Donald Trump and the Triumph of the Personal (David True)

Commentary

With Trump’s Inauguration upon us today, many of us are still trying to make sense of his rise to prominence, let alone power. Conventional wisdom holds that the Trump campaign was utterly novel and based on white resentment of minorities and elites.

The Trump candidacy was, in fact, decades in the making, and while white resentment is an important factor, it is equally important to understand how these resentments are related to a more subtle political shift. The politics of resentment takes on added significance if we see it as part of the triumph of the personal or private over the public arena, which in turn is related to a change in our social imaginations.

There has been a great deal written about white resentment. My immediate interest is how different resentments fueled a single campaign. While the slogan of the Trump campaign was to make “America Great Again,” the distinctive brand of the Trump campaign was disruption. People of diverse world views voted for Trump because they believed he would disrupt the operations of the bureaucracy in Washington. What was needed was not reform or a new direction, but to “drain the swamp.”

Negative views of government are nothing new, of course. Since the nation’s founding, there has been an undercurrent of suspicion of government. In recent decades that undercurrent has become a staple of American politics. In the past, the object of resentment was “big government,” but recent decades have witnessed a growing sense that the federal government is by definition “big” and hence, tyrannical.

Suspicion of government is owing to many factors, including the usual suspects such as changing mores, economic dislocation associated with globalization, increased bureaucratization and political ineffectiveness, corruption, duplicity. These factors undermine public confidence in government and democratic politics and thus strengthen a larger shift away from the public arena, toward the private arena.

Over time our culture has come to associate meaning and morality almost exclusively with personal matters. The public arena remains one of necessity but our strong preference is for the personal realm. Even as the United States government has acquired greater technological and military abilities, it’s legitimacy has declined in the eyes of many. This amounts to a loss of sovereignty in popular consciousness but also in reality.

Consider two examples, the roll back of the civil rights agenda by the Supreme Court and the Citizens United case allowing corporations (legally recognized as persons) unfettered access. Such developments amount to a shift in sovereignty away from the public and toward the private realm.

This shift has been long in coming, so gradual that the change is imperceptible in the short-term. They are simply part of our modern world that Charles Taylor identified as the “immanent frame.” Taylor argues that in the modern West, one’s concern or horizon shifts from thoughts of transcendence to practical matters.

My argument is that as national governments have lost their connection to a transcendent referent (God), they have lost legitimacy. Our conception of “God” has also shifted from a transcendent creator and governor to a personal deity concerned with matters such as health, well-being, and relationships.

The many efforts to add religious words and symbols to governmental buildings and public lands (not to mention the mouths of school children) may seem to contradict my reading.  Indeed, in our society “God” appears everywhere. And yet, we imagine something different–that God or the sacred is deeply related to the personal, perhaps even natural, but not institutions, especially not public institutions. Perhaps this is why the word “God” must be ascribed to these sites–to in some way make God present.

These are important factors that deserve much greater attention, but my purpose here is twofold. The first is to highlight the effect on popular perceptions of government. Many today see government as at once oppressive and weak. They are left wanting a decisive leader who will run the government as if it were a business.

Suspicion of government and, particularly, the federal government makes for a complicated environment in which to run for President. The mood of campaigns since the emergence of mass media has become one of distaste for or even disgust with government. Candidates have run as outsiders promising to clean up “Washington.” Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump are very different figures, but each of them positioned himself as an entirely novel element.

In this light, it is easy to see the challenge that an experienced politician like Hillary Clinton faced in running for President. Her many years in public service were viewed not as a virtue but as a vice. Indeed, a good portion of the electorate thought they saw vice everywhere they looked, whether it be Clinton’s private email server, the connections between the State Department and certain Clinton Foundation donors, or the speeches she made before investment bankers.

Crucially, some progressives and moderates never warmed toward the candidate they saw as a compromised player rather than an authentic champion. The more Clinton tried to appear the populist, the more they saw a fraud.  We might think of them as the “soft” skeptics of government.

Trump and his supporters are the “hard” skeptics. They are convinced that “Washington” is dysfunctional in the extreme. They have doubled down on Ronald Reagan’s quip that “government is the problem,” so that today the federal government is viewed as public enemy #1.

From their perspective, Clinton stood as a sign of everything they resented about the modern welfare state. The older label of “Nanny State” speaks to the resentment that many Americans, especially whites, feel toward a federal government they view as playing favorites. It is as if they see the federal government as a doting mother who lacks the strength to say “no.” In response, they contend that the United States needs a strong (father) figure capable of restoring all that has been lost. The personal force of this leader is such that he can’t be stopped, not even the bureaucracy and conventions of the federal government will be able to stop him.

It remains to be seen how Trump will govern, but his brand of populism threatens to compromise government services of all kinds and make our democracy truly dysfunctional. Consequently, support for public institutions would inevitably be undermined and government further discredited.

On the other hand, Trump’s Presidency may cause us to revisit the triumph of the personal. For it may be that the conditions of the Trump Presidency press Americans to acknowledge that their well-being depends, in no small part, on public institutions like schools and government.

David True is Associate Professor of Religion at Wilson College and co-editor of the international journal Political Theology. His work concerns faith, culture, and politics. His most recent articles are on secular fundamentalism and politics and drones as a challenge to just war theory. In addition to academic journals, his writing has appeared in publications such as Politico, Christian Science Monitor, and Ethics Daily.

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