Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Suicide of the West, is not about Donald Trump.
Trump and Trumpism, to be sure, are part of his story of modernity’s corruption. But Suicide of the West is primarily about the modern West’s place in human history. The book teaches that identity politics is no innovation, but rather a backwards slide into tribal human nature. For that reason, it becomes difficult to categorize the book by genre. It is some history, some political science, and some moral philosophy. In any case, its ability to transcend a Trumpocentric worldview—the bland bane of so many authors, pundits, and writers—makes Suicide a refreshing addition to the literature of, yes, the Trump Era.
The book features what any constant Goldberg reader has come to expect—intelligible, digestible writing interspersed with enlightening pop culture references. Goldberg’s winsome tone and somewhat surprising spurts of optimism give the book a more positive feel than its title might suggest.
Its major themes of responsibility and gratitude bring a maturity and realism to the modern debate of what conservatism even is. “Decline is a choice,” Goldberg argues, using a line from Charles Krauthammer. The conservatism found in Suicide is one that chooses to fight. This fight is not against the Left, but against corruption, decay, decadence, and regression to the mean of human nature.
There is no God in this book, and Goldberg wants to tell the story of humans and their natural tribalism without the complication of divine intervention. By taking God out of the equation, Goldberg places the onus of responsibility squarely on the shoulders of people. In Goldberg’s eschatology, no other-worldly Being rescues us from ourselves. That job is solely up to us.
Goldberg surveys human history from its known beginnings all the way to the modern era. He traces the evolution of human nature, which is for Goldberg a violent tribalism that uses force to protect the selfish interests of the tribe. This history of development sets the stage for the Miracle, which is the accident of the Enlightenment, modernity, and capitalism. For Goldberg, modernity comes about like the advent of life on earth. The ingredients were already here, “sloshing around,” but it took a fortuitous lightning bolt to turn those ingredients into something more.
Goldberg’s view is one in which humanity, a kind of tribal, torture-loving Bob Ross, quasi-randomly picks up the capitalism paintbrush and marks up the canvas of history with a “happy accident”: modernity.
Keeping the Miracle
But the Miracle did not remain an accident. Humans attempted to codify it into writing—the American Founding. This human agency in safeguarding—and appreciating—the Miracle is one of Goldberg’s main points. We today are likewise responsible for safeguarding and appreciating the unnatural Miracle.
“The Miracle can be sustained by words.” And sustaining the Miracle is imperative if we hope to keep the unimaginable human flourishing that we have enjoyed because of capitalism. As one who gives two cheers for capitalism, Goldberg can hardly be more lauding of it in this book. Capitalism “destroyed” slavery, is “the best anti-poverty program ever conceived,” and is “the most liberating force in human history.” The book includes facts and statistics to support such statements.
Unlike many, Goldberg does not over-emphasize factors in the Miracle of the Enlightenment. John Locke is integral, not all-important. The reader will find no exclusive allegiance to Weberianism. Science is not the sole factor. And while he does rightly emphasize the end of hostility to innovation, Goldberg avoids positivist historical conclusions. The Miracle is exactly that: a Miracle, which by its nature does indeed “defy explanation.” By refusing to make a historical argument as to the why of the Miracle, Goldberg allows himself and his reader to focus on what we do with the Miracle now.
The West’s suicide is a return to brutal human nature. Goldberg presents identity politics, which includes Trumpism, as a romantic backsliding into tribalism. Decline is a choice, and the West is currently choosing it. All of Goldberg’s arguments make humans responsible for the fate of the West. And that is how Goldberg allows a kind of optimism. It is still in our power to save what we created.
A Godless Critique
In a Christian framework, liberal democracy and capitalism can be understood as God-guided positive systems that allow humans to be free and pursue true humanity, overcoming corrupt human nature. A Christian reader might see the Miracle as allowing the human to pursue true human nature. For this reason, Christians tend to see God’s “invisible” hand in the dawn of modernity and the human flourishing that has resulted.
Goldberg’s book may sit uncomfortably for those wanting more God. He characterizes the Miracle as fighting against human nature. However, the author never denies such a God-guided view. He only argues his thesis of creation and suicide without necessitating it. Religious conservatives should therefore resist the temptation to try to force Goldberg’s argument to be something it is not.
If anything, Goldberg fails to give recognition to theologians, not God, in discussing the positives of pluralism. The Calvinist idea of sphere sovereignty is unknowingly referenced by Goldberg as the “division of mental labor.” And Calvinist political theorists like Johannes Althusius advocated for institutional pluralism and the importance of non-state associations before John Locke ever did. The book’s break-neck speed simply leaves little room for such engagements. Those who wanted a 1000-page Goldbergian tome on the nature of metaphysics, morality, and theology will be disappointed.
Various and Sundry Critiques
At times, Goldberg could perhaps spare more plaudits for the positives of post-modernism. He has scattered praise for the art we have gotten out of romanticism. However, he does not feature post-modern goods such as the end of positivism, the burgeoning of intellectual humility, and the awareness of biases. Such things are not featured in this book.
The published edition of Suicide of the West is half the length of the original manuscript. Readers and critics will wonder what was left unsaid.
Additionally, in my view, Goldberg does not critique Thomas Jefferson as well as he should have. Despite what Suicide might imply, Jefferson did push for a new civic religion, what James Skillen in his book Recharging the American Experiment calls “a republican catechism.” The anti-pluralistic groundwork Jefferson laid could have been further examined in Goldberg’s book, especially in chapter six. But such a critique verges on nit-picking.
In a post-credits scene in the movie Finding Nemo, certain piscine characters have successfully escaped captivity into the ocean. However, they remain stuck in their little fish baggies. The deep-voiced Bloat dryly asks, “Now what?” The screen cuts to black.
After finishing the last sentence of Suicide, the sobered reader might look up pensively and deliver the same query. I imagine that this was Goldberg’s goal with this book; as such, he has absolutely succeeded. The book will not solve our problems. It does not fully explain Trump. But if Suicide of the West leaves its readers more grateful for Goldberg’s Miracle and more inclined to take responsibility for it, then the book has done its work.