In a 2011 article in First Things, the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart pondered why so many literary depictions of the devil present him as attractive, witty, stylish and debonair. If there is a devil, Hart ventured, he is a thug and a bore, “probably a monomaniac who talks about nothing but his personal grievances and aims, and in the bluntest, most unrefined language imaginable—the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party.”
Hart recalled a legal case from 1993 in which a poor, elderly New Jersey woman, Vera Coking, fought to keep her home while a ruthless developer used all his power to have the land seized by eminent domain so he could buy it at a discount and turn it into a limousine parking lot for one of his Atlantic City casinos. Hart then offered the following verdict on that developer and on the nature of the diabolical: “Cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers, the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer.”
Three important thinkers of the past 40 years—Alisdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor—provide key terms for understanding how we have arrived at this historical moment.
Six years later, First Things—which proclaims itself to be “America’s most influential journal of religion and public life”—was publishing articles of a very different kind about the meaning of Donald Trump and Trumpism. In an essay published in July 2017, the magazine’s editor, R. R. Reno, praised the new president (whose candidacy he had endorsed in 2016 as “the most likely to restore the promise of America,” to end “crony capitalism” and to “promote an honest and just government”) for having “discerned the true meaning of our historical moment.” Liberal commentators were alarmed by a speech Trump had just given to the Polish people in Warsaw. They heard echoes of the blood-and-soil rhetoric of Hitler and National Socialism. Reno, too, was “struck by Trump’s emphasis on ‘will,’ and especially by the way in which he spoke of the Polish nation as consecrated by ‘the blood of patriots.’”
But far from harboring any moral or political qualms about Trump’s language, Reno compared him with Pericles. He admired Trump’s use of “the classic rhetoric of resolve, determination, will, blood, and sacrifice” to counter the true threat of our age—not the danger of resurgent authoritarianism around the globe but what Reno called “velvet nihilism.” He defined this peril as “a disposition of cultural and moral disarmament that cannot rouse itself to affirm or defend much of anything.” According to Reno, postwar fears of fascism and the slogan “Never Again!” have led to “disenchantment,” “irony,” “moral relativism and radical secularism.” But for Reno, it is time to move on. “We do not need to be chastened by Auschwitz,” he remarkably concluded. What we need in “our circumstances” are “consolidating motifs, to rally people to causes that are worthy of their loyalty, even to the point of self-sacrifice.”
Whatever else Trump represents, he has never stood for loyalty, for self-sacrifice or for traditional or conservative values.
Whatever else Trump represents, he has never stood for loyalty (except the unquestioning loyalty of others to himself), for self-sacrifice or for traditional or conservative values in the face of the moral relativism of Hollywood and coastal elites. Embraced by nearly half of voting Americans—including a majority of non-Hispanic Catholics and an overwhelming majority of evangelical Protestants—for his alleged prowess as a businessman and for the “authenticity” of his vitriol against the political establishment, the only “motifs” that Trump has “consolidated” are precisely those of the nihilism that conservative intellectuals have long made it their vocation to decry. Three important thinkers of the past 40 years—Alisdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor—provide key terms for understanding how we have arrived at this historical moment. Their ideas will be familiar to many readers, yet they are worth revisiting as we now witness the putative defenders of reason, virtue and the wisdom of the ages offering equivocating if not always effusive support for our nihilist in chief, the president of expressive individualism.
American Individualism and the Loss of Virtue
In his seminal study of moral philosophy in 1981, After Virtue, MacIntyre offered an unsettling tale. “Imagine,” he wrote, “that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe.” For some reason the masses turn against scientific knowledge and go on a rampage, burning scientific textbooks, smashing research laboratories, lynching physicists and abolishing all science courses from the universities. Generations later, people realize that the anti-science purge was a terrible mistake. A few enlightened individuals attempt to undo the damage. Not raised in a scientific culture, however, all they know of the scientific method and scientific theories is what they have gleaned from mysterious bits and pieces of the past—disconnected fragments of learning that do not add up to any unified project or integrated worldview (a single page from an article here, portions of the periodic table there, etc.). They might imagine that by faithfully preserving and committing to memory this potpourri of artifacts they are engaging in “science.” Yet true scientific knowledge does not advance, and their veneration of what they believe to be science more closely resembles a kind of superstition or religious faith.
MacIntyre then offered a “disquieting suggestion” about our current reality:
The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described.… We possess indeed simulacra of morality.… But we have very largely, if not entirely, lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. But how could this be so?... The catastrophe will have to have been of such a kind that it was not and has not been—except perhaps by a very few—recognized as a catastrophe.
Insofar as secular liberal societies do subscribe to any overarching moral theory, according to MacIntyre, it is the theory of emotivism—namely, the view that there are no objective moral standards and that statements of moral principle are really just masks for personal preferences. These notions have penetrated far deeper into our culture, MacIntyre suggested, than we might realize or care to admit. “The reduction of morality to personal preference continually recurs in the writings of those who do not think of themselves as emotivists.”
The idioms of management and therapy, MacIntyre contends, have thoroughly penetrated and colonized a host of other spheres, including education, politics and religion.
He identifies two modern types who in their professional roles are incapable of engaging in serious moral debate and yet have come to influence our moral thinking powerfully: the manager and the therapist. Both in their own way obliterate questions of moral ends, transforming all problems into matters purely of technique to be evaluated in terms of quantifiably measurable outcomes (greater profits in the case of the manager, reported feelings of mental well-being in the case of the therapist). The idioms of management and therapy, MacIntyre contends, have thoroughly penetrated and colonized a host of other spheres, including education, politics and religion. In the emotivist frame, objective truth is no longer held up as a paramount value. Indeed, the idea that individuals ought to be held accountable to universal standards of truth—whether empirical or normative—is explicitly rejected. Bottom lines and psychological harmony—the truth that is true only if it serves my interests, or if it feels true to me—trump all.
Where MacIntyre used the term emotivism to name our moral predicament, in their classic 1985 study of American society, Habits of the Heart, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his co-writers identified two powerful strands of American thought that in some ways correspond with the managerial and therapeutic types: utilitarian individualism and expressive individualism. The archetypal utilitarian individualist in American history, they suggested, is Benjamin Franklin, who made a lifelong project of personal self-improvement according to economic standards of industry and thrift. Franklin’s Autobiography was a kind of secular Pilgrim’s Progress that self-consciously set out to transform classic Christian virtues along more pragmatic lines. Utilitarian individualism sees people as self-made and self-maximizing creatures, motivated primarily by appetites and entering into rational social contracts not out of any noble concern for the common good but rather to advance their own interests, security and profits.
While our political and economic life is dominated by the assumptions and vocabulary of utilitarian individualism, however, American culture is arguably even more strongly influenced by the second form of individualism, which arose in opposition to the drive toward ever greater efficiency and control. “Expressive individualism holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” The archetypal expressive individualist, according to Bellah, is Walt Whitman, whose most famous work, Leaves of Grass, begins with the words, “I celebrate myself.” For Whitman, in contrast to Franklin, the goal of life is not to maximize efficiency for the sake of material acquisition but rather to luxuriate in sensual and intellectual experiences, to take pleasure in one’s bodily life and sexuality and to express oneself freely, without any concern for social conventions.
American-style individualism, Bellah argued, is at its root religious, flowing out of the idea of freedom of conscience first championed by radical Protestant sects like the Quakers.
More than a decade after Habits of the Heart was published, Bellah traced the origins of both utilitarian and expressive individualism to still deeper wellsprings in American history than either Franklin or Whitman, sources he confessed he had earlier failed to appreciate fully. American-style individualism, he argued in a plenary address to a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco, is at its root religious, flowing out of the idea of freedom of conscience first championed by radical Protestant sects like the Quakers and the Baptists. Secular liberalism thus lives on borrowed moral capital. “[T]he key move was to extend the sacredness of conscience from religious belief to any seriously held conviction whatever.” Bellah wryly continued, “[H]ere, in the city of San Francisco, where you can probably do almost anything within reason and still not raise an eyebrow, it is all ultimately thanks to the Baptists.”
But Bellah detected a fatal contradiction in the culture of expressive individualism: with ever greater affirmation of the sacredness of the individual, “our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.” In the final analysis, he wrote, “Roger Williams was a moral genius but he was a sociological catastrophe. After he founded the First Baptist church he left it for a smaller and purer one. That, too, he found inadequate, so he founded a church that consisted only of himself, his wife and one other person. One wonders how he stood even those two.”
Yet the most powerful dissolvent of the social fabric was not the drive toward religious purity and freedom of conscience (leading to the perennial splintering of Protestant denominations). It was the capitalist drive toward an economic individualism that “knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual” and whose “only standard is money.” Bellah was not optimistic about America’s long-term prospects: “[T]he poignant reality is that, without a minimal degree of solidarity, the project of ever greater recognition of individual dignity will collapse in on itself. Under the ideological facade of individual freedom, the reality will be, is already becoming, a society in which wealth, ever more concentrated in a small minority, is the only access to real freedom.”
The Rise of the Culture of Authenticity
In his 2007 magnum opus, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor similarly linked expressive individualism with consumerism and with the subordination of values to the demands of the market. There are traces of these developments as far back as 18th-century Romanticism, but Taylor sees a fundamental shift after World War II from a mere emphasis on subjectivity to a full-blown consumerist culture of authenticity.
Since the 1940s, the United States has undergone a period of unprecedented affluence and the widespread diffusion of what were formerly thought of as luxury goods, from washing machines to packaged family holidays. Corporations have honed techniques of mass marketing to convince people that they need to purchase a constant stream of novel things in order to express their individuality. The “pursuit of happiness” in American society—and globally insofar as the world has embraced American values—thus today largely means the pursuit of ever more “stuff.” According to Taylor, the convergence of consumerism and expressive individualism fosters an ethic of “soft relativism.” “Expressions like ‘do your own thing’ become current; a beer commercial of the early 70s enjoined us to ‘be yourselves in the world of today.’ A simplified expressivism infiltrates everywhere. Therapies multiply which promise to help you find yourself, realize yourself, release your true self, and so on.”
Under soft relativism, traditional understandings of marriage and sexual ethics undergo a corresponding radical revaluation. Practices that were formerly stigmatized taboos become the staples of light entertainment. No good of the community, no natural law, no biological inheritance and certainly no appeal to sacred writ can be allowed to interfere with the one sacred truth of the culture of authenticity: Individuals must be free to define themselves and their own goods however they desire, provided only that all involved are consenting adults in the “free market.”
The highest and perhaps only real ethic of our secular age is the “harm principle” first enunciated by John Stuart Mill—namely, the idea that no one should interfere in any aspect of anyone else’s life except to prevent a person from doing harm to someone else. “Doing harm” is itself now seen, though, precisely in terms of interference. To impede—or even to call into question—someone else’s self-expression, whatever that expression might be, is to commit a kind of violence against their personhood. The pursuit of virtue is thus replaced by the quest for self-actualization. In Taylor’s words, “One shouldn’t criticize the others’ values, because they have a right to live their own life as you do. The sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.” Or, in the words of the Rev. Franklin Graham, whether or not the president of the United States had an affair with a porn star and silenced her with hush money on the eve of an election “is nobody’s business.”
Advertising and social media exploit our fears of isolation, binding us ever closer to one another, not in authentic community but in liturgies of consumption.
The irony of “authenticity” in the consumerist societies of late capitalism is that personal expression takes the form of brand loyalty. “Individuality” is expressed as group conformity—and, in the political realm, a sheer tribalism divorced from any sense of ideological consistency or firm moral commitment. Corporate marketing on the one hand isolates individuals in their acquisitiveness, fostering indifference to “losers” in the global economy. At the same time, advertising and social media exploit our fears of isolation, binding us ever closer to one another, not in authentic community but in liturgies of consumption that revolve around insecure imitation games (or what the social theorist René Girard called “mimetic rivalries”). “The present youth culture is defined both by the way advertising is pitched at it and, to a great degree autonomously, as expressivist,” notes Taylor. But the “styles of dress adopted, the kinds of music listened to, give expression to the personality, to the affinities of the chooser, within a wide space of fashion in which one’s choice could align one with thousands, even millions of others.”
The new emphasis on private space has freed us from older relationships of mutual support, neighborliness and shared responsibility. But this expanded freedom to assert our personal “identities” comes at steep social and spiritual costs. The culture of authenticity is marked by growing distrust of social and political institutions because of their failure to fulfill their promises and satisfy our deepest human longings. Yet we are complicit in the breakdown of these institutions through our refusal to place others ahead of ourselves or to limit our “right” to consume and to emote, whenever and however we please.
The Decadence of Trumpism
And so at last we return to the president of expressive individualism, who exemplifies, in the crudest forms imaginable, both the utilitarian and emotivist frames that have animated the American experiment from its founding and who perfectly embodies the essential relativism, individualism and narcissism of our consumerist “culture of authenticity.” Strip away Benjamin Franklin’s literary genius and still quasi-Christian concern for the relationship between pragmatic utility and the development of good character and we are left with The Art of the Deal. Remove Walt Whitman’s poetic elegance, generosity of spirit and love for the commoner, and it is no great leap to the boasts of the modern libertine who has devoted his entire life to celebrating himself and who has only contempt for the constraints of conventional morality: “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Strip away Benjamin Franklin’s literary genius and still quasi-Christian concern for the relationship between pragmatic utility and the development of good character and we are left with The Art of the Deal.
Politicians regularly proclaim as an article of faith their abiding trust in the “wisdom of the American people,” in our collective common sense that in the end must always somehow see us through. But in our morally and spiritually exhausted “Weimar America,” in conservative commentator Rod Dreher’s phrase (that echoes prescient earlier comparisons, made from the left by Noam Chomsky and Richard Rorty, between Weimar Germany and conditions in the United States), there is no more reason for faith in the collective wisdom and virtue of the demos than there is for faith in the wisdom and virtue of the leader whom the demos has already chosen—the hotelier from Manhattan with his golden palaces; his smash-mouth politics; his serial adulteries; his manifest lying about matters great and small; his lack of all impulse control; his disdain for tradition, rules and norms; his fulsome praise of thugs and dictators; his casual cruelty toward those he deems weak; and his crudely transactional morality.
Conservatives have long decried the relaxing of sexual ethics and the loss of codes of etiquette as markers of liberalism’s moral impoverishment and as political perils to Western civilization. Yet with the rise of Trumpism, they are themselves now deeply and irreversibly implicated in the expressivist turn. All of the old pieties, it turns out, are completely fungible for most conservatives as well. Basic principles of rationality, truth-telling, civility, decency and restraint have been laid waste by the reality television star’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party and ascent to the White House on a tsunami of emotive tweets and hyperbolic promises of “better deals.” Yet an astonishing number of Americans, abandoning their own earlier proclamations of the necessity of virtuous character for wise and just political leadership, now cheer the unraveling—and the cruelty.
According to Taylor, there is a troubling amnesia among many liberal champions of the ethics of authenticity, a forgetfulness of the violence that can be unleashed on the world when large numbers of people embrace political ideologies that are emotivist and expressivist at their cores. For many young people, it is “as though the morality of mutual respect were embedded in the ideal of authentic self-fulfillment itself”; they are “oblivious of how the terrible twentieth-century aberrations of Fascism and extreme nationalism have also drunk at the expressivist source.” But if liberal cheerleaders for authenticity are oblivious, as Taylor says, to the ways in which liberalism and extreme nationalism have drunk from the same expressivist wells, the converse is also true. Many self-described conservatives are willfully oblivious to the ways in which their newfound “populist nationalism” partakes of the spirit of the age, the ethos of “me first” bleeding into the nativism of “America First.”
Today’s “conservatives”—who embraced Trump as their champion from out of a field of 17 Republican alternatives—are the heirs not of Edmund Burke so much as of Robespierre and the Jacobins, eager to smash the highest achievements of their forebears in the name of an inchoate appeal to something “greater.” This is not the “velvet nihilism” that Rusty Reno fears but rather nihilism of a far more uninhibited, coarse and quintessentially American kind. To comprehend the wellsprings of this new radicalism from the right and its appeal across large swathes of the electorate, we must come to terms not only with the realities of stagnating wages, growing inequality, economic despair and fears of racial and cultural supplanting in the heartland, but also with the moral and spiritual significance of a sordid spectacle that in retrospect appears as a dark portent of our times: more than 80,000 frenzied fans cheering Trump on as he body-slammed, beat and shaved the head of a writhing, sobbing Vince McMahon, and then rained money from the sky (most of it fake, some of it real) during the 2007 “Battle of the Billionaires” storyline on WrestleMania XXIII. This is what the apotheosis of utilitarian and expressive individualism in the American experiment can, at least potentially, look like: an unvarnished appeal to fantasies of power and revenge; the rich growing richer through the cynical orchestration of pseudo-events that play on mob appetites, insecurities and hatreds; the catharsis of collective scapegoating climaxing in ritualistic violence.
In the final analysis, Trump’s revolt against the liberal order ironically manifests and exacerbates all the internal contradictions eating at the heart of the culture of authenticity. What his ruinous triumph has revealed in stark relief is how few authentic conservatives are left in our expressivist land. As the atmosphere of chaos, mendacity and venality surrounding the White House deepens day by day, Trump’s ceaselessly tolerant and indulgent supporters and apologists—whose silences often speak louder than their words—can no longer plausibly claim to be the guardians of virtue. They must now be counted among the greatest moral decadents of our secular age.