Symbolism and Trumpism

Blogger photog at Orion’s Cold Fire often links to noteworthy pieces on American Greatness, the premiere blog for the Trumpist Right.  American Greatness does real yeoman’s work to articulate what Trumpian conservatism is.

His American Greatness Post of the Day for this foggy Monday morning is Robin Burk’s “What Trump Understands that Kevin Williamson Doesn’t.”

Kevin Williamson, you’ll recall, is the house globalist/libertarian for National Review (despite a brief, one-article stint at The Atlantic).  In 2016, he infamously wrote that “dysfunctional, downscale communities… deserve to die.”  He argued that communities like Garbutt, New York—a gypsum boomtown in the nineteenth century that ran its course when the gypsum was gone—have outlived their economic usefulness, and its inhabitants should move elsewhere for opportunity.

There is something to this perspective, but, as Tucker Carlson eloquently noted in an exchange with Ben Shapiro, the neoliberal order and its notions of economic mobility are hugely disruptive to communities.  Families are told, essentially, to leave behind their grandparents’ graves, their Little League teams, their memories, in order to work in service to the gaping maw of some efficiency-maximizing corporate conglomerate.

What Trumpism understands is that, while economies are dynamic, they require strong communities and stable families to maintain.  So it is that Robin Burk argues that Williamson’s libertarian approach lacks any sense of a narrative or symbols.  Williamson is testy because Trump is planning a big military parade (and, presumably, because Trump has been a far more effective advocate for conservatism than Williamson’s angry brand of libertarian orthodoxy).  It seems like wasteful agitprop to him.

What Burk explains in her piece, however, is that a common people need some unifying symbols.  That’s why the NFL National Anthem controversy revealed such deep splits in our culture.  It’s why Americans don’t particularly like it when protesters burn the American Flag.  Yes, it’s constitutional, but that doesn’t mean it’s good—and it’s the literal destruction of one of the most unifying national symbols.

Burk’s focus is more on the local, though, and it’s what makes her piece so interesting.  Communities are built between friends and neighbors.  Yes, the mills shutdown, and some people have to move to look for opportunity.  The mills shutting down also mean some people lose their way, and resort to opiates to numb the pain.

But not everyone can or wants to become economic mercenaries, shifting about rootlessly in search of the highest bidder—or just a job, for that matter.  Some folks want to build a life and a community where their ancestors did.

The implication from neoliberal and libertarian types is that, at best, that desire is unrealistic; at worst, it’s bad:  your loyalty should only be to efficiency!  Efficiency is morality!  While I love efficiency as much as the next cog, efficiency-for-its-own-sake is not and should not be our god.

As Carlson puts it (to paraphrase), we shouldn’t work for capitalism; capitalism should work for us.  Burk adds that we need symbols, formed from and interpreted by our individual experiences and memories, to create a society that fosters the good life.

6 thoughts on “Symbolism and Trumpism

  1. […] “Symbolism and Trumpism” – An unfortunate side effect of Protestant efficiency and pragmatism is the lack of attention to symbols, which we tend to view with suspicion—“it might be an idol!”  But symbols matter immensely to uniting a people.  That’s the key insight this piece explores, care of an American Greatness essay about Trump’s ability to understand the need for and use of unifying symbols like the National Anthem, the American Flag, and so on. […]

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  2. […] Symbols are powerful—something we evangelical Protestants tend to forget, but that our Catholic and High Church Protestant brothers and sisters understand.  Every tin-pot atheist and modern-day Puritan (they didn’t like Christmas because they thought it was a Papist invention) points to the pagan observances that fall on or around Christian holidays as “proof” that either a.) Christianity is invalid or b.) that we’re all secretly worshiping the Winter Solstice and Sol Invictus. […]

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