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First Principles

Rhetoric and Aesthetic in American Politics

If we can reorient our abstract and denuded politics toward the deep human desire for the sublime, we might actually create something worth conserving. Only then will we make our words meaningful again.


- September 23rd, 2019
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Recently in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher shared a bit of compelling candor from an anonymous reader, a middle-aged man whose suburban lifestyle has rendered him unable to find intimacy and meaning in just about every area of his life. Four friends sent it to me separately, with the tagline “try not to cry when you read this,” and I forwarded to four more: “try not to cry when you read this.”

The author of the letter to Dreher is a middle class, straight, white man: a demoralized suburbanite, a passive member of the dehumanized tax base, who dutifully plays by the rules set out for him. His wife has grown tired of him, and she wants a divorce for when their two children are finished with college. His job is lucrative and lonely, as he has opted to work from home to avoid some of the ridiculous intersectional sensitivity training modules that breed suspicion and contempt among diverse and unfamiliar coworkers. He works all day long in his pajamas without leaving the house. He goes to church, hears “cheerful but empty homilies,” and wonders why he shouldn’t kill himself.

It is a terrible thing to witness: the fire going out in man’s heart. Yet this story of extinguishment is all too familiar.

“Freedom” and “Equality”

The letter resonates because the insipid desolation that’s nagging at this poor bastard telling him to swallow a bullet is real and widely felt, but runs counter to reigning narratives about America espoused by state storytellers.

For the past 75 years, while working and middle class people have become depressed and lethargic as their moral, economic, and national dignity are ripped to shreds, mainstream American politics has offered little of value in response. From Left and Right, and often in unison, we get answers and solutions that stray further and further from the problems of the lived experience. These answers include, but are not limited to, “Make more money,” “Eat this cheeseburger (now made out of bugs!),” “Diversity is our strength,” “Cut off your genitals,” or maybe if you are a big-brained Cato fellow, “Hold tight to your bootstraps as the creative destruction of Big Woke Capital rips through your community.”

It’s all so tiresome. But to the degree that people tolerate these answers, it is because each answer appeals at least implicitly to the Founding mythos, citing “freedom” and “equality” as their rhyme and reason.

Rhetorically, “freedom” and “equality” have deep symbolic sway over the American mind. They are symbols of the American identity: buzzwords that incite feelings of patriotism and belonging in the listener. Whenever state storytellers come up with a new narrative to mollify society’s dissatisfaction with itself, they underpin it with “freedom” and “equality,” and the resulting emotional diversion allows flexibility to achieve political goals without remonstration.

A buzzword is not necessarily hollow. This rhetorical strategy (deploying “freedom” and “equality” to shoehorn in discursive political intentions) has succeeded over the course of the country’s existence precisely because “freedom” and “equality” referred for some time to a real experience. In the Federalist papers and in Democracy in America, the writers each observed freedom and equality as a real way of life, for the most part.

Increasingly many argue, considering the institution of slavery, that freedom and equality, as America’s political touchstones, were always hollow. There’s something to that. But if we are to be a bit more generous with the Founders’ intentions, we might say that they understood they had to create an as-good-as-it-gets government for an imperfect society, and that the exhortations of the Declaration were matters of both “ought” and “is,” and mostly “ought.” But the “is” aspect is vitally important. America’s founders operated with reality in reference, and their entire project was about preserving a specifically American way of life.

A symbol that simultaneously recognizes something real while inspiring its audience to something higher is deeply meaningful precisely because it combines the aesthetic with the rhetorical. A symbol in which a man can actually see himself but that also causes him to act and to strive lasts. Think of the crucifix. On the other hand, cheap symbols either misrepresent reality or fail to inspire the audience to something higher.

Where freedom and equality once thrived as unifying and commonly understood realities of American life, consumerism, mediocrity, loneliness, and effeminacy remains.

Between Rhetoric and Reality

Rhetorical symbols are empty without an aesthetic counterpart. American symbols are failing. Why?

Public life is the appropriate aesthetic counterpart to political rhetoric. Normally, the public square serves as the font of political identity, the foundation of political friendship. Its highest purposes are to bring people together and to inspire. To unify and to elevate. It is the real, physical place where our principles are lived out and witnessed by actual people. National life manifest in the public square, whether positive or negative, will either confirm truth in the story a nation tells itself about itself or lay bare its lies.

When in American politics we discuss freedom and equality with the qualifier “properly understood,” this is because the basic reality to which “freedom” and “equality” once might have referred was at some point perverted and has disintegrated over time.

As upward mobility diminishes, income inequality intensifies, deaths of despair reach unprecedented highs, the profound ugliness of public spaces worsens, homelessness increases, elite pedophiles get away with murder, and having or speaking heterodox ideas results often in the total de-personing of the speaker, where are we the people to see the “freedom” and “equality” that Vichy Right and Money Left insist in their carefully worded 140-character aphorisms are the sole meaning of America? We may sense them, vaguely, as facsimile. They are breaths of memories of a less spastic world we never knew.

From brutalist architectural design to lack of greenery to the used needles that litter public walkways, American public squares are strikingly anti-human and anti-friendship. As such, they stand crumbling and evacuated. At least we still have the Constitution, principled individualists assure themselves as they dodge human feces if not bullets on their way to work.

Accordingly, abstraction and atomization now characterize the American political life. “Freedom” and “equality” are today pure simulacra of American identity, living exclusively in the realm of abstraction, useful as tools of emotional manipulation and distraction from their own hollowness. Furthermore, there are no backstops in the realm of abstraction to prevent these “principles” from expanding and unravelling ad absurdum. Common heritage, which might have offered a backstop to disintegrating politics, is a bygone phenomenon. Common faith? Forgotten. The middle class? Shrinking.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

As artificial levelling and political hall monitoring in real life becomes unbearable, Americans recede more deeply into the entertainment world, tasting by proxy those diluted principles that supposedly tell us who we are.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe likely has more impact on the citizenry’s notions of freedom, equality, and justice than policy wonks would ever like to admit. But of course, the entertainment world is a machine and a smokescreen. Stories are formulaic and mass-produced for the lowest common denominator.

The worlds of entertainment and politics have fused together completely and work together to dull the minds of consumers; the “news” is entertainment and operates as such. Movies are always and primarily concerned with the political message they can inflict on the audience. Few in art or politics will say what’s true about the daily aesthetic experience of living in America, which is an ever-expanding strip mall, lest they poke a hole in the precious simulation upon which the entire soulless system relies.

So, in the spiritual desert of postmodernity, consumerism and mediocrity quietly reign, disguising themselves everywhere as “freedom” and “equality.” Accept all, consume all. Together, they generate and enforce the kind of alienation and effeminate deference to sentimental tyranny and vapid materialism that is making Dreher’s pen pal suicidal.

What does being American mean now? What are freedom and equality, really? Everything. Nothing. Ready participation in global mass culture. Deferring to consumerism. We are well-fed economic units whose purpose is either to be eager beaver believers or completely shut up about progressive internationalism as it paints us all the same color: gray.

Free and equal? Where freedom and equality once thrived as unifying and commonly understood realities of American life, consumerism, mediocrity, loneliness, and effeminacy remains.

Hollow Men, Sagging Dreams

This is a national security crisis waiting to unfold. People tend to lash out when they realize they have been lied to. Our diluted principles are decreasingly effective in distracting us from our diluted livelihoods. The aesthetic exposes the rhetorical. It is from this dissonance that populism and conspiratorial thinking arise—appropriately.

When I read Michael Anton’s review of Bronze Age Pervert’s Bronze Age Mindset a few days after the Dreher piece was released, it struck me that perhaps BAP is attempting to answer the central problem of the anonymous letter to Dreher while also answering the problem that, Anton concedes, American politics (but especially the Right) has failed to answer over the course of its modern decline.

Anton ultimately concludes that a rhetorical deficiency engenders youthful disaffection, and this is true. But more accurately, it is an aesthetic deficiency. The rhetoric is hollow because it has no aesthetic counterpart. Nature, beauty, and friendship: these existentially important facets of political life are missing.

Young men are not listening anymore to appeals to the Declaration, to “equality” or “freedom,” because the simulation doesn’t satisfy them as it did their parents. Over time, the gaps between flowery rhetoric about American life and the ugliness of reality have become too great to suspend disbelief.

These generations look to their divorced parents: fat fathers, probably more materially wealthy than they will ever be, with the personality equivalent of erectile dysfunction, as well as their careerist mothers with, as Morrissey sings, “sagging dreams.” They see hollowness, and hear the old boomer shibboleths, and they wonder, with a great degree of justified cynicism, why the hell would I believe what these people are telling me?

Without beauty, what it there to live for? To reproduce for? The deracinated consumer lives an ugly lie that stinks of death and despair.

From the basements of tomb-like McMansions, they witness delusional neoliberals and neoconservatives yapping on Twitter about vague ideals that pertain in no way to their lived experience.

For example: in the abstracted political life, blue checkmarks obsessed over women’s rights. In reality, men and boys have infinitesimally fewer public spaces for male comradery than women do. Girls in the Boys Scouts. No boys in the Girl Scouts. All in the name of “freedom” and “equality.” The manipulative lie, among many, of “women’s oppression” stings.

Eventually, pretty lies perish, and engender bitterness and distrust in their wake. Rhetorically, “freedom” and “equality” reek of the emasculating materialism and mediocrity that ruined our fathers’ lives and now makes friendship and love in the modern world extremely challenging. How can America continue to market empty nostalgia to a generation that never knew the world in reference? To redefine the words at this point, to revive the Founders’ true conceptions on a rhetorical level, is probably impossible.

Returning to the Sublime

The appropriate response to this vicious emptiness is not further abstraction, but something real and full. If we as a nation are to believe in our own sovereignty once again, we must not submit to the Big Ugly. We can revivify American political rhetoric if and only if men grown tired of their heinous commutes to hideous cubicles rebuild a public square worthy of poetic admiration instead.

To start, the man who wrote to Rod Dreher would do well by his family if he picked up a rifle and, instead of blowing his own brains out, took his sons hunting. To lose oneself in the aesthetic of nature, the powerful quiet of natural order, is to recover one’s internal connection to beauty. Then, on a broader level, refreshed, reverent and self-possessed men must rebuild public spaces to incorporate nature and beauty as to accommodate humanity and friendship.

Our publisher Chris Buskirk wrote here and guested with Tucker Carlson recently to discuss how conservatives can win on the environment. His argument was about beauty, essentially.

He’s right! Ultimately, it is the aesthetic experience that makes or breaks a life. If people are to believe America is the most beautiful country on earth, we must make it beautiful. Without beauty, a healthy politics remains impossible. Without beauty, we will have nothing to unite and elevate the body politic.

Without beautiful public spaces, the cheap artifice of political life remains, where exogenous, androgynous elites talk past each other and down to the sedated masses. Without beauty, what it there to live for? To reproduce for? The deracinated consumer lives an ugly lie that stinks of death and despair.

This is the essential project for those who have seen through the simulation, through clown world, and have hated its lies. We are living at the tail end of the dissimulation of the American idea. The institutions designed to promulgate the decaying “value system” cannot sustain the mutual decay of myth and matter. It is a critical, probably pivotal moment, and the instability of the age makes destructive nihilism might tempting for many.

As such, it is the dire responsibility of the True Right to love, highlight, and protect what is natural, excellent, and beautiful, driven by the love of freedom and fellow countryman. Isn’t that the essence of what it means to be a man? What it means to be?

The present and imminent future of politics is a world of simulation, mass media, and abstraction. If we can reorient our politics toward the deep human desire for the sublime, we might actually create something worth conserving. Only then will we make our words meaningful again.

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