The consternation and outrage we’ve seen in response to President Trump’s executive order on immigration has little to do with the policy as such. Restricting immigration from certain countries is nothing new; President Obama did it, as did presidents Bush, Clinton, H.W. Bush, and Reagan.
Rather, it has everything to do with the elevation of progressive politics to the status of a religion—a dogmatic and intolerant religion, whose practitioners are now experiencing a crisis of faith.
Forget the executive order itself. Progressives have reacted with moral indignation and hysteria to everything Trump has done since taking office. His inauguration was enough to bring out hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country. In the 12 days since then, we have witnessed yet more demonstrations, boycotts, calls for “resistance,” comparisons to the Holocaust, media witch-hunts, the politicization of everything from Hollywood awards shows to professional sports, and real tears from New York Sen.Chuck Schumer.
One is hard-pressed to think of something Trump could do that would not elicit howls of outrage from the Left. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats boycotted confirmation hearings for Steven Mnuchin’s nomination to serve as treasury secretary and Rep. Tom Price’s nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services, while continuing to try to block the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for education secretary and Sen. Jeff Session for attorney general. Even before Trump announced his Supreme Court pick on Tuesday night, Democrats had already announced they would filibuster the nomination, no matter who it was.
The obstinacy of Senate Democrats reflects the mood of their progressive base, whose panicked anger is the natural reaction of those for whom politics has become an article of faith. Progressives, as the terms implies, believe society must always be progressing toward something better. Always forward, never backwards. After eight years of Obama, they believed progressive politics in America would forever be on an upward trajectory.
The Left Has Been Moralizing Politics For A Long Time
Trump shook that faith. But his election also unmasked the degree to which progressivism as a political project is based not on science or rationality, or even sound policy, but on faith in the power of government to ameliorate and eventually perfect society. All the protests and denunciations of Trump serve not just as an outlet for progressives’ despair, but the chance to signal their moral virtue through collective outrage and moral preening—something that wasn’t really possible under Obama, at least not to this degree.
Not that they didn’t try. Recall that during the Obamacare debate in 2009 Ezra Klein suggested that Sen. Joe Lieberman was “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score,” simply because he threatened to filibuster what would become the Affordable Care Act. This is the language of political fundamentalism—policy invested with the certainty of religious conviction.
Religious fundamentalism of course rests on immutable truths that cannot be negotiated. For Klein, that meant health care reform. The same rhetoric—“willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people”—would crop up again and again during Obama’s tenure, every time a Republican governor refused to expand Medicaid or a state attorney general challenged an EPA regulation meant to curb climate change. Policy debates took on a theological significance.
Conservatives sometimes invoke religion in policy debates, but it’s usually not because they’re trying to make a religion out of politics. Most often, it’s in reaction to progressives’ insistence that religious beliefs be cast aside when they impede the political agenda of the Left—like when Obama tried to fine the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns, $70 million for refusing, on religious grounds, to participate in a government scheme to distribute birth control.
Progress Itself Is An Illusion
That progressive politics should carry the force of religious belief should not come as a surprise. For the Left, politics holds the promise of paradise on earth. Through the instrument of government, progressives believe they can right the world’s wrongs, punish the wicked, feed the hungry, outlaw bigotry, and perhaps even save the earth from climate change. All they need is control of government and sound policies. If everything that matters is at stake, then everything is justified in the pursuit of political power.
Unfortunately, this faith in progress is built on a lie. In his 2002 book, “Straw Dogs,” the philosopher John Gray argued that secular humanism, and the corresponding faith in human progress it assumes, is an illusion—a leftover from Christianity. “Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science.”
Gray argues that human progress, apart from science, is a myth. Among progressives, he writes, “this observation seems to have produced a moral panic. Surely, they ask, no one can question the central article of faith of liberal societies? Without it, will we not despair? Like trembling Victorians terrified of losing their faith, these humanists cling to the moth-eaten brocade of progressive hope.” Progressives are “in the grip of unexamined dogmas” about their ability to improve human nature and harness technology for the perfection of society.
Such a faith necessitates an obsession with politics, and provokes a burning desire for control over the levers of government power. If we are consumed by politics in the age of Trump, it is not because of Trump. It is because progressives have made politics into a god, and their god is failing them.