This election of Donald Trump was driven by irrational factors, and overt racism is too simplistic a way to characterize them. The problem is broader in that it embraces fundamental issues of identity and acculturation in Red and Blue America. So it's important to understand what's going on rather than moralistically to dismiss his election as driven mainly by racism. Then the task is to begin to look for some plausible cures.
The beginning of a cure lies in recognizing how deeply everybody is shaped by their acculturation as children. Our acculturation effects an indelible cultural download that shapes our experience of the world and of our place in it. Even if we choose to reject the values and worldview of the culture in which we were brought up, it remains deeply embedded in our psyches and continues to shape our perceptions and experience. For better or worse, we can never transcend completely the limitations of our acculturation. For better, extraordinary gifts are bequeathed to us by our ancestors; for worse because among those gifts are insinuated attitudes and practices that are deeply wrong.
The best we can do is cultivate the positive and to be emotionally intelligent about the negative, among them attitudes and practices regarding race and gender. That means we need to be aware of how these negative elements in our acculturation shape our perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors, and then to develop strategies that help us manage them. While none of us can control how we feel, we can control what we say and do. And while there is no legislation that can force a change in our attitudes, it is sometimes necessary to use legislation to force a change in our customs and practices.
But force should always be the last resort, and a more effective approach is education--an education that should happen in schools and churches if we had schools and churches that had any idea about how they could play a culturally transformative role. The development of this kind of emotional intelligence about our acculturation should be one of the primary benefits of a good education, and transformation the benefit rendered by the churches.
Such an education starting at the high school age in some critical courses in the humanities, particularly history and literature, would give students the opportunity to examine their values in a conscious, critical manner, and in doing so to evaluate what is just and true, and what is not. This is frequently done in our schools when gifted teachers work with young people in these areas, but it is not a formal part of the curriculum. The churches should be playing a life-long supportive role in helping people to build on the foundation that should have been laid for them during adolescence. Clearly that's not what's happening either in our schools or in our churches and other places of worship. If it is happening, it's very exceptional.
Another way of putting it is that the main goal of education should be to enable or create the conditions for an awakening in young people from naive consciousness, i.e., a consciousness that is circumscribed by one's acculturation, to a consciousness that can find a standpoint outside of one's acculturation to evaluate what is good in it and what is not. Parents on the Left and Right would resist this who think the main purpose of education is indoctrination or job training. The churches see their main role as indoctrination into a moralistic code that reinforces a narrowed tribal identity more than it fosters a liberating, open, magnanimous, compassionate embrace of the world. There are exceptions, but they prove the rule.
Finding this balance between embracing the gifts of the ancestors while at the same time looking to transcend the limits of custom and tradition is a tough sell these days. Nobody on the Left or Right seems to believe that it's possible to find a standpoint outside one's acculturation. In a culture that has become so deeply materialist, it is hard for anyone to believe that they have access to anything outside "culture", except to switch from one tribal perspective to another. There is some merit in the exercise of looking at one's values and worldview through the eyes of someone who does not share it, but that's not what I'm talking about. I have been arguing here for years that there is another possibility, that most of us have common experience of it, but that we have forgotten how to name it, and have become incapable in any collective sense of taking it seriously.
So here's how I see it. The educational task is not a matter of doctrine or indoctrination; it is a matter of awakening to what I call the Deep Real. A healthy culture is one in which there is a broad consensus that the great ancestors--the artists, saints, prophets, and philosophers--have something to teach us about the Deep Real, but that we must find our own way of living in accordance with it in our own time. This requires that we awaken to what they awakened to. This awakening should lead not to the wholesale throwing out of babies with the bathwater, but rather to an appreciation of the gifts that have been conferred to us by our ancestors, but also an awareness that our ancestors were wrong, often very deeply wrong.
But how is it possible to transcend one's acculturation if there is no standard by which we can measure whether the ancestors in our tradition (or anyone else's) were right or wrong? This is the problem that Socrates posed to his interlocutors in Athens, and for his trouble he was executed by the citizens of Athens for corrupting their youth. He was engaged in a subversive activity that has been resisted by conservatives through the ages, which is to question the authority of the tradition. But Socrates did not do this simply to debunk; he did it because he insisted that there was a deeper, supra-cultural truth that his students could recognize, and that that truth provided the standard by which they could evaluate the justice of the customs, mores, myths, norms of the society in which they lived.
The goal was not destructive, but constructive. Not just to critique the inadequacy of what exists, but to hold it to a standard that shows how something deeper and more satisfying could be realized. This is the only way I think a true progressivism is possible. It's not just a liberation from the constraints of custom and tradition, but a way of thinking about how what is given to us by the ancestors is always in a tension with the Deep Real that calls upon people shaped within any tradition to move beyond it by aspiring to come into deeper alignment with Reality. This is both an individual task, but also a social one. It cannot be a task that is forced on anyone; it can only be encouraged, and it can only be encouraged by people who have a sense of the worth of taking it on. If enough people "get it" they can effect significant changes in our collective imaginary.
This was Socrates' mission. His challenge to the citizens of Athens was, to use Charles Taylor's language, a post-Axial, disembedding move. We are culturally embedded to the degree that we live unconsciously in our acculturation; we are incapable of evaluating our acculturation unless we are able to stand outside of it and look at it dispassionately, but such a move leads to nihilism unless it also leads to a deeper awareness of the Deep Real, which is the standard by which we evaluate all things in our otherwise very limited, contingent experience of the world.
Our experience and interpretation of such experiences of the Deep Real are always limited and perspectival. We never know it in any complete sense, but some people--the great artists, saints, prophets, and philosophers--have had deeper experiences of it than the rest of us. Their authority and credibility lies in that we recognize that they have come to see and understand something that we 'intuit' to be true, that they are pointing to something of tremendous value that we should like to know more about. This is not primarily a cognition in the head, so much as it is a cognition of the heart. The heart takes in the experience of the Deep Real, and then the head interprets it and then tries to express or articulate in some way what has been disclosed to the heart. Heidegger's talk about the 'moods' of Being is suggestive of what I'm talking about here.
I think people frequently have these heart cognitions, but their head does not know how to interpret them in a way that comports with their importance. Too often such cognitions are dismissed as merely subjective or aesthetic, but I would insist that they are disclosive of something that is trans-subjective, or inter-subjective, i.e., relational. (Read Buber's I and Thou for more on this.) Christians and Jews believe that the Deep Real is personal, but other plausible interpretations (Buddhism, Heidegger) of our experiences of it are possible. This is a pre-doctrinal experience, but obviously we interpret such cognitions through the filters of our acculturation. The materialist framework in which all of us, even people who are believers, are acculturated makes it extremely difficult to interpret such disclosive experiences in a way that takes them seriously. If we don't take them seriously, then these experiences are like the seed that falls on rocky ground.
The important thing to emphasize here is that such cognitions are not something we make up or subjectively project; they are rather more like discoveries about how things are, because "how things are" wants to disclose itself to us if we can find a way to be receptive to it. The great ancestors conducted, to use Thomas Merton's phrase, "raids on the unspeakable", and so what they speak is 'true' but limited. It is helpful because it is disclosive in its own way, but not definitive. They point to something real that is outside our historically and culturally limited, perspectival consciousness, but they do it within the limitations of their own limited, perspectival consciousness. They point, however, to the place where we, too, can find the foothold outside of our acculturation where we can stand to evaluate the "quality" of our experience of the world, and to judge its just-ness. We never completely transcend our acculturation, but neither are we completely trapped within it--unless stubbornly we choose to be.
What I have described here was pretty much the standard view among sane, educated people in the West until Romanticism gave way to the crude materialistic, instrumental rationalism of the late 19th century and its mechanomorphic social imaginary. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophes largely rejected custom and traditional religion, but they did not reject the idea of universal truth apprehensible by Reason. It would not be possible for Jefferson to have written "We hold these truths to be self-evident" and to be so broadly understood unless there was among his readers, even the most irreligious of them, the presumption that their understanding of the Truth was grounded in the Deep Real. Their name for it was Providence in those days.
The problem with the Enlightenment rationalists lay in that they had an inflated understanding of the significance of Reason. It wasn't what they affirmed about Reason that was problematic so much as what they left out. Their understanding of it was too often more of a cold, heady thing than a heart thing. And they naively thought they could completely transcend their acculturation, wipe clean the traditions and customs they found so oppressive, and start from scratch according to a heady blueprint for a new society they felt obligated to impose, top-down, on everyone else. This is the Jacobin fallacy, and it remains the core delusion of the Left to this day.
The Left then and now did/does not understand that the great mass of human beings are embedded in their traditions and customs, which, in addition to giving their lives shape and meaning, had/have the salutary effect of constraining their basest instincts and inhibiting them from turning into a mob. The radical Left then didn't understand that when you destroy the extrinsic traditional framework, some few might awaken to the Deep Real, but most awaken instead to an increased awareness of their resentments, greed, and egotism, and they no longer feel any external constraints concerning their violent expression. There was Robespierre the Jacobin idealist who thought he was in some privileged way a prophet of the Deep Real, and then there was the Parisian mob. The combination of Jacobin custom-destroying idealism and mob resentments leads to chaos, the terror, and eventually to military dictatorship as the last resort to restore order.
In our own day, many decent heartlanders have been driven into the arms of a demagogue like Trump and the billionaires, militarists, and extreme-right ideologues for whom he will carry water. The causes are complex, but chief among them is the one-two punch of the tradition-and-custom-destroying effects of global capitalism combined with the neo-puritanical, moralistic contempt of the Cultural Left for what remains of their customs and traditions. Heartlander choices have not been rational, but that doesn't mean they don't make sense.
This does not mean that the Conservatives were/are right. Burke and his conservative epigones reacted too extremely to the extremism in France. They were right that like the Jacobins you just can't trash existing traditions, norms, and institutions and start over from scratch, but they were/are wrong if they think that the cultures and traditions of the West don't stand vulnerable to judgment by the Deep Real. Buckley's defense of segregation in the South was appalling.
Burke was right and wrong to emphasize historical rights over abstract human rights. He was right because rights in the abstract are not worth much; they have to be historically incarnated in the beliefs and practices of particular societies. He was wrong to think about these rights as coming primarily from the past, because I would argue they come from a Deep Real that is calling us into the Future. I would argue that the ancestors in England and elsewhere who established the rights of Englishmen were in their time and place, whether they were aware of it or not, were responding, at least in part, to the call of the Deep Real, and so must we now in our time and place advance their work. That sense of the justice of the rights of Englishmen doesn't come out of thin air; it can't be explained away simply with contract theory. But I don't want to get off on a tangent here.
Many if not most conservatives profess to be religious (Libertarians are not conservatives), but too often they focus on preserving the dead forms of the tradition rather than working with the energies that gave those forms the shape that was appropriate for their time and place. The task now for them, as well as people of goodwill on the Left, is to work with the energies of the Deep Real to shape new forms that are appropriate for our time and place. This is not a Jacobin project, because it needs to work bottom up, not top down; it needs to be deeply democratic, and it needs to work with the better angels that lay slumbering in the souls of the American demos, not with their anger and resentment.
The Left as a group has no way of awakening these angels because they do not believe in the Deep Real whence they come. But the people in the Churches have been equally useless because even if they believe in the Deep Real there is very little about what they say or do in the Public sphere that points to its inspiring vitality. They work with energies that are more tribal than transcendent, and they are more interested in indoctrination than in metanoia.
But if conservatives mostly profess a dead moralism, so too does the Left in the sanctimony and condescension they direct toward those with traditional values. The cultural Left is right about a lot of things the cultural Right is wrong about, but it is powerless to convince or persuade anybody who is not already singing in their choir. If they are passionate about anything it is their advocacy of a groundless relativism that provides no firm footing for anyone to take a stand and to push back against the Darkness that has been building on the Right for over thirty years now, and for which they have had no answer.
They are strident in the way they say "No" and offer a goofy kumbaya celebration of "difference" that is hard for anybody to take seriously.who doesn't think John Lennon's "Imagine" is a masterpiece. And as a result they come across as flaky, moralistic scolds rather than as prophets who point to something deep and true. And so it's easy for thoughtful heartlanders to reject their critique because it is mostly negative without affirming anything deeply positive. Heartlander conservatives can just say, "Well, you don't understand our culture and history. Your practices go against everything deep and true we were taught by our ancestors. You speak with no authority, and so why should we take your groundless, Liberal, debunking, flaky nonsense seriously."
And so when no one can inspire the better angels of our nature, it creates room for the dark angels to enter stage right. The mission of these dark angels is to destroy the norms, practices, and customs that have made an already deeply flawed democracy viable. These dark angels have always been there in the American psyche, but operated out of sight in the Deep South or lurking on the fringes in other areas of the country. But they started to come out onto center stage in the 90s.
It started with Newt Gingrich and his scorched-earth, norm-destroying politics, and then Cheney/Bush and their delusional militaristic hubris, their nihilistic justifications for torture, their abrogation of basic human rights like habeas corpus, their delusional economic thinking, and now, God help us, we have Donald Trump who wouldn't know a norm if he tripped over one. The Democrats as a group, because most of them believe in nothing more than advancing their careers, stood fecklessly, impotently by. And so there is nobody to push back because the Left has no place to stand and comes across as so clueless. Nobody on either the Right or the Left seems capable of making a compelling counterargument that can be heard outside their own tribal echo chambers.
And so there is really no hope unless someone can find a way to frame a counterargument that might provide an inoculation to the disease in this country that is contaminating the Right. No compelling counterargument has been made because there is no one on the American scene today who has the stature of one of the great artists, saints, prophets, or philosophers who is capable of awakening us to the Deep Real where our better angels reside and can be called on for help. Lincoln did it, and so did MLK and Jim Lawson, and RFK might have become someone who could. Who since then? Bernie? Maybe, not sure. But certainly him before Hillary.
Calling people racists or naive or ignorant is not an effective political strategy. We are all racists, naive, and ignorant relatively speaking. To know that about ourselves is the beginning of wisdom, but if we have any realistic expectation of asking people to transcend their acculturation, they have to be awakened to their better angels. Trump, candidate chaos, has instead given many Americans license to indulge their resentments. And so we await the figure to enter stage Left who can speak with authority because he has a strong foothold in the Deep Real.