Earlier today I was reading a couple of articles that fall, more or less, into the category of political philosophy. However, the implications of these articles go beyond the merely theoretical--they have a lot to say about our current crisis.
Both articles start from the phenomenon of what we could call the crackup of liberalism--the clear descent of liberalism into tyranny. Sohrab Ahmari, an editor for the NYPost, sets the terms of the discussion well in an article for the The Spectator US:
Ahmari begins with a simple question: "Are citizens of liberal societies permitted to question liberalism?" In theory the answer should be as simple as the question: Of course citizens can question liberalism--that's the whole point of liberalism! The open marketplace of ideas. And yet that's not the reality of America--not really. Much of the energy of liberal opinionating is expended in attempts to shut down all discussion that strays beyond whatever the current liberal orthodoxy happens to be. This is usually done by a process of demonizing all dissenters from the liberal orthodoxy--a tactic that has become familiar over many decades. As Ahmari observes:
Such tolerance is rarely in evidence in practice, however — a reality illustrated in hilarious fashion by a writer for a Washington magazine who recently decried ‘cancel culture’ even as he insisted that: ‘It’s absolutely necessary to de-platform public intellectuals who object to liberal democracy.’
As an historical matter, the liberal ideology arose as a supposed solution to the intolerance of religious quarrels, which had led Europe into seemingly endless wars. Separation of Church and State was supposed to lead to tolerance in society, a live and let live culture.
Church and state have long been separated. The ideal is that a new liberal order ushers in a new, rational, tolerant and secular regime: cleaving apart day-to-day politics from religion and metaphysics. So instead of enshrining any one orthodoxy, a liberal neutral ground would be created, one that could be contested by rival accounts of the good life. The religious would be able to live happily beside the unbelievers, with all minorities protected. In this way, the advent of liberalism would — once and for all — put an end to the persecutions of the past.
Not only has this not turned out to be true now, but it arguably has never been true. Liberalism has everywhere shown its true colors, its true religious nature. Its claims to to establish a promised land of enlightened tolerance turn out to have been a ploy. The claim that any society could live and thrive without a philosophical narrative of the good life, of the common good, was always transparent bunk. Liberalism has never been neutral, and as it has gained the ascendancy its essential, inevitable, intolerance has become apparent to all:
But has that really come to pass? Given man’s inclination to worship, to build altars in the public square, our societies will always enshrine some orthodoxy or other (and, therefore, empower some clerisy or other). The only questions are: which orthodoxy? Which clerics? If the past couple of years have made anything clear, it is that there is to be no neutrality. The West must choose.
Ahmari drives his point home with a series of rhetorical questions:
Look around you: when was the last time you felt like you lived in a pluralistic, tolerant society? Does the Free World feel free? Four centuries or so since it was launched, has the liberal project delivered on its promise to make men and women free, by toppling all the old authorities? Or has the downfall of authority left us more vulnerable to more insidious and subtle forms of coercion, by woke demagogues, employers and advertisers?
Look around you: does our marketplace of ideas resemble anything like that promised by the bewigged liberals of the late-18th and 19th centuries? Does truth prevail over its cacophony of nonsense? Set aside the teaching of Genesis, whatever happened to the basic teachings of biology and genetics about the immutability of sex? ...
Ahmari views this deplorable outcome as simply the inevitable result of the working out of the liberal ideology. Therefore, the attempt to restore some mythical pristine state of mutual tolerance is doomed to failure--in theory just as much as in practice. It was never going to work out the way the world philosophes claimed it would. Conservatives need to recognize this truth and figure a way out of this no win state of affairs. Easier said than done, of course.
The second article shares similar views of where we are, of what liberalism really is, but the author--Surit Dasgupta--applies these ideas to the Trump administration and its personnel policies:
Dasgupta starts more or less where Ahmari leaves off. Yes, of course liberalism is a religion--and that label includes basically the entire political establishment. Trump's big mistake was his naive view that the Swamp could be drained by applying a healthy doze of competence, modeled on basically corporate practices. He failed to understand that he was taking on what amounted to a religious elite--a priesthood, or (in Ahmari's terms) a clerisy:
Donald Trump didn’t understand he was not dealing with mere corrupt politicians but rather a priesthood dedicated to keeping the sacrificial mechanism running at all cost.
Anyone who has glanced at the writing or thinking of former U.S. President Donald Trump can safely conclude that the man is a corporate thinker. A corporate thinker is basically a pragmatist, and that is not surprising when we observe that big corporations generally do not act on ideological instincts but rather are geared toward the accumulation of capital.
Of course the Founding Fathers were perfectly aware of the importance of religion to any society--including the society of the new American republic. However, if the new republic was to embrace all thirteen former colonies--a necessity if they were to maintain their hard won independence--a sectarian federal government was out of the question. The writings of the Founders strongly suggest that they placed their hopes for a unifying public theology on the sort of Deism that was espoused by classical liberals, especially the traditional moral views that underpinned the common law that was inherited from the English past.
That solution worked for a time, but in the longer run it came up against the reality of the state. The state inevitably seeks a monopoly on power in the absence of determined and organized opposition--something that religion in America did not offer, no matter the general religiosity of Americans. Power, to last, must rest on authority, and that flows from a general religious standpoint:
... The state is religious in nature. In ancient societies, the state and religion were one and the same. Take, for example, the Aztec civilization that practiced regular human sacrifices. It did this not in a secret corner but under the watchful eyes of the monarchy and the priesthood. In ancient civilizations like that of the Aztecs, the priesthood and the monarchy shared a mutual dominance over their subjects. The bond that linked their rule was undoubtedly sacrificial violence.
... Some ... might object and say that the modern version of the state shouldn’t be considered a religious institution because the modern state is a “secular” form of governance.
... bear in mind ... that even a secular state frequently causes religiosity from within itself. The state, even in its “purest” form, is the highest authority within a nation. When the state takes the form of the highest authority known to man then it bears a much larger influence on a nation than any corporation. ...
When the state's ambition is to be "the highest authority known to man," it has far exceeded a merely secular view of its nature. We see that in the way that liberal politicians adopt overtly religious language to describe themselves, their positions, and even the buildings they occupy:
What Trump didn’t understand was that he was not dealing with mere corrupt politicians but rather he was dealing with a priesthood dedicated to keeping the sacrificial mechanism running at all costs. His rivals ... were people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who said it was her honor to preside over a “sacred ritual of renewal” and called the Capitol a “temple of democracy.” To people like Pelosi, Joe Biden, George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton, Trump was a desecrator of their sacred temple. To the sacred priesthood, Trump was the perfect candidate for a scapegoat ritual.
Thus, the offense that Trump committed went far beyond being an outsider. He had challenged, seemingly without realizing it, the sacred order of America in liberal ideology. It became a question of a ritual cleansing that was necessary:
When Trump became president, he took to the White House ... a pragmatist and corporatist philosophy and applied it to a religious institution. In doing so, he committed sacrilege of the first order.
As we know, in the drive to purge the White House of Trump's ritually unclean presence--as dictated by liberal orthodoxy--anything would go. All respect for law and the constitutional order went by the boards because Trump was an existential threat to that orthodoxy. Trump must be personally destroyed to save the sacred liberal order. And in this regard Dasgupta draws a fascinating parallel:
... Existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev writes:The moral and religious question which faces the personal conscience can be put in a very simple and elementary way: is it permissible to execute a single innocent person for the sake of the safety and wellbeing of the State? In the Gospel this question was put in the words of Caiaphas. ‘It is better for us that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish.’ It is well known what sentence was decided by these words. The State always repeats the words of Caiaphas; it is the State’s confession of faith. Statesmen have always given the answer that in the interests of the safety of the State and the increase of its strength, an innocent man may and should be put to death.
That is the confession of the liberal priesthood's faith in the State as the one true source of authority on earth--the sacred order of State power.
This is what Trump failed to understand--draining the Swamp entailed the harrying from power of a religious establishment. As a result, he sowed the seeds for his own downfall by uniting the opposition even within his party and inside his administration:
In appointing members of his administration, Trump took the corporatist approach of picking his rivals on the basis of competence. He appointed or nominated people like Mike Pompeo, Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and Nikki Halley, all of whom were allied in one way or another with the military-industrial complex. Trump buckled from his promise to “drain the swamp” and instead chose experienced priests from the D.C. state religion to run his government. As a result, he was undermined at every turn. ...
Interestingly, Dasgupta leaves out perhaps the most interesting figure of all--Bluto Barr. I was one of many who believed that Barr's loyalty rose above loyalty to the DC state religion. We were misled by his reported religiosity and his seeming devotion to the vision of the Founding Fathers.
Be that as it may, Dasgupta concludes with the picture of Trump as sacrificial scapegoat. However, he speculates that by conducting this ritual sacrifice so openly the liberal DC Establishment may have given away their game to the non-believing barbarians outside--the deplorables and bitter clingers outside the beltway whose faith is not in the man-made order of the state:
In true mafioso fashion, Donald Trump became the “button” for the state—the one designed to take the “hit” for the mob bosses. But unlike the ancient Sicilian mafia, which operated under the code of silence, the scapegoating rituals of the state are no longer able to remain hidden from public conscience. This is all the more evident with the state’s increasing desperation to scapegoat a significant number of dissident voices in a chaos of undifferentiation. The question now remains: where will this ever-increasing desperation and chaos lead us?