It often seems as if conservatives have been fretting about the “decline of the West” for as long as there has been a West to fret about. From Edmund Burke panicking about the French Revolution to Allan Bloom worrying about the effect of Mick Jagger’s hip gyrations on the morals of 1980s undergraduates, the right is often defined more by the cultural changes it opposes than the principles it supports. In a 2006 essay explaining his departure from the conservative movement, outgoing National Review director Austin Bramwell issued a plea against those who “carry on the Cold War obsession with the so-called ‘crisis of the West.’ Convinced that history at some point took a wrong turn, they pore over ancient texts in search of some Hermetic insight into the fatal error.” In Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg believes he has finally found that fatal error.
The flavor of Goldberg’s argument can be gleaned from the book’s subtitle. It is a work about decline, one that identifies “nationalism, populism, and tribalism” as the principle enemies of order. To the extent that it can be easily summarized, Goldberg’s argument is roughly as follows: Human nature is brutal and uncivilized, and for thousands of years our species divided its time between hunting, gathering, raping, and killing. But, around 300 years ago, a Miracle occurred (the capital M is his): the English, with a bit of help from the Dutch, stumbled upon a winning formula for human life—liberal capitalist democracy. Despite a few regrettable hiccups, such as the transatlantic slave trade and the extinction of a number of native populations, this formula created unprecedented growth, prosperity, and peace.
Yet these days many people are ungrateful for the Miracle. They believe that it has created injustices. These people, Goldberg writes, are the intellectual heirs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They are Romantics who think civilization is bad and celebrate an imagined ideal of the noble savage. This Romanticism brought us fascism and progressivism, ideologies that produced a broad range of evils, from death camps to the IRS. The Romantics have infected our popular culture, making us celebrate outlaws and iconoclasts like Breaking Bad’s Walter White. (His example.) They have also convinced us to value our feelings and emotions too much, leading to the breakdown of the nuclear family. And they have encouraged a “tribal” mind-set, which finds its political voice in populist and nationalist movements of the right and left, such as identity politics. Donald Trump represents the triumph of primitive instinct over ideas. If we do not reject this primitivism, and adhere to the ideas of John Locke instead of Rousseau, we are endangering the Miracle and will destroy the West.
Isay this is “to the extent” the argument can be summarized because Suicide of the West is a sprawling treatise that offers Goldberg’s reflections on a broad array of different subjects. His 2008 book Liberal Fascism had the virtue of simplicity: say what you will about its level of nuance, but the thesis (“actually, it’s liberals who are the real Nazis”) was readily graspable. Over the 450 pages of Suicide of the West, we are treated to, among other observations: Goldberg’s theory of human nature, an explication of the moral framework of The Godfather, a history of Venetian nobility, and Goldberg’s verdicts on films and television shows from Pleasantville (“execrable”) to Mr. Robot (“brilliant”) to Fight Club (“egregious”). Goldberg spends an entire page summarizing the plot of Dead Poets Society, in an effort to prove that Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating was actually not a good teacher and that “the headmaster was right.”
There are also enough caveats and qualifications to the central argument that one must be very careful in trying to sum it up, for fear of being accused of misrepresentation. (Liberal Fascism employed a similar trick: “I didn’t say that liberals were fascists,” you can imagine Goldberg insisting. “I said that liberals were the intellectual heirs of fascist theories of government, which is very different. Clearly you didn’t read the book . . .”) Goldberg’s opposition to “nationalism, populism, and tribalism” is not absolute. He admits that he is, in fact, something of a nationalist himself. “I have always argued that a little nationalism is essential to the American project,” he says; just not too much, lest it “become statism or some form of socialism.” Populism, meanwhile, horrifies Goldberg when it speaks on behalf of the 99 percent against the 1 percent, but he fully supported the Tea Party, which “married populism to the principles of the Founding.” Tribalism, too, has its virtues. Goldberg argues that “the only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment.” All told, Goldberg somehow manages to endorse three out of the four things the book’s subtitle assures us are destroying American democracy.
Goldberg’s posture toward Donald Trump is similarly puzzling. Goldberg, a senior editor of the National Review and a prominent anti-Trump conservative, professes to be horrified by the way our forty-fifth president has eroded the office’s dignity. Yet, even though Goldberg insists that Trump is bringing us to the brink of civilizational suicide, it is sometimes difficult to see what he actually takes issue with. In many ways, Trump’s policy proposals have been indistinguishable from the Tea Party Republicanism that Goldberg champions: slashing environmental regulations, killing Obamacare, banning transgender soldiers, handing out guns to middle school teachers. Beyond the cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, what is there for Goldberg to dislike?
Throughout the book, Goldberg appears to approve of the bulk of the Trump administration’s actual policies. The corporate beneficiaries of Trump’s tax cuts are the “wealth creators” to whom we have been insufficiently grateful. Anti-immigration attitudes among Trump supporters are a rational response to demographic and cultural changes. After all, he writes, “[i]n ethnically or culturally homogenous communities, there is more social trust and more social capital. . . . [S]hared culture builds trust, which is essential to democracy and economic growth.” There’s a legitimate interest, then, in keeping a community ethnically pure; Goldberg says democracy itself may depend on it.
When it comes down to it, Goldberg dislikes Trump because of who he is, rather than what he has done. When he comes to list his specific grievances, they are that Trump “is boorish and crude,” “freely admits his greed, his whining, and his deceptions,” “is only civil when civility redounds to his benefit,” and “respects the law only when he can use it as a weapon.” It’s telling that “boorish” is the number one complaint. Goldberg wouldn’t mind a president who attacked transgender people and immigrants, threatened nuclear war, and offered broad new tax giveaways to corporations; his problem is that Trump does these things with such crass disregard for propriety. It’s bad manners, not bad policies, that implicate Trump in the “suicide of the West.”
The populism and tribalism of the left, however, are a much deeper problem. Goldberg intends Suicide of the West to be a work of serious political philosophy, but much of it is simply a lengthy rehash of long-standing conservative complaints about how Hollywood has poisoned our value system and the politically correct left are a bunch of humorless totalitarian thought police. The “social justice warriors” are engaging in a “jihad against ‘hate speech’ ” and “practitioners of identity politics and their coalitional allies have leached off the inherent decency of this country and the constitutional order to press their advantages.” They worship diversity for its own sake, act like “Mao’s Red Guard,” and think everything is “white male privilege.” In doing this, the young Rousseauians on college campuses are waging war on civilization itself.
Some parts of Goldberg’s brief against leftist cultural corrosion are downright bizarre. The fact that the “youths” in Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods decide not to save the world shows how morally apathetic millennials are. Absent black fathers are the reason that there aren’t more black baseball players, because there is nobody around to teach kids how to hold a glove properly. A section on “rock and roll” reads like an anti-Elvis diatribe from a 1950s Pentecostal preacher. Every imaginable cliché about liberals appears somewhere in the text.
It’s not worth responding to these charges in much detail, because Goldberg isn’t interested in hearing the other side. He distorts feminists and “social justice warriors” to make them sound as absurd as possible and to avoid engaging with their arguments. Citing a feminist book that says gender equality can be measured by “the degree to which men and women have similar kinds or degrees of power, status, autonomy, and authority,” he concludes that the “real aim” of feminists is “power, not policy.” Thus he implies that feminists want as much power as possible, when the quote makes clear that feminism is about ensuring that women have “similar” degrees of power. Goldberg likewise attacks “identity politics” as consisting of the view that “[m]y tribe deserves more than your tribe.” But those who condemn the black-white wealth gap, for example, aren’t saying that black people should have ten times as much as white people; they’re saying it’s unfair that white people have ten times as much as black people. Goldberg doesn’t care to listen to this. He responds to Van Jones, who thought Republicans’ embrace of “colorblindness” rhetoric represented a racial “blind spot,” by quoting (of course) Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, instead of making a good-faith effort to find out what Van Jones actually meant.
Sometimes Goldberg’s reasoning is so slapdash as to be comical. Here is how he describes, and responds to, the progressive claim that the top 1 percent have too much wealth:
Today, there’s a low-simmering Jacobin fever aimed at the so-called one percent. This bland description of economic elites is logically ludicrous, given that it is a fact of math that there will always be a top one percent. A Bernie Sanders of a Stalinist bent could, in theory, liquidate the ranks of the top one percent and, in that very act, create an entirely new top one percent. Remove the top floor of a building and the next floor down becomes the top floor. The only way to ensure there is no top is to tear down the whole structure to the foundation.
The left’s critique, of course, is not that a distribution of wealth or income exists, but rather that far too much money is concentrated in the hands of the super-rich. The 1 percent today control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. It defies no fact of math to insist that they should have less.
Suicide of the West is, in fact, in large part simply a defense of the existing economic order. “To fret about political, social, or economic inequality in a free society is to fret about the problem of freedom itself, for in the presence of freedom there will always be inequality of some kind,” Goldberg writes. He is openly in favor of aristocracy. Human beings have a “natural instinct for authority and hierarchy” and “inevitably become ruled by an elite few,” so there is “nothing inherently bad about an elite.”
The idea that elitism is good because it is natural runs contrary to one of Goldberg’s other main points, which is that capitalism is good precisely because it is unnatural and overrides our inherent tendencies toward tribalism and cooperation. He shows at tedious length that the growth of capitalism caused an explosion of productivity, that a lot of horrors have disappeared, and that we live longer now than we once did. (“Would you entrust your teeth to ‘dentists’ in medieval England?”) He argues that efforts by populists to spurn this Miracle and create a better system will inevitably bring us Venezuela and the gulag. But none of this responds to the actual arguments being made by economic progressives, very few of whom are proposing the elimination of money or property rights. The serious question is why, in a country so prosperous, there should still be so many people with low wages, poor health care, and limited access to education, and why the United States lags so far behind other developed countries in the provision of certain basic goods. This is not a question you can answer by displaying a chart showing that things were worse 100 years ago, but that’s how Goldberg chooses to prove that left-wing populists are driving civilization off a cliff.
There is much more to Suicide of the West, including a great deal of unfalsifiable speculation on human nature, and far more mentions of John Locke than are in any way necessary. But the theses aren’t original enough to spend much time on. We’ve heard all these complaints before, from every right-wing relative who has ever gone on a rant about teen mothers or campus activists, though at least Goldberg has done us the favor of piling it all in one place and adding references to Hobbes and St. Augustine.
Suicide of the West is nevertheless illuminating, because it reveals the underlying character of many “Never Trump” conservatives. Liberals who are tempted to make common cause with people like Goldberg need to understand what the conservative objections to Trump actually are. Goldberg does not oppose nationalism, xenophobia, tribalism, or prejudice—indeed, he advocates or defends all of them in the book. Rather, Donald Trump is objectionable because he fails to show, in Goldberg’s words, “ideas” and “good character.” Trump does not attempt to make Western civilization look rational, noble, and elevated. Instead, he shows it to be brutal, cruel, and self-interested. (Recall that Goldberg criticizes Trump not for being greedy, but for admitting it.) The Never Trumpers do not want to excise these tendencies; they merely want to disguise them through civility and “ideas,” which seems to mean name-dropping Enlightenment political theorists. The real enemy in this book is not Trump, but rather the leftists and “identity politics” practitioners who threaten the “aristocrats” Goldberg so steadfastly defends. If Trump poses a threat to conservatism, it is not because he advocates much that the Never Trumpers oppose; he does not. It is because he so brazenly exposes the inhumanity of right-wing policies that he may well be the most formidable recruiting tool the left has ever had.