Forgive us, America, for we have sinned.
A penitential mood has fallen over conservatism, one that has nothing to do with Lent. This is not, for the most part, to be found among those who have prostrated themselves before the throne of the Mogul. It’s found among the “anti-anti-Trump” crowd, who acknowledge the deficiencies of the man himself, but blame conservatism for creating him. We ignored the righteous wrath of the working man. We placed too much faith in free enterprise. For our sins, we deserve the Donald. Instead of casting blame, we should repent and seek absolution from his supporters.
Here’s something I learned in my early years as a Catholic: Targeted self-criticism is healthy; diffuse self-loathing is not. Almost everyone struggles at times with feelings of inadequacy, especially in light of painful failures. It’s tempting to wallow, but that rarely spurs meaningful self-improvement. It demoralizes without illuminating. This is why the confessional is in fact the solution to “Catholic guilt.” It demands a specific, bullet-point listing of the things you did that are worthy of shame. Articulate, apologize, and move on. No wallowing.
Anti-anti-Trumpism presents itself as a measured, circumspect attempt to include an underrepresented perspective in the conservative conversation. In reality, a lot of it looks like wallowing. This isn’t to say that the white middle class doesn’t have real grievances, or that we shouldn’t attend to them. They do, and we should. At the moment, though, Trump’s staunchest supporters are standing with pitchforks and torches around a party wherein strands of conservative thought were actually beginning to flourish. They’re clearly in no mood to talk, and their less committed brethren seem to be lingering at the outskirts primarily because they are attracted to Trump’s facade of strength. Why would we respond to that with self-flagellation and shamefaced offers to negotiate? If voters are craving leadership, simpering apologies will not win them back.
From a strategic perspective, anti-anti-Trumpism has no victories to its name. Trump has thus far been beaten only when social conservatives have been energized to reject him. There is no reason to think that friendly dialogue can cut through this moment of madness.
Psychologically, though, anti-anti Trumpism is easy to understand. Rejection hurts, and when it happens at such a critical moment, it’s intuitive to respond with the despairing plea, “Come back and I’ll change!” Most of us have no trouble feeling sympathy for the frustrations of people who have struggled, not only to find jobs, but also to open a social space in which they can be viewed as respected, contributing citizens. We share a growing unease over the increased fragmentation of America. It feels good, then, to stand in solidarity with ordinary Americans, decrying the grasping indifference of a cosseted elite.
We damage our credibility when we try to cast Trumpism as righteous.
These impulses are understandable, but we should deny ourselves that indulgence of wallowing. Conservatives can easily appreciate that Trump’s proposed policies (insofar as he offers any) will not address the real grievances of his admirers. We can see the swirling nativism that underscores Trump’s rhetoric and animates many of his supporters. As a man, Trump is a disgrace to our national politics. We damage our credibility when we try to cast Trumpism as righteous, or possessed of deep insight.
But the impulse to do this is clearly strong, and not limited to Trump’s overt supporters. David Frum and Charles Murray, for instance, have both written affirming (and widely circulated) explanations of the origins of Trumpism, focusing on the snobbery of the “creative class,” and on its disdain for working-class America. Both make some fair points, but notably soft-pedal the internal problems in the demographic they champion. Like most struggling Americans, working-class whites would be in better shape if they got and stayed married, avoided addiction, and more assiduously sought opportunities to reskill and change professions. White-collar workers are better off in no small part due to healthier life habits. It’s worth pointing this out, not so we can heap scorn on the Trumpites, but so we can ask ourselves: Would we be willing to gloss over those thorny details as a courtesy to Democratic–voting groups? If not, then why are we doing it now?
Trumpites do want respect. So does Black Lives Matter. So did Occupy Wall Street, the forerunner to more recent campus protests, and to the fresh-faced cult of Bernie Sanders. Modern populist movements have all arisen among groups that, mostly for understandable reasons, feel left behind. Economic and social developments have left many people standing bitterly at the margins, and we need to look for better ways to help all of our compatriots find a meaningful place within American life. Patriotism, political expedience, and ordinary human compassion should all motivate us to do this.
Looking to the left, though, we see how grotesquely a conversation can become unmoored from reality when honesty and common sense are held hostage to fevered demands for affirmation. It should worry us intensely to see those patterns replicating themselves on the right. If conservatism doesn’t have enough vitality to articulate clear, reasoned responses to aggressive challenges, that is terrible news for our nation. Societies disintegrate quickly when no one is willing to be the adult in the room.
By all means, let us engage in targeted self-criticism in light of recent developments. We should discuss with renewed vigor the sorts of policies that might actually address the needs of struggling, underemployed Americans. We should work to articulate a broader, more robust vision of what the future might look like, so that our compatriots are less tempted by despair. We must start, however, by resisting the temptation to brood and wallow. It’s time to assert ourselves as anti-anti-anti-Trump
The conservative movement has its imperfections to be sure, but America’s problems are not all, or even primarily, our fault. We should pinpoint our actual mistakes, and renew our efforts. Go and sin no more.
— Rachel Lu is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.