The Appeal of Trumpism to Traditionalists

The work of David Gelernter helps explain why some intellectuals are attracted to the president’s authoritarian populism.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

David Gelernter is an innovator in parallel computing, a prolific writer on religion and culture, a talented artist—and one of two apparent finalists for the job of science advisor to President Donald Trump. To call the Yale computer scientist “anti-intellectual,” as The Washington Post did in January, is to stretch the word past its breaking-point. But Gelernter is also at the center of two falsely comforting ways of thinking about Trumpism. The first assumes that the most anti-intellectual president in recent memory infects everything he touches—that when someone who writes books decides to back a president who never reads them, the former gets dumbed-down by association. The second assumes that when a cultural conservative like Gelernter supports Trump, there’s nothing more interesting at stake than an acute case of hypocrisy.

The reality is more complicated. Gelernter is under no illusions about Trump: In an op-ed last October, he conceded that Trump is “an infantile vulgarian” even in the course of endorsing him. And whether or not he gets the job of science advisor, Gelernter deserves attention. He offers one of the clearest cases of the appeal of Trump’s authoritarian populism to a certain kind of traditionalist intellectual. It’s Gelernter’s writing on religion, not science, that displays the variety of traditionalism capable of coming to terms with Trumpism’s vulgarities through a kind of desperation, and capable of seeing Trump’s authoritarianism as a feature rather than a bug.

Understanding the worldview that Gelernter would bring to the White House—grasping both its appeal and its flaws—requires reading a short, remarkable book he published in 2009, called Judaism: A Way of Being.  Gelernter claims that Judaism, despite its well-known prohibition of “graven images,” is in fact a faith “passionately attached to images; they are its favorite means of expression.” Gelernter intended his book as a summation of the kind of modern Orthodox Judaism that he practices (as well as an accessible introduction for secular Jews like me), but it is something rarer than a book of theology or doctrine.

The images that matter most for Gelernter are not so much the striking scenes of the Hebrew Bible as they are the concepts and half-formed notions that take shape in the minds of the faithful, just below the level of conscious thought, as they live inside of a faith. Judaism is an attempt to give these notions some concreteness, to catalogue some of the central images that emerge over time in the mind of a practicing Jew.

A case in point is the image-theme of “separation,” as it appears in the separation of kosher from non-kosher food, of the Sabbath from the days of the week, of the elements in the Torah’s creation myth, and so on. The distinctiveness of Gelernter’s approach is its perception that each of these kinds of separation entails the others, not in the sense of logical necessity, but in the sense that one visual motif in a painting can entail another. Jewish law, he writes, “transforms Jewish life into a richly symbolic artwork whose theme, separation, recurs in countless variations and whose ultimate subject is sanctity and the struggle of joyous life against cruelty, decay, and death.”

The struggle is exactly the point. Ritual practice—carving out exceptions in space and time, again and again and again—is a kind of dissent against entropy. “Judaism is against nature … It is against entropy. It opposes the inevitable unraveling of the universe”—even as it acknowledges that the opposition does nothing to dent the inevitability. In other words, religion has no bearing on scientific truths—but it can condition our normative response to those truths.

Gelernter is not a literalist or a fundamentalist, and what he understands about religious faith is that it isn’t something one is liable to be argued into or out of. It’s something far more free-associative, prone to is own kind of fuzziness, an “emergent system” that can exhibit the coherence of art without the coherence of logic. I read a passage like this and am convinced that, if Terrence Malick made books rather than movies, he’d make something like Judaism:

Imagine a man in synagogue holding the Torah wide overhead, one handle in each hand. (This is the ritual called hagbah.) You see him there onstage with his back facing you, scroll towards you, his muscles tensed and arms braced. Now imagine the façade of a great nineteenth century synagogue like Central Synagogue in Manhattan, framed by two identical towers. These two images occupy the exact same space and blend together: the Torah scroll’s two uprights blending into the two towers of the synagogue … Now imagine the Red Sea split apart to allow the Israelites to escape Egypt into the distance, a wall of water to each side—and let all three images blend together, one water-wall coinciding with each tower and each upright of the Torah. Watch the Israelites passing between the two water-walls. They are walking straight into the Torah.

For Gelernter, this is just what religious thought looks like, or the closest he can come to approximating it in print.

What is true of religious thought specifically also appears to be true more generally: Much of our inner lives occur “wrapped up in imagery, beyond the reach of language.” And while that conviction might be the source of a healthy realism about the limits of argument, in religion and politics alike, it can also warrant a disengagement from the hard work of persuasion.

Images can do any number of things. They can startle. They can stir. They can overawe. But they can’t argue, and they can’t persuade, at least not in a manageable or predictable way. If the image that you find compelling does nothing for me, there’s little you can do to win me over beyond pointing at it more insistently. If Gelernter’s montage of the Torah scroll, the synagogue, and the Red Sea fails to speak to you as it speaks to him, there’s little he can do, in his own terms, to change your mind. Those images are only powerful as part of a living and lived-in system, but in the absence of that system, they are inert.

Gelernter’s book begins, in fact, with his fear that American Judaism, given its struggles with assimilation, secularization, and intermarriage, is ceasing to be such a system: “Unless the essence of Judaism is written down as plainly as can be, the loosening grip most American Jews maintain on the religion of their ancestors will fail completely, and the community will plummet into the anonymous depths of history.” (Gelernter posits that Zionism can act, for a time, as a kind of backup generator for Jewish solidarity; but given liberal Jews’ growing disaffection with the Israeli government, this seems even less plausible today than it was in 2009. Nor is he optimistic that the Orthodox can sustain American Judaism on their own; despite their high birthrates, they remain a minority within a minority.) So Judaism is a work of conservation, an attempt to encase in language a set of impressions, a way of being, before it is lost.

It can’t be done. Or at least, what Gelertner is trying to conserve is hollowed out in the process of saving it. The mental images that accumulate when you practice a way of being are so quietly powerful because they are unspoken, because they are free of language and its demands—for consistency, for sense. At the moment at which the prospect of cultural loss forces you to fix them in writing, to pin them down, you’ve already become alienated from them. Gelernter’s ambitious response to cultural loss—to launch a long, shared effort to fix in writing the “Torat ha-lev, the Torah of the mind and heart,” or the book of Judaism as a lived experience—is not the action of someone who believes his community is in good health. Such a project could only seem necessary against a background of loss and fear; but to fight the battle is to lose it.

Gelernter’s struggle is distinctive, but it is not unique. It stands in for the struggle of any number of traditionalists confronting cultural change, and facing the prospect that the beauty they see in their particular way of being fails to “translate.”

If liberals ever imagine their ideal conservatives, they tend to picture them elegiac, wise, and weathered. I confess that this is what Gelernter’s book looked like to me in 2009, painting a way of life without any persuasive intent: take it or leave it; it just is. But the kind of traditionalism that looks so at peace with itself at one moment can turn scowling and threatening the moment it meets perceived resistance: resistance from the secular world without, or resistance from within, such as the Jewish feminists who might well take issue with Gelernter’s claim that “‘female rabbi’ and Jewish law are mutually exclusive.”

What is essential is that the elegy and the scowl, the self-containment and the rage, grow from the same root: a way of being that does not recognize the possibility of persuasion. A line that Gelernter cites from Coleridge speaks to that thought: “Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice, and you will be convinced at once.” Gelernter comments: “If you are ‘convinced,’ you make a decision. If you are ‘convinced at once,’ the decision makes you.”

Wonderful—if it works. But what if nothing happens? Then the voice changes its tone, and the invitation becomes a command: It just is!

Gelernter, for one, seems to be thoroughly fixed in the latter phase, pronouncing in 2013 that “the nation is filling inexorably with Airheads, nominally educated yet ignorant; trained and groomed like prize puppies to be good liberals,” or, in his Trump endorsement, that “Obama has governed like a third-rate tyrant,” or that nothing gives Hillary Clinton pleasure like “the verbal kick in the groin of a Secret Service man or state trooper who has the nerve to talk to her as if she were merely human.” This, perhaps, is what political argument sounds like when you have already persuaded yourself of how little argument can do.

And again, Gelernter is not unique in this. It is the defining theme of the Trumpist intellectual—that, at some moment, we passed the point beyond which persuasion is no longer possible. It is the through line of Michael Anton’s influential “Flight 93 Election” essay, in which coming to terms with Trumpism’s vulgarity is cast as proof of moral seriousness, a willingness to do what must be done. If you prefer, writes Anton, “for conservatism to keep doing what it’s been doing—another policy journal, another article about welfare reform, another half-day seminar on limited government, another tax credit proposal—even though we’ve been losing ground for at least a century, then you’ve implicitly accepted that your supposed political philosophy doesn’t matter and that civilization will carry on just fine under leftist tenets.” In other words, if you persist in doing any of the usual things that we do to change each other’s minds in a democracy, you aren’t expressing respect for your fellow Americans and their right to think you’re wrong. You’re a sucker, a loser, and your way of being is almost dead. “Charge the cockpit or you die.”

From Anton, we learn what conservatism looks like as a suicide mission. But from Gelernter, we learn why such a mission could look so compelling to so many smart people—a view from inside the cabin, just before the “hijackers” stood up.

And we also might learn, from his book and despite it, that warnings again graven images still have some wisdom to them. To make a graven image is just to make an image from which you are alienated, to pull it out of your heart and work it into something so precious and fragile that you would risk harming others to keep it safe; and the word for that is still idolatry. Maybe those images are best when they are not graven, when they are immanent in practice, in the dark of the mind and the heart.