Postmodern Conservative

Walker Percy and Donald Trump

A serious man jokes and a joke gets taken seriously.

First of all, Happy Easter. It turns out we needed help we couldn’t give ourselves. And we got it. So be joyful and relax. We can screw things up only so much.

I will be speaking at Notre Dame next Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Oak Room in the South Dining Hall on a question I’m sure you’ve been asking yourself: “Did Walker Percy Write the Last Self-Help Book?”

Now George Will has just written that the future will surely disappoint. One reason: The progress of prosperity and technology is being hobbled by the welfare state. Percy says that it will disappoint because it turns out that the blessings of technology — unprecedented longevity, abundance, and leisure — just aren’t enough. Nor is it enough to say that we can use all our money and power to gratify our lifestyle preferences, whatever we declare them to be. That amounts to saying that the whole point of all our progress is to be able to purchase diversions to cover over our emptiness. We can only do so well in diverting ourselves from our cluelessness, from being unable to figure who each of us is and what each of us is supposed to do. Percy’s advice to Will: Come to terms with you anxiety, which can be a prelude to wonder. Enough of that.

If Walker Percy were around today, he’d be laughing at Trump more than we are. It turns out that Donald dropped from sight several days ago. One theory: He’s been totally immersed in Holy Week devotion. Another: He’s going for that rising-from-the-dead scam he’s heard something about.

And on Romney: Trump says the Mormons are such nice people. But Romney’s not so nice, so bitter about being a loser. Are we sure he’s really a Mormon? Logic worthy of Nietzsche’s unforgettable critique of Socrates. It’s funny. Lighten up.

It’s terrible (I’m very serious — it’s just trashy) what Trump has said about Heidi Cruz. But still: Cruz calling Trump a “sniveling coward” is funny, just because the words don’t fit what we perceive about Cruz’s character (Rhett Butler he’s not). It’s also a little funny to have Trump saying that the National Enquirer is a very reliable source of news information — sounding like some Percy character.

Then Cruz somehow got provoked into saying something like although Donald Trump is a rat, he wouldn’t want to copulate with him. Again, Cruz’s anger is genuinely righteous, but his words do admit of more than one possible interpretation. I feel for Cruz dragged into the comedy that is Trump. Rubio too, of course.

The movie script on this election won’t have to exaggerate real life to have future generations rolling in the aisles. Percy says something like that politics inevitably disappoints these days, because it’s nothing more than a media circus, and the media — the screen — is touted as one of the chief benefits of our technology. Political campaigns are losing their appeal even as diversions.

Is there anything more loony, Percy might say, than the way we now select our two presidential candidates? We don’t laugh enough because the laughable has become too routine.

According to Douthat, both Cruz and Trump are playing seemingly indispensable parts in the “insane drama” that is our campaign. Insane drama, of course, isn’t really dramatic, but funny. Or funny unless you end up being part of its collateral damage.

Trump, to stay with Nietzsche, is the buffoon who has gotten himself taken seriously. And he stops being funny insofar as he becomes genuinely menacing, mainly by threatening to become the Republican nominee for president. Be of good cheer. He’s now fading in the polls. And his general incompetence is allowing Cruz to run amok stealing delegates from him at state conventions. Cruz will generate momentum from Wisconsin, Kasich is now poised to win Pennsylvania (solving a problem that Cruz couldn’t have solved on his own), New York will be close enough, and then California will be a decisive victory for Cruz.

Even if Trump did get nominated, he would be decimated in November by a really unpopular Democrat.

Will the Republican convention be a media circus that will make Cruz’s nomination worth nothing? Maybe and maybe not. But the world wouldn’t come to end under President Clinton the younger (and differently gendered). Permit me a serious conclusion: Trump is a buffoon, but Trumpism not so much, as Ross Douthat has pointed out. Consider how many Republicans are confessing their sins — rooted in their lack of personal responsibility and relational love — when it comes to their understanding of ordinary Americans.

Paul Ryan admitted that he was wrong to speak of the “takers.” Charles Murray acknowledged that he participated in the sophisticated prejudice against “rednecks,” reducing the troubles and struggles of the bottom half of our country to the unproductive habits associated with dependency on welfare. Wall Street Journal ideologist Stephen Moore has acknowledged that, although he has criticized Trump on immigration and trade, maybe it’s time, after all, that someone put America and Americans first.

All these Republican opinion leaders confess that Republican policies had been too oligarchic, or too selfishly attuned to the needs of “job creators.” Trumpism, these conservatives admit, has a legitimate point to make about the egalitarian human dignity of shared citizenship. (George Will, admittedly, hasn’t confessed yet.)

You can mock the lack of prudence of every one of Bernie Sanders’s policy proposals and still concede he’s made the same point. I don’t think that Trumpism should produce any radical change in Republican orientation in a populist or nationalist (or, of course, xenophoblic or racist) direction. The fairly modest but quite real change required is with the consent of the governed in mind.

So the legacy of Trumpism might be to purge the party of (Ayn) Randism and certain related hyper-libertarian delusions. Cruz, to prevail in November, actually has a thing or two to learn from Trumpism.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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