On the night of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the Princeton campus erupted in ecstatic shrieks and sighs. I had not voted for Obama, and I hated much of what he stood for (“marriage equality”, “the right to choose”, “data”, all that). But as students streaked by the window, I felt a touch of faith, like the dour Englishman in Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy who cannot help but be moved when confronted by a Neapolitan religious procession in all its mad fervour.
Similar bacchic rites occurred wherever America’s young elites cluster. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captured the mood with her novel Americanah, in which a young couple living near Yale (one a graduate student, the other a blogger) is saved from break-up by the Obama campaign. When Barack won his smashing victory in the Iowa primaries, the couple “made love, for the first time in weeks, and Obama was there with them, like an unspoken prayer, a third emotional presence.”
I learned then that Americans regard elections in sacramental terms, as part of what Harvard University’s Adrian Vermeule calls the liturgy of liberalism. If Obama’s victory was seen by our own clerical class a kind of baptismal rebirth, Trump’s victory eight years later called for last rites.
Underlying these cultic responses lies a religious belief in ever-expanding freedom, whether it comes to market relations, cultural traditions or sexual mores. This missionary faith crosses the globe, uniting businessmen and academics, non-profit workers and journalists. Each of these disciples of liberty tends to focus on expanding one of several freedoms. Libertarians complain of the burden of regulations. Feminists decry a lack of “reproductive choice”. Occasionally a member of one camp will express reservations about the priorities of the other. Since the end of the Cold War, the two have nonetheless worked in steady tandem. At Aspen and Davos they join in ecumenical council, decrying the repression and oppression for which ever more freedom is the only cure.
The tenets of this faith are less secure than those of either Christianity or Islam. Liberals believe in a progressive eschatology of ever-increasing enlightenment and freedom, sentimentally expressed in the phrase “love wins”. But history has a way of disappointing such hopes. Imagine a progressive’s response to the sight of Obama (steadfast supporter both of Planned Parenthood and the economically liberalising TPP free trade deal) being succeeded by a regressive ogre like Trump. It is roughly what a Christian would feel were he to find Christ’s mummified body still lying in the tomb.
What are Catholics to make of the man who has done so much to refute a rival faith? Some think Trump a new Constantine, or at least a Bashar al-Assad: someone who, however odious, will nonetheless protect Christians from people who desperately want to destroy them. When one party demands that the Little Sisters of the Poor pay for contraceptives and labels any affirmation of Christian marriage as rank bigotry, Catholics have reason to look for protection elsewhere. Yet Trump, with his crude nativism, is an awkward protector for what remains an immigrant church. If Trump looks like an angel to some, to others he appears to be the Devil incarnate. For them, the picture of Cardinal Timothy Dolan cozying up to Donald Trump is equivalent to a bishop blessing the Third Reich.
As malign as some of Trump’s views are, they are well within the American mainstream. We have little to gain from presenting as a hero or greeting with hysterics a candidate who so thoroughly resembles the presidents who have come before him. Because right-thinking people feel a religious attachment to Obama and moral horror of Trump, they tend to forget that Obama quietly deported more immigrants than Bush had. Trump’s wild style presents new threats to the civic order and the rule of law, but much of the fear of him, including among Catholics, comes from an undue investment in liberal dreams of freedom, whether in the form of sexual liberation or democratic capitalism.
Catholics have a different kind of faith. One thing it dictates is our duty to protect the unborn from any attempt to do them harm. On that count, Trump will be much better than his predecessor. In typical Trumpian fashion, he made abortion opponents a deal. In exchange for their support, he would appoint pro-life judges, ban abortion after 20 weeks, defund Planned Parenthood, and make the Hyde Amendment (which bars taxpayer funding for abortion) into permanent law. They supported him; now we’ll see if Trump delivers.
No such bargain was struck over issues like gay marriage. The US Supreme Court’s ruling will not be challenged by Trump in the way that also-rans like Ted Cruz promised to do. Yet Trump’s election is nonetheless strangely relevant to America’s agony over marriage. Gay marriage is only the follow-on of easy divorce, a social practice that has made marriage seem like a matter of emotion and sex rather than commitment and reproduction. Americans struggle with marriage not just because they have bad ideas but also because they face financial insecurity that makes it difficult to get and stay married.
Trump has promised to bring back the construction and factory jobs that are the mainstay of working-class men. It does not seem likely, but if he were to succeed in this, a lot of the underlying tension that contributes to our culture wars would be relieved.
As Trump takes the oath of office, I will be wondering over the strange fact that he instinctively grasped something no one else could see. We live, as Eugene Vodolazkin observes, in an “epoch of concentration” – a time that calls for new form of commitment, rather than ever-increasing liberty. From the 1950s on, men like Milton Friedman and Hugh Hefner worked hand-in-glove to break down economic and social constraints. They did so with a great deal of popular approval. Many of our leaders think that we still live in this political moment, but the success of Trump, Brexit and other unlikely political causes suggests that voters are eager for something else.
Rather than more liberty, our situation today calls for a return to solidarity. For a whole host of reasons, Trump will not be able to shore up the social bonds that are now so frayed. Neither, I think, will the Church be of much help. Even in their areas of specific competence, our leaders in Rome seem uncomfortably similar to the leaders in our national capitals – blithely pushing forward a program of liberation when one of protection is needed. Take Amoris Laetitia, which accommodates the Church to the easy culture of divorce rather than unambiguously defending the permanence of marriage. Publishing such a document at a moment like this is a bit like pushing ahead with the TPP trade deal, as Obama did, while Trump was on the campaign trail in the Rust Belt, promising to bring back local industry.
Far from helping us counter the faults of a figure like Trump, Catholic leaders today are becoming ever-more complicit in the problems that led to his rise. We continue to cling to false ideas of freedom. As long as we do, there will be even more nasty surprises in store.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things
This article first appeared in the January 20 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here