The Trump era passed like a galvanic shock through American culture, politicizing it as rarely before. It is worth considering what this really means. “Politicization” does not narrowly imply that party politics or policy fights loom larger in our minds (though they may), but that more and more of culture, of life, has taken on a political character. The cars we drive, the contents of our fridges, our attitudes toward masks and straws, the views we feel comfortable expressing or hearing, the places we live—nearly every choice now comes freighted with political significance. The old idea that “the personal is political” has extended to a far extreme where politics no longer exists to serve one’s life, but life exists as an opportunity to demonstrate one’s politics. To leave any corner of life untouched by politics, it came to seem, might open a fatal chink to the paralytic force of complacency, uncertainty or something darker still.
Politics, as it completes its colonization of culture, shades into religion. It is religion in the specific sense that it sits above everything else as the locus of supreme meaning, organizing every aspect of life according to its moral framework. Signs of piety and devotion become more important to one’s self-presentation than original thought, individual conscience or authentic humility. Conspiratorial and magical thinking pervade one’s interpretation of reality because political religions entail nonnegotiable truths. When reality doesn’t deliver, when the facts confound doctrine, the evidence of reality is discounted—to the extent that people sick with COVID-19 maintain the disease isn’t real to their dying breath.
The cleavage of media into partisan—i.e. denominational—outlets is both symptom and cause of our segregation into politico-religious sects. The quickening subsumption of “news” to “opinion”—an adjacent discourse we elevate and misrepresent by conflating it with news—suggests that for all that we claim to want “independent” journalism, what we really want are narratives that satisfy preexisting belief. We want a sermon, in short, a story about moral stakes in a cosmic struggle.
The dominant media figures in this era are a secular clergy, otherwise known as “hosts,” notably the personalities behind podcasts and TV, internet and radio news. We can better explain the dizzying ascendance of podcasting in the last five years if we see podcasters as today’s street-corner preachers, itinerant—indeed portable—priests competing for masterless flocks. Podcasts themselves, and the media empires they spawn, represent a constellation of new, virtual churches, embryonic religious movements, trying to institutionalize around a charismatic voice, a worldview, a set of values.
Our new political religions conceive of the nation as the heavenly kingdom and the civic body—the polity—as the heavenly host. In The Unnamable Present Roberto Calasso describes a process whereby “secular society,” over the past century, “has become the ultimate repository for all meaning.” The result he calls “the cult of the deified society.” The stakes of politics, correspondingly, are nothing less than salvation and perdition. One wonders whether Joe Biden, in describing the 2020 election as a battle for the “soul” of the nation, understood just how literally some people took this to be the case.
From a distance, the phenomenon of Trump rallies always bore more than passing resemblance to big-tent revivalism. Trump’s “sermons” were not precisely political or religious but delivered a kind of political-religious fable, with repetitive passages and characters, familiar chants and call-and-response portions. His signature exhortation to “Make America Great Again,” like so much conservatism and religion before it, drew strength from the intimation of a harmony or paradise—some organic social unity—we have lost. That this always has more to do with the psychic residue of childhood and memory than historical fact does little to diminish its force. It becomes, in the present, the subjective evidence of society’s fallenness and of our own inexpiable sin.
One does not have to strain to see a connection between evangelical millenarianism—the belief that the present order will in due time collapse to permit apocalyptic renewal—and a feeling among nonbelievers on the left of our insuperable and even preordained doom, a sense that the only world we could accept is a world remade. Both arise in despair at the limitations and imperfections of secular, democratic life. But a politics of despair rapidly becomes a doomsday cult. As the news brought home ever more reasons for despondency—as the very act cast as necessary vigilance against political ruin reinscribed the inevitability of political ruin—we peered ever more deeply into the abyss of our individual helplessness. Although it was never clear what looking accomplished, to look away in good conscience seemed impossible.
But our spectatorial fixation was never costless, as the touts of vigilance averred. The cost was simply hard to talk about and maddeningly diffuse compared with the horrors that reached us through the media and emanated from the White House. As ever more of our attention turned to beholding the dark daily circus in our nation’s capital, a thinning of private life took place, an erosion of its texture and depth, and as private life became a bleak and impotent audience to horrors, there seemed increasingly little to save. Tearing it all down and starting again held a certain appeal.
No cultural corrective rose to meet the challenge of this despair. An ascendant rationalist discourse intent on describing society with quantitative rigor offered itself as a counterweight to fantasy, anecdote and illusion. But in important ways these rationalists encouraged and abetted our religious politics, above all because they also spoke of society and the future in abstractions and certainties we were obliged to take on faith. Like sacred scripture, the doctrine of data existed in a hermetic sphere; it could challenge itself, but experience had no place in confirming or refuting it, since the reality data apprehends is by definition cut off from the anecdotal, non-statistical nature of life as it is lived.
For some, the unbridgeable chasm between sociological dreaming and individual experience became a license to believe anything: to dream one’s dream of choice. Bruno Maçães in the New York Times suggests that what Trump offered his supporters was the prospect of freedom from the strictures of reality—“a society that is pure fantasy life.” But a closer look at culture in the last decade shows that it was not only conservatives and Trumpists wrapped up in nostalgia and childhood. The oft-remarked-upon and seemingly unending pop-culture obsession with remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, drawing on TV shows, movies, toys and comic books from childhoods that took place in the last decades of the twentieth century, reflects a similar fixation on adolescence, a desire for the comforts of familiarity, an aversion to newness, even a tacit belief that the future is to be feared.
A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits no matter what we think, but culture becomes what we believe it is. Conditioned by the prophets of data and nostalgia to imagine no further than the evidence of the past, we forget that people are self-aware and their actions shaped by a self-aware culture. Our explanations are not independent of our behavior but constitutive of it. As such, our cults of thinking become our culture.
Every conscious decision we make—even simply to pause or reflect, to question our emotional reflexes—participates in the correction of a culture bent on unleashing our most primitive and destructive energies. But it is extremely difficult to be one person, trying to make conscious choices amid systems and technologies that tax our forbearance and reward our worst impulses. Machines we carry on our persons do everything to interrupt and foil us. In the limbic fog of our overstimulated brains it can be hard to see that we are not, in fact, rats in a cage. We can fortify our spirit, touch base with our better angels, hold tight to our noblest principles—and half an hour on Twitter or YouTube may still reduce us to an exposed nerve, pulsing with a rage born of fear, a sense of vagrant and ubiquitous threat.
A feedback cycle drifts into a doom loop. According to the purely descriptive interpretations of social scientists and the secular priests who weave their findings into tapestries of meaning, we might as well be what we do networked in a box. Day by day, we create a culture in line with what we have been told the culture is like. Stifling the newness born of human dynamism and imagination, we become instead a citizenry of watchers, poll-consulters and temperature-takers. We listen to the echoic opinions of media figures and the studies they cite as a form of intelligence gathering, trying to amass as much information as we can about how others think and act before we dare to think or act ourselves.
But stories are not just true or false; they are mechanisms of coordination, aligning our actions with one another under rubrics of meaning. To think or act differently, we require intuitive, compelling explanations that self-aware people may reach for as they decide what they believe and why they believe it. These may flirt with fictions or half-truths, but the process of explaining ourselves to ourselves binds us to identities and patterns of action based more in conscious ideal than unconscious urge.
The alternatives are myths of inevitability. The narrative that treats us as seas of statistical impulses trains us to wait to see what others do and believe before doing or believing ourselves. It teaches us to view culture as a mass emanation of the human subconscious rather than something we imagine and create. In practice it narrows our field of action preemptively, overrating, for example, people’s commitment to ideological propositions—about deficits, Russia, democratic ideals or traditional morality, say—when these “positions” are often just the fungible content in a much hazier program: the spiritual search for meaning through political storytelling.
And in a strange way, while Trump supporters longed for an impossible bridge back to an imagined past, progressives and liberals asked for an infallible bridge to an ordained future in the guise of data science, election forecasting and metaphysical claims like “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In a rough sense history has borne this last claim out. But only so far. Like predictive models and other prophetic attempts to overcome uncertainty—like the foreseeable profits of the Hollywood remake—these visions of the future are based entirely on the data and raw matter of the past. As such they offer no insight into the discontinuities that will one day be our history. Why do new things appear on the face of the earth? Where do they come from? When is sentiment, evolving in a million hearts in private, ready to burst onto the scene? About these things social scientists, pollsters and data journalists—all the statistical shamans we turn to for the reassuring sense that the future won’t surprise us—can tell us nothing.
The dominant characteristic of the culture that emerges from people taking the social temperature and tailoring their behavior accordingly is that it is relentlessly public. This has been the culture of the forced confession and show trial, of witch-hunt and red-baiting. Arthur Miller drew the decisive parallel between the Salem witch trials (religious) and McCarthyism (political) in The Crucible. Today, media and social media organize our conformity. Calculated self-presentation dominates. Private truth, the truth of the complex and contradictory heart, has nowhere to surface, and this private sphere, which is the origin of originality, conscience and self-understanding, begins to wither and die.
Great tracts of culture, notably the arts, arise to give sanctuary and form to private truth within a public context. They maintain a bridge between personal and social convictions—the solitary testimony of the soul and the necessary agreements of the group. This realm of culture helps a person feel less alone in their private experience, which is always partly at odds with, or unacknowledged by, the official story. By awakening people to the legitimacy of their feelings, it gives them confidence that their experience is not an anomalous, lonely event, but something others share in, and that it may be reasonable, therefore, to question the tyrannies of public opinion.
This is among the most vital functions of culture, and unsurprisingly it is this freedom of thought and conscience that repressive regimes—religious and political—look to suppress and eliminate, lest sentiment build in private against the party line. The Catholic Church did not brutally repress conscientious dissenters in the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation because it feared an armed revolutionary force, but because it feared the simple appeal, person by person, to interior conscience and conviction. The Soviet state, in the twentieth century, went to such pains to suppress artistic freedom that it spawned an entire black market in literature, the samizdat.
Politics’ colonization of culture in America today has greatly damaged this public lifeline to the private psyche. In a Cato Institute survey from last summer 62 percent of Americans reported being afraid to air their views in public. The numbers were highest among conservatives, but a majority of liberals and moderates agreed with the premise. Only “strong liberals” felt, on balance, comfortable speaking up, although even they had become decidedly more apprehensive (a rise of 12 percent) since 2017. The consistent surprise that as many people seem to like Trump as do—his routine outperformance of polls and forecasts—is the sort of thing one might expect in an environment where people’s private feelings seem to them impossible to express in public. But we may each, for ourselves, measure the toleration of privately held belief by judging how often it strikes us that saying what we feel or wonder in our hearts seems perilous in public.
Giving people the ability to dissent publicly while remaining anonymous, as elections do, brings out discrepancies between the public story and private belief. But just as polls flatten and trivialize the complexities of the human psyche, it is easy to reduce the beliefs and motivations of one’s political adversaries to a caricature. Subversive energy not only channels anger and resentment but at times feelings of freedom or exhilaration. Comedy—to say nothing of avant-garde art—used to perform this function, making audiences productively uncomfortable, pressing on sensitivities and insecurities as a way of releasing what was pent-up or unresolved. It is generally better to laugh at our inherent frailty and darkness, better to sublimate it in art, than to repress or pretend it away.
Whether Trump’s rallies and his public act served a role like edgy stand-up for some of the people who enjoyed them is hard to say. Following the personality at their center, they seemed to lack humor’s most liberating encouragement—to laugh not at others but at oneself. Still, there will always be a market niche for the shameless provocateur in a culture terrified of giving offense. The person who gets away with violating taboos communicates a dark power, while being unable to laugh or poke fun at serious matters communicates nothing so much as insecurity about whether moral claims can withstand the scrutiny. The claims that have true authority behind them, that speak to private conscience, always can.
And where, when public opinion rules, does private truth find its outlet and companions?
Michelle Goldberg recently reminded us that in the first days of Trump’s election some believed the new political atmosphere would energize the arts. She quotes the art critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote, “In times of artistic alienation, distress is often repaid to us in the form of great work, much of it galvanizing or clarifying or (believe it or not) empowering.” He predicted that the era would “yield things not yet fathomed or decanted.” Instead, the art from this period seemed almost directly decanted from the NPR station playing in the background. Fiction sales declined, Goldberg notes, and political books, most of them about Trump, dominated the best-seller list. Even the era’s entertainments looked more like reactive political commentaries than original narratives that might take us somewhere new.
The ferment of art has always drawn on an originality and an edginess that had the potential to surprise, shock and make people uneasy. Whether marginalization, hidebound tradition, Victorianism or postwar suburban quietism, its animating targets were the pieties and repressions of social life, which inevitably become, over time, suffocating. But as politics took on the air of aesthetic charade, of postmodern assault on pedantic fact, what could art do but try to become politics at its most literal and insistent?
Granting that the great art of the era may have yet to emerge, I am hard-pressed to find the efflorescence Saltz predicted. What art is really outré anymore? Our art has become exhaustively political, but it is no longer discernibly subversive. To previous generations the idea of nonsubversive political art would have made little sense—a contradiction in terms—but to us it has become natural. It is what major cultural institutions, foundations, and media organizations find congenial. Far from feeling challenged or discomfited, the centers of cultural power assimilate this art effortlessly.
Christopher Beha, writing about “our collective political monomania” in Harper’s, wonders, between entertainment and political art, what happened to a third category: “culture that matters for its own sake, culture that enacts ‘the search for knowledge and beauty.’” This last category may seem trivial, even gratuitous, to some in light of our present crises, but our crises have flowered in the soil of its trivialization. The vacant secular despair that sends us searching for a religious politics—that underwrites the allure of fascism, nationalism, conspiracy theories like QAnon and violent fraternal gangs, that makes us long for the escapism of entertainment, narcotics, video games, or for the endless, miserable stimulation of the internet and social media—is precisely what culture of this third category is meant to address. There is an absence of meaning and purpose in our lives, and our emptiness is the emptiness of continuing to consume what resembles nourishment but is only fast-burning calories. Serious culture, more than a spiritual balm in dark times or a companion through the grind and indignities of life, is a realm of serious experience with ourselves—with our own minds and latent capacities—and therefore a main area of life in which we learn to take seriously and respect ourselves. Just as important, it is the area in which we develop and take seriously values, principles and other metaphysical commitments, cultivating these to bring back into the rest of life—into our personal relationships and professional ethics, into politics, business, science and citizenship.
It is no wonder that authentic moral and ethical guardrails have leached from our public and private sectors at a time when we believe, implicitly, that the metaphysics of principle—of right and wrong—is an invented mythology you talk yourself into at your own peril, subscribing voluntarily to a set of rules your opponents are free from. What conditions the soul to bind with principle comes before politics and takes root nearer to the seat of being.
Personal qualities are simply different from political commitments. They form over time and are stronger for it. Today we have traded personal qualities for political commitments, as if how we got to the latter was irrelevant, just that we did. But you can’t expect a house without a foundation to stand. And how you got somewhere says everything about where you might go next. The many American socialists and communists from the 1930s who became conservative and neoconservative intellectuals in the postwar period show how slight the exuberant political commitments of youth can be, but how enduring the desire for totalizing systems of belief. Was it shifting views on state ownership and private property that prompted their change of heart, or did they swing from one ideological extreme to another because what they disdained most was the messiness of society and progress, which at all times obtains and which the true democratic spirit accepts?
Anne Applebaum writes of her liberal, pro-democracy allies in Europe before the fall of the Soviet Union who have recently embraced authoritarianism and nationalism. What motivated their conversion? Many things, she says, but above all: disappointment. The world they believed they were fighting for lacked the intoxicating purpose and grandeur of the struggle to achieve it. Perhaps their role in the new world didn’t live up to the importance they had imagined for themselves. They needed something more. How easily then the very essence of democratic culture—its dullness, slowness, compromise and petty bourgeois fixations—distills into the fuel of disappointment that fascism and other utopianisms feed on.
While Senate, House and down-ballot races remained closely divided across the country in 2020, ballot initiatives legalizing and decriminalizing drugs won across the board. Unlike so many things in politics, the growing movement to liberalize drug laws does not break down neatly along partisan lines.
Part of people’s interest in drugs may reflect a hunger for escapism from our assaultive, unrelenting political and media culture, but another part, I believe, reflects our desire to maintain an open channel to transcendental feelings—feelings of awe, transport, fullness and unity—largely unaddressed by society in its disenchanted form. Drugs promise freedom both of and from the self: more expansive forms of experience and relief from the rational order that maintains the boundary between the self and everything else. Lewis Hyde has written that drug use (alcohol in this case) is about the spiritual longing for wholeness, “the thirst of the self to feel that it is a part of something larger.” He is skeptical that drugs can satisfy this thirst, and when it comes to their ability to correct for the disappointments of modern life we should be too.
But the yearning to join with what is whole and all-encompassing doesn’t easily depart. Karl Ove Knausgaard, in the final book of his six-volume novel, My Struggle, describes watching Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. He sees a people, he writes, responding to “callings from the deepest pith of human life, that which has to do with birth and death, and with homeland and belonging,” and he decides that the horror of this spectacle does not arise from knowing the history that followed it, but from the monstrousness of its uniformity: “It was the fall of the name into the number … the differentiating into the undifferentiated.” The late poet Geoffrey Hill defended difficulty in literature and art on the grounds that it refused exactly this homogenization, on which despotism depends. Invoking the insights of Theodor Haecker, a German scholar who opposed the Nazis, Hill argues that what “the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross oversimplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement.” “Any complexity of language,” he adds, “any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies … an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations … resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.”
One need not reach so far back to illustrate these points. We have our own ecstatic political gatherings today. On January 6th, after attending a rally led by the president himself, a mob dressed in flags, horned helmets, face paint and all manner of symbolic paraphernalia—looking like nothing so much as a casting call for Armageddon, a Bosch or Bruegel painting sprung to life—stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Many of the participants believed they were acting on behalf of the sacralized nation itself, waging a form of holy war, a divinely sanctioned apocalyptic revolution inspired by the message-board encyclicals of Christian nationalism, QAnon conspiracy theories and other shadowy civil religions and myths.
In the absence of anything that points to a realm of meaning beyond our immediate social reality, we turn our spiritual and religious energies on society itself. Susceptible to slogans of incitement, we are liable to mistake our inner agitation for those callings from the deep pith of human life. But this attempt to wring religious meaning from politics—making it about the fate of the moral universe and the stakes of our immortal souls—asks more of politics than it can bear. It will break before it discharges this responsibility. As secularization gives way to the cult of society, holy battle pits citizen and against citizen, and as Calasso writes, “all can end again in civil war—an updated form of the religious war.”
This is one reason we must approach with caution claims like Anand Giridharadas’s that if the 2020 election “is to have lasting meaning, we cannot see a Biden campaign victory as license to cast away politics as a presence in our daily lives.” It is not clear that politics is improved by our relentless fixation on it. The same things that make the news and politics exciting and stimulating—in the manner of television, drugs and apocalyptic religion—are what make them bad for us. If “being political” means working toward a tangible political goal in one’s life among other people, that’s one thing. But it seems safe to say that “politics as a presence in our daily lives,” as the vast majority of us understand it, means podcasts, cable news shows, a few national newspapers’ homepages, doom- or schadenfreude-scrolling on Twitter and scouring social media for fresh political stimulation. A kind of virtual churchgoing, in other words, with the occasional public execution of heretics. In no sense is attending to the media “practicing politics.”
But more profoundly still, what has gone wrong in politics, media and the news is not strictly fixable through these institutions. Lavishing more money and attention on them has not reformed them but in many ways made them more robustly effective at centering our attention on our insoluble divisions—made them, as the arena of politico-religious warfare, larger. Serious journalism and good political argument can’t function as we think they should in a culture unequipped to receive them. Unless we can claw back some sphere of cultural and civic activity from the totalizing force of religious politics, we are unlikely to find venues where we can get outside the rigid struggle of political combat to explore and expand who we are, what we want and how we interrelate. In medieval Europe there was no such thing as nonreligious art or nonreligious politics. We are backsliding into theocratic habits.
This has consequences. The most pressing crises of the moment—climate change and the coronavirus—are natural, not cultural, threats. Their destructive vectors are forces of nature, which respond to how we behave toward them but not how we talk about them. There are no symbolic victories where they are concerned, only practical victories and losses to be had.
Can art and other forms of serious culture help? What proof would we accept? We will never be able to rigorously measure the effect of nurturing deep, private capacities within ourselves, but it may be reasonable to wonder whether the cultivation of such capacities—like the substance, texture and beauty of daily life—is not in fact the core input in evaluating political progress. In what a society devotes resources to it teaches its people what it values. During the same civic era when Americans went to the moon, helped defeat fascist Germany, dismantled legal segregation, built the interstate highways and supported affordable universities, we also paid artists to expand the depth and beauty of our institutions and educated millions on the G.I. Bill. Marilynne Robinson describes the dwindling tradition that exposed our students to “high thought and great art, along with chemistry and engineering,” and she remarks, reflecting on the meaning of our public universities, that “all those arches and spires induce the belief in undergraduates that they have a dignified place in human history, something better than collaborating in the blind creep of a material culture that values only itself.”
I don’t know where or how we find the orienting coordinates for our existence—beyond immediate pleasure and pain, across time, as inheritors of the past and custodians of the future—without culture of the sort that binds us to a shared timeless humanity and to the ongoing human project. The critical step art takes past piety is that it does not ask us to be better than we are, or more than we are; it asks instead only that we understand ourselves, and then, from the evidence of this understanding, it points us “toward sources of life,” as Saul Bellow writes.
What does Bellow mean? He elaborates on the moral—as opposed to the political or moralistic—dimension of art, explaining that “either we want life to continue or we do not.” If we do want it to continue, “we are liable to be asked how. In what form shall life be justified? This is the essence of the moral question. We call a writer moral to the degree that his imagination indicates to us how we may answer naturally, without strained arguments, with a spontaneous, mysterious proof that has no need to argue with despair.”
For we need not argue with what effortlessly moves us, what plunges by the guidelights of the imagination to our psychic commons wherein the falsity of public words—that say we cannot know each other, or be known—dissolves like dust in crystal streams. Art’s power rises from the vulnerability and risk not just of diving for such water but of returning with it to the surface. A braver act than we care to recognize, we are grateful for it in solitary moments. We rejoice, I think, to learn a force exists opposed to slogans, chants, the simplifications of power, the obloquy of bullies. Despair unknots in this faint, warm current, this intimation that we can be unbound from within. We must be told, and told again, that the world reserves a place for our authentic private selves.
That conscience and imagination speak in their own language—a language purged of strained arguments—is crucial, for something must precede and prepare the ground for politics, something that helps us find ways of being which are natural to us in that they are agreeable, they satisfy us. Without such knowledge, there can be no human flourishing. Religiosity may flourish, and the power politics it demands. Orthodoxy, dogma and religious zeal may flourish, and we will pay for them in increments of blindness to what is real. Our habits of speech and mind grow all the time, invisibly, into habits of perception and belief. And it does not take long at all for us to lose sight of the psychic unity that binds us, and to see not just as naïve but as dangerous and heretical the words that strive to make us remember this unity as vividly as hope demands.
Art credit: Stefan Jennings Batista, “Tunnel,” 2017. Courtesy of the artist.