The Alienated Mind
The campaign of 2016 was an education in the deep problems facing the country. Angry voters made a few things abundantly clear: that modern democratic capitalism is not working for them; that basic institutions like the family and communities are falling apart; that we have a college educated elite that has found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible, that has managed to transfer wealth upward to itself, that crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views.
As Robert W. Merry put it recently in The American Conservative, “When a man as uncouth and reckless as Trump becomes president by running against the nation’s elites, it’s a strong signal that the elites are the problem.”
The last four months, on the other hand, have been an education in the shortcomings in populism. It’s not only that Donald Trump is a bad president. It’s that movements fueled by alienation are bound to fail.
Alienation, the sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote, is a “state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility.”
The alienated long for something that will smash the system or change their situation, but they have no actual plan or any means to deliver it. The alienated are a hodgepodge of disparate groups. They have no positive agenda beyond the sort of fake shiny objects Trump ran on (Build a Wall!). They offer up no governing class competent enough to get things done.
As Yuval Levin argues in a brilliant essay in Modern Age, “Alienation can sometimes make for a powerful organizing principle for an electoral coalition. … But it does not make for a natural organizing principle for a governing coalition.”
Worse, alienation breeds a distrust that corrodes any collective effort. To be “woke” in the alienated culture is to embrace the most cynical interpretation of every situation, to assume bad intent in every actor, to imagine the conspiratorial malevolence of your foes.
Alienation breeds a hysterical public conversation. Its public intellectuals are addicted to overstatement, sloppiness, pessimism, and despair. They are self-indulgent and self-lionizing prophets of doom who use formulations like “the Flight 93 election” — who speak of every problem as if it were the apocalypse.
Alienation also breeds a zero-sum mind-set — it’s us or them — and with it a tribal clannishness and desire for exclusion. As Levin notes, on the right alienation can foster a desire for purity — to exclude the foreign — and on the left it can foster a desire for conformity — to squelch differing speakers and faiths.
The events of the past four months have demonstrated that Donald Trump is not going to solve the problem he was elected to address; neither the underlying economic and social ruptures nor the alienation that emerges from them.
The events of the past four months illustrate that we do need a political establishment in this country, or maybe a few competing establishments. We need people who have been educated to actually know something about public policy problems. We need people who have had gradual, upward careers in government and understand the craft of wielding power. We need people who know how to live up to certain standards of integrity and public service.
But going forward we need a better establishment, one attuned to Trump voters, those whose alienation grows out of genuine suffering.
The first task for this better establishment is to not make the political chasm worse. As the impeachment investigation proceeds, it’ll be important for us Trump critics to not set our hair on fire every day, to evaluate the evidence as if it were against a president we ourselves voted for. Would we really throw our own candidate out of office for this?
Over the longer term, it will be necessary to fight alienation with participation, to reform and devolve the welfare state so that recipients are not treated like passive wards of the state, but take an active role in their own self-government.
It’ll be necessary to revive a living elite patriotism. That means conducting oneself in office as if nation is more important than party; not using executive orders, filibusters and the nuclear option to grab what you can while you happen to be in the majority. It means setting up weekly encounters to help you respect and understand the fellow Americans who reside across the social chasms.
Finally, it’ll be necessary to fight alienation with moral realism, with a mature mind-set that says that, yes, people are always flawed, the country always faces problems, but that is no reason for lazy cynicism or self-righteous despair. If you start with an awareness of human foibles, then you can proceed with what Levin calls pessimistic hopefulness — grateful for the institutions our ancestors left us, and filled with cheerful confidence that they can be reformed to solve present needs.
Impeached or not, it’s hard to see how Trump recovers as an effective governing force. Now is the moment for a new establishment to organize, to address the spirit of alienation that gave rise to Trump, but which transcends him.