Their War Is With Modernity

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.


Do You See What I See?

A couple of days ago, an email from the Human Rights Campaign began with the following paragraph:

“Just yesterday, one of Mitt Romney’s highest profile supporters, and a member of the GOP platform committee, said same-sex marriage is something the government should condemn – along with drug use and polygamy.”

The rest of the message teemed with righteous indignation, and ended with a predictable plea for money.

Now, I fully understand how demeaning that statement feels. But I also understand where it comes from. A few years ago, during my sabbatical, I did research that later became my book God and Country. I was curious about the ways in which religious cultures and beliefs shaped people’s positions on various policies–not just hot-button social issues, but also policies we think of as wholly secular, like welfare, the environment, criminal justice.

The research was fascinating–and enlightening. It turns out that our religious socialization affects the way in which we categorize issues. So–when it comes to sexual orientation, for example–research suggests that Christians and Jews tend to classify the issue differently. Jews are more likely to classify sexual orientation as one aspect of identity, like eye color or intellectual capacity; for most Christians, on the other hand, sex is classified as a behavior–like drug use or polygamy. This initial classification doesn’t necessarily prevent Christians from drawing moral distinctions between different behaviors, and many Christians do not consider homosexuality to be immoral. But the evaluation process proceeds from different starting points.

Cultural assumptions can be changed over time, of course, and changing the way people classify sexual orientation initially is one of the great triumphs of the gay civil rights movement.

We can see it in the language: the term “sexual preference” is rarely used these days (except by the likes of a Micah Clark or Sarah Palin); it has been replaced by “sexual orientation.” The first term suggests a behavioral choice; the second, an immutable characteristic. It is an incredibly important distinction; immutable characteristics–like gender or eye color or skin color–are by definition morally neutral.

You can choose to use drugs, you can choose to be a polygamist. But science has exploded the myth that people choose to be gay, and most Americans–whatever their religious socialization–have come to understand and accept the fact that sexual orientation is not chosen.

It’s not a fluke that the people who compare homosexuality to drug use are also anti-science.

There are many ways to slice and dice the American electorate, but I am increasingly convinced that the fundamental (no pun intended) fault line is between those who accept science and modernity and can live with the resulting ambiguities, and those who don’t and can’t–those who find change threatening and ambiguity terrifying, and who cling more and more tightly to the comforting categories and certainties of the (re-imagined) past.


Why We Are Freaked Out

A friend sent me this brief video played by Sony at a recent shareholders meeting.

I’ll think about this the next time I hear someone cry “I want my country back!” As it vividly shows, the pace of change has accelerated dramatically–possibly more dramatically than many people can handle. It doesn’t make angry, uninformed and venomous behavior excusable, but it does help us to understand the source of much of the discomfort.