Democracy has been endangered and populism enlivened by the relentless rise of institutions which elites use to insulate issues from democratic contestation.
There is a remarkable assumption behind the argument that the best—maybe the only—reason to have voted for Donald J. Trump was that he “was better than Hillary Clinton.” Supposedly this somehow distinguishes, and taints, the Election of 2016. It does not. That one candidate is likely to do better in office than the other is always the only good reason to give him your vote. Indeed, this is merely a description of what an election is.
Yet the lamentations along these lines are still with us, and people nod their heads in doleful agreement that however bad Clinton might have been, the choice of Trump is still somehow tarnished—if not downright ignominious—because he isn’t all one might hope for in an American hero, or something. It seems we should despair and imagine ourselves in some uniquely regrettable state of human affairs: that two deeply flawed human beings were vying for the nation’s highest office.
Pardon me, but I’ve seen this movie before, and quite recently. It’s just that in the 2012 version, those deeply flawed human beings used much more “polite” language while insulting each other. So perhaps we can be forgiven for not noticing that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney was destined for Mount Rushmore . . . or even worthy of an airport homage. I also saw this movie in 2008. I’ve seen it in every presidential election of my lifetime, and I’m more or less certain that it describes every democratic election that has ever taken place at any time, anywhere.
If the Election of 2016 was unique, it was not because the people involved in it were flawed but merely because the scales were removed from the eyes of so many voters about the nature of the political choice before them.
Choosing the candidate who will do the most good and the least harm is the very definition of a political choice. Though such decisions are necessarily informed by the voter’s understanding of the permanent questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, it is silly to imagine that every election is, somehow, a direct referendum on those permanent questions. Mercifully, we do not subject ourselves every four years to an open contest between God and the Devil. Instead, we plod on with far less remarkable characters like John McCain, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney.
Greg Weiner’s Liberty Forum essay, “The Price of Trump: Year One Reflections on an Unconventional Presidency,” begins with this type of sad reflection on the choice in 2016, then quickly moves on to suggesting there is an even worse phenomenon arising on the Right: a growing attachment to Trump who, Weiner insists, is “at once a cult of personality yet also strangely devoid of personality.” The “tainting” this attachment implies for Trump voters is one thing—and perhaps it was something assumed, at any rate—but Weiner suggests the taint is spreading to quarters on the Right he had once considered respectable and his alarm is most acute when he notes his fear for the fate of “conservatism.” He is deeply worried that “conservatism” will be discredited by the attachment some now have for Trump, and by the kind of “winning” Trump inspires.
From Weiner’s keyboard to God’s ears! I can think of nothing more salutary for the restoration of constitutional politics in America than the destruction of those ideological prisons we like to call “conservatism” and “leftism.” I avoid using the perfectly good word, “liberal” to describe leftists because there is nothing at all liberal (as in, freedom-oriented) about them or their politics. But note that I equate “conservatism” with “leftism” here. I do so deliberately. This is because both political approaches have become rigid ideologies and have managed to choke off serious political thinking in their respective camps. They have also distinguished themselves in many instances as being quite illiberal and, for the sovereign voters of America, irrelevant except as nuisances hindering the practical objects of the politics of our time.
What Is “Conservatism” Anyway, and Why Should I Care?
If you randomly ask 10 people on the street what they think you’re talking about when you say the word “conservative” you are likely to get blank stares or some vague mutterings about Republicans and politics. Ask young people, and you’re more likely to learn that they think “conservative” means “uptight” or “old-fashioned” or being somehow “behind the times” (whatever that means). Now ask 10 people who have labored long in the vineyards of Conservatism, Inc. what they mean by the term—in that case you may well hear 10 different answers.
There may be general agreement about what conservatism is not: It’s not today’s leftism, it’s certainly opposed to that. Who knows, though, how long that will remain the case? For some, like me, today’s conservatism indeed resembles the leftism of yesterday. It seems more dedicated to conserving the status quo or a kind of decorum than to conserving the American way of life. It seems dedicated to the preservation of even a status quo that took us (without consent) away from our original design of government. “Conservative” is then a muddle and a puzzle, and not even a very appealing word in the American context.
Weiner wants to defend this conservatism of disposition and Burkean sentiment and he is surprised to hear the likes of Michael Anton, a.k.a. Publius Decius Mus, dismiss that kind of conservatism as the politics of losers. I am not without sympathy for the kind of circumspection and humility that make people question the wisdom of change for change’s sake. But the questions this circumspection should inspire are the beginning, not the end, of politics. Standing pat for standing pat’s sake is just as reactionary and mindless as a constant push for fundamental transformation.
As Weiner insists that a politics seeking to transcend Burkean sentiment stop calling itself “conservative” (good idea, let’s!), I would insist that people informed primarily by sentiment and disposition stop imagining that they are, thereby, engaged in politics. This is not the stuff of politics. It is the stuff of manners and private life. At best, it may be said to assist politics, but it ought not to be confused with politics itself.
The natural enemy of this kind of “conservatism,” of course, is radicalism. This makes things tough for any would-be American conservative because America, after all, was forged in revolution and around the radical idea that the people—and not some divinely chosen entity on earth—are the sovereign, self-governing rulers of their own lives and governments. In America, therefore, no politics can be legitimate that does not begin in the recognition of the people’s sovereignty born of our natural equality of station under God. So if by “conservative,” Americans understand themselves to be standing squarely behind conserving that fundamental principle of American government, perhaps there’s some use for the term.
Most often, however, this is not what people mean or understand when they say “conservative.” So I am happy to dispense with it.
Those who understand conservatism to be a disposition such as Weiner describes have been able to make their peace with America’s radical origins—either by ignoring them or by explaining them away as not really radical—and have embraced something called the “American political tradition.” Politically, this most often puts them on the Right (well, at least to the right of today’s Left . . . unless, of course, they have to engage in any uncomfortable or impolite confrontation). Others, such as Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, readily admit the radical nature of America’s origins but see in them the seeds of America’s inevitable destruction. Both approaches seem to agree with the left-wing view that radical ideas cannot be permanent ones and revolutions cannot be self-limiting—that they are impelled ever onwards, as it were, by History, plowing over all in their way.
This seems to be the idea at work, also, in the famous “standing athwart history, yelling Stop” aspiration of William F. Buckley, Jr., in the founding of National Review. The idea there was to combat history, not to combat the idea that history has a mind of its own. In starting there, the Right is already buying the anti-American idea that the Left is selling. At that point, you aren’t combating leftism, you’re just slowing it down. And this is why Anton called this kind of conservatism the politics of losers. Losing is part of the plan. It’s just that you lose slowly. The slower the better.
I can’t imagine why that aspiration never took off as a political rallying cry . . .
Restoring Politics to Restore Americanism
Whereas Weiner and others fear what Trump may mean for conservatism, those (like me) who have come to realize that they care little for “conservatism” have asked instead what Trump may mean for America. It is a different and a better question. If you are concerned primarily with the reputation of a political movement (particularly one that admits it is destined over time to lose), questions about the private nature and habits of an individual said to represent it will naturally preoccupy you. It’s all you’ve got to console you, I guess. But when you understand that the object of our politics is bigger than the reputation of a man or a movement and indeed, that this movement in which you’ve invested so much of yourself may have become a hindrance rather than a help to your stated objective of good government—in that case, the personal flaws of an individual politician can be viewed in a more sober and disinterested light.
This man was hired to do a particular job the voters want done. He is not auditioning to be our boyfriend, our husband, our father, or especially our priest. We needn’t endorse every aspect of a man’s character (and one hopes that with many past Presidents people did not imagine they were doing that!) in order to think he is qualified to do the job we want done and will do it well. Nor need we be suggesting, in praising Trump for the admirable job he is now doing, that he is also the beau ideal of a human being. He was hired. If he fails, he can be fired, too. It’s nothing personal.
Why is there such fear that the good ideas Trump champions will be tainted by any unsavory aspects of his personal character and private life? I submit it is because we are not thinking politically when we talk this way. President Trump was not hired to be anyone’s personal Lord and savior, nor has he designated himself the personification of “conservatism” itself (he’s far too savvy a marketer, of course, to brand himself with that moniker). Let us not confuse the private with the public, just as the Left has done, and unnecessarily hold our side accountable to standards that, frankly, would disqualify just about anyone who is actually competent in politics. Politics ain’t beanbag, as they say. And a Tea Party of the kind necessary in our politics today isn’t going to go anywhere with the manners of an actual tea party.
If you are asking what Trump may mean for America, the answer I would give (with more a bow than a hat tip to John Marini) is that he has given us some hope that the restoration of genuine politics is still possible in America. In questioning political correctness, the media, the so-called “settled science” of climate change, the notion that “diversity is our strength,” that America is always obliged to intervene on behalf of oppressed non-Americans, the conventions of our televised and media-brokered presidential debates, in how he interacts with the public, and through what medium, Trump is forcing a rethinking of the fundamental questions of our Republic. He is reminding us that when it comes to policy questions we are not beholden to the past or to ideological constraints, be they conservative or leftist.
We don’t have to do things a certain way just because we’ve always done them that way in the past or because it is “expected” and habitual. Americans are allowed to question the wisdom of their “betters” and, in fact, if they are self-respecting, they will question the notion that they have any betters to whom they must defer. American politics is allowed to be a little raucous and disruptive. The comfortable too quickly become the comfortably smug.
The American people are the sovereign rulers of their own nation. They get to decide who represents them, who their fellow citizens will be, what laws will govern them, and what policies seem to serve their interests at any given time. And here’s the kicker: They are even allowed to decide to do things that the smart guys think are wrong.
Yet, the reinvigoration of actual politics does not mean that we are necessarily opening ourselves up to the ravages of a populist horde. In recognizing that political correctness is toxic and illegitimate, Trump is thereby insisting that policy questions can never be “settled” any more than “science” can. Policy is not the province of “experts” whose opinions are more equal than those of ordinary citizens. It is the subject of ongoing debate and readjustment. Prudence demands that we reevaluate policy in light of new facts and circumstances. But this does not mean that nothing is settled. The origins of our politics and the thing that makes them legitimate is, again, the sovereignty of the people rooted in their fundamental equality before God.
On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in the face of challenges to it by the rise of the Progressive movement, Calvin Coolidge delivered an address in Philadelphia to commemorate the only legitimate foundation of American politics:
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
The political crisis of our time is that Americans have become habituated to a “politics” that is not politics and one that has usurped their sovereignty. Americans have forgotten their revolutionary character and origins as well as the manly spirit that made it possible for America to become what Abraham Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.” Trump, as Lincoln did before him, is reminding Americans that history’s power over them is not an evolutionary one that compels their movement in a particular direction; rather it is the eternal power of judgment. Either we will rise up and govern ourselves like men, or we will be condemned as the generation that squandered our opportunity and inheritance for want of fortitude.