It was one of the weirdest moments of the last four years: President Trump, stood before a church, holding a Bible like he’d never seen one before.
Presumably, the point of the stunt last summer was to reassure godly Republicans that he was on their side, during the depths of the BLM protests and riots. But that, of course, is precisely their problem — American Christians chose a man like him to lead them, a man whose behaviour is completely contrary to everything the holy book stands for. As Psalm 141 warns: “Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies!”
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Or, to state the matter more bluntly, as St Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15: “Bad company ruins good morals.”
Having eaten of Donald Trump’s delicacies, the Republican Party is in deep trouble. Its current path leads into the wilderness, while the alternative — a painful process of detrumpification — would tear the movement apart. But then there are no easy choices when your morals are ruined.
The lesson for conservatives everywhere is a simple one: be careful who you associate with. It’s no use them complaining that they’re held to a higher standard than the libs because, while they generally are, that’s all the more reason not to supply the enemy with ammunition.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that, these days, conservatives have more bad choices to make. Conservatism used to be associated with the establishment, but that’s changing fast and in many countries the primary locus of anti-establishment feeling is to be found on the Right rather than the Left. Being on the outside looking in means that you have other outsiders to deal with, and thus what used to be the biggest problem for the Left (the extremists on their own side) is now the biggest problem for the Right.
Outsiders need representation too, but one must reject the worst of them — those who are too mad or bad to be anywhere else. And there are plenty of such people, willing to speak on behalf of conservatives; social media is crawling with them.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing mad or bad inside the establishment. Just think about our crazy campuses, woke corporations, dysfunctional bureaucracies and over-mighty tech giants. But this is mainstream madness and badness. Insiders get away with what they do and say because it’s normalised — even celebrated — by the arbiters of acceptability. As Eric Weinstein puts it, “the Official Idealism of every age is usually the cover story of its thefts.”
As they become an anti-establishment force, conservatives must keep in mind that the cover story does not cover them anymore, and the bad choices that they make will be fully exposed. It is thus ever more important that they choose their friends more wisely.
But if establishment values no longer define what a conservative ought to be, what criteria should be applied instead? The creation of an alternative establishment — a “conservative movement” of TV stations, websites and think tanks — might be a necessary way of countering media bias, but it has also trapped the Right within an echo chamber of its own making, and created the sort of ideological purity conservatives so dislike in the other side. Proper conservatism rightly shies away from tests of ideological purity and indeed ideology itself.
If conservatives everywhere wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Trump era, they need to return to first principles. In Ancient Greek philosophy, these are the “transcendentals” — the “properties of being” most commonly expressed as Agathos (“the Good”), Aletheia (“the True”) and Kalos (“the Beautiful”). If anything distinguishes conservatism from other belief systems in the modern day it is the idea that goodness, truth and beauty are not matters of mere opinion, they are real — indeed they transcend human experience.
Sometimes referred to as the “Platonic Triad” or the “Socratic Trinity”, the transcendentals were incorporated from Greek philosophy into Christian theology where they became building blocks of the western tradition. In recent centuries, that tradition has come under sustained attack from within. For those who believe that the physical universe is all that there is or that everything is subjective, there can be no room for the idea that abstract principles have objective reality.
Conservative thinkers, including CS Lewis and Roger Scruton, have led a counter-attack, reasserting the transcendence of goodness, truth and beauty. These things are unfashionable because they place limitations upon individual autonomy and a world in which transcendentals exist does not revolve around subjective experience. We therefore cannot allow our ethical, epistemic and aesthetic choices to be governed by our personal feelings alone.
That, however, is the essence of Trumpism. Last week I argued that Donald Trump was America’s first post-modern President — a practitioner of politics as if objectivity doesn’t matter. The Republicans allowed themselves to be lured into his make-believe world and are struggling to find their way out again — because there’s no hope for a conservatism that does not rigorously apply the Good, the True and the Beautiful to its political judgements.
Let’s look at goodness first. This, of course, is the most expansive of the three — indeed it could be viewed as the all-encompassing super-principle. However, we can narrow our focus with reference to the Greek word Agathos — which carries a particular meaning of “excellence of character”. It’s not our place to sit in final judgement on the state of someone’s soul, but we can ask of a potential leader “is he or she of excellent character?” In Trump’s case we don’t need to agonise over the answer.
We can’t expect perfection, of course — not from the crooked timber of humanity. But if someone lives their life in obvious violation of widely shared standards of decency, then that really ought to put us off.
The criterion of goodness can be applied to collective actions, too. Think of the mob that attacked the Capitol on 6 January. Can attacking police officers doing their duty be described as good? Or vandalising a public building? Or disporting oneself in a place reserved for the holders of high office? The answer to those questions should also be obvious — especially to anyone calling themselves conservative.
Now on to truth or Aletheia. The Greek word literally translates as “unhidden” or “out in the open”, and there’s an echo of it in the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Self-evident truths are the foundation of unity — or, at the very least, honest debate.
This stands in contrast to the hidden “truths” of conspiracy theory. When such claims become the currency of public discourse, there can be no unity, only division; no debate, only propaganda. The last few weeks in America have made evident just how much damage this can do.
Of course, the truth isn’t always clear. There’s so much that we don’t know — and that we don’t know that we don’t know. Epistemic humility is therefore in order, a key principle of conservative thought, in particular its opposition to radical, untested change. Doubt is not the enemy of truth, but the homage that we pay to truth’s transcendent power to expose human ignorance.
Conservatives must beware those who only don the mantle of scepticism to question the convictions of the other side. When you see someone describe themselves as, say, a “climate sceptic” or a “lockdown sceptic’, ask them what doubts they entertain about their own position. Or, if the evidence isn’t available yet, ask them what, in theory, would it take for them to change their minds. The answers should be revealing.
Finally, we come to beauty. We’ve been taught to distrust the concept as hopelessly subjective. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then it might seem unimportant — even to those who regard goodness and truth as real. And yet the ancients were unembarrassed to include the Beautiful alongside the Good and the True. That’s because they saw that the three concepts are related to one another: truth tells us about goodness and beauty draws us towards the truth. Hence the test that we should apply to what is presented as beautiful — does it enlighten and therefore improve us?
It’s a test that is relevant in politics. Aesthetic choices can tell you a lot about a political movement. Kitsch is not a good sign, nor is brutalism, nor an excess of minimalism or uniformity. Vulgarity is also suspect, but then so is snobbery — a mean love for a mean thing, to paraphrase Thackeray.
The Greek word for beauty — Kalos — also implies health and wholesomeness (hence “callisthenics”). If one thinks about the style, as well as the substance, of Trumpism one can hardly describe it as wholesome, or dignified or gracious. The tweets, the memes, the performances, never lacked for aesthetic distinctiveness, but the purpose was to provoke and outrage, not to enlighten or edify. The effect was one of sensation not inspiration — and thus should have been repulsive to a conservative audience.
Goodness, truth and beauty are related, but it’s possible to fail on one standard but not the others. For instance, a decent person can be consumed by conspiratorial thinking and thus fail on the standard of truth. Alternatively, someone might speak the truth, but using ugly language and thus fail the standard of beauty.
Trumpism is unusual in the degree to which it has transgressed all three standards — the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Whether the Republican Party can ever recover from its failure to see what was so obvious I don’t know. But, as a conservative, I hope that the lasting shame serves as a warning to conservatives elsewhere.
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