Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Thematic—Political Mythologies

The Return of the King

The enchantments of a rising illiberalism.

Philip S. Gorski

Stéphane Bernard as Père Ubu from Ubu Roi (ou presque) by Alfred Jarry, 2017, Théâtre National Populaire, France, photograph by Christian Ganet; Christian Ganet/ArtComPress/Bridgeman Images.

On his daily podcast, the conservative commentator and #NeverTrumper Charlie Sykes often refers to Donald Trump as “the orange god-king” and to the former president’s fervent MAGA following as a “cult.” The jibe may be intended for laughs, but it hints at a deeper truth: The neoauthoritarian leaders of the present era have more than a little in common with the divine kings of the ancient world, and the enchanted worldviews of those who follow Donald Trump and others like him often verge on premodern magical thinking. In this respect, Trump and Trumpism are but one example of a global phenomenon, with similar figures and their similarly devout followers everywhere from Russia, Hungary, and Turkey to Brazil, the Philippines, and—possibly, with its own special characteristics—the new-old Middle Kingdom of the People’s Republic of China.

In the American context, these phenomena are usually attributed to populist ideology, racial backlash, or Christian nationalism. Such explanations are not wrong, but they are incomplete. They cannot explain certain puzzling features of the MAGA movement that are also evident outside the American context, including the outlandish behavior of the political leaders, the swirl of conspiracy theories that often surrounds them, or the lack of any clear policy platform. Nor do those explanations account for the enthralling worldviews of the new authoritarian movements, which mix religion, magic, conspiracy, and popular culture in a toxic stew.

Historical anthropology and cultural sociology can help us here by placing neoauthoritarianism in a much deeper and wider historical and cultural context, one extending far beyond modernity and well outside the “West.”11xOn the differences between immanent and transcendent forms of religion, and the affinity between immanent religion and divine kingship, see especially Alan Strathern, Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2019) and A. Azfar Moin and Alan Strathern eds., Sacred Kingship in World History: Between Transcendence and Immanence (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2022). With the insights of those disciplines, we are able to see the peculiar features of this authoritarianism as quite real modern-day reincarnations—or possibly recrudescences—of the ancient tradition of divine kingship. Moreover, they help us understand the cultural precondition for the return of this tradition: namely, the rise of neoimmanentist worldviews, which hold that the world is imbued with the mystery and power of the sacred, and the concomitant decline of transcendent worldviews, which hold the sacred to be wholly other and beyond. In our postliberal era, the disenchanting principles of modern liberalism—including trust in science, reason, and objective fact—have themselves been disenchanted.

The Enchanted Cosmos Makes a Comeback

The cosmos of Greek mythology provides a familiar example of an immanent worldview. The Greek gods are neither particularly good nor particularly bad; they are just larger and more powerful than ordinary humans. And, of course, immortal. The divide between god and man is fairly porous. Gods can appear to humans and even mate with them. Some humans become immortals and thus even gods of a sort, as in the case of Hercules. There is an afterlife, but it is not a central concern. It is a lower form of existence rather than a higher one. Mortals only persist as shadows. Accordingly, the focus of religious rituals is usually on this-worldly concerns such as individual health and wealth or collective power and glory. Such ceremonies are not typically performed by priests, but by local citizens on a rotating basis. There were no clear boundaries between religious systems; the Greek gods were island hoppers. Nor, for that matter, was there any meaningful distinction between religion and culture or morality and convention in this context. They were all tightly bundled together into a shared “way of life.” These and other features of Greek religion were widespread in the ancient world. The Romans had no difficulty absorbing Greek religion into their own. Like the Greeks, the Romans required popular participation in civic rituals but no public confession of faith. Belief and intention were not that important. The point of the rituals was not that they were true but that they worked—or, rather, they were true insofar as, and so long as, they worked. One might describe the immanent worldview as that of an enchanted cosmos, and it characterized most human cultures throughout the world until about 2,500 years ago, when a period known as “the Axial Age” began. During this time, immanent cultures were challenged and largely superseded by a succession of transcendent breakthroughs in which world religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, rabbinical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam took form and spread.22xRobert N. Bellah and Hans Joas, eds., The Axial Age and Its Consequences (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Christianity is a good example of the transcendent worldview. The Christian God is good and perfect, not just larger and more powerful. He is not just immortal; he is uncreated and eternal. The divide between God and humanity is not a gap; it is a chasm. It is traversed neither easily nor often, and usually in one direction. God came down to Moses; God’s Son came down to earth. Worldly goods are radically devalued; Christ’s beatitudes stand the value system of the ancient world on its head. The first are now last, and the poor shall inherit the earth. The afterlife is portrayed as immeasurably superior to this life. Eternal salvation becomes a central aim of religious practice, for some the central aim. Ritual activities are managed by a priestly caste. The boundaries between religious communities are clear and bright. One may cross over them only by means of conversion. This may mean leaving behind one’s previous way of life, even one’s family, if need be, for one’s “heavenly father” and one’s “brothers and sisters in Christ.” It now becomes possible to distinguish religion and culture, morality and convention. Indeed, for early converts to the new faith, religion and morality were often diametrically opposed to the surrounding culture and its conventions. It was no longer enough to mouth the words or go through the motions, as we now say. Intent was crucial, as was belief. Confessions and creeds became central. The relationship between efficacy and veracity was also reversed. Christianity worked because it was true, not the other way around. The Christian cosmos is dualistic and disenchanted, not enchanted and monistic. All of the major world religions can be understood, at least very broadly, as variations on the theme of transcendence—or, more accurately, as ever-evolving hybrids of transcendence and immanence, monism and dualism.

The immanent/transcendent distinction is an ideal-type, of course, a conceptual simplification of a complex reality that throws key contrasts into sharper relief. The pre–Axial Age religions were predominantly immanent, the post-Axial ones predominantly transcendent. I say predominantly because immanent cultures had their transcendent heretics, such as Plato. More importantly, transcendent religions rarely exist, and cannot persist, in pure form, for at least three reasons. First, transcendent religions always need physical protection, which they can obtain only from political elites, usually in exchange for religious legitimation. Second, to secure material resources, transcendent religions must minister to the needs and often quite worldly concerns of the producing or exploiting classes on whom they depend. Third, to win converts, they must translate themselves into the vernacular languages and cultures of the people they seek to win over.

For these and other reasons, the transcendent religions always contain at least some measure of immanence. As the sociologist Robert Bellah often observed, “nothing is ever lost” in the history of religion, including the enchanted cosmos. Every transcendent religion harbors within it what Max Weber called an “enchanted garden,” full of magic and spirits.33xMax Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1971), 270. First published 1920. The size of this garden may wax or wane over time in any given religion, it may be larger in some religions than in others, but it never disappears altogether.

Historical expressions of Christianity are always hybrids, but the mixture of transcendence and immanence varies across time and space and among creeds and movements. Consider the drift of American Christianity toward greater immanentism over the last century or so, in part as a result of the gradual decline of liberal Protestantism, the primary historical carrier of the most transcendent versions of Christian theology within the American context. Recall John Calvin’s distant God with his inscrutable “double decree” over salvation and damnation. Calvin’s liberal Protestant heirs may have drifted toward a milder, more benevolent view of God, but they did not imagine themselves as gods, or think of Jesus as their best friend. Nor did they speak in tongues or include shopping lists in their prayers.

Another, related factor was the rapid proliferation and growth of newer versions of Christianity—namely, Mormonism, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and the prosperity gospel—each with its respective tenets of self-divinization, heart religion, spiritual warfare, and magical formulas. Each tacitly challenged at least one core feature of a transcendentalist framework: the boundary between the divine and the human, the disenchantment of the world, and the ritual orientation toward otherworldly goods.

A third factor in this reimmanentization has been the steady rise of nondenominational churches, with leaders who do not answer to a particular theological tradition or a wider pastoral community and who are often (perhaps inevitably) more influenced by the needs and concerns of their congregations, particularly to the extent that they are financially dependent upon church members for their own livelihoods. These characteristics make nondenominational churches much more susceptible to cultural capture: that is, to the blurring of lines between religion and culture, morality and convention. The ways of the Lord become increasingly conflated with our way of life. American Christianity entered a period of even more intensive cultural captivity when conservative Christians embraced conservative Republicanism as something close to doctrine, conflating the “moral absolutes” of Christian ethics with the shifting desiderata of a political party. The boundary between “Christ and culture” was effectively blurred.

Seen against this background, certain key features of contemporary American politics become more comprehensible, starting with a fundamental shift in the meaning of Christian leadership. George W. Bush’s legitimacy as such a leader was premised on his personal piety and morality. In Christian language, he was a “righteous” leader. Donald Trump’s legitimacy is based on his aggressive speech and persona—his willingness to “fight.” He is better described in Old Testament language as a “holy warrior,” and is even compared to Hebrew kings.

The meaning of the culture war has undergone a related shift. Until recently, the battle lines could still be plausibly defined in moral terms. Conservative culture warriors could still claim to be defending “traditional” or “biblical morality.” Today, the battle lines are being redefined in terms of cultural conventions and regional folkways. The contemporary cultural warrior is fighting for “the American way of life.” For some self-styled Christian conservatives, immigration laws and gun rights now loom as large as (if not, as polls suggest, larger than) gay marriage and abortion once did. Meanwhile, Christian witness is reduced to cultural mores—saying “Merry Christmas” at the local mall.

Like the boundary between morality and convention, the boundary between religion and culture has grown porous. Take the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has attracted a large share of conservative Christians. It freely mixes end-times prophecies, online memes, characters from thriller novels, and “blood libel” charges. This new, open-borders policy between the realms of religion and culture has important political consequences. Online and elsewhere, whether they know it or not, American Christians are interacting and even allying with white nationalists and neopagans, who cynically hide their racism and esotericism behind a “defense of Judeo-Christian civilization.”

The fourth and final shift is from the pursuit of policy to the performance of ritual. To be sure, Ronald Reagan was as skilled in the use of media as Donald Trump. But in President Reagan’s case, broadcast television was still a means to certain policy ends. In Trump’s case, the media is the message, and performance is the point. 

Neoimmanentism is not just another variant of American exceptionalism. It is a global phenomenon. “Populist” leaders and regimes in the “backsliding democracies” of Eastern and Western Europe, as well as in Brazil, Turkey, and India, have much in common with Trump and the MAGA movement in the United States: strange and often transgressive leaders promising miraculous solutions to vexing social problems, wrapped up in a swirl of bizarre online conspiracy theories trafficked by a mix of religious radicals, racial nationalists, online trolls, and other fabulists.

What’s more, the rise of neoimmanentism might explain a puzzle confounding populist theories of our new politics: namely, what to make of authoritarian leaders and regimes such as those of Russia or China that do not quite fit the populist mold but still share many features of “populist” counterparts in the West. Drawing on anthropological theories of divine kingship, we can see more clearly the commonalities between a Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping and a Viktor Orbán or Donald Trump.

Strange(r) Kings

There is a long tradition of sacred kingship in the Christian West, but not of divine kingship. Consider the case of France. For more than six centuries, from the Middle Ages until the French Revolution, every king was crowned at the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims. The actual coronation—the placing of the crown on the head of the king—was preceded by an anointing ceremony. The king-to-be knelt before the archbishop of Reims, who pronounced a formula worth excerpting at some length:

God eternal…forgive and accept our humble prayers, and multiply the gifts of Thy blessings on this Thy servant, who…we…choose for King…. May he administer with puissance and law royally the rule of Thy power…. Adorn him by many a gracious blessing, with the virtues with which Thou hast enriched Thy faithful ones…counsel him richly in the government of the kingdom, and anoint him plenteously with the grace of the Holy Spirit.44xFrancis Oppenheimer, The Legend of the Sainte Ampoule (London, England: Faber and Faber, 1953).

Having been portrayed as a servant of God, the executor of law (droit), and a man of virtue, the king was then anointed with holy oil and crowned by the archbishop. Though the king was sacred, blessed specially by God, he was not divine. To be sure, remnants of the concept of divine kingship lingered, well into modernity. As late as the nineteenth century, the royal touch was said to cure scrofula, a form of tuberculosis.

In the pre-Christian West, by contrast, as in the pre-Axial world more generally, kings were generally regarded as divine and, in some sense, also as gods.55xOn divine kingship, see also David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings (Chicago, IL: HAU Books, 2017). The rulers of the thirteenth-century Khmer Empire (based in what is now Cambodia) were typical of this. According to a Chinese visitor to the royal palace at Angkor Wat,

Every night before he can sleep with his own royal wives, the king mounts the tower to mate with a Naga spirit, Soma: a snake with nine heads who turns into a woman. She is said to be the “owner” of the kingdom….and if one night she fails to appear, it is time for the king to die…. He…marks his sovereignty as the usurpation of earth-sprung rulers—from above, in a golden tower, as a celestial figure of great wealth.66xDaguan Zhous, The Customs of Cambodia (Bangkok, Thailand: Siam Society, 2001).

Nor were such rituals “Oriental.” Recall that Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, was celebrated as a minor divinity in Roman religion, and that the Roman Senate routinely declared emperors to be gods upon their death. Caesar Augustus (reigned 27 BC–14 AD), the emperor mentioned in the Christian Gospels, described himself as “the son of a god,” and often claimed that he was immune from aging. There was nothing unusual about this. Divine kingship was the typical form of political rule in immanentist cultures.

One of the more important subtypes of divine kingship is what the cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins calls “the stranger-king.”77xMarshall Sahlins, “The Stranger-King or, Elementary Forms of the Politics of Life,” Indonesia and the Malay World 36 (2008): 177–99, doi:10.1080/13639810802267918. He is a stranger because he is believed to have come from afar in a time of crisis to defend the natives and restore their prosperity. Like the Khmer king, the stranger-king often marries or mates with a native, thus sealing his bond with the autochthonous people, who are the true owners of the land. Power, not righteousness, is the mark of his divinity. Nor does the king “possess” his power within his person so much as channel it from the cosmos through his person.

While it is tempting to call such power supernatural, it would be anachronistic to do so. Immanentist cultures make no sharp distinction between nature and supernature. The power of the king is a portion of what is called in the island cultures of the western Pacific mana, the power that flows through and sustains life and the cosmos as a whole. Consequently, the king’s power cannot be constrained by law, morality, or convention, though it is essential to maintaining them. Indeed, the king often displays his power by violently transgressing law, morality, and convention. He may rise to power through acts of usurpation and fratricide. He sometimes exhibits his limitless power through gratuitous acts of rape, incest, and killing—all tolerated by subjects who believe that the peace and prosperity of the kingdom depend on that power. His body and persona also violate convention. If he moves among the people, he is always set apart from them by his dress and manners. He is not just a stranger; he is strange as well. Because he is a god, he is not exactly human.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump, who fits the profile of the stranger-king with astonishing aptness. He, too, is a stranger of sorts, at least to Americans who hail from the rural and exurban “heartlands” of the South and the Midwest, as so many of his supporters do. He is not a “regular American” in any usual sense of that term. Nor does he claim to be. His appearance, manner, and speech are neither normal nor mainstream. His behavior is often highly transgressive. While he did not come to power by means of fratricide, he did cheat his elder brother’s family out of their rightful inheritance. He has not killed anyone, but he has bragged that he could do so with impunity. And there is plenty of evidence—including his own boasts—that he is guilty of sexual aggression, sometimes verging on assault.

Trump’s appeal, in short, has nothing to do with his righteousness. It has everything to do with his putative (incredible! amazing!) powers. If in the ancient world the cosmic power of the stranger-king was made manifest on the battlefield, in our world the battlefield is business and the great warrior is the celebrity CEO.

Trump promises to use his powers to restore order, but the order in question is not legal or moral. It is not defined in terms of right and wrong or good and evil. Rather, it is a natural or cosmic order defined by sacred hierarchies and clear boundaries demarcated in terms of gender, race, and nation. In all these many respects, Trump bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the stranger-king archetype.

Is this comparison contrived? Overdrawn? A textbook example of conceptual overstretch? Before concluding that, recall that it was Trump’s most devoted Christian followers and most trusted spiritual advisers who first used monarchical language, comparing him to biblical rulers such as King David and King Cyrus. Invoking the Israelite kings, others spoke of him as “the anointed one.” Such language is especially common in the Pentecostal and prophetic milieux, where the most pronounced forms of Christian immanentism are also found.

As for Trump, he was only too happy to play along, musing half-seriously that he might be “the chosen one,” even as he mocked his Christian devotees behind their backs. Nor was the language of kingship confined to Christian circles. Some of his closest political advisers and strongest intellectual champions saw Trump in precisely these terms. This was especially true of traditionalists and neoreactionaries such as Steve Bannon and Mencius Moldbug (the pseudonym of political commentator Curtis Guy Yarvin). Inspired in part by figures such as the far-right Italian intellectual Julius Evola, they understand sacred kingship as the natural order of things, and the sacred cosmos as a spiritual truth.

Somewhere between the Christians and the pagans, we find a third current within the MAGA movement: the trolls and the gamers. They are more apt to liken Trump to mythical heroes of popular culture like Rambo, but for them, fantasy always trumps reality, since it’s all about the laughs—in online parlance, the “lulz.” For all three groups in the MAGA coalition, then, the “stranger-king” is a native category.

This much seems clear: The MAGA movement and others like it around the world are not just at odds with fundamental tenets of modern, multiethnic democracy. There are increasingly powerful currents within them that envision something akin to divine monarchy, tacitly at the popular level but more explicitly among some of its intellectual apologists. Ironically, it is the disenchantment of liberalism that laid the foundations for this and other forms of contemporary illiberalism.

Liberalism and Its Disenchantments

The rise of liberalism was a result of one disenchantment process. The rise of contemporary illiberalism is the result of a second. The first disenchantment process encompassed the two world wars and the Great Depression. The horrific trench warfare of World War I brought an end to the optimistic cultural mood that had prevailed in Western Europe and North America during the long peace of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The depression halted the spread of middle-class prosperity ushered in by the Second Industrial Revolution and the concomitant rise of Fordist mass consumption. But it took the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II to complete the process and sate the hunger for danger, force, and violence that had fueled fascist movements in Europe—and America. The result was a yearning for domesticity in private life and accommodation in public life—if not for all who had lived through these decades, then surely for the vast majority.

Disenchantment in this colloquial sense was accompanied by disenchantment in the sociological sense. The two were actually intertwined in many ways. The old progressive optimism about social melioration had been historically rooted in postmillennial understandings of Christian eschatology. Similarly, the collapse of secular optimism during the interwar period went together with the rise of pessimistic theologies, such as Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism on the left and J. Gresham Machen’s Calvinist neoorthodoxy on the right. At the grassroots level, the bitter debate between fundamentalists and modernists shattered the (original) nineteenth-century evangelical consensus that had united (usually white) liberals and conservatives in most of the major denominations.

The controversy was not just theological or even political; it was also cosmological. The liberal mainline doubled down on transcendence; fundamentalists rediscovered immanence, and the nascent Pentecostal movement reveled in it. Meanwhile, for some leading progressive intellectuals—Jane Addams and John Dewey, for example—liberal Protestantism served as a halfway house on the road to secular progressivism. The decline of the mainline was not far off. Still, liberal Protestants and their secular allies were the dominant class of the day, not only in the expanding ranks of the college-educated professional and managerial classes—“the culture,” as we now say—but also in the realm of business and politics. Episcopalians, as the old saw goes, were the Republican Party at prayer.

Disenchantment in these two senses facilitated the rise of postwar liberal hegemony in a number of ways. For one, it lowered expectations about politics. Gone were the utopian energies of the fin de siècle. The point of politics was not to achieve paradise but to avoid (another) catastrophe. Such utopian energies as remained were now channeled in an otherworldly direction. If there was any possibility of achieving heaven, then it was assuredly not on this earth. Those who didn’t believe in the kingdom of heaven could at least be thankful they were not in the hell on earth known as totalitarianism. For many, that was probably enough.

Then came the disenchantment with disenchantment. Which is to say a re-enchantment of sorts. The problem with liberalism—one of them, anyway—is that it is boring. The lure of peace and prosperity is positively correlated with the experience of war and deprivation, or collective memory of them. For the “greatest generation” and their boomer offspring, this was just enough to keep the demons of illiberalism at bay for a half century or so. But people die and memories fade, and the thirst for danger and violence, for the vital life and real experience, eventually returns. It is not just hope that springs eternal. These dark or vitalist impulses can be sublimated, or relegated to the world of fantasy, but they cannot be eliminated altogether. And they can always be loosed on the world again.

Liberal religion eventually proved just as boring as political liberalism, though perhaps not as boring as the small-town fundamentalism of the early twentieth century. (“No card-playing or dancing or bare knees, please!”) Compared to that, the midcentury suburban mainline surely felt liberating at first. But it could hardly compete with the entertainment-infused megachurch explosion of the late twentieth century, with its jumbotrons and sound systems, its praise choirs and rock bands, and its TED Talk–style sermons. A more exciting liturgy accompanied a more immanent theology. A distant God was traded for a personal savior, original sin in the Garden for an imminent Second Coming, quiet contemplation for glossolalia—and heavenly peace for earthly blessings.

The return of immanence was not confined to the realm of religion as such. The supposedly secular world of the educated and unchurched was rapidly filling up with all manner of “spiritual but not religious” ideas and practices. They had been circulating for a century, but never so rapidly or widely or in such commodified forms as Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s line of wellness and beauty products. The philosopher Charles Taylor imagined “the immanent frame” as a shared space for a low-key variety of “ordinary flourishing,” the small pleasures of family, friendship, and career.88xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007). But Taylor mistook a part for the whole. Taylor’s immanent frame turned out to be just one small corner of a larger, neoimmanent frame, one that was more akin to a raucous collage of the religious and the spiritual, the ordinary and the esoteric, and of gods great and small. The religious and secular rationalists were too caught up in their own private debate about secularization to hear the wild party that was raging all around them.

No ideology is without its mythology, of course, not even the most chastened of liberalisms. One version of the origin myth of modern liberalism may be found in one of its sacred texts: A Theory of Justice, by political philosopher John Rawls. Published in 1971 with the intent of squaring liberty with justice, Rawls’s now canonical argument went something like this: A long time ago, in a place called Europe, there was a war about religion. It made life nasty, brutish, and short. People got tired of the war and agreed to disagree about the nature of the good. Instead, they focused on the right. They would let all people decide what was good for them. Everyone would be given “autonomy,” which is a fancy word for freedom. People would still be free to form their own “comprehensive worldview,” which is another fancy term, meaning “personal philosophy.” People could be religious if they wanted—that was part of being free—but they should refrain from talking about it in public, because other people wouldn’t understand what they were saying, and anyway, history shows us where that sort of talk leads.

Now that they had stopped worrying so much about the nature of the good, people could focus on dividing up the goods, which is what justice mostly means. Rawls even had a dream about the meaning of justice. In his dream, he was a spirit floating behind a veil waiting to be born. He asked the other spirits what sort of body they would like to have. After they talked for a while, they decided that it would only be fair if no one was too different from anyone else.99xJohn Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971).

For a long time, this liberal vision of personal emancipation and social justice exerted a powerful hold over the popular imagination. Because many Americans could write themselves into the script, it provided the frame for the three great social movements of the late twentieth century for, respectively, racial justice, gender equality, and sexual freedom. But as time went on, the limits of the liberal mythology became increasingly clear. Human beings were not spirits floating in space; they were embodied creatures situated in place. They were not just autonomous individuals seeking justice; they were social animals yearning for connection. Today, the unravelling of liberalism is perhaps most evident among its avowed enemies on the right (“national conservatives”) and the far right (“radical traditionalists”), but it is also evident among its fellow travelers on the left (“democratic socialists”) and far left (“antifascists”). The common denominator is the second disenchantment—with liberal individualism.

Can liberalism survive? Is it even worth saving? These are difficult questions. No doubt, we are hearing ominous echoes of the virulent politics of the interwar era, though now perhaps even more threateningly in the United States than in “Old Europe.” Now as then, readiness for political violence seems greater on the right than on the left, though irrationalism infects both sides. On the left, it most often takes the form of a magical social constructionism that the world can be radically changed if one only uses the right words, or, somewhat more benignly, if one “follows the science,” as if science and scientists could give us the answers to our most vexing moral and political questions. On the right, it takes the form of white Christian nationalism, a volatile blend of white supremacism, spiritual warfare, and an attraction to political authoritarianism that conduces to faith in the supernatural powers of a divinized leader.

The best conservative argument in defense of liberalism is probably prudential: “There be dragons, fire-breathing ones.” And conservatism is not supposed to be about “burning it all down.” When Steve Bannon says he is a “Leninist,” the member of a revolutionary vanguard seeking to capture state power, by violent means if necessary, then we should believe him. The best progressive argument in defense of liberalism is probably a gradualist one: “You can only get there from here,” where here is liberal democracy and there is social democracy. Such arguments are unlikely to get much traction outside the seminar room unless they can be translated into a compelling narrative, a new liberal origin story that can inspire a new democratic political movement. The alternative is another era of trial by fire: a fire started and sustained by the return of the god-king.