The Power of the Powerless

Published August 10, 2022

The Catholic Thing

I started this column hoping to focus on Václav Havel’s great 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” collected here. I’ll get to that. But in the meantime, the FBI raided former President Donald Trump’s home in Florida, an action unprecedented in U.S. history. So adjustments must be made.

Just four weeks ago in this space, I suggested that

The threat of impending “Fascism! Right around the corner!” – a treasured anxiety of the Trump Dark Ages – might oddly come true. Just not from the direction you thought. Mr. Trump, with his vulgar style and legion of faults, nonetheless had the effect of a sun lamp or disagreeable medicine on a nasty boil: He drew all the hysteria, fanaticism, and arrogance of hardcore progressive thought to the skin’s surface, where the boil and its poison popped.

A “fascist” in the vocabulary of today’s enlightened classes, includes just about anybody who questions the collapse of our border security, transgender rights, or unfettered access to abortion. And this isn’t new. Barack Obama let the rat out the bag with extraordinary condescension in 2008 when he complained about underclass voters who cling, stubbornly, to their “guns and religion.”

Enter Donald Trump, who admittedly has a surplus of negative qualities. But he did, and still does, trigger in a revealing way, the dormant rage virus, the mental herpes simplex, in our nation’s preening elites. Thanks to the fury directed at him – and through him, at all those who, for whatever reason, voted for him – Mr. Trump proves that hate clearly does “have a home here.” It’s embedded in our patrician class and its wannabes.

But don’t take my word for it. Read Christopher Lasch, distinguished historian and always a man of the populist left. In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, Lasch notes (in 1995) that

The new [national and global] elites, which include not only corporate managers but all those professions that produce and manipulate information – the lifeblood of the global market – are far more cosmopolitan, or at least more restless and migratory, than their predecessors. . . .Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world – not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

Lasch argues that in our time, the chief threat to the civilizing traditions of Western culture comes “from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses.” And he notes that the “course of recent history no longer favors the leveling of social distinctions, but runs more and more in the direction of a two-class society in which the favored few monopolize the advantages of money, education and power.” He adds, finally, that

In the United States, “Middle America” – a term that has both geographical and social implications – has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: “family values,” mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, [and] retrograde views of women. Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial. . .at once absurd and vaguely menacing.

What Lasch correctly describes is the arrogance of America’s leadership class. This has fully ripened and congealed in the Democratic Party since his 1995 book. And along with it goes an elitist derision and fear toward America’s underclass. Trump read this reality like a cheat sheet and used it like a judo master. The very people who loathe Donald Trump helped to ensure his 2016 election, and their continuing, vindictive hysteria makes him vigorous in the popular imagination. Our nominally Catholic President and Speaker of the House deserve at least a thank-you note from the former president for keeping his looming shadow alive. . .though given his track record, Mr. Trump may be cool to such niceties.

But let’s get back to Václav Havel.

Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless” in Czechoslovakia during the postwar years of East Bloc repression. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents, Havel was a forceful voice for truth in a Soviet-style, Marxist-Leninist political system built on deceit, fear, and repression.

In such a system, Havel writes, government by bureaucracy is called popular government. The working class is enslaved in the name of the working class. The complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her own ultimate liberation. Depriving people of information is called making it available. The use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power. The arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code. The repression of culture is called its development. The lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom.

Farcical elections become the highest form of democracy. And banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views. In Havel’s words, “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. . .[and it] pretends to pretend nothing.”

Given such a system, open political resistance in Havel’s day was impossible. The “power of the powerless” resided instead in those citizens who simply refused to cooperate with the lies; citizens who insisted on speaking and living the truth, no matter the cost. Over the decades, this gradually eroded the system’s credibility and led to a national reawakening. But it required two virtues: courage and perseverance.

The United States is a long way from 1978 Czechoslovakia. . .but not so far as it was four decades ago. The growing hostility to religion in this country, the disregard for law and its enforcement, the expansion of federal administrative power, the rise of what author Aaron Kheriaty, M.D., calls “the biomedical security state.” These things don’t end well. And the only way we change them, the only “power of the powerless,” is by refusing to cooperate with the lies.

To live instead in the truth, despite the cost.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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