The nationalism emphasized by Donald Trump and his movement weakens America’s traditional commitment to subsidiarity, although it does so only indirectly. The Trump movement did not cause the decline of subsidiarity in the United States. That decline started long before he arrived on the political scene. But his movement reflects and responds to that decline.
That is both good and bad. It is good because nationhood defines and includes Americans within a real community, which addresses a deep need of an increasing number of Americans. It is bad both because a community composed of over 320 million people cannot help but be a thin community, and because politically-defined communities are thin as well.
“Subsidiarity” provides that
a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, deprive the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.
The principle applies to politics, but it does not only apply to political systems. It certainly implies federalism, or at least governmental decentralization. But it is about communities in general, not merely about political communities. The principle of subsidiarity cuts against the way that centralized governance unnecessarily displaces local governance, and also cuts against civil government’s unnecessarily intruding on social and economic relationships: families, churches and other religious institutions, markets, civic organizations, and more.
While a part of the rationale for subsidiarity comes from efficiency, its main rationale comes from a commitment to personalism. (By “personalism” I of course mean philosophical personalism, not dictatorial personalism.) The many different types of communities in people’s lives support those lives on a human, and humane, scale. The personalism of lower-order communities provides greater support for people’s lives relative to bureaucratic support, whether that bureaucracy is governmental or non-governmental.
Given their intimacy and their richer informational environment, lower-order communities can provide support for people tailored to their individual needs. They provide human support more consistent with human dignity than bureaucratically provided support. (Keep in mind, however, that sometimes lower-order communities provide support so poorly that provision needs to be moved up to a higher-order community. Subsidiarity does not oppose every form of centralization; it opposes unnecessary centralization.)
Bringing Together Those Who Are Coming Apart
Lower-order communities in the United States are in the midst of a decades-long breakdown that has been well documented. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012) both offer multiple lines of evidence of the same trend. The telling point is that President Trump has proven most popular in regions where the breakdown of lower order communities is most acute. Why would this be so?
The Trump movement provides a right-wing response to the breakdown of lower-order communities in the United States. (Left-wing responses generally take a different form.) There are two aspects to this.
First, the Trump movement responds to a real need created by this breakdown. It responds to an increasing sense of isolation and alienation caused by the weakening of these lower-order communities in American society.
Secondly, while the Trump movement responds to isolation and alienation, its quality as a mass political movement actually represents a further working out of this isolation and alienation in American life. In short, while the Trump movement did not cause the erosion of communities— it rather is caused by that erosion—neither is it a remedy for that erosion.
This is perhaps easiest to see regarding evangelical support for Trump. While overall evangelical support coalesced strongly around him during the general election (and subsequently), looking at variation in the initial intensity of that support in the 2016 Republican primary campaign tells a striking story. Trump’s support, according to Timothy P. Carney, was highest among evangelicals who attended church least frequently, and his support was lowest among evangelicals who attended church most frequently.
As Notre Dame political science Professor Geoffrey Laymen observed, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”
Writing this off merely as a result of “evangelical hypocrisy” misses a vital aspect of what’s going on, according to Carney in his book Alienated America (2019). He there argues that the relationship between differences in church attendance and Trump support results more from the mass closure of churches (mainly for financial reasons) in regions where Trump support is high than from these evangelicals’ simply choosing to skip church services.
The story, at least if Carney’s hypothesis proves correct, is that the collapse of these church communities—one of subsidiarity’s primary units—caused these evangelicals to cast about for a replacement community. And they found it in the Trump movement. A nationalist political movement.
Drawing on the argument Murray develops in Coming Apart, a similar story might be sketched regarding the breakdown of families in less affluent and rural communities and support for Trump. Families are another foundational “lower order community.”
Lessening the Pain without Curing the Cause
Tocqueville first suggested the rise of something like a mass political movement as a response to the loss of mediating institutions. With the erosion of these mediating or secondary powers, individuals become more isolated and feel more impotent. The result, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, is that “individuals appear smaller and the society seems greater, or rather each citizen, becoming similar to all the others, is lost in the crowd, and one no longer sees anything other than the vast and magnificent image of the people itself.”
While a mass political movement might respond to the erosion of subsidiarity in society, and so can be a sort of palliative for the problem, it nonetheless does not, and cannot, re-create those social structures. Rather it lessens the pain without curing the underlying cause. A mass political movement does not re-create the intimacy and personalism of the lower order communities.
Tocqueville sketches possible dire consequences from this substitution. But we need not look to the worst-case outcomes to be concerned. The isolation and alienation that cause people to look to a mass political movement as a substitute for the loss of second-order communities are serious enough to merit attention.
At the same time, the critical issue is not that people look to the Trump movement as a social palliative. The critical question is what is causing the erosion of these foundational second-order communities in the first place. Focusing on the Trump movement as a cause of this problem points attention in the wrong direction. It is but a symptom, as I said; and a symptom is not a cure.
Finally, while subsidiarity cannot not be identified with governmental decentralization, it includes political decentralization within its principle.
Here too we see the Trump movement’s emphasis on national greatness as a step away from the lower-level political communities of the states and local governments and a step toward the higher, more abstract political community of the nation. It thus augurs a decrease in subsidiarity in the political realm rather than a recovery of it.
Again, the weakening of federalism in the United States long predates Election 2016. But if individualism and isolation are a problem in the United States today, the sheer magnitude of the nation itself makes the recovery of state and local political intermediation more, not less, critical to addressing the issue.
How to Humanize a Behemoth?
To be sure, advocates of a strong union underscored the significance of national identity in the early republic. Consider John Jay’s argument in Federalist 2. At the same time, consider how the sheer scale of the nation has since changed. Today, over half of the states have populations exceeding that of the entire country in 1790. Humanizing and personalizing the scale of government and society in the United States today requires recovering and strengthening state and regional identities. More crucially, the Trump movement presses the question of what is causing the corrosion of non-political mediating institutions, a corrosion that depersonalizes Americans’ social ecology and prompts the isolated souls to seek solace in mass political movements of both Right and Left.