In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus’s exploration of the role of suicide in the modern world, the philosopher of the Absurd states, “That universal reason, practical or ethical, that determinism, those categories that explain everything are enough to make a decent man laugh.” Camus was making reference to philosophical giants of western civilization whose task was to justify a universe seemingly indifferent to humanity’s yearning for meaning. All of which Camus dismissed with a rhetorical flip of his hand and a whiff of disdain; he believed magisterial cathedrals of thought were irrelevant to enlightening individuals’ souls about the most important thing in their lives. Quite the contrary, their hubris induces mirth, as his cold analysis in “Sisyphus” made clear.
So what relevance do Camus’s words have for American politics in the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino? Delving into Donald Trump’s recommendations about prohibiting additional Muslim immigration provides an answer. Indeed, everybody, Republicans and Democrats alike, wanted to strut their stuff, beginning with President Obama’s address about treating Muslims with respect, followed by Trump’s speech. Certainly, Trump’s address ignited volleys of censure from New Jersey to Nevada.
Lindsey Graham said Trump “has gone from making absurd comments to being downright dangerous with his bombastic rhetoric,” while Jeb Bush commented that Trump is unhinged and his proposals cannot be taken seriously. Marco Rubio declared, “I disagree with Donald Trump’s latest proposal. His habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.” John Kasich declared Trump “entirely unsuited to lead,” and Carly Fiorina concluded that Trump’s prescription was an “overreaction.” Hillary Clinton said, “This is reprehensible, prejudiced and divisive.” And Brent Bozell’s Media Research Center Alert is stuffed with a cornucopia of media’s denunciations of Trump.
Of course Trump has his defenders, none more able than National Review’s David French, who provided a trenchant analysis of America’s (and the world’s) Muslim terrorism problem in an essay with a title that says it all: “Dispelling the Few Extremists Myth—the Muslim World Is Overcome with Hate.” Consulting polls displaying data that are devastating to politically correct views about Muslims, French maintains that, “To understand the Muslim edifice of hate, imagine it as a pyramid—with broadly-shared bigotry at the bottom, followed by stair steps of escalating radicalism—culminating in jihadist armies that in some instances represent a greater share of their respective populations than does the active-duty military in the United States.” Further, Jeffrey Lord of The American Spectator reviewed Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime actions involving Germans, Italians, and Japanese, concluding that FDR made Donald Trump look like a “nerdy weakling.” These are just two examples, of course; an abundance of commentaries continue to pour forth from Trump’s detractors and allies as this is being written.
The question is what one is supposed to make of all this? Two main points stand out. First, Trump’s critics and supporters are talking about different things, actually, with the former concerned about America’s inclusiveness, “that’s not who we are,” while his supporters probe into the characteristics of radical Islam. Second, the debate over Muslim immigration demonstrates the chasm between many of America’s opinion leaders, pundits, and intelligentsia, on the one hand, and a huge hunk of the country’s rank and file, on the other.
This is where a Camus analogy comes in. Like the West’s philosophical luminaries Camus had in mind, America’s self-appointed opinion overseers—Republicans and Democrats alike—have constructed rhetorical edifices celebrating their own righteousness and moral superiority, which in their minds bestow on them the right to tell citizens what to think and what to do. Indeed, our avatars of civic virtue preach to the peasants below about threats none of the avatars will personally ever have to confront themselves. All of which, as Camus points out, would be downright amusing, if the subject matter weren’t so serious.
Except this time the peasants are having none of it. Although Americans certainly don’t want to wage war against Islam, they are also smart enough to know that the San Bernardino massacre wasn’t committed by a bevy of disgruntled Baptists, and that a culture based on Sharia is antithetical to American constitutionalism. So, they’re clinging to their guns, and religion, and many of them, to the only person who has demonstrated the guts to excoriate the elite’s view of America. This is not an argument for or against Donald Trump, about whom we all have our own opinions. It is to say, however, that his supporters are enraged about America’s elite endlessly spouting their irrelevant and scolding pieties, which are enough to make many American citizens deeply unsettled.