Blogger Andrew Sullivan is back, and his latest offering in New York magazine is a doozy. Here’s a quick (and predictable) synopsis: Donald Trump is an existential threat to the American system of constitutional order.
Trump Derangement Syndrome gets tiring, even from a sharp guy like Sullivan. But T-Man Sully does get one thing right about the Donald and our fragile Republic. Citing Plato, he argues that the populist swell that propelled Trump to the GOP nomination is a real danger to something our country is losing supply of: legitimate authority.
I know what you’re thinking: Talk of “legitimate authority” usually comes from puritan witch-burners or Stalinists. It’s true that if taken too far, authority can corrupt. But as sociologist Philip Rieff wrote in his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the culture before our modern era “was embedded in a consensus of ‘shalt nots.’” The America of yesteryear had “creedal hedges” in place around “impulses of independence or autonomy” that detracted from “communal purpose.” Our country used to have a shared set of standards regarding sexuality, religion, race, and working life. It wasn’t perfect; but at least it kept grown men out of the little girls’ room.
Those informal limits are long gone. Explanations are legion for the collapse; yet one factor in particular stands out: A lack of gatekeepers on truth and knowledge.
In a recent article for the neocon publication Commentary, Matthew Continetti (son-in-law to warmonger turd Bill Kristol) expressed worry that “gatekeepers are mostly useless” in the media. There are no more lookouts when it comes to policing major communication channels of American society. “[A]nyone with the Internet can write a blog or tweet or Facebook post or can Skype or record a podcast,” Continetti laments.
The widespread use of technology has made barriers to sounding off obsolete. On the whole, this is a great thing for the freedom of expression. The president of the United States and Joe Blow from Creekside Trailer Villa can both freely spout nonsense to thousands over Facebook. Open communication brings a dynamism to the web, and forces people to encounter opinions outside their own social circle.
Continetti is mainly concerned with how quickly the Trumpening invaded conservatism and tossed it on its head. He pines for a return of Bill Buckley’s gravitas, and for the orderly policing of his ideology.
Frankly, I don’t care either way if Trump burns the National Review orthodoxy to the ground. More power to him in that regard. What’s important is Continetti’s larger point about gatekeepers and the need to hear “no” from those wiser than us.
The rise of SJW-ism and its view of human nature’s malleability has been near-fatal to our view of outside authority. Our nation’s institutions no longer hold the commanding sway they once had. In the last decade, public confidence in basic establishments – including Congress, the presidency, television news, print media, the military, and police – has eroded.
Traditional authority has lost its grip on our allegiance. The result is that how we view ourselves differs drastically from the old way. All knowledge permeates from our own conception of reality. “We are now ‘selves’ of an increasing number of varieties,” writes Saint Anselm College professor Dale Kuehne. Our “selves” can be anything: boy, girl, black, white, human, inhuman, religious, irreligious, respectable, disreputable. All are within reach, and limited only by imagination.
To put it plainly, anything goes. Nobody can tell us we’re wrong anymore. It’s all a matter of personal opinion.
What we lack isn’t the freedom to determine our destiny; we lack an authoritative voice telling us our destiny is wrong and stupid. The gatekeepers who keep knowledge from spilling out into a chaotic mess have abdicated their position. We’re our own masters. Mom and Dad? Forget them. School teachers? No better than punching bags. Duty to country? Gross! God and his Law? They can shove it. Self-will is the major driving force in Caitlyn Jenner’s America.
The poet W. H. Auden once wrote that, “we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited” and that it’s “crazy and almost immoral” to “entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to.”
Radical individualism has made it easier to forget that all that glitters is not gold, and all that is knowable isn’t worth knowing. Lefty moralism has tarnished the idea that understanding one’s place in society is necessary for a stable and meaningful life. We aren’t just entitled to the material benefits of 21st century capitalism, we’re entitled to know – and thus to think – everything, no matter how degenerate or harmful.
So what can be done to reverse this orgy in thought? Going back to the era of three news channels and a morning paper is unthinkable. Disconnecting from the internet is near impossible. The lid can’t be put back on the Pandora’s Box of mass communication.
In absence of formal gatekeepers, personal vigilance becomes a necessity. As Isaiah 21 exhorts, we must all set a watchman in ourselves to guide our temptation and steer us from evil. And that includes admitting that we aren’t always ready for all the knowledge put directly before us.
Watching Trump run roughshod over the GOP’s stale Bushism is a joy. But it’s a joy that should be checked with the realization that solipsism is fast becoming our national ethos. Trump’s defenestration of the Republican gatekeepers is further proof of that.