Although I was not as surprised as some, I can’t say I anticipated that Trump would win the “blue wall” states that gave him victory. But beyond the cordiality shown by all sides in the aftermath of the election, from Trump’s own upbeat victory speech to Clinton’s gracious concession to Obama’s positive and refreshingly unsnarky remarks, even if we cynically take them in the spirit of La Rochefoucauld’s hommage que le vice rend à la vertu, I have been pleased to see a number of analyses that share my sense of the urgency of reining in the victimary and restoring a sense of national unity. Such points are, of course, made primarily on the (non-never-Trump) Right, whereas a good portion of the Left, when not seeing Trump’s victory as the equivalent of the 1933 German elections, cannot find enough words to describe the furor of his electorate. In the space of 88 words, the Thursday 11/10 LA Times lead story “Victory by Fury” (!) used “rage” (in the sub-head), along with “seething anger,” “ravenous desire for change,” and “mad.”
Years ago, I would listen tranquilly to the PBS News Hour, where Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil pointedly refrained from voting in elections in order to remain neutral. In that now-distant past, the Friday two-pundit sessions used to feature recognizable representatives of the tendencies of the two parties. But in recent years, the “debates” between Mark Shields and David Brooks have increasingly centered on which one can find the Republicans more lamentable, and I almost always find Shields, the old-time Democrat there since forever, more authentic and cogent than Brooks, whose “conservatism” appears to have been wholly digested away by victimary microfauna. (On Friday 11/11, Brooks could at best offer the frustrations of the famous “white working class” as a partial excuse for their supporting Trump’s “bigotry.”)
But Thursday’s newscast, which led off with a clip of Obama and Trump conversing in the Oval Office, was the most gracious and least acrimonious I have watched in years. Even the two feminists, convoked to present both sides of the Trump victory—a left-right balance that itself would hardly have been likely during the past eight years—scarcely disagreed, although one had supported Trump and the other had surely not forgotten all the evidence of what one conservative writer had unconservatively described as his “sociopathic misogyny.” (The intellectual pathology of the never-Trumpers far outdistances that of the Left; this is in its way a Good Thing, since it positions Trump where he indeed belongs, in the middle of the spectrum and, hopefully, in a position to catalyze some bipartisan cooperation.) In answer to several questions clearly designed to elicit lamentations about how Clinton’s defeat was a sign that women were not yet truly respected, etc., this latter young lady responded, I would almost say, cheerfully, that the important thing was not electing anyone in particular to the presidency, but giving women an equal chance, and that under such circumstances, we would surely have a female president one day. If Trump’s election had given us nothing but this non-victimary reply, his manic Tweets and lapses from good taste would have been worth it.
This is not to be Pollyannish. Democracy does not demand, or even want, “unity.” The Left-Right divide is what makes it function as the worst of systems with the exception of all the others. What has gone wrong in the victimary era is that the resentment of the Left, as it has done in the more extreme moments of various revolutions, had risen to a moral fervor no longer open to compromise, in which its traditional claim to the moral high(er) ground became the contrast between Heaven and Hell.
The operations of culture that bring order out of chaos, and more pointedly, defer mimetic violence—René Girard’s great and still almost universally unappreciated discovery—are never final, but operate by revealing and then dissimulating their constitutive paradox. The dialogue-debate that defines liberal democracy necessarily always hovers between the tyranny of unanimity and anarchic dissolution. There are no truly stable positions in this debate, since the two sides, representing the two elements of the moral model central to our humanity, and that are themselves in paradoxical tension, can never fully agree. But the effective operation of the system requires recognition by both sides of at least the formal legitimacy of their adversaries. This has been increasingly lacking in our victimary era. Young people are taught reciprocal morality to the exclusion of reward for merit, even merit tested by objective examination, let alone by superior force, not long ago the primary deciding factor among nations and still, whether we like it or not, the ultimate source of international authority.
The fragile truce that the last few days have realized is one I believe likely to endure far longer than people expect, nor need it lead to an Era of Good Feeling where lions and lambs lie together in peaceful harmony. No doubt when Trump takes office in January, things will heat up considerably. But that’s fine. The important thing is to have useful discussions, heated if necessary, but that lead to viable policies. These may be biased toward the concerns of one side or another, so long as they are conducive to a more dynamic economy and a more respected and stabilizing presence in world affairs.
Many are surprised that, after so ugly a campaign, the country seems to be returning to sanity, and to the renewed sense of national-secular sacrality as exhibited in the Obama-Trump Oval Office conversation. Like many things in history, even for those of us who had the intuition of this change, it could not have been understood until it had actually happened.
Trump’s election allows us to dial back our critique of Obama for his reliance on the victimary ethic. Self-serving as it may have been, we must accept the fact that the first black president, even were he not a creature of the academic Left, could hardly have avoided embodying—fomenting, but also helping to discharge—the accumulated resentment of a community that has indeed endured over the centuries, and still well into my lifetime, the most degrading forms of humiliation. No, this doesn’t make Michael Brown a heroic victim, but the pride Obama’s presidency has lent the black community will, I am sure, continue to pay dividends in the future—as, I keep saying, it seems to me that it already has in the increased cordiality of everyday black-white relations.
Nor need we view too harshly the negative reactions to the election results on the part of illegal immigrants, who are justified in feeling threatened, or certain Muslims who find themselves the targets of unmerited hostility. If we can begin to admit that Islamic terrorism is indeed a problem within the Muslim community—as inner-city gang violence is a problem within the black and Hispanic communities—then we need have no sympathy for the handful of right-wing bigots, even as we insist that the fact of having won their votes does not make Trump their representative.
Politics, like all human endeavors, is always paradoxical and only most exceptionally follows an optimal path to enlightenment, for the simple reason that with very few exceptions, no such path exists. If it did, of course, we would need neither religion or art. We have no doubt heard this from philosophers before, but GA alone adds: nor language either. The verifiable constative proposition of science, “the cat is on the mat,” is the conquest of paradox just as love is the conquest of resentment, and both are endless processes with no endpoint. The “ends of history” are many, and always relative. And can it be a coincidence that the word “end” is itself paradoxical? It means both “termination” and “goal”; yet if you still have a goal, you have not reached the termination.
Until this election, the political temperature had been rising for some time, and its persistence risked doing much more damage to liberal democracy, and to the world, than “climate change.” If the new cooling trend can last for a while—and if it can happen on PBS, it can find its way to the campuses and boardrooms—we may even find efficient ways, without wrecking the economy, to lower the literal temperature, which has recently been in the 90s in mid-November in Santa Monica.
The rise of authoritarian regimes, of which the Islamic State is the ultimate caricature, is primarily a reflection of the contradictions of the West. If we can’t stomach the need for firstness along with egalitarianism, here are cultures that show how they can be most simply combined. Hierarchical order past a certain point is egalitarianism. As I have said before, one reason Western feminists find it hard to complain about the conditions of women under Islam, or for that matter the conditions of citizens under Chinese communism, is that in a totalitarian system, all are “equally” subject to the law that subjugates women to men or ordinary people to their Leader(s). The Salafist male can simply answer the criticism of benefiting from Sharia by claiming that had he been born a woman, he would have submitted to the same subjugation that he now exercises. But even in a secular system, where laws must respond primarily to the model of reciprocal morality and only Rawlsian criteria like societal efficiency can justify inequality, adherence to such justifications remains a matter of personal submission founded ultimately on faith. All societies, even those that proclaim their “atheism,” remind us that the human is never fully liberated from the sacred.
And the current election offers a excellent lesson, because wholly “secular” in its manifestations, on the role of the sacred in human society. Trump’s sins, for example, mocking a handicapped journalist, cannot be justified in themselves. Yet their effect, even before his election, of helping to liberate the public from the deadly burden of political correctness, where the fear of being accused of “racism” of one kind or another makes unflattering truths unutterable even when they are fully relevant to the evaluation of performance or public safety, is on balance salutary.
From a Christian perspective, even the Crucifixion was “justified” as the source of man’s incomprehensible salvation, on the model of the felix culpa of Eve’s giving Adam the apple—the originary act of feminine resentment (see Chronicle 419). These are miracles, mysteries, leaps of faith, or if one likes, acts of genius, like cutting the Gordian knot, in which the intuition that provokes the “evil” act that brings eventual good cannot be calculated in advance. Their paradoxically undeterministic configuration requires, as we see, no supernatural interventions, merely the human openness to innovation or firstness that is what got the human started in the first place.
No, the millennium has not arrived. But some of the air has been cleared. If my own resentment of the victimary has been eased and I can even find the silver lining in Obama’s presidency, I think this may well be the case for many others. It is certainly about time.