In Graham Green’s short story “The Destructors,” written in 1954, a group of boys determines to dismantle a 200-year-old house belonging to a Mr. Thomas, whom they nickname “Old Misery.” While there is never any real reason given for their decision, their leader resolves, “We are going to destroy this house. There won’t be anything left when we’ve finished.”
The boys begin tearing up the inside of the house. They burn Old Misery’s savings. When Old Misery returns early to his partially demolished home, they lock him in an outhouse as they continue their project. Eventually, the house is utterly demolished and Old Misery can only laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
This short story reflects what is currently occurring in American society. The house and Old Misery can, in our context, be said to represent a moral tradition. The boys represent the progressive forces of our culture, bent on destroying what has come before.
This year’s election of Donald Trump shows Greene’s story was prophetic. Of course, many may wonder how. Hillary Clinton advocates morally progressive policies like protecting a woman’s ability to choose abortion and affirming same-sex marriage. Upon first glance, Trump seems to be the opposite, as many of his policies appear retrogressive. He plays on a level of xenophobia that shocks contemporary multi-culturalists. His remarks about women feel as if they could have been taken directly from a caricature of “Mad Men.”
Yet of the two, Trump remains more progressive. Progressive ideology endorses constant social change for humanity to truly flourish. Certainly, there are important examples of positive social progress (women’s suffrage, civil rights, etc.). However, the larger narrative, namely that all “progress” is desirable, is highly questionable. Progress implies continuing down a trajectory towards a set goal or vision. Naturally, progressives identify “progress” as the actions that get them closer to their vision of how the world should be. In this world, people realize full autonomy of the self, particularly in social issues.
As a society embraces moral progressivism, it discards normative structures and roles. Progressive thought defines any barrier or role as a vice and the destruction of that barrier as unquestioningly virtuous. Almost infinite moral autonomy is unflinchingly demanded as the masses bulldoze what has come before. Similar to how the gang in “The Destructors” achieves totalizing devastation, there can be no vestiges from traditionalist moral systems.
Progressivism Destroys Social Order
In our own society, moral progressivism has settled into a multifaceted network of projects that have been deconstructing stable visions of the moral life. It is everywhere. In the marketplace, it diminishes morality through a dehumanized transaction process. The question of whether a product is, in and of itself, “good” is usually of a posteriori concern, if at all.
In the arts, protagonists tend to be the characters who “free” themselves from the normative structures of their lives, like in “Eat, Pray, Love,” where the main character leaves her family to “discover” herself. These cultural tropes have extended into reality, where traditional family and sexual ethics are artifacts at which to sneer. One might call this phenomena “structure fatigue.”
As structural fatigue sets in, autonomy becomes a source of anxiety. It must be continually protected by destroying any external confines. Structures must be sought out and vanquished lest we fall prey to their tyranny. When this happens, the self’s individuality subtly becomes the tyrant, breeding a culture of narcissism. Once an individual submits to these socially taught narcissistic tendencies, submission in any area becomes intolerable.
Given the propensity to hate social “roles” and “norms,” the populist movement that culminated in November’s shocking election results makes sense. As people experience liberation from traditional structures of morality, they begin to look at traditional political structures with disdain.
Tear Down the Establishment’s Norms
Moral progressivism’s relationship with politics is complicated. While the progressive political movement tends to embrace a subjective moral code, it cannot sufficiently contain such a radical vision of society. Whatever “new conservatism” is being born may be a vehicle to perpetuate the vision of a morally progressive society, or at least to fulfill the deconstructionist proclivities people have grown accustomed to. Clinton may support what has been previously considered the morally progressive project, but she cannot be the figurehead of this movement because she’s too tied to normative political structures.
In this truly progressive zeitgeist, the “Washington elite” becomes one of the many structures of power that simply must be destroyed. The system must be corrupt. The political process must be rigged. Everything must be overhauled. Asking people to accept the status quo is asking them to operate within an objective system that requires accepting social roles.
As backwards as it may seem, this election marked a casting off of those roles. Trump’s policies may not neatly fit within the larger narrative of most moral progressivists, but the electoral endorsement of his candidacy came from the potent impact of moral progressivism in our society.
Who better to be a symbol of this than a man who emulates the spirit of moral progressivism? A playboy who is drowning in his own excess as he seeks after his own self-fulfillment, first in money, then in sex, and now in political power, is the perfect figurehead. It is understandable that the populist cult which sprung up around him would flourish.
In this new populist movement, the goal is to tear down the norms the previous wave of progressivists have established. In the past, moral progressivism was associated with hippy culture, hyper-liberal political movements on college campuses, and radical sexual liberation. However, in the modern age, a reversal has occurred because these movements have become institutionalized. The spirit of progress is by definition restless, and is now manifesting itself as a “politically incorrect” movement reacting to newly established social norms with hostility.
Populism excels in a morally progressive milieu because it signals the annihilation of the normative. After decades and decades of moral progressivism, it only makes sense that Americans would consider the political arena as another barrier to fell so the parade of progress can continue. The Destructors are here with a vengeance, and all we can do is laugh.