Top 7 Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

I’ll spare you my election hot takery. Frankly I don’t really think anyone has a good grasp on the particulars of how this happened, where it happened and why. We probably need to wait a few weeks to see how it shook out once we have the full story. From there we can distill and discuss.

Nonetheless it doesn’t take an oracle to realize this is a massive upset. For many across the political spectrum; mainstream Democrats, hardline progressives and conservatives of many stripes, it was a confusing result. Alarming even. In particular for young conservatives who will bear the brunt of the legacy of this moment, we are stuck wondering, “Where do we go from here?”

I don’t rightly know, but I do know there’s some reading that can help elucidate how we got here and how we can help rebuild the cause of prudence, virtue and tradition. So in true millennial style, here’s my listicle:

The Top 7 Conservative Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

7. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.

Cover of Bowling Alone by Robert PutnamYou must read this book if you want to understand some of the root causes of our modern political dysfunction. Putnam records the increased decline in institutional trust, civic decline and social capital in America. Trump v. Clinton does not happen in a country with a healthy civic culture. A Trump victory does not happen in a country with strong, trusting communities. Social scientists quibble over Putnam’s proposed causes and solutions, but it is a critical diagnosis if we are to move forward.

6. Coming Apart by Charles Murray.

Cover of Coming Apart by Charles MurrayMurray writes on a similar theme: There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. While Putnam speaks to Denmark as a whole, Murray hones in on specific provinces. It’s not necessarily that America writ large that is dysfunctional, it’s downscale whites. In particular he convincingly lays how out how the biggest cultural chasm in America is between white Americans. Since 1960 outcomes for white working class Americans has stagnated or declined. The reverse holds true for middle and upper class white Americans. More poignantly, white Americans of different classes live in totally different worlds. One tribe is educated, the other is not. One goes to church, one shows up for holidays, if that. One stays married, the other doesn’t bother or divorces. One succeeds, the other fails. Meanwhile the successful ones disdain or totally ignore their hapless kin. These are harsh generalizations and other conservatives have contested his casual prognosis, but facts remain facts even if they are uncomfortable. America’s core cultural/ethnic grouping is coming apart at the seams.

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Cover of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. VanceStop what you are doing and read this author’s interview by Rod Dreher. The social science of Murray and Putnam, backed up by footnotes and copious numbers, can only penetrate the mind so far. Vance brings it home with a haunting, complicated and uplifting personal narrative about rural white poverty in the Greater Appalachia. If you want an up close look at the hardcore Trump voter, look no further. What’s novel is Vance accomplishes this without the saccharine, tokenizing nonsense that much of the right’s commentariat indulges themselves in. The same people that crow as loud as the day is long about the broken culture behind Hispanic and black poverty work themselves into a triggered fit of self pitying rage when the same is pointed out about poor, rural white communities. Are you a liberal trying to find some way to connect with Trump voters but can’t find the heart? Read this book. Are you a conservative with some nostalgic, rose-tinted view of “real America?” Read this book.

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Cover of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyreMacIntyre’s book is totally different from the first three I just suggested. But this Scottish Thomist speaks to the cultural and moral moment we find ourselves in.  To sum it up: liberal modernity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be and the current way we talk about moral and political ethics leaves the “modern man” woefully unfulfilled. To wit, “In the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of human good yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. The moment we find ourselves in is largely due to the absence of virtue in our civic life.

3. The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.

Cover of The Conservative Mind by Russell KirkWhither goest thou, Conservatism? Part of the reason why Conservatism, Inc. is in such a crisis is because of how intellectually shallow it really is. It’s a comically tragic attempt to keep Reaganism (itself an occasional, unique adaption to the late Cold War) alive, like an ideological Weekend At Bernie’s. Trump tore through conservative pieties mainly because modern establishment conservatism had all the roots of a day old leaf shoot. If you’re a conservative and you’re looking for something more (that also isn’t the hodgepodge of national greatness populist horse manure that Trumpism aspires to), this is a great introduction to the depth and breadth of the wider Anglo-American intellectual tradition. Also, on a side note, it’s bizarre to me how many liberal friends of mine pontificate on conservatism and yet have never even heard of this book.

2. The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet.

Want to truly make America great again? Want to make sure another Trump doesn’t come across the political horizon? Read this book and follow its advice. Radically reject the atomization of society that breeds demagoguery, statCover of The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbetism and civic corruption. Join one of Burke’s little platoons of society. Talk to your neighbors. Do the hard, necessary work of building your local community. Alarmed communities produce elections like this one. Peter Hitchens put it like this, “This is a frightened society. Many people live in a constant level of fear. There is a general decay of social obligation. There is a sense you don’t intervene. I think the answer is the reestablishment of the free and ordered society we so recently had.” Voting isn’t the answer, nor is your signaling on social media. The best activism you can actually engage in is helping build a robust local community.

1. The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.

Cover of The Benedict Option by Rod DreherThis is more geared toward orthodox Christians (small or large “O” depending on your preference). We need to face facts. The Religious Right is dead. If it wasn’t dead before, it has finally given up the ghost by hitching its wagon to a venalvice peddlinghedonisticgroping serial adulterer who brags about how he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness. But even if Trump had never happened, the writing was on the wall. Christians are going to have to fess up to the reality that we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. Named about St. Benedict, who helped build strong Christian communities which weathered the fall of Rome, Rod Dreher lays out a strategy for how Christianity can survive in the modern West and enrich our communities in the process.


Regrettably we live in interesting times. America escaped a very bad candidate and in return got one that is arguably worse. In the meantime Americans are divided, scared and angry at each other. These books aren’t magic recipes but they are good starts (also we will all need something to do while sitting around in between our morning and evening Public Displays of Praise for our Dear Leader). No one is going to rebuild public trust for us. We will have to do it ourselves.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quotation from President Abraham Lincoln (who is criminally under-appreciated among conservatives today):

We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Get reading, kids.

Featured image: “Daily News, India” by Bo Nielsen (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Buzzfeed Bans ‘Basic;’
or, Slouching Toward Cultural Marxism

A writer for the alchemic Buzzfeed (a philosopher’s stone which turns all it touches into virulent internet content) explains “why we actually hate all things pumpkin spice.” Turns out, we don’t hate syrupy venti Starbucks lattes, glottal fry, or Ugg boots for their own sake, but for what they represent, which is a certain class identity characterized by

a banal existence, obsessed with Instagramming photos of things that themselves betray their basicness (other basic friends, pumpkin patches, falling leaves), tagging them #blessed and #thankful, and then reposting them to the basic breeding grounds of Facebook and Pinterest.

In other words, the conspicuous consumption of products which show the consumer to have uncultivated taste and lack of individuality. The writer suggests that our position of judging said consumer to be “basic” is rooted in class insecurity—the need to separate one’s own more discriminating tastes from those of the petit bourgeois mob.

One must give the writer some credit for seemingly having discovered the existence of class consciousness without the benefit of a liberal-arts education. However, her attempt at diagnosing “our” snobbery falls short. Continue reading Buzzfeed Bans ‘Basic;’
or, Slouching Toward Cultural Marxism

Our Open Marriage

Image: Painting "The Marriage of the Virgin" by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1670
Murillo, “The Marriage of the Virgin” (1670)

My wife and I have an open marriage. Before any friends have a heart attack or misunderstand, let me say that I am misusing this stupid term provocatively to make a point. Nevertheless, the type of relationship we have is the most authentic and open relationship to be found on earth. I will explain.

But first I must apologize for being the latest in a long string of recently-married Millennials who feel compelled to pontificate about marriage. The only reason I justify doing this is that it seems my generation is almost entirely confused about marriage, and youth and inexperience are not necessarily exclusive of true understanding.

A year and a half ago, my wife and I were united in holy matrimony, which is a covenant not only between two people, but between them both and God. What this means is that our relationship is not defined as a closed-off, limited agreement between two contracting parties, but instantiates our complete giving of ourselves to each other, and our openness to God’s presence and guidance. This openness is important because it means God is involved in our marriage and is interested in whether we are continuing faithfully in it.

Openness to God in our marriage is key, because God is the ground and source of our being, and it is to him that we ultimately refer when attempting to understand the mystery of marriage. We learn from his Son that marriage is built into the nature of human beings; that it is God’s design for a man to “leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” We also learn that this mystery itself is a symbol of the Son’s relationship to his people. He is the Bridegroom, he says, and his bride is everyone who he has redeemed from the curse of sin that entered the world through disobedience. In marriage, then, we create an image of the unconditional love God offers to mankind.

Holy matrimony, as a living image, an instantiating symbol of God, is a way of opening ourselves to ultimate reality by establishing a special, sacramental connection to the ground of our being.

This openness manifests itself in other ways. Just as God welcomes anyone into his family, holy matrimony means having a welcoming and generous attitude toward the gift of children, and a commitment to bring those children up to know the love of God. Hospitality and charity too, being ready to welcome and meet the needs of others, are important aspects of the marriage vocation.

What marriage is “closed” to is anything that disrupts the union between one another and God. This is why the church prohibits sexual activity outside of the marriage union. (Law and custom also have powerful reasons to discourage adultery, but those aren’t the subject of this essay.) The marriage union acts out the relationship of desire and affection that draws us to one another and to God. I take the view that our love for God is erotic in the Socratic sense. We are drawn to him with desire in a dynamic, directional movement. Marriage is thus a form of noetic exaltation. Non-marital sex, by contrast, breaks the noetic chain between us and God. It is to some degree an opposite movement away from divine love, receding back into the disorder of primordial chaos from whence we emerged.

The sexual chaos of the modern world is one of the clearest signs of its overall disorientation to the divine ground of being. Not just “gay marriage” and the divorce rate, but especially the direct and indirect sexual exploitation of women and children reveals our age as one of the most severely blind, heartless, and gnostic epochs in history.

“No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crisis of a society” wrote Eric Voegelin; “on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid this crisis and live his life in order” (Science, Politics, and Gnosticism). With this watchword, we reject sexual alienation and instead embrace holy matrimony as an expression of redeeming grace for our time and for all time.

A New Taxonomy of “Conservative” Christians

Young evangelical Christians are at the center of a sea change in opinion and practice in the church. The rhetorical tropes and divisions of a previous generation (Spiritual vs. religious? Reformed vs. fundamentalist? Liberal vs. conservative?) are beginning to fade in people’s perceptions, and new categories are taking their place.

With 20th-century theological liberalism faltering, along with the cultural “Christian” consensus, abandoning the faith of your parents no longer means social marginalization. Consequently, those who remain in church are more likely to be those who actually maintain a sincere and heart-felt belief in a real experience of God. This does not mean that all will think alike. We can feel new generations of young adult Christians dividing along new lines.

This shift has occasioned a good deal of confusion. Older liberal Christians have assumed that a younger generation of evangelical Christians, who are clearly more liberal politically than their generally Republican parents, will join them on the theologically liberal, desacralizing side of the church. What is actually happening, though, may be more complicated than this. Younger evangelicals who keep the faith are often dissatisfied with elements of their parents’ churches, but they seem to be shifting in a more ’catholic’ direction, toward a more liturgical, roots-oriented Christianity. While their politics may not be those of the Christian Coalition, their religion may actually be more ‘conservative.’

This movement is not unique among evangelicals. David Bonagura writes that within the ascendent ‘conservative’ camp of the Roman Catholic Church there begin to be seen important distinctions between what he calls the “new orthodoxy,” concerned with maintaining and restoring authentic Catholic teaching, “outspoken opponents of abortion [and] same-sex marriage” whose “theological standard is the Catechism of the Catholic Church”; and what he calls the “Benedictines” after Pope Benedict XVI, whose ultimate goal is the restoration of a more reverent, traditional liturgy. These two groups within the rising ‘conservative’ Catholic movement may find themselves opposed in certain ways even as they are in agreement on the major theological and moral doctrines of the church. The newly-chosen Pope Francis seems to belong, as it were, to the “new orthodoxy,” and under his rule it would not be a surprise to hear of discontent among the “Benedictines.”

Significantly, there seems to be a generational dynamic to these divisions. The “new orthodox” tend to be in their “late forties and fifties,” according to Mr. Bonagura, while the “Benedictines” are somewhat younger.

Rising generations of evangelicals exhibit, I think, a similar division. We begin to see, especially among Gen-Xers, what I would term “evangelical” conservatives, who are primarily concerned with maintaining authentic Christian doctrine; while Millennials tend to be “liturgical” conservatives, concerned with a more authentic way of worshiping than what they experienced growing up.

Both of these are, in a sense, “reactionary” movements. Evangelical conservatives react against a lukewarm, rote “traditional” religion they remember from growing up, or else against a sloppy, undemanding, cheap-grace form of baby-boomer evangelicalism. Liturgical conservatives react against a church that has forgotten the importance of form and beauty in worshiping God, that tries to be relevant by eliminating any and all distinctions between itself and the world, whose deracinated warehouse Starbucks aesthetic has rejected altogether the beauty of historical Christianity.

If evangelical Protestantism has a future, it needs to bring the two together. Theological conservatives must learn to appreciate how the beauty of liturgy and tradition does not distract from authentic Christian belief but rather deepens and confirms it. Similarly, aesthetically-sensible liturgical conservatives need to understand how the beauty they rightly love grows from the same root as traditional Christian theology and ethics. We need young Christians who are both liturgically and theologically conservative.

Much of the division, sin, and confusion in Protestant Christianity today stems, I believe, from a fundamental disconnectedness in the evangelical mind between the order and beauty of the soul and religious belief, and the order and beauty of externals. Each of these ought to promote and confirm the other. Instead, suburban evangelicals tend to deny the influence of externals, and are surprised when their children rebel, sleep around, and abandon the faith.

Beauty strengthens faith. No less, then, does true faith preserve beauty. The order and coherence of traditional Christian liturgy and art depends for its strength on the conviction that what it centers on is true; that God is true, that the Bible is his word, and the church manifests his kingdom in the world. Without these convictions beauty has no reference point and liturgy is a series of empty observances done for the sake of doing. The reason liturgy is attractive to sensitive people is that it actually reflects what is true, and speaks to the listening soul of what is closest to the ground of its being. This is why the mainline churches are in decline. To practice a received liturgy and at the same time deny received Christian truth is eventually a self-defeating occupation.

This article was originally published on Juicy Ecumenism, the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.