Upon President Trump's delivery of an impromptu "both sides" qualification addressing the tragic death of a counter-protestor at the infamous Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally, prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tweeted that Trump had "resigned as the leader of the American Civil Religion". Haidt's tweet included a screenshot of a Wikipedia article summarizing the late sociologist Robert N. Bellah's theory of Civil Religion, which ascribes to the American people a common "set of values that foster social and cultural integration" and celebrates a pantheon of heroic martyrs and messiahs like Abraham Lincoln. In Haidt's view, Trump's assertion that there were "very fine people on both sides" amounted to an apology for racism and intolerance and thus an abdication of his chair as sectarian pontiff of our civil religion.
Another more idiosyncratic sociologist named John Murray Cuddihy developed a different approach to Bellah's Civil Religion and its cultural antecedents in Europe. While Bellah focused on the content of individual speeches, publications, and pronouncements about America, Cuddihy looked to the daily face-to-face interactions of humans to divine another, perhaps more important, influence on the western psyche: the personal experience of Civil Religion. Cuddihy found that many, especially outsiders and minorities, experienced Civil Religion as a religion of civility - a "protestant esthetic" of bourgeois manners that was less about substantive values than about proper etiquette and interpersonal respect. In essence, Cuddihy had found the western rituals underlying our Civil Religion to be experienced by many as something closer to the "empty formalism" Bellah insisted our Civil Religion was not.
The Trump era has stimulated a renewed and impassioned commentary on civility that raises fundamental questions about the nature and role of civility in American democracy, as well as the future of our civil religion and how it is experienced by America's ever-changing electorate. Cuddihy's unique account of how certain groups have experienced civility provides an incisive explanation for Trump civility commentary today and ultimately serves as an unsettling portent about the future of our civil religion.
Civility and Counter-Culture
Cuddihy describes civility as a ritual exchange of "gifts" among strangers enabling us to "live with unknown others without transforming them into brothers or enemies." This ritual carries with it a differentiation between private and public behavior and spaces, with social appearances, respectability, and censorship (both self- and other-directed) coming to dominate the public sphere. In western Protestant society, civility demands public humility about one's wealth and power, respect for strangers, and censorship of one's private convictions about individuals and groups. The development of civility in western history is, for Cuddihy, bound to the refinement of "barbaric" behaviors, with the prototypical example being the refinement of the feudal baron into the high-modern aristocrat.
One of Cuddihy's arguments was that the counter-culture ideologies that radically altered the course of western civilization in the 20th century originated in attacks upon civility. Such attacks reflected in one way or another outsider or minority anxieties about the relationship between civil rights and civility, of being accepted as a full and equal citizen in society, not just in terms of being granted political equality, but also in terms of being socially accepted by others as equal. Among the various counter-culture movements, Cuddihy selected Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism as two of his most important case studies.
Freud experienced civility as a sham ritual sublimating man's natural, barbaric impulses: the formal and respectful rituals of romantic love merely covered up with successive layers of refinement the brute reality of the sexual transactions between individuals. Other aspects of civility merely concealed the shocking Freudian "truth" of childhood sexuality and incest fantasies. Of course, such "scientific" reductions were not new to a western society increasingly secularized by Darwin and Newton. But the way in which Freud communicated his observations to the world was seemingly contrived to scandalize his audience. Many of Freud's colleagues lamented the impudence with which Freud discussed sexuality, and his correspondence is littered with stubborn declarations against self-censorship or euphemizing. This was, at least in Freud's view, because psychological malaise could only be ameliorated by attacking the euphemisms with which the superego and society censored the brute reality of human existence. "A science cannot be bourgeois," declared the founder of psychoanalysis, for bourgeois etiquette was merely a veil of petty lies obscuring our view of the truth.
But behind the putative therapeutic and scientific goals of Freud's project, Cuddihy argues, lurked the mischievous motivations of a counter-cultural prankster. In one speech, for example, Freud mused about a "malicious fellow" preventing women from euphemizing their bathroom breaks as "picking flowers" by distributing a document at a party that revealed the true meaning behind the innocent euphemism. Indeed, in Hannah Arendt's dismissive estimation, psychoanalysis was nothing more than a "modern form of indiscretion." Whatever Freud's ultimate motivations were, his remedy was a compromise with the religion of civility: indiscretions only were to be expressed during a closed analytic session. This compromise ultimately marks Freud, in Cuddihy's analysis, as a conservative or reform critic of civility to be contrasted with Marx, whose radical attack on the bourgeois order admitted of no compromise.
Marx's professional career began much like Freud's - with an analysis of censorship in the shadow of the protestant censor - but his rebellion against civility began much earlier in life. As an assimilated Jew and Protestant convert, Marx's father lamented in letters his son's rebellious, counter-cultural drinking, dueling, profligacy, and predilection for, in Cuddihy's words, making "truth more important than sociability." The latter spirit erupted in a ferocious attack upon the Prussian censorship law which, although it did not censor the content - the substance and ideology - of publications, purported to censor tone. In his fulminations against the censor, Marx mocked liberal attempts to impose restraint and good manners on publications, arguing that tone policing was a "means of keeping one from the truth." The Prussian tone police approached speech in a way that dissolved the apparent distinction between a free citizen and respectable bourgeois, forcing the former to conform to the rules of propriety dictated by the latter. "I may be humorous", Marx quipped, "but the law orders that I write seriously."
Marx argued that, much like Freud's superego, the censor had made the scientist's mind "an inquisitor" auditing the search for truth under the auspices of "police-regulated honorability and conventional good manners." In forcing respectability, moderation, tolerance, and good manners upon writers, the Prussian censor had effectively reinstated a form of content-specific censorship, because offensive utterances and unsavory truths were deemed poor taste. Marx instead championed the wisdom of the crude masses, which he contended were always ready to confront unsavory truths and offensive language. Tone policing might protect elites from the harmful effects of uncouth truth, but it had no effect upon the masses, for whom the brute facts of existence were readily apparent.
Marx would go on to escape the Prussian censor, becoming a communist and writing his classic works, while also expanding upon his original critique of civility and censorship. In his mature works, Marx unloaded his imposing philosophical and rhetorical arsenal at the naive pride of bourgeois gentlemen who claimed to have overcome the vulgar haggling and avariciousness of primitive capitalism. For Marx, Bourgeois property was tied to and coevolved with bourgeois propriety, creating a superstructure of civil rituals designed to conceal the brute, exploitative reality of parasitic capitalism. Whereas Hegel rationalized modern capitalism by having civil society assimilate selfishness with the common good, Marx reversed the insight, contending that civil society merely existed to conceal and rationalize the vulgar, parasitic exploitation perpetrated by bourgeois gentlemen.
In a brilliant set of analogies, Cuddihy shows how closely Freud and Marx's seemingly distinct projects converge on the function of civility. Just as the west deluded itself into thinking that love had eliminated selfish haggling from courtship, so it had also deluded itself that modern capitalism had eliminated selfish haggling from exchange. The industrial revolution may have attempted to sublimate the selfishness of the feudal west under Calvinism, but Marx's experience with the Prussian censor helped him see through the conceit. His therapy for a hypocritical, deluded society was, like Freud's, an uncensored confrontation with the brute facts underlying bourgeois society.
Looking closer to his own time, Cuddihy saw reflections of an ongoing revolt against civility in the sit-ins on buses and in restaurants during the civil rights movement, where activists had attempted to "disentangle civil liberties from social civilities". The success of the civil rights movement exposed other public places to demonstrations and "misbehaviors", culminating in the 1968 Democratic Convention and the trial of the Chicago Seven for incitement, during which the defendants profaned the civil space of the Anglo-Saxon court with outbursts of uncouth and vulgar behavior. In Cuddihy's eyes, Abbie Hoffman's famous sentencing declaration, "[w]hen decorum is repression, the only dignity that free men have is to speak out", articulated the hidden essence of the civil rights movement. Here again the religion of civility had been experienced as hypocrisy and was indicted for concealing and rationalizing repression, only this time the revolt against civility explicitly identified with a cool new counter-culture in the Yippies.
Today many of our most august and respected public figures identify as heirs to or direct participants in the counter-cultural revolt against civility. While many of the more radical goals of counter-cultural intellectuals have fallen out of favor, the revolt against civility has left its mark on the values of western leadership, covering our most vocal and respected thinkers with a pall of counter-cultural cool. Nearly every sacred event, including the most recent Presidential inaugurations (the solemn coronation of our secular pontiff) are sound-tracked by the most uncivil of rappers, rock and rollers, and pop singers. Politicians openly schmooze with "vulgar" comedians and artists whose works are applauded for their blunt confrontation with reality and disrespectful dismissal of stifling, outdated pieties. Serious public intellectuals like Paul Krugman make a point of decrying calls for civility by arguing in numerous op-eds that incivility is often justified and that calls for civility preclude serious consideration of the truth. In academia, professors like Brian Leiter have updated the old Marxist explanation of civility, criticizing its political use for conferring "moral and epistemic status" on people otherwise undeserving of civil treatment, like Nazis. Even the conservative right has gotten in on the action, as Hua Hsu observed in a 2014 New Yorker article, by seeing in civility "political correctness by a different name."
Against this background of cool establishment incivility emerges Trump. He had of course always been there in pop culture or on the periphery of politics as an amusing sideshow to be tolerated and mocked by our public leaders, but never as a serious threat to the sanctity of public office. When he finally emerged as a legitimate challenger in the Presidential race, the public was subjected to a deluge of civility commentary that was unique in both kind and volume. Trump's incivility, which was also by necessity politically incorrect, had exposed a latent tension in the public culture of counter-cultural cool.
The Incivil and Politically Incorrect Id
The varied attempts in the press to deal with the cognitive dissonance stimulated by this tension often, and quite appropriately, begin with explicit or implicit comparisons to Freud's concept of the Id. In "Donald Trump and the American Id", conservative Kevin D. Williamson declares Trump to be a "post-erotic pornographer" appealing to the base desires and fantasies of his supporters, whose incivil language betrays "insecurities" about sexuality and manliness. Similarly, Eli Zaretsky looks to "political Freudianism" in "American Id: Freud on Trump" to understand the "desires, impulses and fantasies excluded from mainstream politics" animating Trump's broad appeal. Like Zaretsky, Tanveer Ahmed in his "Trump is our id, the Left is our Superego" sees in Trumpism a return "to the primeval Father" whom Trump supporters both envy and fear. In contrast, Jon Greenway sees "Donald Trump: The Id of Republican Politics" appealing to the "visceral, the capitalist, and the patriarchal" in order to pull decent folk away from the Reagan superego. By expressing the "dark, twisted, and unacceptable elements of right-wing political discourse", Trump makes explicit what the GOP had previously hidden, and what Greenway demands we repress: "racism, misogyny, and capitalist priapism."
These authors betray an anxiety about the relationship between Trump's incivility and politically unfavorable consequences, which reflects in turn the obvious conceptual overlap between civility and political correctness. Philosophy Professor Karen Stohr's New York Times op-ed on "Our New Age of Contempt" makes explicit this contemporary link between civility and political correctness. In her article, Stohr laments the emergence of contempt and incivility from "behind closed doors, in low tones not meant to be overheard" into the open where "raw feelings" are "exposed." The Trumpian Id must be suppressed not only because of Immanuel Kant's conclusion that "stability and progress depend upon self-restraint," but also because contempt "dehumanizes" and undermines the "moral basis of all human relationships." For Stohr, Trumpian incivility has political consequences that are objectively unacceptable in our Republic. Trump's putative mockery of a journalist with palsy, like his putative ascription of rape to all Mexican immigrants, profaned the civil space of public discourse, especially because Trump was incivil to apparently "weak" groups from a position of power. By Stohr's ethic, Trump must play the good protestant progressive and conceal his private views, lest he politically repress the weak and powerless through incivility. Thus, political correctness can be understood in this context as the proposition that the public deference of our civility ritual is owed especially to specific groups and identities.
In July of 2016, Josh Barro echoed another common angle taken against Trump (which we'll revisit later in a different context): his taste for gaudy decor. Trump's "tacky, ostentatious...thronelike chairs" were as revelatory of poor political judgment as his statements about penis size and Mexican rapists. Barro ultimately warns us "as a gay man" that "Trump's vulgarity also matters for things more serious than furniture", especially things like "prejudices and hatreds that people have kept quiet about", like homophobia. According to Barro, Trump's vulgarity permits the public to stop "faking it until they make it" - that is, stop concealing their visceral, Id-derived instincts about homosexuality, women, and Mexicans, until those instincts are sublimated by more refined, more tolerant, and more civil instincts (and presumably, better taste in decor).
Beyond Trump's incivil commentary and garish taste in decor, Kathleen Parker's Washington Post op-ed on Greg Gianforte's "body slam" sees political hazards in Trump's incivil physical behavior abroad. Her underlying logic is the same as Stohr and Barro's: incivility toward officially designated weak groups or individuals is politically unacceptable. Written before the global scandal of Trump's handshake wars in France, Parker asserts that Trump's first foreign "coup de uncouth" was pushing Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic out of the way at the NATO Summit. Instead of observing proper etiquette with "a light tap on the shoulder and at least a pretense of manners", Trump used impolite behavior to politically harm a victim of Russian bullying and ally in need of protection.
But perhaps Trump's most confounding act of incivility occurred when he profaned the sacred venue of the Al Smith Charity Dinner, where one would expect a New York billionaire to fit in. The New York Times coverage of the event notes how Trump scandalized the audience in departing from light-hearted "ribbing" and going for darker, more personalized and contemptuous attacks upon Hillary Clinton. The Times then praises Clinton for attacking Trump's vulgar misogyny and surveys the litany of prestigious attendees, highlighting Trump's alienation from the venue. But the article also suggests that Hillary gained the upper hand in that ritual exchange of gifts known as the handshake by turning away from the shake before Trump. Indeed, the Times seems to suggest that it was in fact Trump who couldn't handle the warm familiarity and jocular atmosphere of the event. The up-tight Trump could only be loosened up by the cool and down-to-earth Clinton. In summary, Trump was both the uncouth pariah who broke "with decades of tradition" and was booed by the elite audience, but was also the uptight, serious, and uncool billionaire.
The stretch to portray Clinton as cool and on equal footing with Trump exposes the latent tension distorting much of the Trump civility commentary. Many of the commentators who ritually wrung their wrists at Trump's incivility and political incorrectness also wished to preserve their claim upon counter-cultural cool, to make sure their own Ids were given full vent while the Trumpian Id was resublimated, like Josh Barro's celebration of his sexual orientation in his criticism of the Trumpian id.
Additional examples can be found by surveying other articles by Trump civility commentators. For instance, in a March issue of that most civil of conservative publications, the National Review, Kevin Williamson unleashed his own Id in a declaration that "downscale" white working class communities "deserved to die". The same mediocre whites whose sexual insecurities were allowed vent by the Trumpian Id deserved the slow death they were experiencing. Similarly, after decrying the fact that Trump freed the "dirty little ids of his Twitter feed's tiniest minds", Kathleen Parker engages in her own vulgar and incivil sexual innuendo about the "[sexual] limitations" of Trump's followers. And of course the oft-repeated refrain that Trump's incivility is dehumanizing can be compared to the outcry against Jimmy Fallon for his "humanization" of Trump on the Late Show.
It's clear that this tension arises from the fact that commentators are offended by Trump's political incorrectness and vulgarity, but are also ensconced in a culture where being cool, real, and incivil is popular, and where political correctness is perceived as submissiveness. Some of the more self-reflective commentators, acknowledging this tension, sought to preserve their contradictory criticisms of Trump's incivility by offering the rationalizations that Trump was either just being vulgar and not politically incorrect, or was in fact the real icon of political correctness during the campaign.
Parker's "Trump isn't politically incorrect. He's just simply incorrect" begins with the familiar Freudian analysis of Trumpism, observing that Trump supporters misdefine political incorrectness as "whatever slips from gray matter to tongue without inhibitory processing that civilization demands." Excessive political correctness is indeed a problem, Parker concedes, but Parker cautions that merely insulting people and being vulgar is not in itself politically incorrect. Proper political incorrectness, proper counter-culturalism, for Parker, is actually civil. To support her argument, Parker translates Trump's Mexican Rapist statement into something palatable to bourgeois taste:
"You could say, for example, that we need to secure our borders because, though most immigrants are good people in search of a better life, others are criminals or criminal-minded. This is both true and lacking in drama."
This, of course, captures none of the implications of Trump's statement and smuggles in respectful, flattering assumptions about immigrants that Trump clearly didn't intend to convey. Thus, like Karen Stohr, Parker interprets certain kinds of empirical statements as contemptuous insults that must be censored or euphemized, and stresses the propriety of exercising civility or deference toward a specific group. Here, at least from the perspective of a Trump supporter, we are very close to the tone policing-cum-content censorship against which Marx railed in protestant Europe.
On the far right, Jonah Goldberg's own National Review article exhibits a similar desire to hold onto the prestige conferred by being un-PC. For Goldberg, Trump's vulgarity is just "smarmy cowardice" whereas true un-PC behavior is about having manners and being respectful. In an age of liberal counter-culture, Goldberg engages in genuine un-PC rebellion by re-enacting the rituals of civility's cultural progenitor: chivalry. Goldberg proudly declares that, in opposition to Trump's misogyny and the politically correct spirit of the age, he holds "doors open for women" and stands up "whenever a woman enters the room."
In "For Trump, being politically incorrect is now 'PC'", liberal professor Stuart Brotman mirrors Goldberg's logic by looking at polling data and redefining political correctness as whatever the majority believes. Because polls demonstrate the majority oppose political correctness, being anti-politically correct must, according to Brotman, be politically correct. Thus, the minority view that we should embrace civility and "favor more care with language to avoid offending people" is now politically incorrect.
While other articles like Mitchell Blatt's "How Donald Trump Makes Political Correctness Worse" and Anne-Marie Slaughter's "Of George Washington, Donald Trump, and Civility" try to split the hair between strands of righteous political incorrectness and mere incivility or "hatefulness", Conor Friedersdorf succeeds in perfecting the rationalization. In "The Politically Correct Presidency of Donald Trump", Friedersdorf concedes that Trump is truly counter-cultural in the sense that he offends political sensibilities across the political spectrum, but qualifies that Trump's "lodestar" is a false dogma that demands its own rituals of deference. Trump's "refusal to deal with the world as it is", unique and offensive though it may be, is nonetheless analogous to the sham ritual of civility exposed by Freud and Marx.
Against Trump's political correctness, Friedersdorf positions President Obama's couth political incorrectness, pointing to the exemplary contrast between Trump's reticence about right-wing extremism and Obama's reticence about Islamic extremism. Obama understood the nature of the threat, as exhibited by his use of lethal measures against extremists, but chose his words carefully - civilly - to "avoid legitimating the claims of religious extremists" and offending Muslims. In contrast, Trump remained silent on right-wing extremism: a politically correct silence, Friedersdorf contends, because it legitimated the dogmas of his supporters. In short, killing Islamic extremists while addressing Islamic extremism civilly was not political correctness on Obama's part, while Trump's silence on right-wing extremism was politically correct repression.
The ethic undergirding the Friedersdorf approach is especially popular among legal commentators and underscores the extent to which civility is concerned with censoring affect and intent. Benjamin Wittes's Lawfareblog post on travel bans (echoing the reasoning underlying many of the 9th Circuit's failed attempts to stall Trump executive orders) states that Obama's drone program was morally superior to Trump's travel bans because, while droning civilians is bad, it wasn't "malevolent" like Trump's travel ban. In other words, Obama's foreign policy failures were insulated by protestant (Kantian) good will - a veneer of civility and bureaucratic-technocratic detachment reassuring us that Obama's office was purely animated by nice intentions.
Such complex and contradictory apologia invite many questions. Why are these commentators focused on criticizing Trump's incivility and simultaneously undermining his claim to being politically incorrect? Why does civility coexist with the valorization of incivility? Why the urgent need to qualify and justify? To explain the paradox of commentators with liberated, incivil Ids demanding that Trump and his supporters refine their own Ids, we must return to sociology.
The Pre-modern and the Modern
In an entertaining blog post comparing the Trumps to the Sopranos, celebrated sociologist Randall Collins claims "[t]he Trumps are another family in the pre-modern mold", and explains that Godfather-style Italians celebrate their (pre-modern) ethnic roots over assimilating into (modern) WASP culture. But Collins drops this thread almost as soon as he picks it up, returning instead to a more superficial analysis of pop culture. To fully unpack this insight, which reveals the essence of western counter culture (and ideology), we must instead look to Cuddihy, in particular his book The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity.
In Ordeal, Cuddihy explains the sociological origins of certain counter-cultural trends through the Jewish experience of emancipation into the west, focusing on examples ranging from comedy to philosophy, economics, psychology, anthropology and politics. Cuddihy's primary thesis is that the emancipation of Jews into western protestant culture was a traumatic event called "modernization" that stimulated the intellectual reactions against civility motivating our modern counter-culture.
For Cuddihy, modernization is a process of differentiation, separating qualities and properties of groups and religions from individuals. The differentiation process entails the loss of moral superiority - the feeling of essentiality - by traditional groups as religion, culture, and ethnos are relativized and demoted into arbitrary and voluntary associations inhabited by isolated individuals. Northern European protestant culture was acculturated to the differentiation process of modernity slowly over several centuries, beginning with medieval sumptuary laws that forcibly curtailed ostentatious displays of wealth. In stark contrast, the modernization process was experienced by Jews as something abrupt and deeply personal, with civility making Jews "appear ugly to themselves." Whereas the WASP had centuries to deal with the blows to collective narcissism dealt by religious pluralism, social atomization, and the efflorescence of science and industry, pre-modern peoples were forced to assimilate immediately. Cuddihy ultimately concludes that modernity is objectively anti-Semitic (as well as anti-Catholic and to a lesser extent anti-Lutheran) in the sense that it demands the erasure of "sacred particularities."
From the Shtetl in Eastern Europe emerged a medieval people into a bustling, nascent industrial capitalist civilization more rationally organized than any other civilization in history. Previously, Shtetl Jews had inhabited a cosmos where they were the chosen people, their ostracism and subjugation on the Shtetl being rationalized through an ancient theodicy. Life on the shtetl was, in the words of Mark Zborowski, "with people": compact, familiar, warm, without privacy or strangers, and always permeated by a sense of "premodern" tribal solidarity. Cuddihy emphasizes that the Shtetl knew no public places with "situational proprieties" (no Al Smith dinners), no strangers, and no public-private cleavage. Another crucial difference was the spiritualization of daily interactions, which had been vigorously condemned by Marx and Freud. Both Freud and Marx argued that to become refined meant to "spiritualize" interactions, like romantic love, meaning by extension the abandonment of the Jewish "utilitarian, non-aesthetic" attitude toward the body and exchange.
Hence when Jews emerged from the Shtetl, gentiles experienced them as coarse, vulgar troublemakers who were disrespectful and failed to show "proper deference" to others. With emancipation the Shtetl Jew was permitted civil rights, including the franchise, but was not accepted into gentile social society. Jews therefore unexpectedly encountered an "unwritten bargain" accompanying political emancipation: they had to adopt civilized behavior and accept the moral superiority of bourgeois liberalism. In a very real sense, Jews experienced an objectively superior civilization that had given them formal entry but also demanded social submission to preserve, at least in their view, the social superiority of gentile population.
Despite their rapid advancement in wealth and education, Cuddihy notes that Jews often experienced polite exclusion from clubs, gatherings, and other high status social events. The early Zionist Max Nordau asserted that this was "the Jewish special misery" under which the more advanced Jews of Western Europe "groaned" and from which they sought "salvation and alleviation". In other words, the cold "pardon me" of civil interaction with gentiles was the deceptively small and innocuous tip of a spear that mortally pierced the communal narcissism of the premodern Shtetl. This was especially true for its most intellectual and prominent parvenus, who winced at the "barbaric" behavior of their less assimilated ethnic brethren on the one hand but also seethed against the pompous and hypocritical civility of gentile elites on the other.
For assimilated or partially assimilated Jews, the collapse of Jewish theodicy deprived them of an essential social rationalization for their communal backwardness. Unwilling to go through the gentile rite of passage known as "civility" and accept the social demotion that accompanied emancipation, Jewish intellectuals sought instead to rationalize Jewish backwardness and retain as much of their pre-modern solidarity and communal intimacy as possible. In Cuddihy's words, Jewish intellectuals constructed "sociodicies" that were used to "shepherd Jews into the modern world" while preserving a communal sense of moral superiority. Specifically, the sociodicies sought to ameliorate the "status wounding" that accompanied the modernization process by creating social equality between gentiles and Jews, and by warning against total assimilation so as to retain Jews in the pre-modern fold.
Cuddihy marshals textual evidence to document the intellectual Jewish experience of bourgeois etiquette, observing how they experienced civility as a hypocritical aristocratic pathos of distance demanding deference and status inequality and masking elitism with the illusion of impartiality and humility. The Jewish ideologies of "dedifferentiation", such as psychoanalysis or Marxism, reacted to this experience by recasting the modern world in terms that accommodated Jewish particularism, which usually meant leveling the social plain with gentiles.
For example, it seemed impossible to Freud that gentiles were in some sense qualitatively different from Jews, particularly their claim to experience romantic love. Freud assumed that gentiles had to be lying to themselves because it was impossible that Jews were somehow more primitive or incapable of experiencing romantic love. Thus, Freud developed his Id as, in Cuddihy's humorous construction, a stand-in for the vulgar and irreverent "[Y]id", so that Freud had in effect claimed that behind every respectable gentile lurked an unassimilated [Y]id. In other words, the instinctual barbarism of the Freudian Id, which lurked behind the facade of spiritualized gentile social interaction, was just the same as the brute utilitarian vulgarity of the unassimilated Jew. This was Freud's way of asserting that, stripped of their arbitrary and repressive refinement, gentiles were socially equal to Jews. Through playful assonance, Cuddihy articulates Freud's basic premise: "the id of the Yid is hid under the lid of western decorum."
Similarly, Marx's controversial On the Jewish Question lays bare the humiliating nature of unassimilated parasitic capitalism among Jews. While often interpreted as an anti-Semitic text, Cuddihy contends that when understood in the context of Marx's other works, On the Jewish Question should be read as an attempt to strip away the veneer of bourgeois respectability from the market and establish equality between Jewish parasitic capitalism and "respectable" gentile capitalism. Cuddihy notes that 19th-century gentile "philosemites" or abolitionists often wrote apologia for Jewish parasitic capitalism, stressing its origins in gentile oppression of Jews during the middle ages. The thrust of these texts was that gentiles should help Jews become "civilized" through emancipation. Cuddihy argues that Marx found such arguments patronizing and sought instead to posit Jewish parasitic capitalism as the natural state of gentiles unobscured by the veneer of civility. In sum, behind the gentile civility of fixed prices and honest, good-faith transactions lurked Marx's own "Yid".
Cuddihy also describes how reform liberalism and Zionism constituted other intellectual responses to the status wounding inflicted by emancipation. Reform liberals and even American neoconservatives sought partial assimilation while also carving out a space for pre-modern solidarity, either through institutional acceptance of Jewish particularism (e.g., Judaism as a "major religion" in the United States) or embracing an exoteric-esoteric duality to participation in American democracy (e.g., the philosophy of Leo Strauss). Zionists, in contrast, sought a total break with the west, rejecting wholesale the social demotion and opting to recreate the warmth and intimacy of the Shtetl in a new nation.
In every case, however, the intellectual responses to modernity appealed to some aspect of the western modernization juggernaut - science, economics, philosophy, the Protestant taste for Chirstlike victims, or the territorial nation-state - to bolster what was effectively a morally Jewish case. Cuddihy stresses how similar this approach was to the strategy of the early Christians, who sought social acceptance by incorporating pagan philosophical and scientific premises into what were essentially moral and religious arguments.
Each response to modernization also included a warning to Jews against attempting total assimilation. The gentile demand that Jews self-censor gave rise instead to the phenomenon of "Jewish passing", whereby Jews affected civility among gentiles but practiced the uncivil intimacy of the Shtetl among fellow Jews. Jewish passing was in turn the primary focus of Jewish humor, which according to Cuddihy mirrored the structure of Freud's theory of dreams.
In every Jewish joke Cuddihy sees a "latent [Y]id seeking admission to the consciousness of civil society", but in the act of trying to sublimate incivil behavior performs a "slip" revealing the inner [Y]id and proving to the audience that Jews will never be fully accepted (think Larry David or Woody Allen agonizing over their public improprieties). In effect, the Jewish joke was a form of social control among Jews, but also an equalizer when uttered in the presence of non-Jews, because it was often vulgar and disrespectful to civil society. In Freud's own words, Jewish jokes performed an equalizing function because they reflected the "democratic mode of thinking of Jews, which recognizes no distinction between lords and serfs." Incivility was for Jews the "courage to criticize and attack out of confidence and intimacy", helping to dispense with the aloof, distance-creating ritual of respect undergirding civility.
Cuddihy also sees these same forces at work in the intellectual output of other pre-modern populations subjected to the traumatic ordeal of modernization. For example, Cuddihy points to James Joyce who, while urging the Irish to abandon their pre-modern epic heroism and assimilate, also carved out a safe space for Irish transgressions in the vulgar interior monologue that so scandalized the Manhattan District Attorney. Other prominent examples in America could be found in the various black intellectual responses to emancipation from slavery and de jure segregation, leading Cuddihy to the conclusion that "ideology is the name we give to various resistance movements against the modernization process."
Explaining Trumpian Incivility
With this framework in place, we can finally understand the Trumpian ordeal of incivility. Trump is, as Collins observes, fundamentally pre-modern. While ethnically Scottish and German, Trump's personality was forged in the Ellis Island crucible of New York real estate where parasitic pariah capitalism is the norm. Trump is lecherous for eastern European women, regularly bilks contractors and consumers, has a predilection for the gaudy and kitsch, eats like a prole, constantly makes a scene among the well-bred and people of good taste, and cynically manipulates the legal system with a mob affiliated legal team. In other words, he feels at home and secure among incivil company where the stifling affective censorship of civil society is absent.
Clyde Haberman was among a few to explicitly acknowledge Trump's similarity to vulgar New York ethnics, drawing comparisons to the behavior of two controversial New York politicians: the Jewish mayor Koch and Italian mayor Giuliani. Another was Paul Singer in his article on Trump's use of the Yiddishism "schlonged", which Singer observes is taboo among Jews in mixed Yiddish and non-Yiddish speaking company, and which scandalized the Clinton campaign.
But most of Trump's civility critics only inadvertently highlight Trump's debt to pre-modern incivility. Such commentators unconsciously recapitulate the agony Jewish intellectuals experienced when contemplating their less assimilated brethren in the shadow of refined civil society. In so doing, they underscore the extent to which the crisis of Trumpian incivility resembles the socio-cultural crisis of Jewish modernization documented by Cuddihy.
Elizabeth Williamson's "The Caddyshack President" compares Trump's behavior at Mar-a-Lago when he hosted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to Rodney Dangerfield's character in Caddyshack. Trump was, in Williamson's eyes, "a reckless, clownish boor surrounded by sycophants, determined to blow up all convention." Williamson ignores the fact that Dangerfield, playing a Jewish pariah arriviste, is one of the heroes of Caddyshack, and instead focuses on feeling embarrassed on behalf of Trump's guests. Williamson sees Trump acting like a pathetic nouveau riche seeking approval from his more established (tasteful) guests, and worries about how Trump's guests must have felt being "dragged like pull toys through Mr. Trump's club, props in his bizarre and potentially dangerous effort to show off."
Professor Brendon O'Connor also winces when imagining how Trump must be perceived by the rest of the world. In "Trump fulfills all the stereotypes that global citizens have about ugly Americans", O'Connor speculates from an academic perch how Trump's performances must be experienced on the global stage, observing that the majority must despise him because he is the archetypal "ugly American: obnoxious, uncouth, boastful, and duplicitous." O'Connor further suggests that the world turns its nose up at Trump's "gauche" boasting about wealth, betraying that O'Connor has little understanding of the values of the world's many pre-modern cultures. The world may hate Trump, but certainly not for his quintessentially third world big man ostentation.
Following the same blind alley of Williamson and O'Connor, Garrison Keillor's bizarre open letter to Trump recapitulates the old assimilated Jew's condemnation of his unassimilated brethren's uncouth behavior. Keillor reprimands Trump for his conspicuous consumption and pathetic entreaties as a "Queens boy trying to win respect in Manhattan where the Times is the Supreme Liberal Jewish Anglican Arbiter of Who Has the Smarts and What Goes Where." He goes on to attack Trump for using vulgarity to appeal to suburban "white women" and other flyover rubes, and contrasts his unrefined barbarism with the refinement of Jews. Indeed, for Keillor, "Jews didn't go in for big yachts and a fleet of aircraft - they showed off by way of philanthropy or by raising brilliant offspring", and most importantly, "[t]hey sympathized with the civil rights movement."
The Midwestern Scotsman Keillor betrays his ignorance of the complexity of Jewish taste and politics here (especially in Miami where those big yachts often winter), but even in error his letter mirrors the Jewish struggle with civility. Keillor's article calls to mind Cuddihy's survey of Walter Lippmann's socialism, which, for Cuddihy, effectively was intended as a medieval sumptuary law for wealthy Jews whose conspicuous consumption invited opprobrium from the civil establishment. Lippmann once lamented that "the rich and vulgar and pretentious Jews of our big cities are perhaps the greatest misfortune that has ever befallen the Jewish people." Lacking a "country-house tradition of high living" and "physical grace", nouveau riche Jews "rush about in super-automobiles, bejeweled and be-furred and painted and overbarbered."
Commentators like Williamson, O'Connor, and Keillor only seem capable of perceiving Trump's incivility from the perspective of the establishment, failing to fully to grasp how it is experienced by Trump supporters. For his part, Trump clearly understands, even if only intuitively, the democratic emotional energy that can be summoned by engaging in spite rituals against elite decorum.
In February of 2016, Trump repeated an insult against Ted Cruz shouted by an audience member that was so offensive the CNN editorial staff had to preface its account with a warning to readers. Upon hearing the insult, Trump stopped his address to mockingly perform a shaming ritual:
"She just said a terrible thing."
"You know what she said? Shout it out because I don't want to say"
"OK you're not allowed to say and I never expect to hear that from you again. She said -- I never expect to hear that from you again -- she said he's a pussy."
After profaning the ritual by uttering the contemptuous and vulgar insult himself, Trump ironically concludes with
"So I just want to tell you right now, ma'am, you're reprimanded"
Indeed, in his National Review article, Jonah Goldberg astutely observed that Trump regularly uses the rhetorical technique of apophasis - raising a forbidden topic but ironically condemning it - to great effect among his supporters. Goldberg points to the following Trump tweet as an example:
"I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter!"
Trump's more recent tweet to North Korea's autarch reinforces Goldberg's observation:
"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!"
This recalls the Chicago Seven trial, which was so important to Cuddihy's analysis, where the defendants participated in the Anglo-Saxon court ritual to spite and profane it for political purposes. The trial was especially significant for Cuddihy because it was presided over by an assimilated Jewish judge, Julius Hoffman, and starred an unassimilated Jew, Abbie Hoffman. During the trial, the Hoffmans sparred, the civil reformer Hoffman reprimanding and censoring, the defendant Hoffman shouting insults in Yiddish and shaming Judge Hoffman for assimilating and being a tool of the WASP elite. By doing so, the Abbie Hoffman and the other defendants had engaged in a "ceremonial profanation ritual, a defrocking of Judge Hoffman and a vandalizing of legal decorum" to communicate a political point - not to Judge Hoffman, but to the public.
Cuddihy's analyses of civility and counter-culture help us understand both the political significance of Trump's incivility and the incoherence of Trump civility commentary. Owing to the clash between modern and premodern in the 20th century, western civility is now inextricably and paradoxically bound to the belief that incivility is acceptable, at least in certain instances. If we agree with Cuddihy that civility is experienced by many as a condescending, aristocratic distancing ritual championed by the establishment, then it is easy to predict future counter-cultural upheavals challenging not only civility, but also the particularized incivility upheld by the establishment.
If there is any doubt that civility can function as a legitimizing rite for the American ruling class, one need only look to the writings of civility purists in the Trump era. Senator Orrin Hatch's Time magazine declaration that he is "Re-committing to Civility" is instructive. Hatch begins by asserting that civility is essential to our democracy and is an unwritten basic norm supporting our Constitution and legal system, thereby tying his station and its legitimacy to the ritual of civility. He then goes on to call for people to "venture beyond the comfortable confines of our social circles" so as to dissolve intergroup hostility and reduce incivil feelings. Hatch attempts to bolster his case by pointing to how "the culture of Congress was vastly different" in his heyday, and how some of his "best friends were Democrats." Hatch recounts specifically how as a poor Mormon conservative boy from Utah he could form a strong, lifelong friendship with the affluent Irish-Catholic Ted Kennedy, during which they broke bread together and their children attended the same schools.
Echoing this elite perspective, American Bar Association President Linda Klein asserted in a 2017 address motivated by Trump that "[c]ivility allows us to deal with conflict through mutual respect without damaging relationships." Klein stresses that civility "involves connecting with others, developing a sense of empathy, encouraging communication and manners." But the most revelatory part of Klein's address is its epigraph: a pithy quote on civility from Mary Wortley Montagu, an 18th-century aristocrat.
What Hatch and Klein inadvertently reveal in their calls for civility is that the ruling class is an increasingly diverse but nonetheless exclusive and aristocratic old boys club. Hatch and Kennedy had no problem respecting each other and breaking bread because they became social equals on Capitol Hill, calling to mind Aristotle's old formulation that equality always only means equality for equals and inequality for non-equals. Hatch's account of their friendship makes it difficult to imagine Kennedy or Hatch reproaching the other for not seeking salvation through the one true church. Neither Hatch nor Kennedy alienated the other because both had renounced the primacy of their ethnoreligious identities in favor of a new establishment identity, which united their families. Klein's invocation of an 18th-century hereditary aristocrat to justify her own "inclusive" call for civility only serves to drive home this point.
Thus, like the scandalized gentile and assimilated Jewish establishment of the past, elite commentators today are striving to censure and civilize a parvenu billionaire who stands opposite to them as a barbaric and unassimilated "Yid". But unlike the civil society experienced by emancipated Jewry, we are no longer confronted by a society solely dominated by an aristocratic ritual of civility. This leads us to the second factor underlying the success of Trump's incivility: certain types of incivility are paradoxically championed by our modern ruling elite.
The gatekeeping class deploys the old ritual of civility to maintain social distance from its subjects, but is comprised of or represents partially assimilated identities that successfully resisted modernization's differentiation process and preserved the legitimacy of their own incivil mores. Thus, the gatekeeping class demands ritualized deference through civility, but can also be found shirking the label "politically correct" because of its submissive implications. In spite of their friendship and successful assimilation into the ruling elite, both Hatch and Kennedy continued to represent and defend the interests of the unassimilated, pre-modern identities of their constituents (e.g., Mormons, Irish Catholics, and other unassimilated constituents of each party.)
The commentary surveyed throughout this article demonstrates that the Hatch-Kennedy old boys club isn't so much scandalized by incivility as such as it is by outsider and lower status individuals and groups that fail to practice self-effacing rituals of deference and respect upwards, including proper deference to the special interest and identity groups that club members either inhabit or represent. The argument that incivility is only bad when it is directed toward weak groups and individuals serves, like the Prussian censor's call for civility, as a self-satisfying palliative for those in power, but many outside of that circle only see this as hypocrisy. It's impossible, for instance, to argue with a straight face that mocking vulgar unemployed Appalachians as mediocre whites is "punching up" and therefore an acceptable form of incivility, while mocking vulgar Mexican or Muslim immigrants is not. Moreover, if weak groups exempt from incivility are also sacred objects for the ruling class, the weak will invariably be subjected to any spite ritual aimed at the ruling class. In the end, the painful reality is that the old boys club is less concerned with censoring or denouncing the incivil behavior of its constituent groups than with preserving the special right of its own constituent Ids to be expressed while the Trumpian Id is repressed.
For their part, many of Trump's supporters experience a world dominated by a seemingly hypocritical unity of civility and barbaric identity group narcissism, where those with power and wealth celebrate the ethnic, sexual, racial, religious, national and gender particularism of specific groups (including, for example, the various contradictory forms of ethnic vulgarity, ostentatious sexual expression, sexually restrictive mores, and nationalism of each group) while at the same time demanding self-effacing respect, deference, tolerance, and restraint of Trump supporters. This no doubt feels similar to the way the old protestant, Nietzschean pathos of distance felt to emancipated Jews: a hypocritical and deceitful foil disguising the truth - an unwritten "bargain" demanding social demotion.
To heed liberal calls for civility is therefore experienced as a command to submit to the social superiority of a hypocritical liberal establishment. This leads us to a third factor underlying Trump's success: incivility and spite rituals effect social equalization. Trump supporters revel in their leader's spiteful profanation of the ruling class' civility rituals and strive to tear down the ritual social distance between themselves and the establishment. For every public "Pocahontas", "somebody's doing the raping", "John Liebowitz Stewart", or "blood coming out of her wherever", Trump punctures the sacralized narcissistic womb of an institutionalized victim group and thereby supplies his pariah supporters with another boost of emotional energy.
Beyond Trump, the more unsettling conclusion following from Cuddihy's analysis is that the moral basis of our civil religion is arbitrary, reflecting nothing more than the self-protective rationalizations of a powerful and detached ruling class. Hiding behind the Christlike meekness of select identity and victim groups, the establishment projects a hypocritical show of civility and tolerance that legitimates their wealth, power, and most importantly for Trump supporters, social distance from the mob.
That the establishment has failed to establish a transcendent, rational basis for the new age of paradoxical civility only bolsters this conclusion. The characteristically protestant moral philosophy of John Rawls, which calls for the paradoxical censorship of deviant viewpoints, is one example. Another might be the philosophy of Brian Leiter who, even as a great critic of civility, nonetheless carves out a safe space for a civilizing distance ritual in the professor-student relationship, which quite conveniently preserves the social authority of his own station.
From the perspective of the disgruntled, unassimilated pariah, these philosophies seem more like rationalizations for admitting certain identities and groups to civil society, exempting them from the self-effacing demands of civility, and then arbitrarily drawing a line in the sand, closing off the possibility of granting social acceptance to other groups and identities. This experience could help explain the recent upsurge in right-wing identity politics that worries civil religionists like Jonathan Haidt.
Like homosexuality, feminism, and black nationalism, white nationalism is an ideology that bundles substantiated and unsubstantiated grievances with a constructed group identity. With white nationalism, deracinated and socially and economically demoted whites see an opportunity to throw off their feelings of inferiority and capture social acceptance in a world that rewards certain kinds of group particularism and narcissism. And beyond whites, we can see the emergence of other groups that bought into the religion of civility only to find themselves without an identity and without status equality, such as mixed-race individuals or second-generation immigrants who withdraw into their ancestral, premodern cocoons in search of an identity to protect against the atomizing force of modernization. The ongoing attempts to constitute "Hispanic" as a celebrated, homogeneous premodern identity, along with the ongoing subdivision of sexual identity into new, aggrieved identity groups, are exemplary of the new identity insecurity lurking beneath the thin facade of our civil religion.
Is there a way back - a way to get back onto the modernization track and enshrine the impartial tolerance inherent in Bellah's civil religion and embodied in the ritual of civility? Such a reversal would involve a lot of soul searching, self-denial, and assimilation by certain groups. But it would also require conscious revisions to our civil religion and civility. The virtue of tolerance could no longer be understood as equivalent to tolerating the group narcissism of certain identities. The more successful (but by no means complete) assimilation of major Christian and Jewish sects during the 20th century suggests as much. You cannot have a chosen people coexist politically with a people that declares salvation to be impossible outside of the Church; hence the religious essentialism of Jews and Catholics had to be marginalized and transformed to accommodate the modernization process. For similar reasons, you can't indulge identities predicated on narratives of victimization by an oppressor group and expect those identities to enjoy peaceful political coexistence with the oppressor group. Peaceful coexistence would instead demand that victim and oppressor be stripped as properties from individual identities. This is unlikely.
What is likely is that we'll continue to witness the slow self-immolation of the gatekeeping class as it struggles to recapture the social deference it believes it deserves, performing its outdated rituals of civility and select incivility in front of an audience that no longer cares. The death of comedy in the last decade is perhaps the perfect example. Indebted as it is to the Jewish experience of civility, American comedy is not well-suited to expressing the viewpoints of groups and individuals protected by a ruling class that demands civility of its subjects.
Sarah Silverman is an instructive case study. A young female comedian who performed classic Shtetl routines about forbidden subjects (she once claimed that being raped by a doctor was "bittersweet for a Jewish girl") has transformed into a representative of the gatekeeping class, focusing her routines on political commentary that elicit applause rather than laughter from an echo chamber of fellow elites. In a revealing New Yorker article, Silverman relays an anecdote about her encounter with a young pro-life activist, during which the activist told Silverman that God despised her. In response, Silverman resorted to the timeless equalizing ritual of incivility by telling the young pro-lifer a "doody joke": an incantation that reduced the youngster to laughter and thereby established social equality where moral differentiation previously reigned. But this routine rings hollow when Silverman is a wealthy mouthpiece for the Democratic National Convention and Hillary Clinton's Presidential Campaign. Her practiced incivility and politically correct opinions come off as condescension rather than democratic egalitarianism.
Fellow comedian Amy Schumer has been less circumspect in condescending to her audience, from whom she expects laughter at vulgar and dumb humor but also deference toward her elite political club. In a post-election Facebook post portending a depressing future for our Civil Religion, Schumer wrote of Hillary's loss, "I cry for her and for all the smart people I love who know what's right and I cry for you people who fell for shiny hats and reality catch phrases. She would have protected you. Today we grieve, tomorrow we begin again."