Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 6 November 2023


Donald Trump Has Closed the Republican Mind

Several teenagers, one of whom is wearing a red Trump 2024 hat, stand in the Capitol rotunda in front of a painting of George Washington as he resigns his commission as a general.
Credit...Damon Winter/The New York Times

Mr. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum and a contributing Opinion writer, served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Over the past half-century, one of the books that most electrified conservatives was Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind.” Bloom, a political philosopher, warned of the dangers posed by moral relativism and nihilism, of “accepting everything and denying reason’s power.”

The book, published in 1987, sold more than a million copies and spent 10 weeks at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. It argued that the denial of truth and the suppression of reason was leading to a civilizational crisis — and the fault for this lay at the feet of the New Left.

At the time, I worked in the Reagan administration. I was a young speechwriter for William Bennett at the Department of Education, deeply interested in political ideas and the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtue. The state of higher education, which was the focal point of Mr. Bloom’s concerns, was of great interest to me. But so was his broader warning about the “relativity of truth,” the loss of moral order, the lack of critical thinking and “spiritual entropy.”

Mr. Bloom believed a truly liberal education would help people resist the “worship of vulgar success.” He lamented the failure of universities to put “the permanent questions” of human life and human meaning front and center.

Taken together, those were currents of thought that I and other conservatives believed were threats to flourishing lives and a decent, just society. The poet Frederick Turner described “The Closing of the American Mind” as “the most thoughtful conservative analysis of the nation’s cultural sickness.”

Yet today it is the American right that most fully embodies the attitudes that so alarmed Mr. Bloom. We see that most clearly in the right’s embrace of Donald Trump and the MAGA movement he represents. Mr. Trump is cruel and remorseless, compulsive and vindictive, an accomplished conspiracy theorist. He delights in inflaming hatreds and shattering moral codes.

No other president has been as disdainful of knowledge or as untroubled by his benightedness. No other has been as intentional not just to lie but to annihilate truth. And no other president has explicitly attempted to overturn an election and encouraged an angry mob to march on the Capitol.

With every passing week, the former president’s statements are getting more deranged, more menacing and more authoritarian. Mr. Trump has taken to verbally attacking judges and prosecutors in his various criminal trials; mocked last year’s brutal hammer attack against the husband of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House at the time, which left him with a skull fracture; and suggested that the conduct of Mark Milley, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was deserving of execution. While doing this, Mr. Trump has expanded his lead over his nearest rival in the race for the 2024 Republican nomination to more than 40 points.

In other words, no matter how much wrongdoing Mr. Trump engages in, however outrageous and brutish his conduct, he remains wildly popular. His indecency and sulfuric rhetoric are a plus; his most loyal supporters are galvanized by the criminal charges against him, which they consider political persecution. He is their beau ideal, and he has spawned hundreds of imitators — in the presidential campaign that he is dominating, in Congress, among governors, in state legislatures and in the right-wing ecosystem. The haunting question raised by Mr. Bloom is more relevant now than it was when he first posed it: “When there are no shared goals or a vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?”

So how did a party and a political movement that once saw itself as a vanguard of objective truth end up on the side that gets to make up its own facts, its own scripts, its own realities?

Rich Tafel, the chief executive of Public Squared, developed a training called Cultural Translation, which teaches participants how to find shared values to build bridges across different worldviews. He told me the narrative he’s heard from people on the right is that they tried fighting the left for years, nominating admirable people like John McCain and Mitt Romney, but these leaders failed to understand how the game had changed. “Those on the right argue that claiming that there are objective truths and hard realities didn’t work against the identity politics of the postmodern left,” according to Mr. Tafel. “Now, they’d say, they are playing by the same rules.” In fact, he said, “MAGA has weaponized postmodernism in a way the left never did.”

Mr. Tafel added that MAGA world “likes the trolling nature of the postmodern right and the vicious attacks” against those they oppose. “The right likes the snark, irony and sarcasm of it all.”

Those who once celebrated the three transcendentals — the true, the good and the beautiful — now delight in deceit, coarseness and squalor. Jonathan Rauch, a friend and sometime collaborator, calls this a “degenerate postmodernism.”

Mr. Rauch’s book “The Constitution of Knowledge” examined the collapse of shared standards of truth. He suggested that the incentive structure on the right has played an indispensable role in its epistemic crisis. Right-wing media discovered that spreading lies, inflaming resentments and stoking nihilism were extremely profitable because there was an enormous audience for it. Republican politicians similarly found they could energize their base by doing the same. Initially, the media and politicians cynically exploited these tactics; soon they became dependent on them. “They got high on their own supply and couldn’t stop using without infuriating the base,” as Mr. Rauch put it. There was nothing they would not defend, no exit ramp they would take.

Many of those on the right, dependent on the web of lies and the nihilism, have twisted themselves into knots in order to justify their behavior not just to others but also to themselves. It’s too painful for them to acknowledge the destructive movement that they have become part of or to acknowledge that it is no longer by any means clear who is leading whom. So they have persuaded themselves that there is no other option but to support a Trump-led Republican Party, even one that is lawless and depraved, because the Democratic Party is, for them, an unthinkable alternative. The result is that they have been sucked, cognitively and psychologically, into their own alternative reality, a psychedelic collage made up of what Kellyanne Conway, a former counselor to Mr. Trump, famously called “alternative facts.”

The original left-wing version of postmodernism that Mr. Bloom complained about was corrosive for the reasons he discussed, and it still is, but the right-wing version is several orders of magnitude more cynical, irrational and destructive. Nihilism is a choice — it is forced on no one — and conservatives must somehow find a way to turn back toward their original ideals.

The core concern expressed by Mr. Bloom more than 35 years ago was that relativism and nihilism would lead to impoverished souls, especially among the young, the decomposition of America’s social contract and its political culture, and a “chaos of the instincts or passions.” His worst fears have been realized. What Mr. Bloom could not have imagined is that it would be the right that would be the author of this catastrophe.

Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) — a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum who served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — is a contributing Opinion writer and the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

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