One hundred years ago on Friday, John Reed was in St. Petersburg watching Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks take over Russia. It was interesting to read his account, Ten Days That Shook the World, in this week when Donald Trump and Steve Bannon solidified their grip on the Republican Party and our government.
The big thing you notice from Reed’s reporting is how useful it is to have a secular religion. In the chaos of 1917, the communists alone knew exactly what they believed. They had a clear intellectual framework that they could use to explain events.
Everything was a clash between noble workers and the corrupt bourgeoisie. They had a clear confidence that history was on their side. They offered lonely and downtrodden people a sense of fraternity and mission.
When the climax came, Trotsky was tough: “We won’t give way an inch,” he bellowed. “If there are comrades here who haven’t the courage and the will to dare what we dare, let them leave with the rest of the cowards and conciliators! Backed by the workers and soldiers we shall go on!”
The Russian democrats, on the other hand, had lost moral authority, and the trust of the people and faith in themselves. They wrongly thought the revolution would peter out. The head of the provisional government, Alexander Kerensky, came to the assembly “to plead passionately for national unity, once bursting into tears at the end. The assembly heard him coldly, interrupting with ironical remarks.”
Reed gives us a moment-by-moment description of what it looks like when one moral order collapses and another takes its place.
In less dramatic form, we’re going through that now. Communism never took off in the United States because we already had a secular religion, or rather religious truths rendered in secular form.
Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, described that creed well in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute. He pointed out that the phrase, “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” would have been unintelligible to Plato or Aristotle or anybody raised in a hierarchical society.
The profound equality of every individual was an idea that flowed directly from the Hebrew Bible. The story Americans told about themselves was a biblical story — an exodus story of various diverse peoples leaving oppression, crossing a wilderness and joining together to help create a promised land.
The American social structure, as Sacks notes, was based on biblical categories. There was a political realm, but the heart of society was in the covenantal realm: “marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities and voluntary associations.”
America’s Judeo-Christian ethic celebrated neighborliness over pagan combativeness; humility as the basis of good character, not narcissism. It believed in taking in the stranger because we were all strangers once. It dreamed of universal democracy as the global fulfillment of the providential plan.
People who believe that value money more than morals.
That biblical ethic, embraced by atheists as much as the faithful, is not in great shape these days. As Sacks notes: “Today, one half of America is losing all those covenantal institutions. It’s losing strong marriages and families and communities. It is losing a strong sense of the American narrative. It’s even losing e plurubus unum because today everyone prefers pluribus to unum.”
Trump and Bannon have filled the void with their own creed, which is anti-biblical. Their American story is not diverse people journeying toward a united future. It’s a zero-sum struggle of class and ethnic conflict. The traits Trump embodies are narcissism, not humility; combativeness, not love; the sanctification of the rich and blindness toward the poor.
As other relationships wither, many Americans are making partisanship the basis of their identity — their main political, ethnic and moral attachment. And the polls show that if you want to win a Republican primary these days, you have to embrace the Trump narrative, and not the old biblical one.
The Republican senators went to the White House and saw a president so repetitive and rambling, some thought he might be suffering from early Alzheimer’s. But they know which way the wind is blowing. They gave him a standing ovation.
America’s traditional biblical ethic is still lurking somewhere in the national DNA. But there has to be a leader who can restore it to life.
Even Alexander Kerensky didn’t abase himself so humiliatingly.
The people who oppose Trump make a big error: They believe that if we can only have a civil conversation between red and blue, everything will be better. But you can’t destroy a moral vision with a process. You need a counter-moral vision.
The people who reluctantly collaborate with Trump make a different error: This is the belief that Trump’s behavior is tolerable because at least Republicans can pass a tax cut. People who believe that value money more than morals. Trumpism is not just economic, and it can’t be thwarted by passing a bit of economic policy.
This is like 1917, a clash of political, moral, economic and social ideologies all rolled into one.
I think America’s traditional biblical ethic is still lurking somewhere in the national DNA. But there has to be a leader who can restore it to life.
Follow Mr. Brooks on Twitter @nytdavidbrooks.