Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” That lapidary observation from the Sermons (1726) of Joseph, Bishop Butler, is one of the most profound philosophical observations I have ever encountered. One of the simplest, too. In nine short words, it introduces a principle of mental hygiene that Marxists, Freudians, Hegelians, astrologers, sociobiologists, and other lovers of mystification ignore at their—or, more to the point, at our—peril.
Butler’s chief target was what we now call the selfish theory of human nature—the “strange affection in many people of explaining away all particular affections, and representing the whole of life as nothing but one continued exercise in self-love.” Butler zeros in on the fundamental confusion that nurtures this unflattering view of humanity. It is this: a (deliberate?) confusion between the proposition that we cannot knowingly act except from a desire or interest which is our own, and the proposition that all of our actions are self-interested.
The first is not only true, it is a necessary truth: it could not be otherwise. The second proposition— that all of our actions are self-interested—far from being self-evidently true, is a scandalous falsehood.
It is a tautology that any interest we have is an interest of our own: whose else could it be? But the objects of our interest are as varied as the world is wide.
No doubt much of what we do we do from motives of self-interest. But we might also do things for the sake of flag and country; for the love of a good woman; for the love of God; to discover a new country; to benefit a friend; to harm an enemy; to make a fortune; to spend a fortune.
“It is not,” Butler notes, “because we love ourselves that we find delight in such and such objects, but because we have particular affections towards them.” How much wandering in mental thickets might have been avoided had Sigmund Freud acquainted himself with Butler’s Sermons?
Not, in truth, that I think it would have saved the world from the nonsense of Freudianism, any more than it would have saved the world from the monstrosity that is Hegel’s dialectic. Motives more powerful than the search for truth stand behind the erection of those mental bureaucracies, and it would be idle to think that mere logical cleanliness would rescue us from the egotism of intellectuals.
A Monolithic Wall of Noise
I begin with Bishop Butler’s incandescent observation because I am going to say a few words that might seem—but only seem—to contradict them. As we look around at American society today, what do we see? A confusing mélange that seems partly mindless, partly vicious. Our response to the latest Chinese import, the novel coronavirus—what was that? How long will we be in sorting out the petty and sometimes murderous tyrannies enacted by various state governors and other officials?
And what about the malignant nonsense that is Black Lives Matter? How did that happen? How is it that celebrities, major corporations, and tony schools and colleges experienced simultaneous multiple paroxysms of woke self-abasement because a lowlife career criminal with serious cardiac problems died in police custody? How do you go from an arrest in Minneapolis to the desecration of the Lincoln Memorial, the looting and burning of businesses across the country, and a regime of racially based (and racially biased) communal penance?
I do not believe I am violating the principle of Bishop Butler’s argument when I say that almost everything happening in our society—all the craziness, all the posturing, all the distracting noise, exaggeration, and downright mendacity—all of it is not about itself but about something else, and that something else is Donald Trump.
A new, flu-like virus is abroad in the land. The anti-Trump establishment goes to work: How can we blame it on Trump? He shuts down flights from China at the end of January: charge him with being racist and xenophobic. He consults experts. They tell him it is not a serious threat. He goes on television and says that: hysteria! Then he swings into action, mobilizes American manufacturing prowess and turns out more ventilators, protective gear, testing kits, and new therapies than anyone thought possible. The curve flattens. The political weapon that was COVID-19 falters. No problem. Declare a race war! Smash up the storefronts. Get everybody talking about racism all the time. Ignore the fact that the people overwhelmingly harmed by Black Lives Matter are inner-city blacks. Blame everything on Donald Trump.
The unremitting, monolithic wall of noise that has been crashing against Donald Trump since election day 2016 has gotten louder and louder, more cacophonous, more furious, more irrational. Everything is what it is, and not another thing. But the one thing that takes precedence over everything now is defeating Trump, which means defeating not only Trump himself but what he stands for—those 63 million voters who put him in office, for starters.
The Fundamental Choice
But it’s more than that. The forces of anti-Trump hatred comprise not just Democratic aspirants to high office but also, and more significantly, the media (social and otherwise), the spoiled, pajama-boy Left, and—above all, perhaps—the entrenched administrative apparatus of government, the self-engorging bureaucracy of the state whose fundamental allegiance is to the principle of self-perpetuation.
It is all of that which Donald Trump came to office to sweep clean, like Hercules confronting the Augean stables. The first time around the reaction was a compact of contempt and ridicule, but that was only because Trump could not win. The smartest people in the world—Bill Kristol, Nancy Pelosi, Rachel Maddow—they all knew he couldn’t win. So they didn’t come together in a single caterwauling primal scream to stop him.
This time they have. And since they control almost all the major megaphones, it can sometimes seem that everyone is against Donald Trump and no one is for him.
It can seem that way, but of course it is not. And that is chiefly for two reasons. First, there are those 63 million voters—perhaps it will be 66 or 68 million this time. Voters whose voices you don’t hear in the pages of the New York Times and whose rigged Google searches and Facebook hot spots somehow leave out of account. They’re sitting at home watching their cities burn, watching monuments to Columbus, to Washington and Thomas Jefferson be defaced or toppled. They see that, and they hear a nonstop litany telling them how racist they are and how evil America is.
And just about now, a great chasm is opening up. The choice, they see, is not so much between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. It is between the America they love—that Donald Trump celebrates—and the out-of-control forces of anti-American hatred that, though he does not understand them, Joe Biden manages to blink and nod and gibber around.
Everything that is happening between now and November 3 is about November 3. But the fundamental choice is not really Donald Trump or Joe Biden. It is civilization and America on one side, anarchy and woke tyranny on the other. The Democrats thought they could ride the tiger to victory. Instead, they will be consumed by the monster they created but could not control.