Why did a decisive block of people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 not vote for him in 2020? Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio surveyed voters in 10 swing states and found the answer was simple. Trump lost “largely” because of the coronavirus, apparently mainly because he was not aggressive in mandating masks, restricting gatherings, and enforcing ever-changing rules from experts.
In other words, these vote-switchers were frightened by COVID-19, and, as voters do for most things these days, we tend to blame someone else, particularly incumbent presidents. This resulted in a “double digit erosion” of support for Trump among college-educated whites, whether they had previously voted for him or not.
Forget that states that had fewer restrictions seem to have had lower rates of hospitalization and death than those with stricter shutdowns. We comfortable and well-compensated upper-middle-class types wanted to punish someone for disturbing our happy demeanors and protected lives with inconvenient truths. Indeed, very few people seem willing to confront fears and truths these progressive days.
Two recent books prove to be refreshing and invaluable exceptions.
Georgetown University Professor Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time bursts open with a quote from the truth-teller par excellence Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die.” That’s a thought obviously not trending on social media.
More bad news for humanity from Solzhenitsyn: “Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth must be of a spiritual nature,” a nature by no means limited to traditional religion. Mitchell identifies two types in today’s “invisible economy.” The traditional view follows Solzhenitsyn believing there is an imbalance of payments in social life where innocents often end being treated unjustly with uncompensated suffering, which can be ameliorated here but only settled in another world. In the more modern view, spiritual accounts must be settled rationally here and now, as in an economic market, except the settlement is balancing right and wrong rather than supply and demand.
The traditional Calvinist view of transgression or innocence in relationship to God is transformed by progressive moderns into stain and purity in this life, of offenders and innocents, defined by group identity rather than individual empirical actions. Progressive identity politics classifies the transgressors as white, male, and heterosexual — whether rich or poor, or powerful or weak — and labels everyone as either innocents or transgressors by their group identity alone. In identity politics, the innocent scapegoat Jesus is transformed into the innocent scapegoated minority oppressed by modern white centurions who must be confronted by leaders’ righteous shaming of their transgressions, staining and isolating them socially and politically.
Mitchell contrasts this politics today with what he calls the earlier “politics of competence,” which he sees now in decline, possibly terminally. Competence demands a long-term vision, which requires a self-sacrifice not allowed in a world based on transgressions. Two psychological obstacles undermine competence. The first is “bipolarity,” in which the modern person is told both that happiness is totally under her or his own control, emphasizing independence, but also that only experts can solve his important social problems like saving the planet and reforming humanity. The former polarity undermines competent local problem-solving, and the latter allows for easy elite manipulation. The second psychological obstacle is what he calls “supplements becoming substitutes,” by which food and other basic supplements to life are transformed from being supplements to good health or welfare to turning them into substitutes like obesity or drug abuse, which become leading causes of death and incompetence.
Mitchell is an expert on the great analyst of early American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw this coming: that the end of aristocratic status in a set hierarchy leads to widespread anxiety and fear that any freely achieved status could be lost. The individual is left to follow self-interest but in America also to value local community institutions such as neighbor and religion to fill in the rough spots. But once all scores must be settled here, the limited legal rules of liberal competence are replaced by obligatory compassionate gifts to the innocent to compensate for the transgressions of the guilty, requiring a new elite to superintend a powerful centralized nation-state.
While today’s identity elite seem increasingly dominant, Mitchell does not think this is inevitable. He sees the COVID-19 pandemic as exposing the myth that expert compassion can substitute for competence rather than be a supplement to it. Americans demanded competence to cure the virus first and then whatever gifts could be arranged for the innocent afterwards. Even so, as he notes, most people were willing to do almost anything to avoid the coronavirus, and it is not clear to this reviewer that the lesson from the virus experience could just as easily lead to more fear and more dependence on elites, who, as he notes, pretty much have escaped negative pandemic effects and even have prospered.
Our other author is journalist Rod Dreher, in a book titled Live Not By Lies. One immediately notes that this time the book title itself is from Solzhenitsyn. He uses a much more biting quotation from his own Soviet experience: “There always is this fallacious belief: it would not be the same here, here such things are impossible. Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”
The evil then was communism and its murderous gulag, and Dreher notes that he himself had previously believed that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union that totalitarianism was dead. But he more recently received a call concerning an elderly Czech immigrant who was shaken by the news that a fellow American had actually been driven out of business for her religious beliefs (in not servicing a same-sex wedding) and thought she was back living under communism. This made Dreher curious what others who had lived under the gulag thought about today’s “soft totalitarianism.”
Dreher starts with Polish dissident Czeslaw Milosz’s 1953 book The Captive Mind, which warns that communist ideology rested on much more than “ordinary fear,” of misery and physical coercion, but appealed to an “internal hunger” to replace religion with socialist social justice ideology. Like Mitchell, Dreher likewise mentions scapegoating and Huxley’s brave new world, in which physical coercion is less important in controlling subjects than promising comfort, telling lies, and shaming. Milosz even warned against citizens proclaiming outward conformity but maintaining inward dissent, anticipating Solzhenitsyn on the importance of refusing to lie at all.
Much of Dreher’s book relates interviews with gulag survivors refusing to live with lies. While most of those systematically tortured eventually succumbed to the pain and made concessions, many returned again to truth. It is difficult to read and understand what a human being can endure and still keep the courage of the truth. Dreher does not demand going out of one’s way to suffer, but he does ask Americans who have not succumbed to refuse, prudently, to accept the lies and distortions of modern leftist progressivism in the media, universities, big corporations, and popular culture, even at risk of jobs. The gulag heroes showed how by cultivating intimate relationships in family and small communities, in serious local religious lives, in small seminars with other truth-tellers, and even through simple hospitality. And, incredibly, their truth eventually won.
The points that unite the two books are the continuing ubiquity of fear and the difficulty of truth. Today when COVID-19 infections are down 77 percent nationally, 70 percent are immune or are vaccinated (including a majority of seniors), and the coronavirus death rate is merely 0.15 percent, fear is still dominant. Popularly elected President Joe Biden suggests masks may be mandatory for a year or more. A new CDC found masks largely ineffective because aerosols come over their tops and sides and should be replaced by “a sleeve made of sheer nylon hosiery material around the neck and pulling it up over either a cloth or medical procedure mask” or using knots and tucking in to fit a mask close to the face, although it did concede that “double masking might impede breathing or obstruct peripheral vision.”
The chance of the average American being hospitalized for the coronavirus is minuscule, and the death rate for the infected is merely 0.23 of 1 percent. And yet the low-risk, comfortable-income, waited-upon half of the population seems determined to stay at home, virtue-signaling mummy-masks, collecting checks, and forcing the rest to follow. Elites can prosper from home, perhaps indefinitely, but their fear keeps many of the less fortunate from working. And our progressive leadership’s only solution is the same centralization, one-size-fits-all expertise, and big-daddy control that have brought us near Tocqueville’s and Solzhenitsyn’s predicted ruin.
Fear is the human predicament, and Dreher’s small communal institutions populated with Mitchell’s competent individuals are probably the only possible ameliorations. But are these perhaps as unlikely as the fall of the Soviet Union?
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, Political Management of the Bureaucracy, and his latest, The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, from Encounter Books. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.