and his irreconcilable enemy, devouring its own like every revolution in history, while its clients, in turn, fall upon and devour each other.
Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture
January 11, 2018