Religion Department
Wilson College

As I write this post, the news that Donald Trump, Jr. met with Kremlin insider, Natalia Veselnitskaya, continues to dominate the headlines. The meeting appears to be the smoking gun or at least the scandal’s first smoking gun in what may prove to be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. Such an outcome is hardly a foregone conclusion, however. Republican support for Trump continues to remain solid or even strong, both on Capitol Hill and among Republicans more broadly. One wonders what it would take for Republican partisans to turn on Trump.

Ironies abound. To begin with, there’s Donald Trump’s trip to the G-20 meeting in Germany. Any positive bounce that Trump might have gained from the trip has been swallowed up by this latest installment of Russia-Gate. All but forgotten is Trump’s “visionary” speech in Poland – calling on the West to rally to a war of civilizations.

The idea that the West is in a life and death struggle with Islam or some radicalized form of Islam is overwrought at best and counter-productive at worst. If Trump’s speech accomplished anything it was to rally the base of nationalist and jihadist organizations. That’s an important point, but my primary interest in the speech is a third irony.

I’m beginning to think that Donald Trump might be onto something with his talk of a generational struggle. Might it be that our civilization is facing an identity crisis and a related cultural war?

If so, the real threat is not some radicalized, violent version of Islam. Terrorist organizations are a very real problem for sure, but they do not represent an existential challenge. Might it be that we ourselves are the real enemy? That is, might it be that we are locked in a culture war between competing visions of America, the world, and even reality?

A friend wrote the following in response to my recent post on social conflict and the politics of being nice:

Conflict and disagreement may be in the species, but what troubles me is the degree of variation. It seems our standard deviation has widened, making rational discourse to examine conflicts harder to engage. Questioning is healthy; disregarding any semblance of factual footing is dangerous. E.g. to deny that the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11 is to me lunacy. There is a lot of lunacy today. Indeed, there are times I think we are collectively acting like a schizophrenic more in tune with voices that don’t exist, than to the ones that do.

What my friend is describing is an American society in which large segments are inhabiting different social worlds. In such a landscape, American politics takes on a distinctly dualist character, in which one’s political opponents are viewed as one’s enemies, a la Carl Schmitt. An American culture war has been much discussed and criticized, of course, at least since the Clinton Presidency. For my part, I’ve been skeptical of the description, thinking it melodramatic, and owing to the trauma of Trump’s election.

The leadership of the Democratic Party seems to have viewed the Trump election as an awful—perhaps criminal—mistake. One can almost hear them crying, “This can’t be!”—as if the United States really were an enlightened, Obama-loving, post-racial society. Such a view seems to have informed the Georgia special election campaign. It was as if the Democrats thought that to come out strongly against Trump was enough to rally voters to their campaign. Such a vision of our political culture might be called the politics of wish-fulfillment or in Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, an illusion.

I can’t fully blame the Democrats. Until recently I’ve thought that the election was something of a perfect storm or a one off, but then I keep coming up against the stubborn fact of Republican loyalty to Donald Trump and his apocalyptic vision.

Clearly, we are divided. The question is just how deep does the divide go? Can we speak any longer of even an overlapping consensus? In my next post, I’ll examine what Reinhold Niebuhr had to say about consensus in the volatile days of 1971.

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