A conservative politics faithful to its Burkean heritage must be rooted in more than an emphasis on prudence or skepticism: it needs natural law.
President Trump last week took a daring approach to justifying his administration’s more than $300 billion in tariffs, which American consumers pay except when manufacturers avoid them by eliminating American jobs. He told The Wall Street Journal the tariffs did not exist:
We don’t even have tariffs. I’m using tariffs to negotiate. I mean, other than some tariffs on steel—which is actually small, what do we have? … Where do we have tariffs? We don’t have tariffs anywhere.
Uh, well, yes we do. They may be good policy, they may be bad—actually, scratch that; impeding exchange with taxes that undermine employment is bad—but regardless, they exist. The question is why a claim to the contrary would be seriously entertained, including in places hard hit by tariffs where the president nonetheless remains popular. The reason is ironic: The very power that accrues to the office, the same power President Trump used to impose the tariffs, also breeds cults of personality.
Pick your poison on that: Obama, Trump, Obama and Trump; the show goes on. It was not supposed to be this way. In Federalist 10, James Madison was supposed to have upended David Hume’s taxonomy of factions, elevating those based on economic interest above those based on personality.
In his essay “Of Parties in General,” Hume divided what he called “real factions”—that is, factions based on genuine difference—into those based on interest, principle, and affection. Those rooted in interest were “the most reasonable, and the most excusable,” because they were also the most easily accommodated. The real worries arose from irrational factions, which included those arising from “affection” for political personalities.
Madison reversed this in Federalist 10, noting like Hume that people were prone to disagree over silly and vexatious matters like “an attachment to different leaders,” but arguing that the real problem was factions based on property. The reason is instructive. These factions were “common and durable,” meaning that unlike those arising from the passions, which were naturally fleeting, those based on genuine skin in the game were likely to endure.
What Gene Healy calls “the cult of the presidency” is testing Madison’s reversal, and Hume tells us why: Parties based on “the different attachments of men towards particular families and persons, whom they desire to rule over them” seem “unaccountable,” since people devote themselves to leaders “with whom they are no wise acquainted, whom perhaps they never saw, and from whom they never received, nor can ever hope for any favour.” People are “apt,” Hume continues, “to think the relation between us and our sovereign very close and intimate.” Why? The answer is power: “The splendor of majesty and power bestows an importance on the fortunes even of a single person.”
What Madison could not anticipate was twofold. One was the power of the modern presidency, which ferments cults of personality. The second was the technology of communication, which makes it possible—against Madison’s psychological assumptions—to sustain them. In his limited foresight, incidentally, Madison was not alone. Hamilton’s Federalist 68 says the constitutional process of electing a president, conducted via the Electoral College at one step of public remove, “affords a moral certainty, that the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Again, regardless of the poison one picks, this prediction is almost certainly false.
Like Madison, Hamilton could not anticipate either the power of the modern presidency—which is to demagogues what light is to moths—or the intimacy and immediacy of contemporary communication. Hume had said cults of personality were easier to sustain in “small republics,” where “[e]very domestic quarrel … becomes an affair of state.”
The immediacy of Twitter has, in a sense, restored the dynamic of the unstable Italian republics of which Hume spoke—that is, places where passions were easily communicable and sustainable. Madison foresaw this: He wrote that improvements in communication were “equivalent to a contraction of territorial limits….” Such was, Madison said, “favorable to liberty, where these [limits] may be too extensive.” But the careful reader of Federalist 10 will recognize that contracting a republic is not, for Madison, an unvarnished good.
Of these dynamics—the inflation of the presidency and the acceleration of communication—the latter is not going to change. The Twitter presidency, courtesy of Obama and perfected by Trump, is here to stay. Technologies often unfold in accordance with their nature—Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats gave way to television and the image-driven presidency; social media followed in turn—but rarely retract.
But there is no cultural, technological or, crucially, constitutional reason why we cannot consult Hume’s wisdom against Madison’s and depress the first lever: power. It is the mechanism that provides the most pull for depriving the modern presidency of its personality-driven mystique. As long as presidential power grows, so will our obsession with it.
This is hardly a phenomenon of the incumbent alone, but as in most matters Trump, his dial goes to 11. His Progressive critics, meanwhile, have snapped at this bait, insisting on discussing every public issue in relation to the president. In this, they are disciples of their prophet Woodrow Wilson. Approvingly rather than ironically, he wrote:
And in proportion as the President ventures to use his opportunity to lead opinion and act as spokesman of the people in affairs the people stand ready to overwhelm him by running to him with every question, great and small. They are as eager to have him settle a literary question as a political; hear him as acquiescently with regard to matters of special expert knowledge as with regard to public affairs, and call upon him to quiet all troubles by his personal intervention.
In an era when Presidents Obama and Trump alike have shared the gift of their views on the Kanye West-Taylor Swift feud, when chief magistrates live-tweet the World Series, and when the actions of lunatics and criminals must be cast in presidential terms, we can no longer call Wilson absurd.
But this view of the presidency is no less perilous for being so plausible. If power is dangerous, power fueled by personality is especially so. Meanwhile, those who complain of Trump “gaslighting” the nation might contemplate how their own side’s constitutional ideology, which places unrelenting progress and thus an unrestrained presidency at the core of the regime, has facilitated it. If anything, as Christopher DeMuth and Josh Blackman have argued, President Trump should be credited with regulatory reforms that have restrained his office. The problem is that, like his predecessor, he has also cast his mission in messianic and troublingly personal terms.
The only available answer to all this is to return the presidency to some semblance of proper constitutional scale and to restore the Congress to its pride of deliberative place. As long as the presidency remains an outsized locus of personalized power, it will attract popular obsessions and demagogues who exploit them. In this—trigger warning: lèse majesté—Hume’s foresight may prove to be a more valuable guide than Madison’s.