One of the inscrutable ironies of the last two years is that a New York real-estate mogul and reality TV star has forced so many academics and intellectuals to rethink and redefine some basic terms. Among them: authoritarianism, liberalism and conservatism. In “The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts” (Polity, 115 pages, $12.95) Salvatore Babones, an American-born professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney, doesn’t defend Mr. Trump or his administration. But he does suggest the Trump phenomenon may galvanize a revival of democratic self-rule. Mr. Babones, whose ideological affiliations remain a mystery to me, does not fear, as many American liberals do, that Mr. Trump is an “authoritarian” president. He believes, rather, that the president’s populism is a protest against a different kind of authoritarianism: the rule of unelected “experts.” American liberals speak unctuously about “democracy” and “democratic values,” but they have consistently substituted expert opinion for democratic decision-making. Whatever else this president does or doesn’t do, Mr. Babones thinks, his presidency has challenged that tendency at every point, and our politics will be more democratic and better off as a consequence.
Patrick Deneen takes a far dimmer view of Mr. Trump’s ascendancy in “Why Liberalism Failed” (Yale, 225 pages, $30), but similarly attributes what ails us to liberalism’s hegemony. Mr. Deneen uses the term “liberalism” in the broadest sense: the view that government’s rightful purpose is to afford the individual as much freedom as possible. That view has produced great wealth and convenience but also a great moral and spiritual emptiness—an emptiness promoted, Mr. Deneen thinks, by both left and right. The right holds to conservative moral values but promotes a free-market capitalism that undermines those values, while the left favors national solidarity but undermines it by encouraging moral anarchy. Mr. Deneen’s argument recalls many other critiques of classical and modern liberalism, among them Daniel Bell’s “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” (1976) and Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” (1981); like these others, Mr. Deneen’s argument fails to appreciate the moral virtues fostered by market economies and often treats modern capitalistic society as a series of lamentable abstractions rather than the endlessly complex organism it is, full of vices but fuller of virtues. Still, his exhortations to embrace the local over the global and the cultural over the political are sound and well expressed.
If the term “liberalism” often confuses, the term “conservatism” has been stretched to the point of meaningless in the Trump era. English philosopher Roger Scruton believes, along with most Anglo-American conservatives I suspect, that today’s liberals fear and loathe conservatism mainly because they don’t know what it is. His book “Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition” (All Points, 164 pages, $24.99) is an elegant introduction to conservative thought. Conservatism, for Mr. Scruton—he echoes Mr. Deneen here—is not a set of propositions but “takes its character from local questions, and the loves and suspicions that thrive in specific places and times.”
The urge to question the premises of liberalism has always been a part of liberalism, of course—a capacity for self-criticism is one of liberalism’s strengths. There was a moment in the middle of World War II, Alan Jacobs observes in “The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis” (Oxford, 256 pages, $29.95), when several English and French writers, suddenly realizing the West might not succumb to totalitarian darkness, put their minds to what should come next. T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis and Simone Weil (among others) began to wonder how postwar society might recreate the moral and spiritual framework that had been slowly chipped away since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Their answers contrasted in ways large and small, but each reached for some form of what used to be called Christian humanism. The need of the hour, they felt, was not to inculcate the lessons of science—two world wars had demonstrated that Western man had a pretty good grasp of those—but to relearn the lessons of man’s limitations, taught in his literature. Mr. Jacobs writes with his usual clarity and prompts us, too, to wonder what should come next.