Post-Liberalism in the Age of Trump

In January 1981, Gore Vidal appeared on The Merv Griffin Show where he discussed, among other things, the received "mandate" of Ronald Reagan, who had just come off a historic landslide victory over President Carter two months prior.  Deeply insecure a man as Mr. Vidal was, it was apropos that not a minute into the program, he began to lambaste our 40th president – in ways both spitefully draconian and superficial:

Merv Griffin: We have Mr. Reagan, who's received a mandate from the people.

Gore Vidal: Well, he received something.  It was certainly better than the old actors' home (laughter).  Now, if I were he, to be really shrewd, he ought to let his hair go white, and just suddenly appear, you know, after all those years of that waxy build-up[.]

MG: He denies that, and they've come up with proof, and he hasn't touched his hair[.]

GV: Oh, well, maybe somebody else touches it[.]

The above exchange might strike some as astonishing – not only for portending, nearly forty years outward, the crass and vacuous nature of political discourse in the social media age (albeit just a bit more erudite than today's common vernacular), but also in miming the dialogue that can be routinely found on any of today's talk shows almost verbatim, merely swapping the name Reagan for Trump.

In modern times, the vitriolic nature of leftist outrage may be used roughly as a gauge for the extent to which a political figure offers an antidote to the liberal status quo.  President Trump, much like President Reagan, unquestionably instigates the prevailing liberal establishment, but he does so to a degree that far surpasses anything any one of his conservative (as that term is used in the everyday parlance) predecessors could have done.  This is indeed in part due to the blustering character of Donald Trump the man.  But there is also something extraordinary about our current president that so antagonizes the mainstream left-wing elite that makes it hard to imagine the Trump legacy undergoing a similar refashioning, which has steadily endeared Reagan, and even George W. Bush, to the mainstream political establishment, at least superficially.

That's a good thing.

President Trump is regularly portrayed as a knuckle-dragging philistine by his detractors, incapable of commanding the soaring oratory, they say, of Barack Obama or the alleged perspicacity of Bill Clinton.  But ironically, it is perhaps because of these qualities that President Trump is the closest thing America has had to a genuine conservative statesman in a long time, if ever.  This is because Trump strides in remarkable ways closer to a Buckley-Kirk-Burke embodiment of a traditionalist statesman than even the great Ronald Reagan, who ingrained his traditionalist orthodoxy into a prevailing neoliberal orthopraxy, often prioritizing the former at the expense of the latter, ultimately and especially as the Cold War drew to a close.

Indeed, where Reagan had been arguably through the present day our last truly "great" president, his four immediate successors began to slowly dogmatize the globalist consensus, politicking as though such timeless lessons about virtue and human nature, a collective wisdom that sustained and revitalized Western civilization through the ages and for much of America's history, could be expended with, and rapidly.

The Edenic liberal global order was postured by its advocates as something of an incontrovertible victory of democratic absolutism over ancient tyranny once and for all.  What alleged uniformity and veneer of social stability that had accompanied the neoliberal age of the eighties and nineties proved sufficient to justify expanding the Leviathan – which largely refers to the Washington bureaucracy – as if it had been accorded a divine mandate.

Leviathan's insatiable appetite should be fed almost unthinkingly, or so the reasoning went – even as swaths of citizens became increasingly frustrated by such diverse maladies as skyrocketing divorce (and overall disrepair of the traditional family); rising suicide; an opioid epidemic of historic proportions; and a holistic dispensation of institutional religious affiliation that has, for the most part, largely plagued, not liberated, modern people.

But the post-recession society and its accompanying symptoms – multiculturalism, political correctness, feminism, and new variants of socialism, just to name a few – is displaying signs of fatigue across the Western world.  This is particularly true in Europe, where sclerotic birthrates and unrestrained immigration, both policy expressions informed by tired sixties ideologies that have over generations been politically and culturally institutionalized, have sown the seeds of a muscular populist movement that has metastasized from east to west.  Of course, genuine renewal of civilization will not happen unless coupled with a genuine revival of Christendom – that being the emergence of Christ the tiger among the all-encompassing darkness that swaddles much of the West today.

Regardless of whether that can or will occur, Donald Trump's ascendancy punctuated what can turn out to be a fatal hole in the neoliberal equilibrium.  His presidency, though far from the paragon of genuine Burkeanism politically realized, nevertheless represents a sort of weakness to philosophical liberalism and post-modernism.  Put differently, the ideological liberal state, which traces its origins to the French Revolution as a real-time political phenomenon, but whose roots go at least as far back as Machiavelli in modern times, seems to be facing perhaps its greatest trial yet.

The vagaries of liberalism have inspired a good deal of modern scholarship in regard to liberalism's character – such as Patrick Deneen's recent tome, Why Liberalism Failed.  Furthermore, its historical nature, character, and duration have provoked much discussion, such as whether the antecedents of post-Cold War civilizational decay were intrinsic to pre-modernist societies.  More concretely, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's spoke to this idea when he said, "There is no question of returning to the pre-1968 situation, first because the pre-1968 situation included the conditions that brought about 1968."

Much like Marxism, modern liberalism is essentially historic, in the sense that it is a natural process with a supra-historical vantage point.  Indeed, the march of liberalism so frustrated John Quincy Adams in the mid-nineteenth century that it shook the core of his being, imprisoning him with unbridled skepticism that compromised his belief in God and, by extension, an ontological affirmation of human dignity.  These realities ultimately raised the question: how could humanity progress at all if man was permanently forsaken to the moral rot that flows from liberalism?

In the modern day, we are all the descendants of that rupture in human history that uprooted man from his natural moorings (that is, natural in the classical sense) and precipitated Mr. Adams's agony over his placement in the cosmos.  Similarly, as the liberal order erodes around us, we are challenged with ascertaining what a fundamentally post-liberal society "is."

The rise of Trump and the transformation to a (less overtly) neoliberal polity, at the very least in the minds and sensibilities of our nation's leader and people, in addition to an increasingly protectionist-nationalist pivot on such matters as trade and immigration, represents a reactionary swan song of a once dominant Pax Americana prepping itself for the inevitable thrust into the den of the dragon.  It is that or, less cynically, a sort of vindication that post-liberal or reformed liberal policies (whatever that might entail) can incrementally sustain and help eventually transform the United States into a society that remains democratic, but not liberal, much like ancient Athens.

Paul Ingrassia is a graduate of the Fordham University, a former White House intern for President Trump, and a contributor to National Review Online.

In January 1981, Gore Vidal appeared on The Merv Griffin Show where he discussed, among other things, the received "mandate" of Ronald Reagan, who had just come off a historic landslide victory over President Carter two months prior.  Deeply insecure a man as Mr. Vidal was, it was apropos that not a minute into the program, he began to lambaste our 40th president – in ways both spitefully draconian and superficial:

Merv Griffin: We have Mr. Reagan, who's received a mandate from the people.

Gore Vidal: Well, he received something.  It was certainly better than the old actors' home (laughter).  Now, if I were he, to be really shrewd, he ought to let his hair go white, and just suddenly appear, you know, after all those years of that waxy build-up[.]

MG: He denies that, and they've come up with proof, and he hasn't touched his hair[.]

GV: Oh, well, maybe somebody else touches it[.]

The above exchange might strike some as astonishing – not only for portending, nearly forty years outward, the crass and vacuous nature of political discourse in the social media age (albeit just a bit more erudite than today's common vernacular), but also in miming the dialogue that can be routinely found on any of today's talk shows almost verbatim, merely swapping the name Reagan for Trump.

In modern times, the vitriolic nature of leftist outrage may be used roughly as a gauge for the extent to which a political figure offers an antidote to the liberal status quo.  President Trump, much like President Reagan, unquestionably instigates the prevailing liberal establishment, but he does so to a degree that far surpasses anything any one of his conservative (as that term is used in the everyday parlance) predecessors could have done.  This is indeed in part due to the blustering character of Donald Trump the man.  But there is also something extraordinary about our current president that so antagonizes the mainstream left-wing elite that makes it hard to imagine the Trump legacy undergoing a similar refashioning, which has steadily endeared Reagan, and even George W. Bush, to the mainstream political establishment, at least superficially.

That's a good thing.

President Trump is regularly portrayed as a knuckle-dragging philistine by his detractors, incapable of commanding the soaring oratory, they say, of Barack Obama or the alleged perspicacity of Bill Clinton.  But ironically, it is perhaps because of these qualities that President Trump is the closest thing America has had to a genuine conservative statesman in a long time, if ever.  This is because Trump strides in remarkable ways closer to a Buckley-Kirk-Burke embodiment of a traditionalist statesman than even the great Ronald Reagan, who ingrained his traditionalist orthodoxy into a prevailing neoliberal orthopraxy, often prioritizing the former at the expense of the latter, ultimately and especially as the Cold War drew to a close.

Indeed, where Reagan had been arguably through the present day our last truly "great" president, his four immediate successors began to slowly dogmatize the globalist consensus, politicking as though such timeless lessons about virtue and human nature, a collective wisdom that sustained and revitalized Western civilization through the ages and for much of America's history, could be expended with, and rapidly.

The Edenic liberal global order was postured by its advocates as something of an incontrovertible victory of democratic absolutism over ancient tyranny once and for all.  What alleged uniformity and veneer of social stability that had accompanied the neoliberal age of the eighties and nineties proved sufficient to justify expanding the Leviathan – which largely refers to the Washington bureaucracy – as if it had been accorded a divine mandate.

Leviathan's insatiable appetite should be fed almost unthinkingly, or so the reasoning went – even as swaths of citizens became increasingly frustrated by such diverse maladies as skyrocketing divorce (and overall disrepair of the traditional family); rising suicide; an opioid epidemic of historic proportions; and a holistic dispensation of institutional religious affiliation that has, for the most part, largely plagued, not liberated, modern people.

But the post-recession society and its accompanying symptoms – multiculturalism, political correctness, feminism, and new variants of socialism, just to name a few – is displaying signs of fatigue across the Western world.  This is particularly true in Europe, where sclerotic birthrates and unrestrained immigration, both policy expressions informed by tired sixties ideologies that have over generations been politically and culturally institutionalized, have sown the seeds of a muscular populist movement that has metastasized from east to west.  Of course, genuine renewal of civilization will not happen unless coupled with a genuine revival of Christendom – that being the emergence of Christ the tiger among the all-encompassing darkness that swaddles much of the West today.

Regardless of whether that can or will occur, Donald Trump's ascendancy punctuated what can turn out to be a fatal hole in the neoliberal equilibrium.  His presidency, though far from the paragon of genuine Burkeanism politically realized, nevertheless represents a sort of weakness to philosophical liberalism and post-modernism.  Put differently, the ideological liberal state, which traces its origins to the French Revolution as a real-time political phenomenon, but whose roots go at least as far back as Machiavelli in modern times, seems to be facing perhaps its greatest trial yet.

The vagaries of liberalism have inspired a good deal of modern scholarship in regard to liberalism's character – such as Patrick Deneen's recent tome, Why Liberalism Failed.  Furthermore, its historical nature, character, and duration have provoked much discussion, such as whether the antecedents of post-Cold War civilizational decay were intrinsic to pre-modernist societies.  More concretely, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's spoke to this idea when he said, "There is no question of returning to the pre-1968 situation, first because the pre-1968 situation included the conditions that brought about 1968."

Much like Marxism, modern liberalism is essentially historic, in the sense that it is a natural process with a supra-historical vantage point.  Indeed, the march of liberalism so frustrated John Quincy Adams in the mid-nineteenth century that it shook the core of his being, imprisoning him with unbridled skepticism that compromised his belief in God and, by extension, an ontological affirmation of human dignity.  These realities ultimately raised the question: how could humanity progress at all if man was permanently forsaken to the moral rot that flows from liberalism?

In the modern day, we are all the descendants of that rupture in human history that uprooted man from his natural moorings (that is, natural in the classical sense) and precipitated Mr. Adams's agony over his placement in the cosmos.  Similarly, as the liberal order erodes around us, we are challenged with ascertaining what a fundamentally post-liberal society "is."

The rise of Trump and the transformation to a (less overtly) neoliberal polity, at the very least in the minds and sensibilities of our nation's leader and people, in addition to an increasingly protectionist-nationalist pivot on such matters as trade and immigration, represents a reactionary swan song of a once dominant Pax Americana prepping itself for the inevitable thrust into the den of the dragon.  It is that or, less cynically, a sort of vindication that post-liberal or reformed liberal policies (whatever that might entail) can incrementally sustain and help eventually transform the United States into a society that remains democratic, but not liberal, much like ancient Athens.

Paul Ingrassia is a graduate of the Fordham University, a former White House intern for President Trump, and a contributor to National Review Online.