Let us speak of the Old Believers, clingers to their God and guns, to the old pronouns and the heterosexual marriages. Theirs is still, despite all, a
version of things—manifest, for example, in a primitive confidence in the doctor who, once upon a time, would swat a newborn’s rump and announce, with hieratic certitude, “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” The Old Believers did not think that the doctor, on a whim, “assigned” the baby’s “gender.” They held that the decision had been made months earlier, higher up the biological chain of command, and was to be respected as part of the scheme of things.
Four centuries ago in Russia, there occurred an internal clash of religious ideas (old ways vs. new ways) that had points in common with the schism dividing the U.S. in the 21st century. In Russia, too, there were progressives, who embraced reforms promulgated by Nikon, patriarch of Moscow, and anathematized the Old Believers, who held fast to the earlier religion. The latter were also known as Old Ritualists, raskolniki, and were led by the archpriest Avvakum. Avvakum was not exactly
but he stood for the earlier practice and for a mystic version of old Russia and its faith. The Old Believers tended to be located far from cosmopolitan centers. They were found in Siberia, in the Urals—in, so to speak, the red states of the Russian empire.
The Russian elites—tilting westward, speaking French among themselves—held such primitives in contempt. You may recall that in “War and Peace,” Prince Bolkonski’s pious daughter, Marya, befriends Old Believers but, because of her wrathful father’s prejudices, greets them furtively, leading them into the house by the back door. These days in places like Martha’s Vineyard and Beverly Hills, you find the Old Believers similarly shunned and feared.
Years ago, when my father was an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, which printed Rockwell’s iconic covers, a squire in Bucks County, Pa., told him with cheerful condescension, “I take your magazine for the servants.”
The mood is darker now. Emerging from the Covid seclusion, I am startled by the shudder of aversion, hatred and even fear with which America’s polite progressive society (lesser Bolkonskis and Rostovs, the Tesla classes) greet the mere mention of a Republican or a conservative. It’s a reflex, a wince of horror and disapproval. If you pronounce the name Trump, they go into convulsions.
There’s been a subtle rearrangement in the vocabulary of condemnation. Progressive elites are momentarily bored with denouncing all whites except themselves as “white supremacists.” There are trends in these usages. On Facebook now, they favor the word “fascist”—tossing it around especially during discussions of various Republican efforts to reform state voting laws. All conservative initiatives along these lines are fascist. The rhetoric must be unbridled—extreme, savoring almost of the medieval. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s Red Guards went around denouncing “black elements” and “demons and monsters.” All conservatives now are, to the elites, demons and monsters.
Progressives bemoan the dark days in which we live. They predict the imminent death of “our fragile democracy.” In their voices, you hear a throb of opulent hysteria—an ostentatious despair, the boutique self-pity of the privileged. Hating Mr. Trump and his followers dramatizes one’s own virtue. It makes elites feel good about themselves in the way, classically, that poor whites in the South were able to feel better about their own lot by despising and discriminating against black people. Progressives think that hating not only Mr. Trump but all conservatives settles their debts and cleanses them of sin. It gives them a certain moral luster.
Mr. Trump is to blame for much of this. Character is destiny, and Mr. Trump was quite a character. He gave his enemies the gift of Jan. 6. He played peek-a-boo with forbidden thoughts. He tossed cherry bombs at the Constitution to see if he could give it a scare. Whatever else one may say about Jan. 6, it was one of the stupidest afternoons in American history.
Russia’s new orthodoxy eventually burned the archpriest Avvakum at the stake. The 21st-century left would do the same to Mr. Trump if it could. It may not be necessary. He’s a burnt-out case, an exhausted volcano, in Disraeli’s phrase. Let Palm Beach have him.
The Old Believers don’t need Mr. Trump. If they are smart—and lucky—they will find someone who is capable, as Mr. Trump was not, of defending the country’s civic sanity, decency, democracy, and freedom of speech and thought. That hero has yet to emerge.
Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”
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