A Secular Sage

Charles Taylor dissects the Trumpening

On the evening of November 9th, 2016, the day following Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, a small fire sprang up outside my university’s main library, reportedly the work of an improperly snuffed cigarette.

The library was evacuated, which may have added a few numbers to the anti-Trump rally happening in the courtyard outside. “Group cry at Langson,” as students had unselfconsciously advertised the event on Facebook, attracted perhaps two hundred students, many of whom complied with the page’s recommendation to “Bring all your Bernie shirts ;( ”

I happened upon this protest-vigil shortly after attending a lecture by Charles Taylor. It was quite the rare privilege: listening to one of the world’s preeminent political theorists offer his raw reflections on the greatest electoral upset of recent memory, not twenty-four hours after the event.

Charles Taylor

Taylor had originally intended to give a paper entitled “How Democracy Could Slip Away,” which he had recently presented at an event organized by the Social Science Research Council. The paper examines the threat that various forms of inequality pose to maintaining a democracy. Given the strangeness of the occasion, however, he scrapped much of his prepared talk and spoke extemporaneously on the sociology of Trump’s victory.

Most of his comments concerned “felt citizen efficacy,” the degree to which an individual feels that she has a political impact on the larger-scale material conditions of her existence. Taylor claimed that a decline in citizen efficacy has led to a decline in political participation (the election turnout being a case-in-point), which in turn led to an increase in the political power of moneyed interests. This goes hand-in-hand with the increased opacity of the political machine — inevitable for any representative system grappling with the complexities of modernity.

Increased inequality, in terms of both monetary and social capital, combined with cultural fragmentation and the pluralization of competing identity groups, yields déclassement — class displacement, in which the hope that your children will surpass you socially and economically becomes unrealizable.

The disruption of racial hierarchy that results from déclassement, and the subsequent moralization of ethnic exclusion that occurs on both sides of the political aisle (Right: you immigrants and religious others are stealing our rightful place, etc.; Left: you whites [read: non-elite whites] deserve to be displaced because of your historic privilege and the sins of your fathers, etc.). And déclassement naturally arouses nostalgia for past coherence and stability.

These consequences of the decline in citizen efficacy are mutually reinforcing; they generate a downward spiral that furthers the decline.

What can we do to arrest this process? While granting that any solution proposed during such a short talk would be vastly oversimplified, Taylor averred that we must begin with the question: How do we forge solidarity among the victims of déclassement and other kinds of victims (i.e., those currently championed by the Left)?

Taylor’s recommendations included: encouraging sympathy over-against anger and shaming; developing cross-party superordinate (my word, not Taylor’s) goals, such as job creation; building a broad movement committed to increased citizen efficacy, paired with finding ways to boost our “sense of efficacy.” In other words, affect is crucial: genuine efficacy must be reinforced by positive sentiment. Over time, this will habituate the social body to those forms of life conducive to effectual political engagement.

Taylor then fielded a lot of questions, almost all from tenured faculty in Political Science, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature — all rigorous thinkers, several of whom I personally admire. Their questions, unfortunately, exemplified the elite liberal echo-chamber that has fueled Trump’s rise. It was all an exercise in Leftist self-caricature. We had the standard academic “questions” that were less questions than long-winded acts of virtue signaling. Other questions were transparent attempts at performing intelligence before a “great man” in hopes of receiving some form of approbation. The dearth of self-awareness was simply stunning.

Uniting everything, however, was a vicious condescension incapable of perceiving itself as anything but an earnest attempt at the sympathy Taylor claimed was so needed. “How did these poor, benighted souls become so poor and so benighted? What can we do to help them become more like us?” Perhaps the most absurd “question” of the night addressed whether we were all condescending to the Trumpistas by generously assuming that they weren’t all racist, misogynistic bigots.

The best observation anyone made was psychoanalytic: déclassement clearly entails emasculation. Enter Trump, a hyper-masculine object of identification. (I’m sure some will be offended by this; but I find it delightful and true.)

Before the evening wrapped, I managed to slip in a question of my own: Given that citizen efficacy is currently experienced by most people through some form of identity politics — the Left’s longstanding success with identity politics having unquestionably led to the rise of white-identity politics on the Right — which necessarily intensifies rivalry, to what extent will pursuing larger scale common ground unravel existing structures of solidarity?

Taylor’s answer was somewhat cryptic, likely because I’d given him a loaded question. He said that it’s impossible to do away with identity politics, but that his solution requires a wholesale restructuring of how we conceive of “identity.”

To me, of course, that amounts to the same thing. Identity politics is predicated on a specific, highly narrow, voluntaristic conception of identity. Were the “self” to be constructed on different ground — say, any coherent metaphysic, any at all — perhaps new solidarities could be forged around truly common goods. Of course, reworking “identity” necessarily requires the eventual transformation or abandoning of existing politics of identity. One need only observe the crassness of emerging “white identity” to concede that such a transformation is long overdue.

Sadly, in electing Tom Perez and Keith Ellison, respectively, as Chair and Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Party has chosen to double-down on the very practices that helped usher in the Trump Era. If our two parties’ history of ever-escalating mimetic rivalry offers any insight into the future, we can expect rough waters ahead.

Upon leaving the cramped, unairconditioned lecture hall, clutching my freshly signed, marginalia-ridden copy of A Secular Age, I was startled by the bleating siren of a fire truck making its way unhurriedly to the library. Naturally, I went to investigate. The “group cry” had begun in earnest, the miasma of smoke blessing the evening with an almost divinely decreed surreality, as if the sacral intensity of these students’ grief had conjured a cloud of incense. I listened for the faint sound of chimes but heard none.

Even though the Q&A had left me tired and sardonic, there was something endearing, something so sweetly comical about a crowd of Leftist undergrads taking turns at a microphone to talk about their feelings whilst being enveloped by the smoke of a burning library, that my heart couldn’t help but be softened by the sight.

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