“We have to make our country great again. We have to rebuild our country. And we have a long way to go.”
These words are now etched into the fabric of American discourse. The man who said them — Donald J. Trump, 2016 United States presidential candidate for the Republican party — may have an incoherent and repugnant agenda for how this is supposedly to be done, but his theme of civilizational decline is one that is common to the political reactionary. It’s a theme that’s been explored extensively by Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University who has made the subject of political reaction and reactionaries the focus of his work.
In his latest essay collection, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, he notes that while political revolutionaries have been the subject of countless studies, political reactionaries have undergone much less systematic study. So the nature of political reactionary thought is overdue for investigation, he argues. Those shocked by Trump’s candidacy, and his commentary, would probably agree.
Lilla’s introductory essay sketches out the rough points of his observations on reaction.
“Reactionaries are not conservatives,” he warns. “They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings. Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary.”
While the particular beliefs and agendas of reactionaries vary immensely, there is a common pattern to their thinking.
“[The reactionary’s] story begins with a happy, well-ordered state where people who know their place live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God. Then alien ideas promoted by intellectuals — writers, journalists, professors — challenge this harmony and the will to maintain order weakens at the top. (The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story.) A false consciousness soon descends on the society as a whole as it willingly, even joyfully, heads for destruction. Only those who have preserved memories of the old ways see what is happening. Whether the society reverses direction or rushes to its doom depends entirely on their resistance. Today political Islamists, European nationalists, and the American right tell their ideological children essentially the same tale.”
This is what Lilla means by ‘the shipwrecked mind’ — “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes… The revolutionary sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him. The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified… he believes he is the guardian of what actually happened, not the prophet of what might be.”
Lilla’s brief sketch of the political reactionary is compelling, but unfortunately doesn’t go much further. He notes that his purpose in this collection is not so much to develop a theory of political reaction, but rather to offer assorted sketches and reflections on political reaction in western history. His main subjects are modern western philosophers — Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss — while he also draws on an extensive secondary cast of religious and philosophical figures.
The essays themselves veer into sometimes obscure, often theological, territory. Lilla draws on an expansive and eclectic range of knowledge, firing off philosophical, theological and literary references that risk leaving more general readers confused.
It’s unfortunate that Lilla doesn’t fully develop a systematic treatise on political reaction, because it would be interesting to see what it says. While Lilla’s writing on contemporary events for journalistic outlets like New York Review of Books is among his best and most accessible stuff (a couple of his articles on Islamist terror attacks in Paris are included in revised form in this collection), his philosophical explorations sometimes meander into the intellectually obscure. While philosophical engagements with political reaction are important, what would be truly useful would be understanding the relationship between the intellectual roots of political reaction and the populist, identity- or class-based mass movements that drive political change.
Most interesting, engaging and accessible are the final essays in this collection which focus on contemporary ‘Currents’ and ‘Events’. In “From Luther to Wal-Mart”, Lilla explores the ‘Road Not Taken’ literature among contemporary Catholics, in which authors and scholars struggle to figure out at what stage Catholicism took a wrong turn, leading to the gradual weakening of its moral authority over society. For example, historian Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation presents one such narrative: the Catholic Church was guilty of not policing itself strongly enough, leading to the justified complaints of medieval Reformers (who were political reactionaries in their own right). But their reactionary spirit, seeking a return to a purer form of Catholicism, opened the door to other, more revolutionary forms of pluralism: “The radicals denied the need for sacraments or relics, which ordinary believers believed in, handing them Bibles they were unequipped to understand. Sola scriptura, plus the idea that anyone could be filled with the Holy Spirit, inspired every radical reformer to become his own Saint Paul — and then demand that his neighbors put down their nets and follow him.”
The consequence of this was the fragmentation of belief into factions, and then eventually to conflict and wars, and the need to find a way of living together led to liberalism as the response to this state of affairs. “But the price was high: it required the institutionalization of toleration as the highest moral virtue. The nineteenth-century Catholic Church rejected this whole package and withdrew within its walls, where intellectual life declined and dogma ossified. It thus left the rest of us to sink ever deeper into the confusing, unsatisfying, hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativistic world of today.” Here, Gregory offers an explanation for why Catholicism has ceased to be a driving intellectual force in society. Instead it has been reduced (reduced itself, really) to issuing grudging papal concessions in response to changing social norms rather than offering credible social and intellectual ideas and alternatives as it once did.
Gregory, and other scholars and not-so-scholars, have developed other myths and stories to explain the perceived declines which so consume them. “Why,” asks Lilla, “do people still feel the need for such myths? For the same reason people always have. We want the comfort, however cold, of thinking that we understand the present, while at the same time escaping full responsibility for the future.”
Is this what Trump supporters believe? Do they draw comfort from Trump’s narrative of American decline, believing that it helps them understand the woes they feel in the present? Do they evade taking responsibility for the future, thinking that by voting for Trump they’ve done their part to make America great?
While voting for Trump is certainly a political act, the overall performative dimension of being a Trump supporter is evocative of what Lilla dismisses as ‘literary experiences’: the tantalizing, romantic thrill of thinking that you’re participating in a grand project without actually doing anything substantive. It’s a critique he applies to reactionaries on the Left as well.
[S]o long as one remains in an armchair there is an undeniable frisson to be had in reading a clever defense of Lenin or Mao or Pol Pot, and a satisfaction to be found in discovering sophisticated reasons for singling out the Jews. One can even feel active again by signing an online petition calling for a boycott of Israeli academics and their institutions. But these are literary experiences, not political ones. They provoke a very old political romanticism that longs to live life on more dramatic terms than those offered by bourgeois society, to break out and feel the hot pulse of passion, to upset the petty laws and conventions that crush the human spirit and pay the rent. We recognize this longing and know how it has shaped modern consciousness and politics, often at great cost.
Here Lilla is excoriating reactionaries of the left, particularly those like Alain Badiou, who apply their scholarly genius to a romantic predilection for bloody ideologies like Maoism, and who write controversial justifications for violence (extreme violence merely reflects extreme enthusiasm, argues Badiou, and “is always situated beyond Good and Evil” because in a revolutionary society values are being redefined and “morality is a residue of the old world”). Such thinkers find inspiration in the biblical character of Saint Paul (Badiou even wrote a book about him), whose epistles are full of comments that seem to reflect radical and revolutionary ideas — personal faith trumps adherence to the law; cultural particularity can be tossed out the window since God’s truth is for all peoples, et cetera. Lilla critically examines these modern enthusiasts of St. Paul, noting that “Bible study is hard and requires devotion, and the new Paulines want things to be easy and exciting.”
Much like those who want America to be great again.
There are two key lessons Lilla offers. “Apocalyptic historiography never goes out of style”, he writes. No one remembers the scholar who observed that a historical event was caused by a range of intersecting causes; but everyone buys the book of the latest scholar to discover the One Big Reason history unfolded the way it did and the One Key Cause for the collapse of contemporary civilization.
Equally important — and a key part of this phenomenon — is that “epochal thinking is magical thinking.” Humans seem to love dividing things into distinct, discrete categories. While we’re slowly learning to stop doing that with things like race (and gender), we have yet to curb our tendency to do that in history and politics.
“But what help is it to imagine that ‘medieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, confessionalized Europe failed, and Western modernity is failing,’ as if civilizations pass through discrete periods defined by a single ‘project’?” asks Lilla. “Life does not work that way; history does not work that way. Nor does it help to imagine that the peak of Western civilization was reached in the decades just before the Reformation — any more than it helps Muslims to imagine that the peak of Islamic civilization was reached during the reign of the early caliphs, or in medieval Spain. Such myths do nothing but feed a more insidious dream: that political action might help us find our way back to the Road Not Taken. The lesson of Saint Augustine remains as timely as it was fifteen hundred years ago: that we are destined to pave our road as we go.”