A Populist Election and Its Aftermath

Considering how many crucial matters were at stake during the recent election, including the right to life and religious freedom, and confronting the preponderant bias in the media and opinion polls, it did not seem melodramatic to hope for a providential Hand to guide things. Without mistaking optimism for hope, and cautioned by the disappointment that can issue from placing trust in princes or any child of man, there could be much thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day.

An advantage of living in the center of the universe is that one need not travel, since one is already there. Here on 34th Street in Manhattan, the Jacob Javits Convention Center where the Democratic Party met on election night is a five minute walk west of my rectory, and the Hotel New Yorker where Mrs. Clinton gave her delayed concession speech is five minutes to the east. On the pavement outside my door, party workers had stenciled images of Mrs. Clinton. The paint must have been thin, for one rain shower washed most of them away. When Mr. Podesta finally appeared in the convention hall to disperse the crowds, he seemed browbeaten as well he might, for witnesses said that upon being told that she had lost, Mrs. Clinton had to be restrained at the sight of Mr. Podesta’s face.

Some who trusted pundits were shocked that their perception of the American populace was an illusion. Their rampant rage would have been tamer if they had not been assured, to the very day of voting, that the losers were winners. The reaction confirmed T.S. Eliot in “The Four Quartets”: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Engraved in journalistic memory are the words of The New York Times film critic Pauline Kael after the 1972 election: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theatre I can feel them.” She was telling the truth, for she indeed lived in a social cocoon impervious to the rebukes of reason, and she was less sympathetic than the benevolent Louis XVI not understanding why the head of the Princess de Lamballe was being carried on a pike past his window. Her number has been multiplied, and the response of thousands accustomed to life in a “rather special world” was to riot when the actual votes shattered their fantasy, although some Hollywood celebrities modified their previous vows to move to Canada (it is always Canada and never Cuba or North Korea) and one changed her mind about moving to another planet, proving the adage: “You can’t go home again.” More than a few pacifists turned their palm branches into truncheons. In places such as Maine and California, most of the arrested rioters were not registered voters and anonymous patrons paid many by the hour to chant “Love Not Hate” while beating up youths as well as adults.

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Fearing further decreases in its shrinking revenues, The New York Times made a pallid apology for misreading the demographics of our culture, coming as close as it could to admitting that it had been quite wrong, by confessing that it had not been quite right. Judging by its front page the next day, that act of contrition lasted twenty-four hours. The New York Daily News, which once was the most read newspaper in the nation and now is virtually bankrupt, showed no contrition after months of tabloid screeds climaxing on the day after the election with a headline calling the White House a “House of Horrors.” Free of the early deadlines required by the old styled linotype machines, no newspaper committed a “Dewey Defeats Truman” sort of faux pas. But instead of “Clinton Defeats Trump,” Newsweek magazine had to recall its “Madam President” souvenir edition showing Mrs. Clinton the way she used to smile.

The rout was the political equivalent of the battles of torrid Cermi, frigid Trenton, and stormy Midway, and it should have alerted churchmen. While Catholic voters seemed to have reacted to some condescending and inaccurate expressions about Catholicism during the campaign, the disparity between votes cast for each party, larger than in 2012, still was only 7 percent. Considering the large number of nominal Catholics for whom doctrine is an encumbrance that is no longer bothersome, the vaunted Catholic population of the United States less the number of actually faithful Catholics, is a Potemkin village. The precepts of several bishops on responsible voting had been edifying, but a remarkable number seemed to temper their instinctive loquacity with studied reserve. The election was a populist revolt and, while the popular election of bishops probably would be no improvement over the present system, the Church must address the simmering dissatisfaction of the faithful with the clerical establishment, which is as intense as the public vote against the Washington establishment. Mediocre bureaucrats easily talk about the People of God but they disdain a populism that would consult the people seriously, just as liberal humanitarians think that humans lower the tone of humanity.

Other casualties of the new populism are the “Never Trump” commentators among professional conservatives, comfortable in their settled standards and sure convictions. In their endowed professorial chairs, think tanks, and journals which none but each other read, they clutched their pearls while lamenting the untutored rhetoric of the “gauche, vulgar, shockingly ignorant, oafish and immoral” Trump, as though the White House has long been a Temple of Vestals. They now offer advice to the president-elect, as fair weather friends underestimating the storm, hoping that general amnesia will wipe away their lack of prescience.

After the election, histrionics have abounded in academia. College campuses have long been breeding grounds for self-absorption and corruption of sense, or what John Henry Newman described in his “Tamworth Reading Room” letters as “a mawkish, frivolous and fastidious sentimentalism.” A new name for these callow narcissists is “Snowflakes.” This brings to mind the apologia of Mae West: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Professors who never attained moral maturity themselves, reacted by providing “safe spaces” for students traumatized by reality. In universities across the land, by a sodality of silliness in the academic establishment, these “safe spaces” were supplied with soft cushions, hot chocolate, coloring books, and attendant psychologists. More than one university in the Ivy League provided aromatherapy along with friendly kittens and puppies for weeping students to cuddle. A college chaplaincy invited students to pray some prescribed litanies that offered God advice in an advisory capacity.

The average age of a Continental soldier in the American Revolution was one year less than that of a college freshman today. Alexander Hamilton was a fighting lieutenant-colonel when 21, not to mention Joan of Arc who led an army into battle and saved France when she was about as old as an American college sophomore. In our Civil War, eight Union generals and seven Confederate generals were under the age of 25. The age of most U.S. and RAF fighter pilots in World War II was about that of those on college junior varsity teams. Catholics who hoped in this election for another Lepanto miracle will remember that back in 1571, Don Juan of Austria saved Western civilization as commanding admiral when he was 24. None of these figures, in the various struggles against the world and the flesh and devil, retreated to safe spaces weeping in the arms of grief therapists. Yet pollsters ritually cite the attitudes of “college educated voters” as though colleges still educate and those who have not spent time in college lack an equivalent or even superior kind of learning shaped by experience.

What will the frightened half-adults do when they leave their safe spaces and enter a society where there is no one to offer them hot chocolate during their tantrums? Christ formed his disciples in a more practical way: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt.10:16). We are here today because those disciples did as they were told, and were not shrewd as doves and innocent as snakes. It is not racist, or any other unchristian form of phobia, to recall that the Apostles are Dead White Guys. If that was a liability, they managed well. Their Master, who wills that none be lost and that all be saved, was a Dead White Guy for just three days. That haunts those huddled in safe spaces and hallows all who court danger to follow him.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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