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Punch left, too

Critics of Trump’s nihilism should not turn a blind eye to progressives’ own more powerful and pervasive nihilism

A sign in favor of Issue 1 stands in Broadview Heights, Ohio, on Oct. 30. Associated Press/Photo by Sue Ogrocki

Punch left, too
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In a recent New York Times column, evangelical journalist Peter Wehner argued that, in embracing Donald Trump, Republicans have embraced nihilism. In many ways, it is hard to argue with that claim, and his description of the former president’s vices and moral vacuity are spot on. It has been said many times before, of course, not least by Wehner.

Yet the article is problematic because it claims too much and too little. As to the former, Wehner points to the prophetic book by Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, and then states that “today it is the American right that most fully embodies the attitudes that so alarmed Mr. Bloom.” That is not true, but Wehner’s mistake is understandable. Fixated on the evils of the right, he has missed the bigger picture.

Anyone involved in higher education (a core concern of Bloom), anyone who has followed the news of speaker cancelations and protests, anyone who has observed the flow of the debates concerning the humanities, will know that the left has at least held the whip hand on many campuses the last few years. That is not to say the right does not have its villains. It is merely to point to the obvious disparity in cultural power between the mind-closers of the left and the mind-closers of the right.

Wehner’s overreaching claim points to where he claims too little. If the GOP is in thrall to nihilism, it is because the political establishment in America, right and left, has become nihilistic. Wehner refers to Trump’s incendiary language about the judges at his various personal trials. But has Wehner not noted the language used by the left—and even the current incumbent of the White House—about Supreme Court justices after a few decisions weren’t decided the way the left wanted? And what about the laissez-faire attitude of the Democratic establishment towards the threats and the intimidation of those justices after the Dobbs decision?

Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6, 2021, was disgraceful. But what of the left in Portland in 2020? Did the rhetoric of leading Democrats and the silence of others not play a role in that assault on democracy? Or perhaps “silence is violence” only when the left says so? And what of the left’s ability to spot fascism and Nazism everywhere—from Moms for Liberty to young women worried about sharing locker rooms with men—everywhere that is except in old-school Nazi behavior such as the rape and butchering of Jewish women and children by groups that still think The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is insightful political literature?

To speak truth to power you do need to be speaking to those who have power.

The GOP may be in thrall to a Trumpian nihilism, but the Democrats are formally pushing harder than ever for abortion and using the trans question to attenuate the rights of parents. They press for sexually explicit filth to be promoted even in elementary schools and have used the Department of Justice as a means to intimidate those parents who oppose them. Philosophically, we might describe such actions as seeking the annihilation of embodied human personhood, of the biological family, and of childhood respectively. Is that not nihilism, Mr. Wehner?

None of this is an attempt to neutralize Wehner’s criticisms by moral equivalence. Far from it. His article highlights things that are truly despicable and to be eschewed by all Christians. But I would suggest that there is one obvious difference between the nihilism of Trump and his GOP base and the progressive left: Trump is not president anymore, while the progressive left has a man in the White House who has mortgaged his career to their nihilism. And that man has executive power that he is not afraid to use. The left also dominates the culture industry, populates the editorial columns and the op-eds of most of the major newspapers in the USA, shapes network news broadcasts, has a pervasive influence in higher education, and has become a force within corporate America.

All this raises the question as to why a former president continues to represent for so many an immediate existential threat to America. Yes, he may be re-elected. That is true, and I for one would regard that as disastrous because of what it says about the political climate as a whole, not just the GOP. But we need to remember that the current nihilism tearing at the fabric of America is not being signed into law by his hand. Would that these evangelical writers with access to the op-ed pages of the Gray Lady and her ilk remember that. To speak truth to power you do need to be speaking to those who have power. It’s 2023, not 2018.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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