Regress-Angst and the Wellsprings of Trumphate (II)

In our last installment (here), we noted that “Trump Anxiety” has many field-marks that suggest it is at least partly religious in nature, with Trump himself seen as, in effect, the “Great Desecrator”. We will certainly wish to return to this theme.

But, no less significantly, we also began to trace out an extraordinary pattern of recent reversals in “progressive” opinion. For it seems that, for many who once proudly counted themselves among the most dovish of the doves, the arrival of Trump suddenly meant that any and all roads must lead to war or at least enmity with Russia; and, as one accusation after another in this connection melted away, the pretexts for such enmity simply shifted again and again to restore the original bellicosity. The fundamental unsoundness of many of the claims against the President, or the company these claims brought progressives in close quarter with, hardly seemed to matter, so long as the claims seemed to stand any chance of removing the Great Desecrator from power for good.

In line with this abandonment of anti-war, pro-internationalist principles, we were also treated to the sight of supposedly pro-civil-liberties, anti-Establishment progressives—who not long ago had railed against the encroachments of the “military-industrial complex”, the PATRIOT act and the warrantless surveillance exposed by Snowden—instead coming out en masse with doubts about the “problematic” nature of the First Amendment and other constitutional protections, defending or dismissing indiscriminate spying of individuals and political candidates, and making common cause with of a whole creepy collection of dishonest and breathtakingly inept G-men and spooks. Were these even the same people?

Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, who over the past three years has steadily catalogued the escalating absurdities of the now Moby-Dick-esque Trump-hunt carried out by progressive activists, mainstream journalists, and government mandarins alike, nicely summed up this reversal in a bulletin at the end of 2019:

These ideas have pushed us into an experience straight out of Orwell: a dramatic and almost instantaneous flipping of popular assumptions. Self-described “progressives” who just a decade ago rallied behind the Dixie Chicks now gobble up scare tracts written in faux-Cyrillic texts about “assets” in our midst. The same terror before unseen threats that gripped small-town Americans after 9/11 has now conquered our urban upper classes. Donald Trump is not sufficient to explain this.”

It is almost as if the Good Ship Progressive, on its way to slay the Trumpian whale, had unknowingly sailed into a place where the trade winds blew completely awry, and so lost its bearings altogether. Following Burke’s suggestion, we can only conclude that the conjectural crypto-faith to which progressives inwardly hew, as with any faith, holds some desecrations to be less grievous than others. Trade in indulgences, so to say, is permissible in the progressive crypto-religion. Anti-war pieties, for example, or the penitential mistrust of the intelligence and law-enforcement Establishment, all become negotiable when the great cheeto-colored hulk of reactionary populism is seen breaching a-starboard.

But what is the core of this religious outrage—and how can it be operative at all, if progressives are, as everyone knows, the most secular of all demographics? What doctrine is there for the Great Desecrator to even desecrate? The progressive Left, after all, rather pride themselves on their bold dismantlement of existing pieties, as we noted apropos Marx and “profanation”.

We may get a hint from looking at Burke’s blog entry again. For here he admits that progressives are only apparently or nominally irreligious:

[…] people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious […] many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do.

The connections between progressivism, “wokeness”, or other apparently irreligious ideologies, on the one hand, and their actually religious functions, on the other, have been explored at length elsewhere. At this point, there is plenty of reason to suppose that “secular faith” or “civil religion” is a real and indeed pervasive phenomenon, particularly in a modern era where all forms of explicit religiosity have been continually deprecated—becoming, in effect, tokens for low social status, limited intellect, relative powerlessness, and, in short, “deplorableness”. Yet the ancient need to cherish fundamental assumptions about the world, and then identify with others based on those assumptions, is far from conquered. And so it is: behold, our new and improved secular-fundamentalist Torquemadas and Tertullians—but now resplendent in glamorous, progressive-Foucaldian rainbow colors!

But what is the fundamentalism itself? It is hiding in plain sight, so large and continually in our faces we hardly recognize it as a distinct thing, but in the end, one has simply to remove the “-ive”. Progressives’ religion primarily consists in their singleminded devotion to… Progress, with a capital P, and all its appurtenances, regalia, and sacraments.

As John Michael Greer has spiritedly outlined in a recent triptych of essays, the constellation of strange emotional reactions brought out by Trump has, at root, quite little to do with Trump’s rudeness, corruption, or even his policy mistakes. To Greer, such concerns rightly belong—using a terminology due to Kolakowski—to the “technological core”: this is the side of human existence that deals not with questions of ultimate merit or “first things”, but of practicality, procedure, measurable efficacy, or other matters of workaday policy. Issues that fall under the technological core, it bears noting, are largely situational and oft quite susceptible to reversals or technical disputes, which remain notably un-acrimonious.

On the other hand, rage of the kind we see surrounding Trump’s rise and ongoing success (as well as, for that matter, that of populism worldwide) is hardly indicative of a “technological core” problem, but instead bears all the marks of a very different aspect of human existence, the “mythical core”. This is roughly the same domain as that which we have been elsewhere calling “religious”, but even more subsuming; it is the realm where ultimate questions, first-things, unconscious narratives, and great guiding societal metaphors all convene to impart to human communal and psychic life that most precious and yet intangible of things: meaning.

But Greer gives us another crucial hint, for he shows how the element of the “mythical core” to which Trump constitutes such a grievous disconfirmation, and hence desecration, is not just group loyalty to progressivism or some kind of spiritual investment in any of its attendant policy positions, but indeed the myth of Progress itself. And this myth, in its turn, is at root a myth about history.

This myth of Progress, for those not familiar with it, essentially means that all events that take place later in time, ipso facto, will also tend to be better events. And inversely: all events that take place earlier in time, are expected and indeed understood to be generally worse than those following. A few of these earlier events, it is true, are spotlighted and celebrated, for being “milestones of progress”. But these exceptions prove the rule: for under the sacraments of Progress, nearly all events earlier in time are essentially the chaff from which the glorious grain of futurity is separated, thereafter fit to be discarded and forgotten.

Such historical amnesia is not really a bug of our thoroughly progressive system of stage-managed popular sovereignty and technocratic micromanagement, but a carefully developed and lovingly-tended feature. The idea seems to be that truly happy nations fret little about history, and that this being accepted, it can be run in reverse: manufacture an anodyne ignorance of the past, and you perforce manufacture also a happy, “advanced” nation.

Let us not think for a second that a historical vision is in any way outside the ambit of religious emotion—just think of the heated emotions that have surrounded the institutional rejection of young-earth Creationism, the Scopes Trial, the general derision of “Left Behind” or James Watt-style brand of biblical Apocalypticism, and so forth. Yet if Progress is, as we contend, a myth, then the arrow of religio-historical embarrassment is by no means constrained to point only in the direction of Christian evangelicals; under the right conditions, it can just as soon be turned against Progressives.

Progressivism is, after all, an assertion of metaphysics—not just about what happens in reality, but about the nature of reality—its destiny and, ultimately, its perfectibility. Here it may admittedly be a kind of epiphenomenal metaphysics, concerned with the long-range tendencies of big organizations and the big-brained hominids that saturate them, rather than with the nature of matter and force. Nevertheless, it amounts to a claim on the nature of the universe we live in, the Meaning of the Good, and the structure of time’s arrow.

Moreover, the belief in Progress is shared even by many who do not consider themselves political progressives; in fact, in the modern era, its followers are legion. The proto-conservative author Richard M. Weaver, in his 1948 classic Ideas Have Consequences, summed this up nicely when he declared, “The average man of the present age has a metaphysic in the form of a conception known as ‘progress’ ” (p.51). Even more importantly for our understanding of the progressive’s reaction to Trump as Great Desecrator, Weaver observed that “nothing is more common than to hear him discriminate people according to this metaphysic, his term for the less worthy being “unprogressive” ” (ibid.)

After all, if the very structure of history is really progressive—a great Faustian “onwards and upwards” that also “bends towards justice” and, for that matter, just happens to include whatever goals progressives currently want—and if those who keep their faith in this Progress are on the right side of history and are moreover destined to have more and more control… how can such manifestly un-progressive things be happening everywhere around the world? And happening on a growing scale [Boris wins, brexit completed, Bolsonaro, intersectional groups contradict, Modi bans muslims], no less?

So not only Trump, but the entire recent development of the world, it seems, is kicking the progressive mind where it is currently sorest—right in the Weltanschauung. Consequently, the mere fact that an action was taken or an opinion spoken by Trump suffices to scramble if not reverse the entire magnetic polarity of a progressive’s dearly-held convictions; as if trapped in an intellectual Bermuda Triangle, his compass no longer points true north. History itself is turning disobedient. The Great Desecrator is not merely Donald Trump; increasingly, it is the entire course of world events.

Of course, Progress has never been without its setbacks and foibles in the past, from which it has mostly managed to regroup enough to recover its narrative if not its intellectual cohesion, if necessary by sheer retconning. To name surely the most obvious yet curiously seldom-cited examples in this context, consider Hitler and Stalin. Both were, in their time, seen by millions as glorious innovators: cutting-edge Men of the Future, they, unsentimentally hacking away the needless shibboleths of the past that supposedly shackled humanity away from its great and limitless destiny. Now, having been soundly defeated and cast into the “dustbin of history”, these two dictators have been safely *re-cast* in the role of Ancient Anti-Progressive Barbarities, successfully—yet inevitably—overcome.

But today there is an exacerbating aspect. Since Progress now has effectively supplanted religion and tradition as a source of fundamental meaning for an unprecedented number of people—far more so even than in Hitler and Stalin’s already aggressively-secularized times—its possible disconfirmation cannot help but be existentially distressing, for there is no longer any “fall-back” belief system whatsoever. We have only Progress, or oblivion: all Parteigenossen caught retreating will be shot!

So this new “regress-angst”—combined with the obvious day-to-day stresses of living in a steadily disintegrating society, as we see vividly on display in, e.g. California and much of Europe—must boil up; and boil it does, first appearing as a localized neurosis, a lashing-out at mostly superficial causes, be it at Trump and his followers, or at anyone who doubts identity politics, imminent and plenary climate-based death, the innovation of limitless new genders, etc., etc.

The failure of progress does not mean that there will never again be new things, or even better things; it simply means that the concentration of “better things” does not correlate with their futurity. But even so the disappointment ahead, at least on the progressive side, is only just beginning. The boil is sure to spread beyond the original site. It will not suffice simply to stop scratching.

* * *

It’s interesting to note that a great deal of what we are seeing, particularly among those leftist and technocratic progressives who have felt a gnawing metaphysical un-stuckness at history’s ongoing disobedience, is strikingly reminiscent of the general pattern of “disconfirmation anxiety and belief persistence” famously outlined in Leon Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails”.

Based on his team’s observations of a UFO cult that (unsuccessfully) predicted the arrival of a spaceship and the end of the world, Festinger inferred that the more that a cherished prophecy—that is to say, one based out of the mythic core—is revealed as false or threadbare, the more that prophecy’s believers will tend to seek reassurance not by rationally abandoning their belief in the prophecy, but by doubling down on it.

Adapting Festinger’s scheme, if our age’s grand prophecy is indeed the metaphysical assumption of Progress—in the sense not only that there is expected to be unceasing general movement towards greater integration, equalitarianism, technological achievement and control, but also in that these things should be increasingly seen as self-evidently good—then we might expect that a disconfirmation of Progress would be met by progressives not with mild admission of error, but with doubling-down. And sure enough: the escalating of aggressive and even apocalyptic political declarations on the progressive left, the widely persisting progressive belief in the Russiagate accusations in the teeth of now immense contravening evidence, and the just-concluded misfire of an impeachment attempt against Trump himself, are just a few of the prime examples that such doubling-down has taken place.

But this is not all Festinger had to say. He furthermore noticed that in concert with the doubling-down phenomenon, believers faced with disconfirmation tended also to develop an intense focus on recruitment to their cause, as if gaining more followers might prove them right after all. Sure enough, we have seen even in just the last 5-10 years a remarkable intensification of efforts, expansive, brazen, and often quite punitive, to introduce revisionist or supposedly-progressive dogmas of identity-politics and intersectionality throughout the educational system, business and media.

Yet a strange thing about these efforts is that while they still shout the slogans of “progress”, they are arguably (even from a leftist standpoint) crypto-regressive; certainly they are, in a great many cases, startlingly illiberal. It is very much as if, just as Progress has stalled or begun to run in reverse in terms of quality-of-life, technological boons, and global stability—so that even to the faithful it is increasingly unclear what direction points to “progress” and which to “regress”—there has been a compensatory pivot towards emphasizing ideological Progress instead of material Progress.

Rather in the way that the emergence of computer science and the physicist’s slogan of “it from bit” has metamorphosed over our lifetimes into a takeover and replacement of physical reality by informational reality, so it turns out that the compass of Progress—if it can still be read at all—has turned away from the thorny and less and less cooperative world of matter, and towards that of attitudes and language use.

One excellent recent essay basically refers to this very situation by noting that “control of information has become indispensable to prosecuting the forward march of history”. In the words of another, “…the hysteria of the SJWs is connected inextricably to the inability of homo Deus, and homo coitus, to bring about the New Jerusalem in this life.” Both are different ways of saying that the religious need for Progress has doubled down in the face of disconfirmation by trying to seize control of the world of thought and opinion instead of things and facts.

The nostrums of Progress may not tell us how to give half the country a living wage, maintain excrement-free streets, or how to sustain our vast energy profligacy for much longer—despite Trump’s grandiose boasts to the contrary—but at least we can advance towards ever-more-perfect intellectual & moral groupthink! Thus does the One Faith of Modernity strive even now to pull itself off the ropes, by hook or crook.

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