I’m feeling kind of lousy writing a political meditation on the coup attempt of January 6th, 2021 when I could or should be writing a theological meditation on the Feast of Epiphany January 6th, 2022.
Yet here we are.
I’ll be direct: I think there’s a very high probability the Trumplicans will get their way, and this will spell the end of democracy as we have known it (inasmuch as we have ever had it, which some would question).
It’s hard to write about something I see so clearly, knowing that others (those who support Trump) see another way. As if we lived in two different nations that are the same nation. Or two realities overlapping each other.
But make no mistake, at this point in our national life we are not talking about healthy debate between different, but relatively viable, options for the maintenance of this republic. There isn’t “we have different opinions but we can all get along.” What we have instead is a threat to our democracy. It’s called autocracy. It’s main face is Donald Trump. And it’s energized by resentment, the fear the white Christian”majority” has that it is being replaced. And it’s a political force that believes any means are necessary to maintain its clearly articulated goal: white supremacy and Christofascism.
I’ll confess something to you: periodically I try to figure out what people mean when they say they are conservatives. It’s a weird flex. On our side of the equation, people of my own political and ethical persuasion, we tend to articulate our goals, our hopes for laws and policies and structures. If pressed, we might label ourselves as “liberal” or “Leftist.”
But conservatives lead with calling themselves “conservative.” Just look at the campaign web sites of our politicians (like the ones here in Arkansas). They emphasize that they are “CONSERVATIVES.”
But what is a conservative? I mean, it’s almost like a proper name devoid of any content. I’d love for someone to tell me what this label “conservative” actually means, because as far as I can tell it is mostly code.
David Brooks published an essay last year a couple of days after the January 6th coup attempt. He asked, “What happened to American conservatism?” I read the whole essay. I’m still not entirely sure what Brooks thinks conservatism is (the tenets he claims are part of conservatism are certainly not what are popularly meant by those who label themselves conservative), as he doesn’t define it very clearly in the essay, but he does say this one rather remarkable thing:
“To be a conservative today, you have to oppose much of what the Republican Party has come to stand for.”
So, what are the things Brooks believes are part of conservatism that the Republican Party has abandoned. Here’s the list:
- epistemological modesty, or humility in the face of what we don’t know about a complex world, and a conviction that social change should be steady but cautious and incremental.
- faith in the latent wisdom that is passed down by generations, cultures, families, and institutions, and that shows up as a set of quick and ready intuitions about what to do in any situation.
- Conservatism inspired because its social vision is not just about laws, budgets, and technocratic plans; its vision is about soulcraft, about how we build institutions that produce good citizens—people who are moderate in their zeal, sympathetic to the marginalized, reliable in their diligence, and willing to sacrifice the private interest for public good.
- The conservative seeks to defend this wonderful heterogeneity from the forces of bigness and the centralizing arrogance of rationalism—to protect these little platoons when government tries to perform roles best done in families, when the federal government takes power from local government, when big corporations suck the vitality out of local economies.
Now, having summarized what Brooks believes are the main commitments of conservatism, all I can say is: Well then I guess I’m a conservative.
Except, I don’t see popular conservativism, or the conservativism that holds this kind of power today, pursuing much of any of these commitments. They certainly don’t have epistemological modesty. Their concept of wisdom passed down by generations is very narrow and culturally restrictive. It seems to abandon soul craft for ideological zeal. And there’s no force for homogeneity stronger in our national life these days than self-titled “conservatives.”
So then, if these are the tenets of conservativism abandoned by conservatives, what is the new face of conservativism? What is it about?
I can think of no clearer summary than the recent project out of the University of Alabama, Uncivil Religion.
Essentially, these scholars of religion note the religious dimension was a crucial dimension of the attack on the capitol. The coup attempt on January 6th illustrated that “the power of religious discourse to promote a transcendent political goal can also have ruinous, antidemocratic, and violent consequences.”
It’s clear the political movement centered around Donald Trump is religious in nature. There’s a kind of incoherence to that religiosity. Just look at the pagan-looking Qanon inspired main protester who led prayer in the rotunda after breaking in to the capitol.
Certainly those attacking the capitol on January 6th were not inspired by the hallmarks of conservativism. Intuitions on what to do in any situation? Let’s beat this police officer to death with a flag pole. Humility? We must have won in spite of all the evidence to the contrary! Moderate in our zeal? Um.
And then on a side note, when was the last time you saw conservatives work to keep big corporations from sucking the vitality out of local economies?
Here’s the bottom line: the U.S. faces an existential threat from a group that has abandoned or grown bored with democracy and has illustrated that it is comfortable using violence to achieve its goals.
I find myself aligned with a conservative who seems to have remained committed to democracy, Liz Cheney. As Heather Cox Richardson describes in her recent newsletter:
Cheney was talking not just about the past, but also about the future. She wants “the American people to understand how dangerous Donald Trump was.” He “went to war with the rule of law.” “Any man…who would provoke a violent assault on the Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes, any man who would watch television as police officers were being beaten, as his supporters were invading the Capitol of the United States is clearly unfit for future office, clearly can never be anywhere near the Oval Office ever again.”
Cheney had a very clear message for her colleagues: The Republican Party “can either be loyal to Donald Trump or we can be loyal to the Constitution, but we cannot be both.”
So too, those of us who are united in preserving our democracy and pursuing the higher aspirations of our more perfect unity can either silently and quietly try to maintain peace where there is no peace… or we can stand firmly and courageously and strategically together against authoritarianism and Christian nationalism.
It may seem like a huge lift, but it’s crucial. Our neighbors are depending on us to not let them win. Or better yet, they are depending on us to join them in a better way.