Right-Wing Populism and the New Morality: A Historical Reflection

The election of Trump represents a “Post-Christian” turn. When we look at the way in which many people and religious leaders form and sustain their communities in recent years, the link between community building and exclusion becomes even clearer.

On January 25, Donald Trump, flanked by older white men, signed the executive order to reinstate and expand “the global gag rule.” The photo of the event was shared on social media. In short, this gag rule prohibits federal funding to non-governmental organizations that support the right to abortion (and as of now—if they even mention the right to abortion). The order will hurt millions of women in the so-called Third World, who will not be able to receive family planning counseling. The photo was not accidental. It was a powerful illustration of how gender works as “a primary way of signifying relationships of power.” The satisfied grin on Trump’s face as he was signing the order and the all-male entourage had a specific message for the public: this is what the powerful can do to the powerless. The image set the tone for other decisions that were meant to inflict harm on other people: women, immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, and so on. These included the order to start constructing the wall on the American-Mexican border, and the travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries (now halted by the courts). All of this has been accompanied by Trump’s campaign-like rallies filled with hate, insults, and aggression.

What the current wave of populist movements share is not only a set of political decisions and tactics but also an attempt to undermine humanism, mock basic human decency, eliminate empathy, and desensitize the audience towards human suffering. Like every revolution, the authoritarian populist one aims at transforming the symbolic and moral grounding of an entire community. In the United States, and in other countries governed by right-wing populist leaders such as Hungary and Poland, illiberal policies are accompanied by active work to normalize exclusion, aggression, and denigration of those who look or think in a different way. Trump and his spokesmen use a variety of linguistic and technological means to accomplish this. They alter the language. Lies become “alternative facts.” Trump’s insults towards various groups are called “a different style of presidency.” Inciting conflict is depicted as “unifying the American people.” And these acts are intentionally made into spectacles to be broadcasted by the media for everyone to see and get accustomed to.

Why should we worry about this kind of “propaganda”? Are most people not immune to the inflammatory rhetoric of dictators and violent ways of resolving political conflicts after the catastrophic experiences of the twentieth century? The answer is no, especially if there is active work on the part of those in power to change the ethical underpinnings of society. In the mid-1940s, prompted by the rise of fascism, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno set out to explain “why mankind instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.” This question is particularly relevant today. One can debate Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s dark vision of Enlightenment as “totalitarian,” but the two philosophers were right on one account: the line between civilization and barbarism is thin and precarious.

What Can We Learn from History?

As a historian I have been trained to support my statements with “hard” evidence from the archives, and to use analytical distance when writing about events and actors. I find these building blocks of my historical training challenged by recent political developments. We are living in an era in which traditional tools of social sciences and humanities may need reassessment. Polling data repeatedly proved unreliable in predicting results of elections and referendums. And how many political scientists would have anticipated that the Congress, this bulwark of the American system of checks and balances, could so swiftly become a tool in the hands of the executive?

None of these should surprise historians, at least not on an intellectual level. While studying the past, one constantly deals with contingency, the unpredictability of human actions, and the unintended outcomes. Historians of 20th-century Europe (and Germany, in particular) have not shied away from bringing historical light to current events. They tend to focus, however, on “high politics” and the role of leaders.4 However,
historical knowledge may be most useful when it illuminates the experiences of ordinary people, cultural beliefs, identities, and emotions, all of which enable and propel a broader political change. How did people come to believe in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes as viable solutions to social, economic, and political problems? And how can we avoid the temptation to dwell on the historical parallels and start looking for useful ways of understanding and resisting the current populist wave instead?

Europe and the United States are Not Devastated by a Total War

While the affinity of today’s right-wing populism to interwar fascism is hard to deny, the historical inquiry can also reveal significant contextual differences between the two. Present-day Europe and the United States are not the same as Europe and Germany of the 1920s and 1930s. It would be difficult, for example, to understand the rise of fascism without taking into account the First World War. The Great War was a watershed for Europeans. It killed millions, devastated communities in unimaginable ways, and radicalized large segments of the population. It also changed the moral fabric of societies making violence an acceptable way to solve political and social problems. In the cases of Bolshevik Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, violence borne out of the Great War became a legitimate way to forge new societies.

The current populist movements grew on different ground in this respect. Right-wing populist leaders in Europe and the United States are not speaking to societies devastated by a total war. This is perhaps why they are so desperately looking for other ways to shake the moral underpinnings of communities. Using the newest technology, populist leaders and their helpers create catastrophic visions to spread fear, uncertainty, and demoralization among the population. Campaign slogans for Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland talked about “Poland in ruins,” and Jarosław Kaczyński claimed that the refugees from Syria (virtually non-existent in Poland) were about to infect Poles with germs and disease. Likewise, Trump and his spokesmen have been inventing terrorist massacres from Bowling Green to Sweden. The election of Trump in particular (who openly promoted violence in the name of the allegedly embattled “American nation” during his campaign), is symptomatic of how this new rhetoric strikes at the core human values resulting in deep and dangerous polarization of society. This polarization is no longer about political or cultural divide but increasingly about the basic understanding of right and wrong.

“The New Morality” and Community Building

After the US elections on November 8, many commentators have focused on socio-economic factors as decisive in Trump’s victory. We are often told that economically deprived white workers were driven to supporting Trump (and other populist leaders elsewhere) out of desperation. I do not mean to dismiss the powerful role of socio-economic structures. But the focus on impersonal structures overshadows the agency of individuals and groups. It is important to consider how socio-economic identities are shaped and re-shaped by political, ideological, and emotional practices. Perhaps a useful way to think about recent events may be to look at populist attempts to create a new “moral” community. These attempts feed on existing allegiances, such as religion or social class, but use them to alter human relationships.

Recently, I often find myself going back to Thomas Kühne’s powerful book, Belonging and Genocide: Hitler’s Community, 1918–1945. The book explores the “constitutive rather than the destructive side of mass murder” by vividly demonstrating how atrocities committed against the “enemy” can strengthen communal bonds among the perpetrators (and those on whose behalf the crimes are being committed). My point is not to provide a direct comparison between present-day right-wing populism and “Hitler’s community.” Kühne’s book refers to the specific case of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and it needs to be read in that particular context. The applicability of his arguments to the present, however, is still there: Kühne powerfully demonstrates that morality is socially constructed, and that it can be used for destructive purposes. The notions of good and evil are not timeless. They can change. The mass murder was possible because the new Nazi “morality” rejected the idea of universal human values: “Repudiating the Judeo-Christian traditions of mercy toward the weak and the Enlightenment principles of universalism, individualism, and egalitarianism, Nazi ethics demanded that charity, kindness, and pity be restricted to Aryan Germans.” We may be hearing the exclusionary language of Trump, but it is possible that others are hearing the moral message of new community building. Like democracy, morality cannot be taken for granted.

A Post-Christian Moment?

For me, one manifestation of how the “new morality” is taking ground was the mass voting of self-identified Christians for Trump. I use the term “Christian” in a broad ecumenical sense rather than in a narrow American Christian fundamentalist sense. According to statistical data, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. This was a larger percentage of evangelicals than that who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 (78 percent), George W. Bush in 2004 (78 percent), and John McCain in 2008 (74 percent). White Catholics also tended to vote for Trump at the ratio of 60 to 37 percent. This is somewhat similar to the overwhelming support for PiS in Poland on the part of fundamentalist Catholics associated with Radio Maryja, and on the part of the Catholic hierarchy. There are, of course, differences between the function of religion in Poland and the United States (for example, one could argue that Catholicism in Poland is more of a social ritual than a religious identity). Nevertheless, it is significant that many of those who self-identify as Christian believers, honest, and moral people, voted for authoritarian leaders filled with un-Christian messages of hate, exclusion, and revenge.

I am tempted to say that the election of Trump represents a “post-Christian” turn. The term post-Christianity has multiple meanings, and it is often used by religious leaders in a negative way to denote an unwelcome departure of society from the teachings of the Church (or the Bible). On the most basic level, post-Christianity means de-centering of Christian religion within the Western world, the home of medieval Christendom. It does not necessarily mean the decline of Christianity, but rather the world in which, as Charles Taylor explains, “Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives.” Rather than disappearing, religion finds new forms of expression and ways of adjusting to the modern world. In that sense, the Christian vote for right-wing populists could mean that the faithful themselves abandon the core Christian values (without abandoning the church or religious community) in search of a new outlet for their beliefs and emotions. It is worth noting here that the core Christian values are also the core humanist secular values as both recognize the humanity of others before making
claims on how to relate to God and other humans.

When we look at the way in which many people and religious leaders form and sustain their communities in recent years, the link between community building and hate becomes even clearer. For example, the Radio Maryja community in Poland just as “born again” Christian groups in the United States often assert their identity by demonizing and excluding those who are not like them. The ideas of Christian love and universalism are displaced by the drive for exclusive communal bonds and for boosting self-esteem through religious belonging.

The Christian vote is symptomatic of the process of disintegration of human values. In voting for Trump, self-identified “religious believers”
chose not just an openly immoral person, but a leader who repeatedly depicts doing harm to other people as “good.” This is how altering the moral grounding of a community looks like. If it takes root, it can have more lasting and detrimental consequences than Trump’s executive orders.

Ethics as Resistance

Not all white evangelicals and Catholics voted for Trump. In fact, many religious leaders and faithful were shocked to see such a high proportion of Christians supporting the “un-Christian” Trump. Many would probably agree with Minister Mihee Kim–Kort, who wrote on her blog: “We lost something on November 9th. More than an election. Something—call it humanity, compassion, hope—faltered and perished, and something in me, too.” The movement to establish sanctuary churches and the network of private homes, in which undocumented immigrants could find shelter against inhumane deportation schemes is a strong sign that resistance against Trump policies can also come from within religious communities.

Humanistic ethical values are not easy to be redefined. As Kühne shows, the process of implementing “race morality” in the Third Reich took
time, and it relied on “progressive norm breaking.” The fact that Trump and his helpers spend so much time on legitimizing outright dishonest and hateful behavior tells us something about the difficulty of breaking universalist moral barriers.

Finding Effective Ways to Link Politics and Ethics

As supporters of democracy are looking for launching an effective opposition to Trump, one could also hear voices urging restraint in “moralizing” to Trump supporters as that could further alienate those who feel unjustly accused of racism, sexism, and everything else that their candidate (now the president) displays on a daily basis. Moral judgments passed on individuals indeed might not be helpful in changing their minds, but one has to be careful not to give up on ethics and humanism. Rather, we need to find effective ways of articulating the link between politics and ethics, and reasserting the common ethical ground, because human values are part of politics. What Václav Havel once wrote about the necessity of “living in truth” rings particularly true today. Unlike Havel, I do not think that ethical resistance should replace politics, but “living in truth” is the necessary step to integrate the two. Havel also offered lessons on the fragility of human condition: “There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of the well to see the stars in broad daylight.” There are times when the massive assault on human values could become the source of strength for those who defend them.

Małgorzata Fidelis

Małgorzata Fidelis is an associate professor of history, University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research focuses on social and cultural issues, particularly everyday life and the relationship between individuals and state power, in post-1945 Eastern Europe. She is the author of Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Polish translation, 2015.

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