What’s different about Donald Trump? Forget about the hair for a while, if you can. What sets him apart is his defiant disregard for the ideological consensus that other American politicians sign up to. That consensus can be summed up as ‘hopeful humanism’. Of course ‘humanism’ doesn’t mean non-religion here: this hopeful humanism is always expressed with some degree of reference to Christian (or Judeo-Christian) tradition.
This consensus, of course, involves certain patterns of moral rhetoric. It involves speaking about people of all races and religions with respect – not labelling Mexicans rapists, not proposing a ban on Muslims coming into the country. It means respecting international human rights, and utterly avoiding flippant talk about being violent to enemies, by bombing them, torturing them and killing their families.
Of course various politicians have half-challenged this consensus in recent decades, perhaps beginning with Nixon. They have put huge emphasis on the restoration of American power, and denigrated aspects of hopeful humanism. Even before 9/11, George W. Bush half-challenged it, when he spoke of international human rights as less important than American power. Events then made that posture into hard policy. But these presidents, and Reagan even more so, also pushed the hopeful humanism buttons – America must be strong so that it can be a compassionate city on a hill, they said.
Rubbish, says Trump. America must be strong, period. It must be strong because success feels good. All the idealistic talk can go hang, it’s a spent force. In a sense he’s right. The old rhetoric of hopeful humanism has become tired, incoherent. Obama peformed it like no one ever had, and the result was not the kingdom of God on earth, but just life as normal – indeed, due to the recession, life as harder than normal for ordinary people.
The success of his iconoclasm is a problem, for ‘hopeful humanism’ is central to the ideology of the West in general. America must not start scorning it and mocking it. Who would take up the torch, the EU?
At the root of the problem, as usual, is a muddle about politics and religion. Trump is saying that hopeful humanism doesn’t work, in making people better off, and making them feel like the world’s winners. It isn’t an effective political creed. So let’s seek another that’s more brutally realistic. But hopeful humanism never was a purely political creed, a means to an end of ‘national success’. It was always a religious-based creed. It comes from the Puritan belief that God will favour a nation that does the right thing. This semi-secularised into the belief that America stands for liberty and justice, and that it must be strong in order to spread these principles, not just to be a big-dick winner.