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MATTHEW BOOSE: Trump, Mueller, and the limits of savior politics
Robert Mueller never claimed to be a messiah, but at its height, the movement that galvanized around him came to resemble a savior cult.
Mueller proved to be a disappointing savior, but he’s not alone. Not unlike Mueller, two years into office, Trump has so far failed to deliver on some of his biggest promises.
Since his exoneration, the president has been squandering his political capital on empty border threats and a confused healthcare push. Trump, the president who was supposed to curb immigration, is now pushing for more immigration.
Trump’s unfocused leadership aside, he cannot restore the nation’s frayed social fabric any more than Mueller could find collusion that did not exist. Building a wall would not undo the country’s cultural unraveling any more than finding collusion would have changed the leftist belief that millions of “bigoted” Americans voted Trump into office.
These twin savior movements played out over a deep erosion of social cohesion. The hopes invested in Trump and Mueller are a testament to what the country distinctly lacks: social solidarity, a common culture and identity.
When a nation has a common identity, the people derive meaning from the shared responsibility of caring for their nation. A common heritage and religion nourish and sustain the folkways that support the society.
The people have trust and faith in their democratic institutions, in the good will of their countrymen, and in their nation. There is no desire for deliverance from a strongman. Identification with one’s neighbors as fellow patriots, with one’s country, provide a feeling of safety, community, and purpose.
Today, things look much different. The left’s crusade against culture has disintegrated the social fabric, leaving a gaping chasm in the nation’s heart. This pervasive malaise makes politics for the common good impossible to conceive, breeding hopelessness in democracy and inspiring a quasi-religious faith in factional savior figures.
The present time has been likened to the antebellum era, and the signs of breakdown are everywhere. But even the Civil War played out over more widely shared cultural commonalities.
Today’s split is greater. It is a divide between those who believe America has a culture, and those who believe that it does not — between those who believe America has a national identity, and those who think it is an abstraction layered atop a borderless marketplace from sea to shining sea.
These factions are not equal. Only one of them envisions a sovereign society in need of careful stewardship.
For liberals, the telos, the aim, of society is to liberate the individual as much as possible from arbitrary cultural barriers and social bonds, maximize opportunities for individual consumption without consequences, and realize the country’s true destiny as a “nation” of un-assimilated foreign cultures.
Naturally, this telos is paradoxical and a recipe for national disaster, as it promotes division and discord over commonalities. In the name of diversity, the left promotes a platitudinous “unity” that corrodes the cultural and social ties that bind the nation together and make government for the common good possible.
To Trump’s supporters, the telos is the opposite: to make the country “great again” by restoring the rule of law, national sovereignty, and a now-lost cultural homogeneity.
But virtuous government depends on a stable, unitary culture. Democracy comes from the demos, the people, but there is no longer one “people” any more than there is one nation. This cultural disintegration raises politics to a state of total war.
Instead of one nation, there are many identity-based factions with their own grievances, lobbying the state for individual “rights.” This cultural fragmentation makes democracy impossible. The people can’t govern themselves in such a divided state, so they turn to “great men” to vanquish the enemy.
Indeed, to the extent that the national government is hobbled by split purposes, Americans have invested greater hopes in divine judgment to smite their enemies. Trump’s supporters and the #Resistance don’t have a lot in common, but both think the promised land is just around the bend.
The eschatological thrust of these movements is borne out of a widely felt despair. The collapse of a common culture has left Americans deracinated and adrift, leaving many to identify less with community, country, and faith than political faction. In the absence of a unifying culture, and particularly a responsive national government, politics has taken on a strange, fire and brimstone quality.
Whether it’s making the country “great again” through executive fiat or unilaterally removing a president through a bureaucratic coup, a rising number of Americans have invested their hopes in politics not directed by a shared identity or purpose, but by a famed authoritarian force who will vanquish the enemy and bring the idealized regime into being.
In this desperate condition, politics has taken on more of an aesthetic, ritual purpose. While the pageantry of democracy lives on, the very notion of charging a high-ranking bureaucrat with “protecting our democracy” confounds explanation. That is because it is supposed to be comforting, not make sense.
Hope is a welcome substitute for change. For liberals, Mueller evoked the aesthetic of law and order overcoming the lawlessness, the foul offense, of the Trump presidency. Despite Mueller’s failure to find collusion, dedicated truthers continue to take to the streets, chanting hymnals to a Deep State agent.
Meanwhile, to his followers, Trump’s presidency continues to evoke an image of hope for the lost American dream. And for as long as Trump remains in office, the recovery of that dream is at least conceivable.
Some reasonable liberals have responded to Russiagate’s implosion with the sobering realization that the real cause of Trump’s election was not the result of a conspiracy, but a deeper social crisis that motivated Americans to willfully choose him. However wrong their politics might be, this conclusion recognizes that savior politics is not the solution to the profound problems that fuel it.
The left’s restless attack on even the idea of an American culture leaves those who believe in a sovereign nation to see Trump as a human bulwark, a last hope against the crashing tide. But while fixing the country’s broken immigration system would be a step in the right direction, having political power is not enough to undo decades of cultural change. The pervasive malaise that produced these movements cannot easily be reversed.
Trump’s appeal has always been that he is willing to push back against the left. Given the desperate state of the nation, his followers can hardly be blamed for sticking by him. But how do you revive a dying culture?
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