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From Freedom to Solidarity on the American Right

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Campaign books are not written for the ages. But they can be telltales. A New Catholic Moment: Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good is a good example. It indicates a shift away from freedom as the leading motif on the American right and toward solidarity.

The book was put together by CatholicVote.org, an organization devoted to mobilizing support for the re-election of Donald Trump. It reiterates social conservative themes: opposition to abortion, defense of the family and religious liberty, and concerns about woke aggression.

These issues have been emphasized in many elections. Karl Rove schemed to get defense of marriage amendments on the ballots of many states in 2004 in order to increase turnout among social conservatives and thus bolster George W. Bush’s reelection chances. For decades, Republican candidates have promised to appoint judges who “respect that constitution as written,” a coded way of signaling opposition to Roe v. Wade. During the Obama administration, denouncing threats to religious liberty became the preferred way to energize the religious conservatives.

But there is something new in Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good. The Introduction and Conclusion adopt an unabashedly populist tone. The Clinton-Bush-Obama years are described as captive to a neo-liberal consensus that “championed a frictionless global capitalism overseen by transnational expert-led institutions.” This consensus has done great damage. “The ‘winners’ of the economic system built to facilitate globalization effectively treat their working-class fellow citizens as expendable, as cogs in a worn-out machine that is being discarded.”

The penultimate chapter, “Whose Policies Produce a Happier Society,” derides “ultra-capitalism.” It defends Trump’s tariff policies and other economic measures as fitting and necessary correctives to a Republican consensus captive to libertarian premises.

Acknowledging Marco Rubio’s speech at the Catholic University of America in 2019, the chapter describes Trump’s vision as: “common-good capitalism.” With Trump, “Republicans have the chance to get back on track and uphold the values of community and human dignity alongside economic freedom.” The chapter ends by evoking FDR and JFK. Trump, it argues, follows their lead and gives priority to broad-based prosperity.

In many passages, the preferred term is “solidarity.” The book describes the central political problem facing America as a “crisis of solidarity.” It traces this crisis to the ambition of our ruling class to create “a borderless order of cosmopolitan market freedom.” Trump is cast as the enemy of this post-national and “ultra-capitalist” project—and thus as a flag-bearer for core Catholic principles of solidarity and the common good.

I had to shake my head when I put down Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good. Put yourself back to 2004 when the last Republican President was running for a second term. If we take his second inaugural address as our guide, it is easy to imagine the title of a similar effort to rally support: George W. Bush and the Politics of Freedom. To adapt the old Virginia Slims advertisement, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

I have no idea whether Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good will change a single vote. Virus, lockdowns, protests, Supreme Court nominations, and media intoxicated with hysteria—the present political situation is far too volatile for anyone to pretend to know.

But I can say with confidence that this campaign book is remarkable. Whatever one thinks of Trump, he has sidelined the rhetoric of freedom on the American Right. Aside from religious liberty, it does not play a prominent role. As a consequence, his Catholic supporters can make direct (and plausible) use of the more communitarian emphases found in the Catholic tradition of social analysis

“Freedom” is a word with great power over the American imagination. In the anti-establishment tradition of Evangelical American Christianity, it resonates theologically. So, I don’t believe “freedom” will disappear from our political rhetoric. But in our present moment “solidarity” and “common good” seem more important.

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R. R. Reno

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things. He is the author of Return of the Strong Gods.

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