Sirens that broke the evening gloom

The Trump phenomenon has, for the moment, captured the attention of the political class (and the politically aware) of the United States. In a few short months, Donald Trump has gone from a real-estate developer, reality-television show, and self-promoter extraordinaire to the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. More than that, Trump threatens to upend the traditional Republican coalition and toss out the window certain traditional Republican doctrines. And the Republican establishment has panicked. National Review has already devoted an entire issue to the case against Donald Trump, Mitt Romney has condemned Trump in the strongest language he uses, and the fever dream of a brokered convention denying Trump the nomination has reared its head. It was only a matter of time before we’d hear that we have a religious duty to oppose Trump.

And that time has come. At National Review, Robert George and George Weigel, luminaries of the Catholic neocon right, urge Catholics not to vote for Trump for religious reasons. Their quote-unquote appeal is signed by other, similarly minded Catholics. (We do not see a single traditionalist Catholic, however, which is always a bad sign.) George and Weigel begin,

In recent decades, the Republican party has been a vehicle — imperfect, like all human institutions, but serviceable — for promoting causes at the center of Catholic social concern in the United States: (1) providing legal protection for unborn children, the physically disabled and cognitively handicapped, the frail elderly, and other victims of what Saint John Paul II branded “the culture of death”; (2) defending religious freedom in the face of unprecedented assaults by officials at every level of government who have made themselves the enemies of conscience; (3) rebuilding our marriage culture, based on a sound understanding of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and (4) re-establishing constitutional and limited government, according to the core Catholic social-ethical principle of subsidiarity. There have been frustrations along the way, to be sure; no political party perfectly embodies Catholic social doctrine. But there have also been successes, and at the beginning of the current presidential electoral cycle, it seemed possible that further progress in defending and advancing these noble causes was possible through the instrument of the Republican party.

(Emphasis supplied.) They go on to detail the numerous ways in which Trump’s bombastic policies are out of step with Catholic and Republican values as they see them. While the concerns that led to Trump’s meteoric rise are valid enough, they say, Catholics should recognize that there are other candidates in the race who can answer those concerns. (Who could they have in mind?)

We pause to note that it would be interesting to know why George and Weigel think that the Republican Party was a “serviceable” vehicle for advancing fundamentally Catholic causes. Because, for our part, we cannot think of a single issue—not even one—upon which the Republicans have been able to prevent the world and the lord of the world from continuing their age-old campaign against Christ and Christ’s Church. The Republicans haven’t rolled back the tide of abortion and euthanasia. They haven’t prevented attempts to redefine radically marriage (in an opinion written by a judge appointed by Ronald Reagan). And they don’t pretend to even want to establish true subsidiarity. (Weigel and George should know better when they throw that term around: subsidiarity means the smallest competent governmental unit handles an issue, not “limited government.”) And we will pass over in silence the suggestion that “religious freedom” is an issue at “the center of Catholic social concern in the United States.” Grenier demonstrates tersely and precisely that the state is bound to profess and defend the true religion, not “religious freedom.” (3 Thomistic Philosophy nos. 1163–1164, pp. 468–70.) Religious freedom is an inadmissible error. (We note that we have previously argued that Rod Dreher’s suggestion that Christians vote for Trump because of his apparent commitment to religious freedom may well be inadmissible for similar reasons.)

However, it seems to us—as has been pointed out to us by some very sharp acquaintances of ours—that George and Weigel are really enlisting Catholics to save the Republican Party from Donald Trump. While it is true that Trump espouses doctrines contrary to those taught by the Church of Rome, so too does, for example, the Republican establishment’s preferred candidate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. (Gaudium et Spes, for example, is pretty clear in its condemnation of carpet bombing civilian populations, believe it or not.) And in various other respects, the Republican Party as a whole is as opposed to the Church’s teaching as the Democratic Party is in its way. However, George and Weigel have made the political judgment—flawed, in our view—that a Catholic ought to support the Republican Party. (Despite the mountain of evidence that the Republicans have not and likely will not further Catholic teaching in a meaningful way.) And it must be admitted that the Republican Party is facing a grave threat from Trump. Thus, George and Weigel reason, Catholics must come to rescue the Republican Party from Trump. To be blunt, it seems to us that there was really no reason to drag the Church into the fight, except that George and Weigel have a vision of the Church marching hand in hand with the Republican Party.

But at First Things, R.R. Reno suggests—in the course of a very sensitive analysis of the Trump phenomenon—that some Republican policies may well be the cause of the threat:

The same goes for globalization and ever-freer markets, something I’ve long thought is our best option as a nation. I half-recognized the real costs to ordinary people, but I affirmed the homeopathic dogma that still more economic freedom is the best remedy. About political correctness I’ve always had less sympathy. But there too I’ve thought a certain care and gentleness in public discourse necessary in our increasingly pluralistic society. I’m not sure I fully realized how political correctness humiliates and silences ordinary people.

Trump’s successes at the polls have forced me to acknowledge a degree of blindness. A great number of people in America no longer feel at home, a greater number than I imagined. They’ve been pushed aside by our global economy. A liberalized immigration regime has changed their hometowns. When they express their sense of loss, liberals denounce them as racists, which is equivalent to saying that they have no moral standing in our society. Increasingly, conservative leaders let those charges go unanswered or even agree. Then, when they cheer the idea of making America great again, they’re written off as crude nationalists rather than recognized as fellow citizens who want to do something.

The Republican establishment is in trouble. Its lack of connection to the political reality of its own voters created the possibility of someone like Donald Trump. Now, to defeat him, Republican leaders risk provoking even more profound alienation by insisting still more strongly on their catechism of ever-greater economic freedom.

(Emphasis supplied.) In essence, Reno recognizes that Republican orthodoxy—free trade, free markets, and so forth—have left some people, particularly working-class and middle-class Americans, holding the bag. And Donald Trump has come along with a message aimed specifically at those people. (A very sharp priest of our acquaintance identifies the Trump phenomenon with Pat Buchanan’s paleo-conservative run twenty-some years ago, and asks where all the Buchanan voters have been in the interim.) It is supremely unlikely that preaching that same Republican orthodoxy, but louder and nastier, is going to win those voters back.

On economic matters, it must be said, by way of a brief digression, that the Republican orthodoxy that Reno laments (?) is fairly far removed from Catholic orthodoxy. (But, as Cardinal Ratzinger told us, not every moral issue is of equivalent weight.)  We return, once more, to Papa Ratti’s towering achievement, Quadragesimo annoConsider this teaching, for example:

It follows from what We have termed the individual and at the same time social character of ownership, that men must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State. Therefore, public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property. Moreover, Leo XIII wisely taught “that God has left the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and institutions of peoples.” That history proves ownership, like other elements of social life, to be not absolutely unchanging, We once declared as follows: “What divers forms has property had, from that primitive form among rude and savage peoples, which may be observed in some places even in our time, to the form of possession in the patriarchal age; and so further to the various forms under tyranny (We are using the word tyranny in its classical sense); and then through the feudal and monarchial forms down to the various types which are to be found in more recent times.” That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: “For man is older than the State,” and also “domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity.” Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. “For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal.” Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them. 

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) This is one example, but an important one. Modern Republican orthodoxy resists strongly the idea that the state should “control [the] exercise” of private property to “bring it into conformity with the needs of the common good,” as both Leo and Pius teach, and that such control of private ownership is “a friendly service” to property owners. Indeed, current Republican orthodoxy holds, as far as we can tell, that any regulation of private property is to be submitted to only under great duress and with great protest. Moreover, such regulation is, so far from a friendly service in pursuit of the common good, a tyrannical overreach by an aloof and wicked government. One could go on with Quadragesimo anno, Mater et Magistra, and Populorum progressio, but at a certain point it becomes unsportsmanlike to punch down like that.

We note that Reno is not the only person who has reached a similar critical insight into the Trump phenomenon. At Bloomberg View, Clive Crook has observed:

Yet, contrary to reports, the Trump supporters I’m talking about aren’t fools. They aren’t racists either. They don’t think much would change one way or the other if Trump were elected. The political system has failed them so badly that they think it can’t be repaired and little’s at stake. The election therefore reduces to an opportunity to express disgust. And that’s where Trump’s defects come in: They’re what make him such an effective messenger.

The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior — the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.

(Emphasis supplied.) Crook understands that, for many Trump supporters, the question is not whether Trump will transform the American political order into something that, if it doesn’t stack the deck in their favor once again, at least makes the game a little fairer. No, that ship has sailed. But Trump is the only viable way “to express disgust” at the system—Republicans included. This is perhaps only a slightly more cynical point than Reno’s. For Reno, the Trump phenomenon is the last attempt of the victims of capitalism to regain lost status. For Crook, it is their last attempt to express their dislike of the establishment elite. Either way, the Trump phenomenon represents a last-ditch effort of common folks to throw a wrench in their betters’ plans. Or at least at their betters.

The thing is, George and Weigel fail to understand the problem. It is precisely because the Republican Party has ignored the Church’s teaching (to say nothing of its failure to deliver any meaningful results to the millions of Catholics who have supported the Republican Party) that the Trump phenomenon has been able to take root. We do not doubt that Donald Trump is aesthetically a bad candidate. We do not know the man, but we would not be surprised to learn that he’s personally unpleasant. (His principles seem determined by polls, but that’s any politician.) And we do not doubt that some very nasty characters have latched on to Trump’s campaign. We’ve seen the videos ourselves! But that does not have much to do with why the Trump campaign has done so well. And it has even less to do with whether repeating, but loudly, Republican orthodoxy will address the problems that have created the environment in which Trump’s campaign has done so well.

And if the Republican Party has created the problem by ignoring the teachings of so many good and holy popes, it seems to us that it can solve the problem only by adopting those teachings at long last.

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