Writing Prompts: Finding A New American Narrative

I’m starting to create a scratchpad on future essays. I’m been thinking a lot about the recent raid or whatever it is called on Mar-a-lago and whether or not it’s a good idea to prosecute Trump. The question is grounded in some deeper issues such as the erosion of trust in American society, the blindness of liberals and anti-trump conservatives, the continued problem of economic inequality and the like. My problem is that we tend to look at the problem of Trump from a horserace perspective instead of looking at the roots of the conflict.  Look at any root cause doesn’t mean people don’t have agency. But the reason Donald Trump is such a problem is for deeper causes. Below are some links to articles that made me think and what I will use in a future essay.

Yet in recent decades, the United States has begun to experience a precipitous collapse in trust in public institutions. Trump himself has accelerated this collapse among more conservative Americans, and much of his party now contributes to it, too. That means that the foundations of the rule of law have already been seriously undermined….

…This is a dangerous problem because it shows both that the rule of law is already in an advanced state of decay and that pressing charges against Trump, putting him on trial, and potentially throwing him in jail will accelerate this process, making the decay far worse—because each of those acts undertaken against Trump will confirm the right in its conviction that “the rule of law” has already been replaced by rank partisanship.

Damon Linker

Trump is a symptom of a weakened democracy, but not the cause.

Why is Donald Trump so powerful? How did he come to dominate one of the two major parties and get himself elected president? Is it his hair? His waistline? No, it’s his narratives. Trump tells powerful stories that ring true to tens of millions of Americans.

The main one is that America is being ruined by corrupt coastal elites. According to this narrative, there is an interlocking network of highly educated Americans who make up what the Trumpians have come to call the Regime: Washington power players, liberal media, big foundations, elite universities, woke corporations. These people are corrupt, condescending and immoral and are looking out only for themselves. They are out to get Trump because Trump is the person who stands up to them. They are not only out to get Trump; they are out to get you.

This narrative has a core of truth to it. Highly educated metropolitan elites have become something of a self-enclosed Brahmin class. But the Trumpian propaganda turns what is an unfortunate social chasm into venomous conspiracy theory. It simply assumes, against a lot of evidence, that the leading institutions of society are inherently corrupt, malevolent and partisan and are acting in bad faith.

David Brooks

This dynamic started to mutate in the middle of the 20th century. Though surveys from the 1950s through the 1980s saw a marked decline in sectarian hatreds in the United States, the period saw the emergence of a conflict that is familiar to us today: a fight over “ultimate moral authority,” pitting those with orthodox tendencies (people committed to “an external, definable, and transcendent authority”) and those with progressivist leanings (people who are generally committed to deriving authority from rationalism and subjectivism).

“Abortion, child care, funding for the arts, affirmative action and quotas, gay rights, values in public education, or multiculturalism” — all these debates, Hunter notes, derive from this struggle for moral authority. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims these days spend less time in doctrinal disputes with each other and instead each split along the orthodox/progressivist divide. It’s not shocking, for example, to see some Orthodox Jews aligning with Catholics and evangelicals against abortion.

Hunter’s analysis was groundbreaking in that it highlighted the religious underpinnings that tied these fights together. But his argument wasn’t that the culture wars were simply a fight between the forces of traditionalism versus the forces of secularism. Rather, his point was that everything in America was suffused with a religious sense of mission — even spheres we might normally imagine are completely secularized.

-Damir Marusic

The situation as Buchanan sketched it out is a dangerous one for a liberal democracy like ours. If the fight is over values rather than policy positions — a “religious war” — compromise is impossible: Values are absolute and not amenable to deliberative give-and-take.

And democratic elections are not meant to adjudicate such matters anyway. They are by definition a mechanism of temporarily designating who gets to run the country. (The question is posed to voters again and again, on a regular schedule.) If the issues at stake are about the very “soul of America,” democracy quickly reveals itself to be a profoundly unsatisfying means of organizing our politics.

It’s that lack of satisfaction with democratic outcomes that undeniably played a role in Republicans pursuing a legalistic means of undermining the legitimacy of Clinton’s presidency. The dark murmurs about the legitimacy of Bush and Obama didn’t rise to the level of what happened under Clinton, but now, with Trump, we’re back to special prosecutors and talk of impeachment…

…Pat Buchanan’s call to arms in 1991 was a pivotal moment in American politics. Buchanan saw himself and his followers as the ones on the defensive in a struggle that had been going on for a while. He had probably read Hunter’s book (which was published earlier that year), and it may have crystallized some things for him. The struggle itself wasn’t necessarily new, but calling it a “religious war” in an explicitly political context almost certainly changed things.Hunter’s orthodox and progressivists had already mostly sorted themselves into the two major parties by that point. Buchanan was the bugler sounding the cavalry charge. Buchanan’s bugling didn’t cause an immediate rupture in society. But by injecting “ultimate,” zero-sum questions into democratic politics, he undoubtedly put a new process into motion.Trust is a fragile thing, the first casualty of any war. And given that this war is now in its 27th year, it shouldn’t be surprising that reservoirs of trust — especially in partisan politics — are at an all-time low. But while Trump himself seems to go out of his way to exacerbate tensions among Americans, it’s important to remember that he is ultimately the symptom of something that has been going on for quite some time. And that implies that with his departure, we will not necessarily be better as a country.

-Damir Marusic

Third, we’ve come to dominate left-wing parties around the world that were formerly vehicles for the working class. We’ve pulled these parties further left on cultural issues (prizing cosmopolitanism and questions of identity) while watering down or reversing traditional Democratic positions on trade and unions. As creative-class people enter left-leaning parties, working-class people tend to leave. Around 1990, nearly a third of Labour members of the British Parliament were from working-class backgrounds; from 2010 to 2015, the proportion wasn’t even one in 10. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the 50 most-educated counties in America by an average of 26 points — while losing the 50 least-educated counties by an average of 31 points.

These partisan differences overlay economic differences. In 2020, Joe Biden won just 500 or so counties — but together they account for 71 percent of American economic activity, according to the Brookings Institution. Donald Trump won more than 2,500 counties that together generate only 29 percent of that activity. An analysis by Brookings and The Wall Street Journal found that just 13 years ago, Democratic and Republican areas were at near parity on prosperity and income measures. Now they are divergent and getting more so. If Republicans and Democrats talk as though they are living in different realities, it’s because they are.

-David Brooks

This opening salvo, from August 2015, was the first in what would become dozens of columns denouncing Trump as a unique threat to American life, democratic ideals and the world itself. I regret almost nothing of what I said about the man and his close minions. But the broad swipe at his voters caricatured them and blinkered me.

It also probably did more to help than hinder Trump’s candidacy. Telling voters they are moral ignoramuses is a bad way of getting them to change their minds.

What were they seeing that I wasn’t?

That ought to have been the first question to ask myself. When I looked at Trump, I saw a bigoted blowhard making one ignorant argument after another. What Trump’s supporters saw was a candidate whose entire being was a proudly raised middle finger at a self-satisfied elite that had produced a failing status quo.

I was blind to this. Though I had spent the years of Barack Obama’s presidency denouncing his policies, my objections were more abstract than personal. I belonged to a social class that my friend Peggy Noonan called “the protected.” My family lived in a safe and pleasant neighborhood. Our kids went to an excellent public school. I was well paid, fully insured, insulated against life’s harsh edges.

Trump’s appeal, according to Noonan, was largely to people she called “the unprotected.” Their neighborhoods weren’t so safe and pleasant. Their schools weren’t so excellent. Their livelihoods weren’t so secure. Their experience of America was often one of cultural and economic decline, sometimes felt in the most personal of ways.

It was an experience compounded by the insult of being treated as losers and racists —clinging, in Obama’s notorious 2008 phrase, to “guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

No wonder they were angry.

Anger can take dumb or dangerous turns, and with Trump they often took both. But that didn’t mean the anger was unfounded or illegitimate, or that it was aimed at the wrong target.

-Bret Stephens

If you are an unprotected American—one with limited resources and negligible access to power—you have absorbed some lessons from the past 20 years’ experience of illegal immigration. You know the Democrats won’t protect you and the Republicans won’t help you. Both parties refused to control the border. The Republicans were afraid of being called illiberal, racist, of losing a demographic for a generation. The Democrats wanted to keep the issue alive to use it as a wedge against the Republicans and to establish themselves as owners of the Hispanic vote.

Many Americans suffered from illegal immigration—its impact on labor markets, financial costs, crime, the sense that the rule of law was collapsing. But the protected did fine—more workers at lower wages. No effect of illegal immigration was likely to hurt them personally.

It was good for the protected. But the unprotected watched and saw. They realized the protected were not looking out for them, and they inferred that they were not looking out for the country, either.

The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment—another word for the protected—nothing, no particular loyalty, no old allegiance.

Mr. Trump came from that.

What marks this political moment, in Europe and the U.S., is the rise of the unprotected. It is the rise of people who don’t have all that much against those who’ve been given many blessings and seem to believe they have them not because they’re fortunate but because they’re better.

You see the dynamic in many spheres. In Hollywood, as we still call it, where they make our rough culture, they are careful to protect their own children from its ill effects. In places with failing schools, they choose not to help them through the school liberation movement—charter schools, choice, etc.—because they fear to go up against the most reactionary professional group in America, the teachers unions. They let the public schools flounder. But their children go to the best private schools.

This is a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens.

And a country really can’t continue this way.

Peggy Noonan

I want to write an essay about the moment that we are in which is the result of many factors.  We are dealing with eroding trust in institutions, a growing class divide and all of this leads to a wannabe authoritarian that is turning one political party into his personality cult.  The above quotes and links are the backbone of the essay.More to follow soon.


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