The arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene has been treated by disbelieving pundits, journalists, and politicos not unlike how the appearance of the Mule was treated by the Encyclopedists in Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series of science fiction novels (and, for the uninitiated, soon to be an Apple-produced TV series). I’m not implying that Trump, like Asimov’s notorious conqueror, has mutant powers that allow him to manipulate the masses’ emotions, making his followers adore him and his enemies to cower in fear. No, the parallel has to do with Trump being president of the United States; this very fact seems inconceivable to many. Like Asimov’s Mule, Trump simply wasn’t supposed to happen; the Founding Fathers didn’t build the system in anticipation of a president such as him.
This disbelief and shock has led to a narrower form of analysis than is perhaps warranted. More reflective members of the media have tried to grapple with the moment by asking, “What is the phenomenon of Trump doing to America?” “How are our hallowed institutions standing up to the unique challenge of his presidency?” “How can we repair the damage left behind, once the Trump presidency is firmly in the rearview mirror?” These are not so much the wrong questions as they are misdirected. Because, while Trump differs from his predecessors in many ways, he is best understood as the culmination of a process that’s been underway in the United States for quite some time.
With talk of impeachment in the air, it can be tempting to compare Trump to Richard Nixon. Nixon’s rise and fall, however, took place in a completely different political context. One can certainly trace today’s situation to a domestic conflict that has its roots in the 1960s, and it’s interesting to juxtapose the reactionary sentiments that powered both Nixon and Trump to the highest office. But the process I’m describing kicked off in 1991.
One of the defining features of this process — of the post–Cold War political context more generally — has been the tendency to delegitimize whoever is the democratically elected president at the time. The persecution of Bill Clinton at the hands of Special Counsel Kenneth Starr that led to the country’s first impeachment in more than 130 years; the lingering questions surrounding George W. Bush’s win in 2000 (“hanging chads” in Florida, the role of the Supreme Court in the recount, and the question of popular vote versus electoral college); the birth certificate talk that accompanied Barack Obama’s two terms in office (driven, notably, by Donald Trump, but taken up by nontrivial numbers of elected Republican politicians); and today, the ongoing Russiagate investigations of the sitting president — all these are of a piece. The intensity of the sentiments driving this process and the ways these sentiments have found expression have varied over the past 27 years. Still, it’s a phenomenon that’s hard to miss once you’ve noticed it.
What is behind this destructive political bloodsport? One can think of it as an outgrowth of what sociologist James Davison Hunter christened the “culture war” in his famous 1991 book.
In Hunter’s telling, the United States has been riven by some form of cultural conflict since its founding. In the 19th and early 20th century, that conflict was largely between a Protestant majority that saw fit to persecute Catholic and Jewish minorities as a foreign “other” — purveyors of a fundamentally un-American faith and set of values.
This dynamic started to mutate in the middle of the 20th century. Though surveys from the 1950s through the 1980s saw a marked decline in sectarian hatreds in the United States, the period saw the emergence of a conflict that is familiar to us today: a fight over “ultimate moral authority,” pitting those with orthodox tendencies (people committed to “an external, definable, and transcendent authority”) and those with progressivist leanings (people who are generally committed to deriving authority from rationalism and subjectivism).
“Abortion, child care, funding for the arts, affirmative action and quotas, gay rights, values in public education, or multiculturalism” — all these debates, Hunter notes, derive from this struggle for moral authority. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims these days spend less time in doctrinal disputes with each other and instead each split along the orthodox/progressivist divide. It’s not shocking, for example, to see some Orthodox Jews aligning with Catholics and evangelicals against abortion.
Hunter’s analysis was groundbreaking in that it highlighted the religious underpinnings that tied these fights together. But his argument wasn’t that the culture wars were simply a fight between the forces of traditionalism versus the forces of secularism. Rather, his point was that everything in America was suffused with a religious sense of mission — even spheres we might normally imagine are completely secularized.
This is a severely underappreciated point among the public at large. For example, several brilliant thinkers — Walter Russell Mead, Walter McDougall, James Kurth, Adam Garfinkle — have written about how America’s “civil religion” has shaped American foreign policy. Hunter himself notes this in passing:
Even in secular political discourse, America has long been portrayed in the most moralistic of terms. Every war in its history has been framed as a moral crusade — to defeat the “harlot of Satan” (the French and Indian War), to eliminate monarchical rule (the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812), to eliminate slavery (the Civil War), to make the world safe for democracy (the First World War), and to resist totalitarian expansionism (the Second World War, the Korean War, and Vietnam) and the expansionist exploits of dictators (the Persian Gulf War).
What was perhaps not yet clear to Hunter in 1991 was that when the Cold War ended, Americans’ sublimated religious energies, which have traditionally sought an “other” to oppose, were left facing a profound vacuum. As I have written elsewhere, “the United States felt the absence of the Soviet Union like a phantom limb.” Those same forces turned inward, with U.S. citizens attaching themselves with a fury to partisan politics.
Pat Buchanan’s famous “Culture War” speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention makes the connection explicit:
My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.
With the Cold War done and our ideological opponents vanquished abroad — Frank Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis was three years old already — Buchanan thought it was time to focus on the enemies in our midst.
The situation as Buchanan sketched it out is a dangerous one for a liberal democracy like ours. If the fight is over values rather than policy positions — a “religious war” — compromise is impossible: Values are absolute and not amenable to deliberative give-and-take.
And democratic elections are not meant to adjudicate such matters anyway. They are by definition a mechanism of temporarily designating who gets to run the country. (The question is posed to voters again and again, on a regular schedule.) If the issues at stake are about the very “soul of America,” democracy quickly reveals itself to be a profoundly unsatisfying means of organizing our politics.
It’s that lack of satisfaction with democratic outcomes that undeniably played a role in Republicans pursuing a legalistic means of undermining the legitimacy of Clinton’s presidency. The dark murmurs about the legitimacy of Bush and Obama didn’t rise to the level of what happened under Clinton, but now, with Trump, we’re back to special prosecutors and talk of impeachment.
Dana Milbank recently tried to make the case that Clinton’s reprehensible behavior during the Starr investigation — not just the underlying sexual improprieties with Monica Lewinsky, but also his dishonesty and his propensity to spin facts — all opened to door to the kind of brazen behavior (“grab them by the pussy,” “fake news”) that have come to represent a new normal under Trump.
That may be true, but it’s only superficially relevant. If you abstract away the personalities of Clinton and Trump and the particulars of their alleged transgressions, the continuities in how we are practicing politics become all the more striking. The roles of the parties have almost perfectly switched. Republicans have rallied around Trump in ways reminiscent of how Democrats closed ranks around Clinton. Many Democrats saw the Starr investigation as endlessly cynical political opportunism engineered to bring down their president; many Republicans see the Muller investigation in the same light. And both Republicans then and Democrats now see the sitting president as almost treasonous — betraying America in spirit, if not in act.
Pat Buchanan’s call to arms in 1991 was a pivotal moment in American politics. Buchanan saw himself and his followers as the ones on the defensive in a struggle that had been going on for a while. He had probably read Hunter’s book (which was published earlier that year), and it may have crystallized some things for him. The struggle itself wasn’t necessarily new, but calling it a “religious war” in an explicitly political context almost certainly changed things.
Hunter’s orthodox and progressivists had already mostly sorted themselves into the two major parties by that point. Buchanan was the bugler sounding the cavalry charge. Buchanan’s bugling didn’t cause an immediate rupture in society. But by injecting “ultimate,” zero-sum questions into democratic politics, he undoubtedly put a new process into motion.
Trust is a fragile thing, the first casualty of any war. And given that this war is now in its 27th year, it shouldn’t be surprising that reservoirs of trust — especially in partisan politics — are at an all-time low. But while Trump himself seems to go out of his way to exacerbate tensions among Americans, it’s important to remember that he is ultimately the symptom of something that has been going on for quite some time. And that implies that with his departure, we will not necessarily be better as a country.
Would a new external enemy mean that we could return to politics as usual? Possibly. But if so, what a horrible price to pay for less-toxic politics at home.