Ever since Donald Trump won the election, Democrats have displayed astounding hostility toward the president and his supporters. This isn’t new. Democrats hated Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. But Trump derangement syndrome seems different.
For one thing, it began before Trump took office. It’s not a response to something he’s done as president; he was being compared to Adolf Hitler before he did anything at all.
For another, the assassination fantasies — from performances in Central Park to comediennes displaying bloody, severed heads — strike a newly vicious tone.
Finally, violence toward Trump supporters had no parallel in earlier administrations. People were not attacked in the streets for wearing Nixon buttons or Reagan/Bush T-shirts.
Reading Marilynne Robinson’s book "The Givenness of Things" gave me an idea for an answer. Robinson uses the phrase "the hermeneutics of snobbery." She has in mind, not pant creases, delicatessen offerings, or anything of the kind, but an intellectual snobbery that can, in the wrong circumstances, lead to startling cruelty.
Robinson discusses the Lollards, a religious group started by John Wycliffe which existed from the mid-14th century to the period of the English Reformation. The Lollards were derided as fools, mumblers, vagabonds, frauds, and heretics. For two centuries they were persecuted; hundreds were burned at the stake.
What did the Lollards do to be subject to such persecution?
They preached and taught in the vernacular rather than Latin. They translated the Bible into English. They complained about extravagance, conflicts of interest, and corruption in the church. They maintained that Scripture does not clarify the nature of communion, arguing for toleration of various viewpoints about the relation between the bread and wine and the spirit and body of Christ.
They insisted on the universal priesthood of all believers, holding that people did not need priests or the church in order to pray, worship, or be saved. The foundation of a Christian life, they believed, was the image of God found in each of us, expressed in ethical behavior and acts of kindness toward others. In general, they were suspicious of intermediaries.
Charity should go to the poor. Confessions should go to the wronged.
Prayers should go to God.
All of this sounds anodyne, especially to Protestants. But the full force of the church fell upon it for almost 200 hundred years. It threatened the church and all those associated with it. Their roles, their positions, their power, all depended on serving as intermediaries.
Denying the need for intermediaries meant denying the need for them.
Notice the parallels to the movement being led by Donald Trump. Trump’s language is blunt, the language of the streets rather than that of the academy. He appeals directly to the people. He attacks the extravagance, conflicts of interest, and corruption of our contemporary intermediaries — the administrative state, the academy, Silicon Valley, and the media.
Mr. Trump insists that the Constitution does not settle various contentious issues and that they should therefore be decided by the people and their representatives, not by the courts.
The president maintains that each citizen, as a citizen, has a right to pursue a vision of the good and to participate in civic life independent of those who would interpose themselves and require official approval.
What interests Robinson, and what interests me, is not the persecution of the Lollards per se — but the attitude of snobbery that surrounded it. The Lollards, it was said, were stupid, evil, uneducated, unsophisticated, lacking any intellectual foundations for their views — even though their supporters included faculty at Oxford and such powerful, highly educated figures like John of Gaunt. Sound familiar? We are all too accustomed to similar charges against Donald Trump and his supporters.
But, Robinson stresses, there was a vernacular intellectual tradition underlying Lollardy, one largely off the medieval academic map. The Lollards did not come out of nowhere. Their vernacular tradition included William Langland ("Piers the Ploughman") and Geoffrey Chaucer. Later it would include "The Book of Martyrs" and the works of Shakespeare. In short, the Lollards occupy a key spot in a tradition we now recognize as central to English literature. But at the time that tradition received little respect. Those in power were reading Latin and nothing but Latin.
Trump and his movement, analogously, do not come from nowhere. They spring from an intellectual tradition the academy largely ignores. These writers used to be seen as central. But at the moment many receive little respect. Even when read, their ideas aren’t applied to our contemporary political situation. Those in power are reading about race, class, gender, and little else.
My next several posts will explore this tradition to explain the intellectual tradition underlying the movement led by Donald Trump. Next time, the first installment: Max Weber on bureaucracy and the administrative state.
Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of five books, most recently, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," and editor or co-editor of four others, he has published over 60 articles in professional journals. He has also written for The Washington Post, The Critique, and The American Spectator. His massively open online course, "Ideas of the Twentieth Century," has enrolled over 50,000 students. He is co-founder of BriefLogic, a marketing communication firm. He is also a contemporary Christian musician and songwriter; you can hear his music on his daughter’s debut album, "Transfiguration." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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