Can Trumpian Populism Restore the Culture?

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Like all good Catholics, I hope very much that President Donald Trump follows through on his promises to pro-life Americans. It looks as though he will follow through in appointing a pro-life Supreme Court justice; obviously this is a tremendous blessing. Despite that, regular Crisis readers may recall that I have never harbored enthusiasm for Trump, either as a man or as a politician. I willingly identify with the group recently described by Fr. George Rutler as “pearl clutchers”: Never Trump pundits whose “standards and convictions” turned them against the Republican nominee. Unlike some, though, I’m hanging onto my pearls. Beautiful things may be scarce in the years to come.

Out of respect for our nation’s highest office, I will not here and now return to the general question of Trump’s character or suitability for public service. I do think this an opportune time for discussing a related question: Can high culture survive our populist moment?

Austin Ruse recently wrote a column here at Crisis castigating Washingtonian elites for their snobbish dismissal of business. As Ruse sees it, Trump represents a delightful blend of common-man goodness and benevolent aristocracy. Though we aren’t sure exactly how much money he has, no one doubts that he is extremely rich. Unlike some wealthy men, however, he doesn’t hide. He shows up for rallies in well-tailored suits, not phoney-baloney “I am one of you” flannel shirts. On the other hand, he does know how to commune with the common man. If you hand him a hot dog, he knows how to eat it.

Ruse is certainly right about this: Trump distinguished himself as a man of the people, or perhaps we should say, as a lord of the people. He is a populist hero. His supporters know that he is a member of the elite, but they believe that he is their elite, willing to fight for their concerns and represent their issues. He is a common-man champion; suits and wiener know-how were among the devices he used to burnish that image.

There is another major piece to that puzzle, however. Trump is a kind of connoisseur of low culture, and made great use of that understanding to appeal to the masses. Another of his qualifications is that takes no interest at all in higher things.

In Trump’s social world, this is a distinctive feature. Most wealthy people at least make some pretense of valuing high culture. They collect art, appear at symphonies, and endow chairs at their children’s universities. In many or most cases this is probably a sham, mere virtue signaling to enable people to feel justified in their wealth. (If you doubt this, watch a few episodes of HGTV’s Million Dollar Rooms and reflect on how money can’t buy you taste.) Still, we might see the façade as a kind of duty that wealth pays to excellence. Even the pretense of valuing culture may send a salutary message about how prosperous people ought to behave.

Trump is different. He shows no personal interest in the arts or the pursuit of wisdom. He actively flaunts his image as a man whom no amount of money can elevate or refine. Given the capacity to build a cathedral, he prefers a casino. He associates with Playboy, not Plato. The Carnegies poured their wealth into universities, while the Vanderbilts built mansions and luxuriant gardens. Trump’s iconic monument is a golden escalator.

Good taste and culture must sometimes take a back seat to more pressing concerns. Supposing we grant that Trump is an uncultured boor, what follows? Three months ago, it would have been reasonable to reply with a speech about lesser evils and the culture of death. At this point, the election is over, so the lesser-evil reasoning is irrelevant. Hillary Clinton will never be our president. We can now turn our attention to rejuvenating our culture, and a significant obstacle to that project may well be the man in the Oval Office.

Some may like to think of it this way. By thwarting the progressive behemoth, Trump has bought us the luxury of working instead to defend our culture from the lesser forms of degradation that he represents: casinos, pornography, and a populist leveling of any real pursuit of excellence.

We are now facing the prospect of four years with Trump as a major authority figure who is constantly in the public eye. Even beyond his own political career, however, it seems likely that his success will inspire other politicians (from both sides of the aisle) to attempt a similar feat. Revolutionary fervor and celebrity appeal may be part of our politics for some time to come. For lovers of tradition and culture, that’s a fairly grim prospect. Populists as a rule have no great love of either.

One of the best ways of preserving high culture is simply by enjoying it. This is a pleasant duty, and one of the upsides to our technocratic age is that nearly everyone can do it in one way or another. Most of us have at least some leisure time that we can choose to employ in a manner Josef Pieper would recommend, steeping our souls in elevated and uplifting things that draw us closer to God. Relatively few people are offered the opportunity to be a scholar or a sculptor, but almost anybody can embrace the joys of amateur cultural pursuits. Libraries and kindle freebies put great works of literature at the fingertips of rich and poor alike. Art museums usually have a free day. Even when we’re extremely busy, we can play symphonies or audiobooks while we commute or cook or scrub mildew from our showers. The common man can really be quite cultivated nowadays, if he chooses to be.

Usually he doesn’t, and this leads us to a somewhat less pleasant task: pushing back against the popular belief that the difference between high and low culture is (at best) a matter of taste, or (at worst) a matter of class control. In our time, the widespread availability of high culture underscores the sad reality that most people are not unable to participate; they are simply uninterested. The U.S. porn industry makes more than 10 billion dollars annually. Americans spend 80 billion on cigarettes. Think of the cultural renaissance that money could finance! But these points are rarely mentioned when populists take aim at cultural elitists, who predictably get lumped in with the CEOs and chaired professors as parasites just looking for excuses to denigrate the common man.

Rachel Lu

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Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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