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The case that America’s in decline

Why Ross Douthat thinks the country is stuck in a doom loop.

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on February 21, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Is Trump a symptom or a disease? And if he’s a symptom, what’s the underlying sickness?

Decadence is one possible answer.

This is very close to the argument New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes in his new book, The Decadent Society. According to Douthat, the US — and really the entire Western world — is stuck in a kind of cultural doom loop. In many ways, Douthat says, we’ve become victims of our own success and are now locked in a state of malaise, in which our culture and politics feel exhausted.

Douthat’s definition of a “decadent society” is that we’re trapped in a stale system that keeps spinning in place, reproducing the same arguments and frustrations over and over again. Trump’s election is simultaneously a sign that a lot of people were desperate for something different and a reflection of the shallow and frivolous culture that spawned him.

Douthat is a conservative, and so there’s a temptation to treat this book as a reactionary screed, or an angry protest against the modern condition. But I think it’s much more than that, although at times it does lapse into some familiar tropes. He puts his fingers on something real, something a lot of people feel on the left and the right, namely a belief that the status quo is broken and needs a reboot.

I spoke to Douthat by phone about the story he wanted to tell in this book, why our dysfunctional politics is a sign of a much deeper problem, if his book is — deep down — an indictment of liberal capitalism, and if he sees any way out of the decadence he diagnoses.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

When you call this society decadent, what exactly do you mean?

Ross Douthat

Basically, a decadent society manifests forms of economic stagnation, institutional sclerosis, and cultural repetition at a high stage of wealth and technological proficiency and civilizational development. So it’s a society that, by definition, has succeeded in a lot of ways and may actually give the appearance of great energy.

You can’t be decadent without first being successful. But I think it’s important for getting at the reality that decadence is something that comes on civilizations when they’ve reached a certain stage, and it’s not clear where they go next. And I think this is where the US, Western Europe, and increasingly the Pacific rim has been over the last couple of generations.

Sean Illing

And how does decadence manifest politically?

Ross Douthat

People are very upset, and very anxious, and very concerned, and have very intense opinions, but their arguments are stuck in a stalemate. And when there are new ideas, they don’t seem to have a purchase on the real world. And so we end up very energetically going in circles, or practicing politics as a form of entertainment that stimulates you immensely, but doesn’t particularly change the world.

Sean Illing

You talk a lot in the book about how repetitive our cultural and political climate has become. We keep making the same movies over and over again and we keep, at least until very recently, having the same political arguments over and over again.

Is our cultural decadence the product of political malaise or is our political malaise the product of cultural decadence?

Ross Douthat

Well, in the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen a lot of ideological discontent with political decadence. I think you can’t understand Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders without seeing that part of it. People are desperate for an alternative to these sclerotic political systems, and ideologies on the left and right have basically been frozen in place since the 1970s.

But the ground is starting to quake. There’s a strong desire, from thinkers and activists on all sides, to escape decadence. But the nature of the system and the situation makes it hard. You elect populists in the United States or Europe, you get this kind of rebellion, but it’s a rebellion that leads back into stalemate, and you basically get a more corrupt form of government that reduces people’s faith in the system further, but doesn’t actually achieve the things that the populists want to achieve.

And we’ll see what happens in the looming Bernie Sanders presidency. I suspect that the same thing would be true of a socialist president. That you would have some movement and some policy change, but you would also have a lot of intense frustration.

And I think part of this frustration is that we’re sort of play-acting, not in the sense that the people engaged in it aren’t sincere, but in the sense that the combination of the difficulties of actually achieving change, and the fact that we have this political virtual reality on the internet, where people can perform their identities and rage in ways that don’t actually correspond to political organization in the real world.

So a lot of the discontent with decadence ends up getting channeled into virtual politics as opposed to real politics.

Sean Illing

I’m glad you went there. If what you’re saying is true, those of us who think this is a politically heavy time, a serious and consequential time, are wrong, because most of the rage and the activism is too performative to amount to much of anything. I’m not sure I agree with you, but I’m also not totally sure you’re wrong.

Ross Douthat

This is probably my most controversial take. I’m arguing against both the sense that Western liberalism or democracy is in the sort of crisis a lot of people think and against the sense of real possibility that some of my friends on the right and left feel about, say, someone like Bernie Sanders.

My suggestion is that while all the problems people are worried about, like Donald Trump, are all real problems and worth deploring, I’m also saying he’s the embodiment of a reality television style of politics that isn’t remotely the equivalent of either what fascism represented in the 1930s, or even what various forms of radicalism represented in the 1960s and 1970s.

There’s a hollowness to all of this that makes it a cartoonish imitation of something like fascism but not nearly as dangerous as actual 20th century fascism. It’s a weird, internet-enabled simulacrum of fascism that I think is much more reflective of our decadent age. That doesn’t mean Trump or any of these other populists can’t commit crimes or do horrible things, but it suggests that the drama of today is more of an echo of past Western convulsions than it is a hinge moment in history.

Sean Illing

That’s where I think you’re wrong and overlook how easily fascism, even in the early 20th century, began as a mass cultural phenomenon that no one took seriously until it was too late. There’s a frivolity to Trump that undercuts his dangerousness, but his ascendance is a sign of how close we are to tipping over into something truly dark.

Ross Douthat

I would say there’s definitely the potential for a rupture. My assumption is that there could be a moment when our decadent society enters into a crisis from which a genuine transformation is likely to emerge, but we are probably several generations away from that. And if that happens, we will look back and say, “Ah, this was foreshadowed in the derangements of the Trump era.” But I don’t think it’s going to be the immediate cash-out of our own convulsions now.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure we could engineer a more perfect distillation of decadence than Trump, but there’s always the question of whether Trump is the symptom or the disease. Is the rise of Trumpist populism and illiberalism more generally a reaction against decadence or its logical fulfillment?

Ross Douthat

Why not both? Part of what’s interesting about Trump is that he rose in part as a critic of precisely the things I’m calling decadent. He swept into a sclerotic Republican Party in which even its younger politicians are mouthing the same platitudes that were fresh and new 40 years ago. And he’s an agent of disruption, and he is a critic of the kind of management of American power that defined politics over the last several decades.

It was all empty, of course, but the message was very much a reaction against all of the staleness and inertia I’m talking about. In some ways, Trump is a less decadent figure than a Mitt Romney or a Barack Obama or a Bloomberg or Biden because all of those people are more invested in this idea that we have a pretty good status quo and we should basically try and make it sustainable.

At the same time, as you said, Trump embodies all of the decadent features of our time, but his presidency is just performing a drama that doesn’t necessarily have strong correlates in the real world. There hasn’t been any dramatic legislative achievements. There’s a lot of executive power grabs, but nothing as sweeping as his critics feared. It’s a lot of sound and fury for cable news but most of it amounts to Trump trying to evade accountability for the corrupt things he does.

He’s not trying to build a new order or regime, he’s just trying to skate through his presidency without getting impeached and have his family get rich on the other side.

Activists gathered on September 17, 2018 in downtown...
Activists gathered on September 17, 2018 in downtown Manhattan for 7th year celebration of Occupy Wall Street’s influence on current politics and various activism groups throughout the city, state and nation, with a press conference at 11am on the Steps of Zuccotti Park.
Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Sean Illing

I really do think you’re understating the threat here, especially the erosion of the rule of law and the basic norms that make the whole game of liberal democracy possible. I don’t think there’s a “potential for rupture,” I think the rupture has already occurred — we just have no idea what’s on the other side.

But to your point, I do wonder whether a transformative mass movement is even possible anymore. I keep going back to the Great Recession of 2008. There were rumblings and the Occupy Movement and all that, but, in the end, what we got was elite consolidation and a swift return to normal business. If that crisis couldn’t spark a near-revolution, then I’m not sure what can. Maybe it’s just too easy to do nothing when so much of life is mediated by screens and digital diversions.

What do you think?

Ross Douthat

It’s very striking that you don’t have that in the United States today. There is a clear gap between the temperature and tone of political discussion on the internet, and the extent to which people are protesting on college campuses, or taking to the streets in big cities. And not that it’s entirely absent.

Obviously, you had the Women’s March, and you’ve had mass movements under Trump, but the gap between the stakes as they’re expressed in online debate, and the stakes as they’re expressed in the real world seems incredibly stark.

Sean Illing

Though you’d never put it this way, your book reads like an indictment of liberal capitalism and the culture it invariably breeds. The consumerism, the hyper-individualism, the greed, the lack of some common project or goal — doesn’t all of that lead to something like decadence?

Ross Douthat

I think there are tendencies within both liberalism and capitalism that lead to decadence. I’m skeptical of arguments that their expression is inevitable, though. I don’t think you can necessarily go back and just say, “Look, latent in John Locke or the American founding is a kind of hyper-individualism that was eventually going to lead to atomization and sterility.”

I think it’s more that under particular conditions, liberalism gets expressed as atomization and sterility, and those particular conditions right now are a world civilization that has run out of places to explore and has directed its surplus energies into triviality and excess.

And I keep coming back to space, and it’s sort of a geeky science fiction place to go, but I think there’s a real truth there that if we had discovered that Mars was an unpopulated twin of planet Earth, the drama of the last 50 years would’ve been completely different. And we might be engaged in some horrific nuclear war on Mars, it might not have turned out well, but we wouldn’t be talking about atomization and sterility, and how liberalism inevitably leads to both, because that piece of the liberal genome wouldn’t have been so easily expressed as it’s been under conditions where the frontier is closed, and we’re stuck with one another here.

Sean Illing

You start and end the book with that point about space and how our frontiers have closed off, and I think it reflects a deep pessimism that you never quite own. You talk about the possibility of, say, a religious revival, but that whole section feels half-hearted, like you don’t even believe it. And you clearly don’t buy all the techno-utopian fantasies being spun up in Silicon Valley.

But if some great force or event does shake us out of our stupor, what do you think it will be?

Ross Douthat

It’s pretty clear from the way the book ends that I think it’s most likely to be some intersection of religious revival, and by that I don’t necessarily mean a Christian revival but instead some kind of religious transformation, and something that makes the distances involved in space travel less daunting and extends human possibilities beyond the earth.

And given that combination, I can see why you would read that as pessimism with a halfhearted nod to optimism. A warp drive seems impossible to build and while a religious revival isn’t impossible, it’s certainly not within the trajectory of the West right now.

So in that sense, I guess I am pessimistic in the sense that I think current trends suggest we have a lot of decadence ahead of us. But I don’t want to concede completely to your reading because I guess I still have a fundamental optimism about the human story.

We’ve become a world-spanning species, and we’ve discovered that the universe seems too vast to explore, and we’re sort of stuck here. I don’t really believe that that’s how the human story ends. Decadence can last a really long time, but I don’t think it will end with us collapsing back into the stone age and wiping ourselves out.

There’s another chapter ahead of us. We just don’t know what it looks like yet.