Donald Trump dispatches blame with the expertise of a veteran air-traffic controller, ever aware of exactly where, and when, to send the latest mishap to befall his administration. The buck never stops at the Resolute Desk, the way it might have with earlier occupants of the Oval Office. If something is amiss, Trump will take responsibility only as far as packaging it in a tweet and aiming it directly at one of his adversaries, whether that be President Obama or recalcitrant congressional Republicans. It doesn't really matter who is at fault; what matters is that Trump himself is innocent, at least in his own telling.
David L. Bahnsen does not dwell much on Trump in his new book, "Crisis of Responsibility." Nor does he expend much ink on Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton, who has compiled an impressive list of culprits who mugged her on that November night nearly two years ago: James Comey, the Russians, Wisconsin. This is, rather, a book about you and me, about the narratives we erect when things go amiss.
That narrative usually involves some force that, though vast and impersonal, has managed to inflict a great deal of personal frustration. Our "cultural addiction to blame," Bahnsen argues, is a crisis that knows no party or creed, a kind of bipartisan weakness of spirit that has turned us into a nation of whiners. The grievances may differ, but they feed into what he calls our collective "scapegoatism." Whether your bête noire is heartless corporatism or smug liberalism doesn't really matter, he says. The point is that you're seeking external causes for woes that are more likely failings of spirit. Or, as the great Lauryn Hill once put it, "How you gonna win when you ain't right within?"
Bahnsen’s references are more traditional, and to the right: J.D. Vance shows up more than once, and he approvingly cites “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” by Charles Murray, the conservative thinker who was famously booted from a Middlebury College speaking appearance last year. Both books — far more than this one — are laments for a middle class that has become the stuff of fantasy and, sometimes, xenophobia.
He does make overtures to the MSNBC crowd, without ever hiding the fact that he is a political conservative, one far closer in sensibility to Weekly Standard than Breitbart News. An opening chapter filled with broadsides against "the arrogance of elites" and "the liberal, unchecked media" did have me worried that I was reading the printout of a Fox News segment. Thankfully, Bahnsen mostly avoids this trap by showing how blame, like water, readily takes the shape of its container.
Despite his own predilection for limited government, Bahnsen admits that many on the right harbor a pointless antipathy to Washington. "There is not consensus amongst those who claim to be aggrieved by the government as to what the grievance is," he notes. And while the Sean Hannitys of this world may rail against the failure of green energy company Solyndra, which had been buttressed by a $535 million federal loan, they are likely to evince no such outrage about "deplorable stadium deals for billionaire sports team owners."
Bahnsen applies his understanding of capital markets to a provocative chapter on the foreclosure crisis of 2008. Here, it is liberals who come in for a flailing, with Bahnsen arguing that while Goldman Sachs is an easy target, it is also the incorrect one. His numbers indicate that few of those who defaulted on their mortgages were hardworking, unsuspecting first-time homebuyers duped by unscrupulous loan officers. To the contrary, Bahnsen concludes that “predatory borrowing” by “gamblers” looking to get rich by flipping homes caused the crisis. In his telling, it was our reliance on easy credit, the widespread conviction that buying and selling is all it takes to make it in this world, that led to the markets’ meltdown a decade ago.
Bahnsen is similarly hard to categorize on immigration, calling it an “economic mythology” that immigrants in the country illegally take jobs from Americans. This being a book that aims at fairness, he also lambastes liberals who refuse to accept that there is a shared American project immigrants should be asked to subscribe to, in part by crossing our borders legally.
You can imagine that he's the dinner party guest who informs those seated to his right and left of how wrong they are. Such people don't get invited to a lot of dinner parties, which is why I suppose they stay home and write books.
So what's the solution? That turns out to be far more tricky. Bahnsen primarily prescribes activism of the internal kind. "A life of resilience will inevitably be a life of joy," he writes at one point. He is no doubt sincere in this conviction, which undergirds the entire book. And yet I couldn't help but wonder: How does he know? It is more likely that a life of resilience will make one more resilient. And it is also surely true that a resilient populace, self-reliant in the classic Emersonian mold, would allow for the kind of limited government Bahnsen yearns for. But is he really in the position to promise joy?
And he uses the potent adjective "moral" without ever explaining what he means: "moral climate," "moral intuition," "moral clarity," "moral pathology." These are just four of the many variations that appears in "Crisis of Responsibility." They flit across the page like butterflies, without ever having to linger under the net of philosophic scrutiny.
Yet it is refreshing to read a book by a conservative who by and large avoids the pratfalls so many other members of his tribe have succumbed to. A couple potshots at media elites, I am happy to countenance, as long as they are an amuse bouche portending more serious fare. And that fare does come, largely in the vision of a society in which we demand as much of ourselves as we do of our elected officials and corporate leaders. While I'd never do Bahnsen the disservice of calling this a self-help book, disciples of that genre will find plenty here that is familiar. We are all glass houses; let's put down our stones.
Nazaryan is a national correspondent for Yahoo News.
"Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It"
David L. Bahnsen