Populism and corruption

Last week I couldn’t shake Andrew Sullivan’s introduction: “We always knew this would happen — that the rule of law and Trump would at some point be unable to coexist.”

This week, I can’t shake Alan Jacobs:

Norms are created by institutions, and we live in an age of weak and despised institutions. This is how populist leaders arise: when a great many people believe that institutions exist merely to serve themselves, they come to despise not just those institutions but also the norms associated with them, and applaud leaders who scorn and seek to tear down the whole edifice. And if those leaders make their disdain known in sufficiently charismatic ways, few will notice when they are guilty of the very sins they decry. Moreover, when people see the sheer size of the institutions at which they’re so angry, they despair of any real change happening, and are content with listening to leaders who channel their own frustration.

General contempt for our institutions, government and church alike, makes them too weak to enforce their norms, which first enables corruption — the kind of corruption American Catholic bishops and members of the Congress of the United States are guilty of — and then produces populist figures who appear to want to undo that corruption. But the institutions are too weak to control the leaders either, so those leaders are empowered to do more or less whatever they want to do. This is the case with Trump, who will surely last at least until the 2020 election, and also, I think, with Francis, who will probably last until he dies or chooses like his predecessor to resign.

Moreover, since neither Trump nor Francis is interested in doing the work needed to repair their corrupt institutions — they don’t even have any incentive to do so: the ongoing presence of “swamps” is what lends them such legitimacy as they possessall the products and enablers of corruption are safe. This is why the American bishops who spent decades enabling and hiding sexual abuse are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects right now.

(Bold added, italics in original) I have read so many Catholics in this dreadful hour asking “Lord, where shall we go?” — specifically about the longing for a valid Eucharist, ex opere operato — that I sense another facet of why Francis has little incentive for repairing what’s broken.

Jacobs’ P.S. is an interesting speculation, too.

We’re conditioned to think of populist autocrats as reactionary conservatives, aren’t we? But remember that Trump was widely (and accurately in my opinion) excoriated as “no conservative” or things along those lines, and Pope Francis has been hailed as a “breath of fresh air” and such, suggesting a reformer of a stale and conservative institution.

I once read (sadly, I think around and of the Roman Church’s “long lent” the last time sexual abuse was in the spotlight) that sociology defines “corruption” along the lines of “lacking resources for self-correction.” It takes someone or something from outside to fix things.

Peter Beinart thinks he discerns a different, semi-fascist meaning of “corruption” at work among the President’s supporters, citing Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley:

Corruption, to the fascist politician … is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order.

According to that school of “corruption,” I guess Trump is supposed to be America’s restorer of the traditional order, Pope Francis the Vatican’s bringer of a new, better order. The two construals of “corrupt” converge.

That, I guess, brings us back to Alan Jacobs sense that neither is going anywhere.

(This all feels a little bit half-baked and inelegantly written even to me, but it’s the best I can do on a notion (insight?) that came to me and has already exceeded any reasonable time budget for writing it down.)

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Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

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