The Democrats and the rest of the left are taking the results of last November’s election no better than they predicted the Republicans and the right would do if their man lost. The street riots, lawsuits, recounts, constitutional challenges, furious denial, and refusal to accept the electoral decision in a spirit of peace, resignation, and good grace—all were exactly what the Democratic politicians and the media warned the country to brace itself for in the (likely) event of Donald Trump’s loss to Mrs. Clinton. One understands why, beyond even the fact that for the left no battle is ever fairly or justly lost. After Obama’s eight years in the Oval Office, they must have imagined that they had forged far enough ahead of the right in America’s Cold Civil War, and with sufficient momentum, that the opposition—the Enemy—could never overtake them and hence was doomed to outer darkness forever. The GOP’s nomination of Trump as its candidate would have confirmed this expectation for them. Then, on November 8, the Unthinkable happened. Understanding history as essentially a dialectical process that advances by the laws of progressive rationality, the left does not appreciate the unexpected, far less the unthinkable. And so the shock was a devastating one for them.
“Personally, I’m still trying to figure out how to keep my anger simmering—letting it boil over won’t do any good, but it shouldn’t be allowed to cool. This election was a outrage, and we should never forget it,” Paul Krugman, the liberal economist and columnist, wrote in the New York Times. For liberals, Mrs. Clinton’s motto, “Stronger Together,” emblazoned on a blue background, is becoming the equivalent of the Confederate Battle Flag of the Old South, the icon of its own Lost Cause. The left never surrenders, and, like the poor, it will always be with us (not entirely a bad thing, as the prospect of leftism, like that of hanging, concentrates the sane and healthy mind and exercises it). The day after Krugman’s column appeared, the Times published another op-ed piece suggesting that “winner-take-all laws for electoral votes are unconstitutional,” arguing that members of the Electoral College are free to vote their consciences, and noting “a new theory” which holds that “there is legal precedent for courts to give the election to Mrs. Clinton based on Russian interference.” In the weeks after the voting, liberal critics at first, then the Democratic Party, went to work to discredit the President-Elect at home and abroad by attempting to damage an administration they knew they could not keep from power but that they hoped to compromise by establishing its victory in the popular imagination as illegitimate and “unfair” (the Russian hackers, Director Comey, the Electoral College, the popular vote, and so on) and presenting Trump’s transition as chaotic and the man himself as temperamentally, even psychologically, unfit for the office of Chief Executive. The last time Democrats made the same charge was 1964, when they warned the country that a President Barry Goldwater would incinerate daisy petals, little girls, the whole world. And the time before that was after President McKinley’s assassination in 1901, when the elder statesmen of the GOP were horrified to find “that damned cowboy in the White House.” That the party of sweet reason, logic, and expertise is neither the party of rational debate nor the party of intellectual consistency is only one of many useful lessons from the election of 2016. Nor did it help that, as in the case of Brexit last June, the “wrong people” won. Indeed, for the left, that is probably the most “outrageous,” as well as the most humiliating, aspect of the entire electoral catastrophe: an intolerable affront to the pride of the brightest and the best and to their “values” (in reality, mere working principles devised to facilitate the efficient management of liberal society, not a moral code rooted in transcendent belief) after months of being mocked, insulted, and defied by their inferiors along the campaign trail. “Merry Christmas, America!” after the election, was perhaps the cruelest cut of all.
What liberals do not see, or refuse to see, or pretend not to see, is that Donald J. Trump is very far from being a reactionary person. He is, rather, a thoroughly modern one. He is also a phenomenon of nature, which is only another way of saying that he is a faithful representative of natural man, Rousseau’s man in nature—the “noble savage,” as the French philosopher called him. The left, it seems, has grown shockingly conventional—bourgeois, in fact—in its old age. Obviously, modern liberals imagine natural man as a protoliberal meek and mild, not as a reactionary wild man. But Trump is no more wild than he is reactionary, though he is unconventional—which, to liberals, who dislike and fear the unexpected, is almost as disruptive and objectionable. He does not mean to seize a postmodern country in a gorilla embrace and bear it, biting, scratching, and screaming, back into the Stone Age, or indeed any previous one; only to rectify its excesses and mistakes of the contemporary world, in which he has thrived so spectacularly.
The Democratic Party lives, but it has sustained grievous political and psychological wounds that are the more painful owing to its confident expectations in the final weeks of the election. Yet the record of Barack Obama’s two terms, on which Mrs. Clinton chose to run, was not much to stand on or boast about, bereft of positive substance though with far too much presidential sound and barely suppressed fury. President Obama, over eight very long years in office, failed to fulfill his campaign promises: to heal partisan divisions in Washington, reconcile the races, pull American troops from the Middle East and Western Asia, “reform” American immigration policy, create a functional system of national healthcare, abolish (or at least greatly reduce) the global stockpiles of nuclear weapons, strengthen America’s relationship with her European allies (though they like him personally better than they did George W. Bush), achieve the “pivot” to Asia, get the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement passed, and bring in a new era of hope and change. Instead, he gave up on Congress, the voters, and politics and resorted to getting what he wanted through executive orders, one of which even he had previously called unconstitutional. Having accomplished so little of what he set out to do, Obama in retirement and his badly trounced party face a future in which a significant amount of what he did do is highly vulnerable to being dismantled serially by his successor. To the left this is historical vandalism, an “outrageous” detour—perhaps a very long and damaging one—from the unfolding path of historical progressivism that stretches ahead, though more dimly seen now than a few short weeks ago.
A book just out from the New York Review of Books helps explain why liberals view Donald Trump and his America as reaction incarnate. Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, with a pedigree that includes former connections with the University of Michigan, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, New York University, the University of Chicago, and The Public Interest, is the author of The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, an unintentionally revealing work chiefly comprising reworked essays that appeared first in the New York Review of Books. One need not read very far in this slim volume to perceive that by “reaction” and “reactionary” Professor Lilla means “religion” and “religiosity,” to him greater causes of maritime disaster than all the icebergs, hurricanes, typhoons, tsunamis, treacherous capes, reefs, rocky promontories, and Scyllas and Charybdises taken together.
Lilla takes a low view of, and is alarmed by, what he calls “cultural despair” and its supposed result, “apocalyptic history,” and he deplores the “myths” and “Western mytho-histories” he thinks induce them. “Why,” he wonders, “do people feel the need for such myths? For the same reason people always have. We want the comfort, however cold, of thinking that we understand the present, while at the same time escaping full responsibility for the future.” Myth, Lilla argues, promotes thinking in terms of more or less clearly defined historical epochs, in particular those “glorious” ones whose recovery reactionaries believe to be necessary if civilization is to be restored. Lilla quotes Robert Musil, the French writer and novelist: “A man cannot be angry at his own time without suffering some damage.” Christ was angry with much that distinguished His own time. So was Saint Paul (who suffered “damage” in the form of “prison, scourgings, stonings, and shipwreck, as well as all manner of persecutions,” as the prayer has it, in addition to the intellectual and psychological kinds Musil had in mind). So was every saint who followed him for two millennia. But Paul was not angry with everything in his time, and certainly he had no desire to return to a previous one, which in any case he did not regard as glorious; instead he sought to embrace a future era, however imperfectly glimpsed. Professor Lilla claims that “the radical nativist on the far right,” like the radical Islamist, “despise[s] the present and dream[s] of stepping back in history to recover what [he] imagines was lost.” Lilla doesn’t consider why such people need to “step back in history” in order to recover some of it, when they can accomplish the same thing by moving forward while reaching behind themselves. No sane person denies that much of what is past is good; that much of what is good exists now only in the past and ought to be retrieved and re-established in the present; or that much in the present is bad and needs to be removed. The left is all for removal. That, after all, is what liberalism has been about historically; until fairly recently, it had been a program of reform, not of establishing a new reality. Why not the recovery of the old one as well? Does liberalism really hold that nothing from the past can be retrieved—even in renovated form? Or that, if it can, it shouldn’t be? Or that nothing in the past was any good at all?
For liberals of the present day, the last answer seems to be the correct one. Liberals believe that everything they have ever accomplished in this world has been undeniably for the better, and that not a single one of their achievements should be undone, repealed, or reversed. The left views such actions as a shameful and unnecessary retreat in the forward march of history, and they are constitutionally incapable of forfeiting willingly the smallest bit of ground they have gained. The 62 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump believed that liberal government has exceeded all reasonable limits to create an overpowerful regulatory state, an unfair economy, and an intrusive and manipulative bureaucracy that together impose themselves on, and insert themselves into, religious and educational institutions; interfere with traditional social patterns, norms, and arrangements; set boundaries to freedom of speech and even of thought; patronize and discourage religious faith and patriotism while aggressively promoting materialism, relativism, internationalism, and multiculturalism; and work to realize an alternative world conducive to the interests of the elite, the establishment, the One Percent. The designers and builders of this bloodless, insipid, but economically efficient new world inevitably view popular opposition as “reactionary,” partly because these prophets of postmodernity, the “experts,” long ago forgot what reality really looks like. But what is working against them here is not reaction. It is simple common sense, and the shared instinct of humanity.
If Donald Trump really is a reactionary, he must have an era in mind to “step back” into. But what era would that be? The 1980’s? The 1950’s? The 1920’s? The pre-Civil War period when America tolerated slavery and fought victorious battles against Mexican thieves and rapists? Of course, Trump longs for no particular golden era because, as a businessman, he doesn’t think that way. He simply wants to live in an America that is recognizable from the history books and from his youth and that also hangs together somehow, an America that works again. He sees much that is wrong in America today that he wishes to correct. A sufficient number of Americans agree with him to have elected him president. That was an “outrage” in the opinion of advanced liberals who wish to take the country forward into the future to an experiment, at once hopelessly idealistic as well as viciously materialistic and power hungry, of the sort that has been attempted in past eras, every time with catastrophic results.