I was one of those who was surprised by Donald Trump’s election. I had not even expected it too be close. I had thought Clinton would win by a mile. I thought that, when push came to shove, voters would not go for a man so evidently a slave of base passion— a man of intemperance, imprudence, lust, vainglory, and avarice; a liar, a cheat, a bully, and an egoist; a cartoon billionaire and a Twitter troll. I should have known better. The election helps to raise a lot of questions about the relation of politics and virtue within the horizons of liberalism. To what extent will voters in a liberal society demand virtue of their politicians? And what sort of virtue? Or to what extent does liberalism really reduce politics into a technique, rendering virtue irrelevant? Was the victory of Trump more a rejection of liberalism, or more a triumph of liberalism? These are some of the questions that have been thinking about since the result became clear.
Of course, the main reason why Trump won was that he was running against Hilary Clinton. It is clear that many voters, especially working class voters, rejected Clinton’s brand of cold, elite, globalist liberalism, which seeks to break down all barriers to the self-determination of sovereign, individual will, including the “barriers” of national cultures and traditions, of and of the natural law itself. “You can be anything you want,” Clinton supporters told their daughters. That is, each sovereign individual must decide for herself (or himself), by a sovereign act of the will, wherein her highest good is to be found, and society must give her the freedom to pursue it without determining her to one role rather than another. This is the pure essence of modern liberalism: the objective good is not that which elicits desire, rather desire is what makes things good. This is the liberalism of both of neoliberal “creative destruction,” and of progressive denial of any natural foundation to sexual differences. It is the liberalism of the free migration of persons and of free trade. Of global capitalism, and of global bureaucratic regulation. It is also the liberalism of the promotion of abortion and contraception and of the enforced privatization of religion. This sort of liberalism is a threat to the way of life of simple people everywhere, and it is not surprising that they rejected it. Andrew Whaley, who has true connatural knowledge of so-called “ordinary Americans,” has a good podcast on this aspect of the Trump victory. The post election episode of This American Life includes a number of interviews with Trump voters who make the same point in a less articulate fashion. This is the aspect that can lead Matthew Schmitz to read the election result as “the death of liberalism.” And to the extent to which Schmitz is right there is something encouraging to be found in the Trump victory (along with the obviously discouraging fact of having a swinish brute at the head of the most powerful state in the world). Even the eccentric Lacanian Marxist Slavoj Žižek said before the election that, if he were an American, he would vote for Trump in order to disrupt the absolute inertia of neoliberal globalism. Many serious Catholics ended up reluctantly voting for Trump both for this general reason, and because the intricacies of his alliance led him to promise that he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would combat abortion— that greatest evil of our times. This seemed to them a proportionate reason to accept the risk that he will fulfill some of his other campaign promises that go against Catholic Social Teaching. I can understand that position, although I do not agree with it. As Coëmgenus put it, “Those who have supported him in pursuit of these ends are mistaken, not evil.”
But, as P.J. Smith has argued, the election can also be read as a triumph of a certain strand of liberalism. Shortly before the election I posted a quote from Charles De Koninck’s deeply anti-liberal book on the common good, claiming that, since politics is concerned with the common good of human life, one must demand “that the leaders of society be men who are good purely and simply,” that is, that they “must possess all the moral virtues and prudence.” A friend of mine commented, “While we’re living in a fantasy world, why doesn’t one require that all people in our lives be good?” The unspoken premise here, I think, is the classical liberal notion that politics can be reduced to a technique of balancing private interests according to certain empty, procedural principles. That is, that politics is not concerned with the human good as such, but only only with allowing individuals to concern themselves with it. And that therefore, to put it in ancient terms, politics is a matter not of prudence but of art. Just as one does not require one’s baker and candlestick-maker to possess “all the moral virtues and prudence” (however much one might prefer them to do so), but only that they make good bread and candlesticks respectively, so (on this classical liberal view) one should not require one’s politicians to be virtuous, but only that they respectfully apply the liberal Constitution, which is meant to guarantee the private pursuit of virtue and happiness. Roger Scruton, in his reflection on the election, quotes Spinoza on a virtuous government not being a government exercised by virtuous people, but rather one that remains virtuous even when exercised by villains. On such an account, the support of many personally virtuous persons for a obviously vicious man like Trump is a sign of the continued vitality of liberalism.
And yet, liberals do not cease to be human. It is natural to want the head of the political community to which one belongs to be honorable and virtuous, and so of course liberals do demand it. But of course they tend to demand that the head of state embody the typical virtues of the liberal, bourgeois age: respect and tolerance of others; a responsible personal life; humility, civility and decency; and, above all, a selfless devotion to “due process of law,” separation of powers and all the other quasi-magical barriers to tyranny in which liberalism sees the essence of political freedom.
I remember an open letter by a “conservative” pundit Dennis Prager after the American election of 2000, in which he gave the following expression to his disgust at Bill Clinton’s lack of virtue:
We have watched in silence as the White House and its sacred rooms have been put up for sale to Democratic party donors and Hollywood stars, as the presidency has been degraded to the point where young people could ask the president of the U.S. on national television what type of underpants he wears. We watched Bill Clinton respond to that question.
To call the rooms of the White House “sacred” seems almost comical in a liberal context, but it is natural to man as a political animal to invest the one who has care of the common good with a certain sacrality. And the sort of virtue and civilized decency that is being demanded is of course liberal virtue. Prager addresses his political adversaries with the following apostrophe:
You think that way because, in your arrogance, you confuse liberal with decent. But tens of millions of us have a different view of liberal— as increasingly nihilist.
Here Prager is using “liberal” to refer to a particular strand of liberalism— the radical, morally nihilistic strand represented by the Clinton style Democrats. But Prager too is a liberal, though a “moderate” or “conservative” liberal (what I once called a “soft” liberal). Moderate liberals tend to reject the modern, subjectivist account of the good. They think that there is indeed an objective good. But they also think that it is difficult to know, and that therefore government ought not to try to achieve it. Rather, government should limit itself to protecting the rights of individuals to seek the good.
Nevertheless, both moderate liberals like Prager, and radical liberals like his Democratic adversaries consider themselves to be taking the part of “decency,” of liberal virtue. And the 16 years that followed the 2000 election saw the administrations of two unusually “decent” exemplars of liberal virtue. From my perspective, of course, George W. Bush was singularly lacking in true political virtue. His naïve faith in the universality of the “values” of freedom and democracy led him into the unjust invasion of Iraq, resulting in the killing of many innocent persons. But he was a thoroughly well-meaning and honest man, who tried to do what he thought was the right thing. When Bush succeeded Bill Clinton, Clinton’s aids are said to have “trashed” their offices, as a sign of contempt for their successors. But when Bush was in turn succeeded by Obama (as Obama mentioned in his speech after Trump’s election), Bush instructed his aides to be scrupulously helpful to the incoming administration. Similarly, from my perspective Obama’s policies promoted sins that “cry to Heaven for vengeance”— the murder of the innocent in abortion principally, but also the sin of Sodom (not to mention the injustices against the poor in the capitalist system that he continued to support, as Bush had done). But Obama is himself a clearly decent man— temperate, honest, and faithful to his duties as a husband and father. And the “we’re all on the same team” attitude that he has taken towards Trump shows an almost heroically liberal devotion to due process of law and civility. I fundamentally disagree with Obama’s liberal principles, but I find it hard not to admire his honest devotion to them.
But I think that the more hopeful reaction to the election comes from persons of liberal tendencies in whom the result has led to a questioning of liberal premises. Rebecca Bratten Weiss has in the past endorsed key liberal principles— government should “ not legislate morality,” but should limit itself to “protecting rights” and so on— but in a post on the Trump election she rejects the liberal-proceduralist conception of government fairly radically, though she still uses the language of rights to do so:
From a secular, political perspective, I reject the thesis that some mystical social contract obliges me to abide by rule of human-made legal structures, if these structures legitimize decisions not favorable to the common good. I have a natural right to oppose what I view as unjust authority. The idea that all authority is legitimate if upheld by a specific political process is itself a human invention. The social contract which demands that I acquiesce to it is not as binding as my obligation to stand for the decrees of my conscience. […] I do not accept Donald Trump as my president.
Whether she is right to question the legitimacy of Trump’s authority or not is a complicated question (see The Josias’s series on legitimacy in point 220.127.116.11 here), but the interesting point is that the Trump election has led her (and hopefully others) to raise such fundamental questions in the first place.