Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing the face of Donald J. Trump—stocky body, orange hair, pompous smile, pockets lined with gold. Imagine the shock of being told, like Peter as the cock crowed, that you are “one of them,” and that “you were with him,” yet defiantly denying it as you screamed, “I never knew the man!”
And despite all your protesting, the voice of your accusers only grew louder. Fight as you may, there’s no getting over the fact that you, by virtue of being an American, possess the habits, inclinations, and appearance of our commander in chief.
Does this all sound like a bad dream (minus the pockets lined with gold)? As Rod Dreher is wont to say, Trump is not the cause of our present woes, he is a symptom of them—the symptom of something that runs much deeper in the American character. When Tocqueville visited American in the 1830s, he met a whole lot of people, Americans like you or me, who acted a whole lot like Donald Trump.
While reading Democracy in America, I often wince as Tocqueville describes his everyday encounters with Americans. Certainly, there is a genius to the American character that Tocqueville lauds (industry, voluntary associations, religious fervor, etc.), yet his litany of vices hits unusually close to home given that he penned his travel journals nearly two centuries ago.
For example, he devotes two whole chapters to the national vanity of Americans and the accompanying currents of anxiety, agitation, and monotony that enable it. He begins Chapter 16 of his second volume in near “Trumpian” terms by describing how foreigners have a challenging time talking with Americans because, “They badger you at every moment to praise them; and, if you resist their insistent demands, they praise themselves.” While most would consider this trait to be a vice, Donald Trump flipped conventional logic on its head by taking every opportunity to praise his wealth, health, and Y-UGE victory in the electoral college.
When the transcripts of Trump’s phone conversations with Mexican president Peña Nieto were leaked early in August, we saw how Trump took this very approach by asking at the beginning of the meeting if Nieto had heard about his success with Hispanic voters: “In the latest election, I won with a large percentage of Hispanic voters. I do not know if you heard, but with Cuba, I had 84 percent, with the Cuban-American vote. But overall generally, I had well over 30 percent and everyone was shocked to see this.” Later in their conversation, Trump cited the crowd size on the campaign trail (“No one got people in their rallies as big as I did”) as a mandate for implementing a border tax. While Nieto took both of these comments in stride and responded respectfully, if sternly, he might have been thinking that Tocqueville was on point when he observed, “You cannot imagine a patriotism more troublesome and more talkative. It tires even those who honor it.”
While Americans love praise and flattery, we love money more. As Tocqueville noted, “The love of wealth, as principal or accessory, is usually found at the bottom of the actions of Americans.” In democratic societies, a certain agitation permeates the culture as each person races to get ahead so he can pay for college, purchase a home, pay off debts, and plan for retirement. Money, more than family or community or religion, appears to be a silver bullet that can deliver us from the rat race—therefore, we pursue it vigorously. Tocqueville says that Americans have this passion for wealth “not because their souls are smaller, but because the importance of money is really greater.”
It should come as no surprise that when Donald Trump boasted of his wealth, unlike Mitt Romney who tried to downplay his fortune, the American people embraced him. While the coastal elites sneered, the working- and middle-classes of the heartland saw a man who possessed their habits and manner of speech, yet managed to escape the rat race by amassing an enormous fortune. And when Trump promised not only to “Make American Great Again” but to “Make America Rich Again,” voters took his promise to heart—after all, according to a 2016 study, 69% of Americans have less than $1000 in their savings account and 34% have no savings at all. Given the stagnant economic growth for the middle class over the last thirty years, it’s no wonder that so many Americans considered a vote for Donald Trump to be a bet well placed.
But can a society preoccupied with vanity and greed endure the test of time? Tocqueville was plagued with the same question when he visited America in the early 19th century, yet nearly two-hundred years later, our republic endures. At the end of Chapter 17 in Volume II of Democracy in America, Tocqueville posits a strategy for survival: “Love of wealth directs men principally toward industry. Now, industry, which often brings such great disturbances and such great disasters, can nonetheless prosper only with the aid of very regular habits and by a long succession of small, very uniform actions” (emphasis added; 1091).
In short, the disciplined practice of “regular habits” and “uniform actions” checks our passions and keeps our economy from spinning out of control. Without such patterns of discipline, our economy, culture, and future come unglued. Could it be possible that Tocqueville coined the idea of the “Benedict Option” centuries before our very own Rod Dreher was born in West Feliciana Parish?
As Dreher has argued on his blog, the “Benedict Option” rightly understood is not a flight for the hills but rather a reordering of our lives around timeless habits and traditions, many of them faith-related, so that we can withstand the tide of liquid modernity, which includes the “creative destruction” of our economic system. In fact, Tocqueville suggests that one of the primary functions of religious faith in America is to help keep our democratic passions in check by elevating our hopes beyond temporal and finite concerns. But religion need not be the only way to establish such “regular habits” and “uniform actions.” Perhaps we need to conceive of a “Benedict Option” broadly understood that posits strategies for Americans of all creeds or none to unplug from technology, as Jean M. Twenge suggests, and cultivate patterns of living that offer rootedness and community in a rapidly changing and atomized world.
The next time Donald Trump takes to Twitter to boast about his popularity or wealth, consider the fact that Tocqueville encountered the same behavior in America when his boat landed onshore in 1831. The vices of vanity and greed were not the province of an eccentric few, but rather the normative characteristic of American culture. Today, not unlike 1831, Americans like you or me anxiously court the approval of our peers on social media and worry if we’re making enough money to “keep up with the Joneses.” While it’s easy to denounce these vices in our commander-in-chief, it’s much more difficult to recognize that we may be far more similar to Donald J. Trump than we’re willing to admit. And as we come to terms with the man in the mirror, with his stocky body, orange hair, and pompous smile, we must each decide if we have the discipline needed to keep our passions for vanity and greed in check. If not, the “Benedict Option” may be the only thing standing between us and the end of the American experiment.
John A. Burtka IV is the Director of Development for The American Conservative. His writings have been featured in American Theological Inquiry, First Things, The Intercollegiate Review, and Touchstone.