The Guardian recently reviewed David Frum’s forthcoming book, “Trumpocalypse.” Frum, as most of you will recall, was the speechwriter who penned George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” accusation; whatever lingering concerns I may have had about his judgment, however, have waned, thanks to his work as a “Never Trumper.”
In “Trumpocalypse,” Frum makes the case that Trump has gutted the rule of law and institutionalized “white ethnic chauvinism.” The article notes that Frum’s journey is emblematic of an ongoing political realignment, in which the GOP has increasingly embraced white rural voters and steadily lost college graduates and suburbanites.
One of the points Frum emphasizes has reinforced my own belief that America–and for that matter, the rest of the world to varying degrees–is undergoing a paradigm shift.
The concept of paradigm shift originated with Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist and philosopher, to explain why people working within a particular worldview or scientific framework cannot understand explanations of works produced under a preceding or different framework. Fundamental changes in basic concepts make genuine communication impossible.
Frum’s book quotes the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the proposition that it is “culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” and he identifies specific aspects of the culture Trump’s base believes it is defending–especially, as he says, the belief that by supporting Trump, they are defending a “distinct way of life”, one challenged by modernity.
I think this is the key to understanding what is otherwise inexplicable: how any rational individual could look at the operation of Trump’s administration, with its massive corruption and overwhelming incompetence, and still support him.
Support for Trump is how people who are profoundly threatened by modernity say “Stop the world, I want to get off.”
That reaction against modernity, which is characterized by increasing secularism, explains why religious fundamentalists make up so large a part of Trump’s base. Secularism, in this sense, isn’t necessarily the absence of religious belief, but it is the absence of a certain type of religious belief. It refers to the ability of science to explain phenomena that biblical literalists attribute to God (remember when Bill O’Reilly defended religious belief by saying “the tide goes in, the tide goes out–who knows why?” We do know why.)
In my 2007 book “God and Country: America in Red and Blue,” I examined differences between religious folks I dubbed “Puritans” and those I identified as “modernist.” Among other things, Puritans tended to believe that Christianity requires capitalism–that in a sense, God was Adam Smith’s “Hidden Hand”– and that poverty was evidence of moral defect.
Modernity is also undermining economic fundamentalism. Rutger Bregman was the historian who told the zillionaires at Davos a couple of years ago that they would be more effective at fighting poverty if they paid their taxes. Time had an interview with him, focused on his new book, “Humankind.” Bregman argues that the core beliefs about human nature that justify exploitative capitalism are simply wrong, and that we are coming to recognize that fact.
The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals.
Bregman disagrees, asserting that, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be far more collaborative and kind. He also points out a central lesson of the pandemic: as governments make lists of so-called vital professions, those lists don’t include hedge fund managers or captains of industry. It’s the (underpaid) garbage collectors and the teachers and the nurses who turn out to be people we can’t live without.
Our assumptions about human nature matter, because those assumptions guide the design of our institutions, and the design of our institutions encourages behavior that is consistent with the assumptions.
One of the big differences between religious and economic fundamentalists on the one hand, and modernists on the other, is the inability of the fundamentalists to tolerate ambiguity. As both Frum and Bregman make clear, however, modernity absolutely requires the ability to reject “either/or” “black/white” versions of reality.
As Bregman says,
I don’t live in that binary world. Sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution. During the Enlightenment, there were brilliant thinkers who realized that, if you assume most people are naturally selfish and you construct the market around that, sometimes it can actually work for the common good. I just think that in many cases, it went too far. What many economists forget is that this view of humanity, the so-called “homo economicus,” can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Or, as Frum notes, “politics can change a culture and save it from itself”.
That’s the politics of change–the politics that Trump’s base hysterically rejects.