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The Choice of the Soul

“I don’t know,” he said, “that I have any particular objection in detail to your excellent scheme of Government. My only objection is a quite personal one. It is, that if I were asked whether I would belong to it, I should ask first of all, if I was not permitted, as an alternative, to be a toad in a ditch. That is all. You cannot argue with the choice of the soul.”

G.K. Chesterton was not thinking of the 2016 American presidential campaign in 1904, when he wrote the above in the novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill [1]. But some things never change in democratic politics.

Yet the Nicaraguan nobleman who utters this cri de coeur is also partly in ignoble retreat from the current fray, which admittedly permits only ignoble acts. Such withdrawal must be carefully calibrated, then, because passivity can enable enormities.

At the other extreme lies an activist attitude that I confess to feeling myself – some days – best expressed by the brilliant Mollie Hemingway, who observed, looking over our current political scene, that she wished everyone involved in it “would die, horribly, in a fire.” (Calm down. Just a joke.)

But burning the place down, which protesters were chanting (with an X-rated term for “place”) after the Ferguson acquittals, is not something a Christian (or anyone) should think helps matters. It’s part of the very retreat from civility – that fragile membrane over chaos – that separates civilization from barbarism. Civility can be a cover for cowardice or weakness, to be sure. But without civility, real civility, we’re into the deep night, the no-holds-barred war of all against all.

Still, I get the anger.

Democrats advance a woman, a serial liar, a self-proclaimed feminist who trashed multiple women for political gain, an ideological ambulance chaser who will follow votes anywhere, who compromised state secrets and amassed a fortune while serving in the Cabinet, partly through suspect dealings with donors in foreign nations.

Republicans, fed up with their flaccid leaders, advance a man whose whole life speaks: no fixed principles, crony capitalism, megalomania, religious hypocrisy, authoritarianism, bullying, innocence of the Constitution and the simplest functioning of our government (he thinks judges signs bills) – and no political experience.

2016: Tweedledum and Tweedledumber?

Let me be clear. I am not trying to persuade anyone by saying any of this. I’m mystified that people don’t see it for themselves. And I’m already resigned to a current reality: arguments and facts only further feed destructive passions. When I or someone else advances arguments, the ad hominems start – you know, attacking the speaker personally, the first thing that, on the debate team in junior-high school, you were told is never a proper way to argue.

And among the mysteries: why are Trump critics accused of being “neo-cons” or tools of the liberal media or the Republican establishment? To take only myself as a corpus vile, I’ve hammered the liberal media, in print and on the airwaves, for decades in Washington (you can look it up), and have never for an instant thought of registering as a Republican.

I’ve always considered myself a paleo-con (as my friends know, sometimes with exasperation). Paleos sometimes collaborate with neos, but to spell out the difference broadly: paleos are less driven by economics, national security, and “freedom,” than by family, church, community, culture, locality – the things that economics and politics exist for. Though I’m from Connecticut (as in Yankee), my spontaneous sympathies (not at every point, to be sure) lie with groups like Southern agrarians. Sometimes neo- or paleo- elements overlap, sometimes not.

Working-class anger is not an abstraction to me either. I grew up in a working-class Catholic ghetto. Family, church, community, region meant something real there. Relatives of my generation are still mostly okay. Their kids, mostly, are not. They don’t marry, have few or no kids themselves, fool with drugs, show little attachment to faith or community.

Both my parents had a half-dozen brothers or sisters. Growing up, it never crossed my mind that either side of the family could disappear in a generation. Yet the Royal name, in its current incarnation, would have departed this earth in a few years if my son John Paul and his wife had not had Robert John Royal.

The causes for our social disaster are many: failures of parents, churches, and schools, shifts in working-class jobs, the disastrous breakdown of the family following the sexual revolution, and – not least – the fecklessness of Washington. There’s plenty of blame to go around and plenty of work to be done to restore large swaths of the American people.

But that would take a sobriety and sense of purpose (and action) that I see nowhere at present. It’s a shame that we can’t just postpone the decision until we’re in better condition to make it.

I’ll go to the local polling place in November. I live in Virginia, a large swing state, and there are important races: Senate, House, state and local offices.

I won’t indulge in a categorical judgment for now: that would be to give in to the very passions of the moment that I find mortally dangerous. But if things continue as they are – and it’s always possible the Almighty will spare us and they won’t – I’m thinking it’s best if I simply don’t vote for president. Or write in someone sane, and not wholly on the make.

It won’t be a wasted vote. For me, it’s wasting a vote to think that choosing either current frontrunner is a responsible thing to do.

I keep hearing that those who don’t vote have no right to complain. Or – in the 60s jargon – not to decide is to decide. But “none of the above” is a decision. I’m not choosing to die like a toad in a ditch, or to burn the place down. So unless something – it would probably take divine intervention – persuades me otherwise, I’m likely to leave the rest to providence.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.