I’ve never felt so flattered to be called a fool.
Nathan Pinkoski—a doctoral student at Oxford whom I don’t know and had never heard of until this weekend—has penned an extraordinary account of my recent writings. He seems easily to have understood concepts that have bewildered so many others. This is doubtless owing in part to his training, which seems to be extensive. I’m also pleasantly surprised at his command of the primary and secondary literature. In particular, I would not have expected an Oxford student to have such a sound grasp of both Leo Strauss and the American Founding, topics that I did not think were of much interest in English universities.
I want to thank Pinkoski for the time and care he obviously took in responding and also for the seriousness he brought to the task. Beyond that, I’m going to skip his praise and our agreements—which are numerous—and get right to the disagreements.
Or apparent disagreements. Because I am not so sure that Pinkoski and I disagree as much as he thinks we do. The thrust of Pinkoski’s critique seems to be that my argument points in directions that I refuse to go, and even that I fail to see those directions. Yet Pinkoski at one point also criticizes me for insufficient esotericism. I am certain, based on what I read from him, that if he thought about it for a moment he would see the potential tension between these two claims.
Or, to put it another way, perhaps my silence in certain instances is better interpreted as a product of reticence rather than ignorance. But we will get to that in due time.
Pinkoski says that I “disregard” the moral arguments against Trump. I deny doing so. I believe, rather, that in the current situation the typical conservative “moral arguments”—disqualifying behavior and so on—are outweighed by other arguments. I appreciate Pinkoski explicitly noting that I am not making a utilitarian argument. But I fear that he did not follow my argument all the way to its end.
It is not only that the Clintons’ corruption is far worse than any real or alleged sin of Trump’s (although that’s true). It’s not just that the Clintons’ corruption is public and intrinsic to their conduct of public office while Trump’s sins appear to be wholly private (although that’s true too). It is that the entire basis of a shared public morality has been destroyed, at least for the time being. And it was destroyed in no small part by the Clintons and for the Clintons. The same leftists who insisted in the 1990s that private character had no bearing on the conduct of public office now insist that Trump’s private character makes him uniquely unfit for public office. That effort was but one tactical—and successful—example of the broader leftist assault on public morality that’s been underway for at least half a century.
The problem is not merely double standards and conservatives stupidly falling for simple tricks so that they can say they maintained their “consistency” (though of course both of these are true as well). It is that the people—the whole people—no longer share any common basis for judging character, electing people to office based on a shared understanding, or holding office-holders accountable for actions resulting from bad character. The elites and their followers disparage the entire concept of character—except when it suits them in the moment to assert the opposite. The broad middle still dimly believes in something like traditional morality, but also intuits that this morality has no elite support whatsoever, an intuition which shakes their confidence in it. If nobody at the top believes, can the thing really be true? The metaphysical grounding of morality remains true, but morality’s ability to shape the public sphere in present circumstances is feeble, if not bulldozed.
Pinkoski asserts I do “not think the character of the candidates has any decisive bearing on practical reasoning.” On the contrary, I think it does. And actually, in this context, it speaks well of Trump’s character (whatever his vices) that he is running a campaign (however erratically) focused on the needs and interests of the whole citizenry, and especially of the neglected and declining middle, rather than on policies that favor the oligarchy. It has taken extraordinary courage and steadfastness for him to do so.
No candidate in my lifetime has ever been subjected to this level of abuse, vitriol and dirty tricks. To be sure, Trump has invited some of it. But all? Or even most? In my view, those who think the real target is Trump-as-messenger rather than Trump’s message are kidding themselves.
Obviously, my analysis will be ridiculed and dismissed by anyone who disagrees that the current government functions like a bipartisan oligarchy and who disputes that Trump is challenging that arrangement. But those who see the situation more or less the same way, even if they can’t stand Trump personally, should at least be willing to consider that Trump is doing something good by explicitly running on the common good. Contrast that with Hillary Clinton’s campaign to further the private good of discrete sections of the electorate, plus—above all—the private good of the candidate herself and her family.
This does not of course wash clean all of Trump’s vices. But statesmanship is about circumstance. It does seem to me that Trump’s policies are urgently needed right now to serve the common good in an emergency situation. Hillary’s policies, by contrast, would serve various private interests at the expense of the common good while making the emergency worse—and perhaps more protracted, if not permanent (but only because nothing human is permanent).
It does also seem to me that Trump’s policies offer at least a chance to begin rebuilding the foundation of a shared public morality because a prerequisite is a reassertion of the right of self-government, of the sovereignty of the people, of their ability to change course, to defy “History.” Trump may not be the ideal man to lead this effort. Perhaps some unimpeachably moral man might have been better. But that’s not a sure thing: witness all the unimpeachably moral men—many of whom sincerely but ineffectively opposed decades of leftist assault—lying down for Hillary. However that may be, it seems quite clear that with Hillary’s policies we risk the final triumph of the leftist rejection of the old morality and its replacement by identity politics, the cult of the “victim,” and the demonization of America and the West.
Pinkoski says that I do not offer guidance on what to do if Trump is defeated. He is right that I have not—yet—offered any specific guidance. I have left hints.
In any event, there are two difficulties with engaging in such a discussion. The first is simply that the election has not yet been held and Trump may still win.
Crazy, I know!
But I cling to the idea—so alien and distasteful to the American ruling class—that the contest must go through the formality of taking place before we accept the result. Let’s vote before we exult or despair. If Trump wins, we will have a chance to revive and restore republicanism along the lines I have sketched. It may not be much of a chance, but as long as there is a chance, then prudent and responsible men have an obligation to try.
However, that discussion will be acrimonious and unpleasant, and—especially—prone to misinterpretation, willful and otherwise. This is the second reason for reticence. Not for permanent silence, but for caution and circumspection. It is possible to envision a situation in which Caesarism is the best possible outcome among the available alternatives—“best” being here a highly relative term. But to say so is not merely to invite, it is to guarantee that one will be charged with calling for and even welcoming—wishing for—Caesarism. The dishonesty and vacuity of the modern intelligentsia is now absolute. It’s Conor Friedersdorfs all the way down.
I, for one, am not sure that I know how to discuss productively what might be coming, except in private, with sensible friends. But then one must ask: what good would that do? I return to Pinkoski’s comments on esotericism. What good is esotericism in an urgent situation? Esotericism was developed in order to transmit unpopular and even potentially dangerous doctrines to wise men over centuries. It was then adapted by the early moderns as a means of spreading their propaganda while protecting their enterprise. But the early moderns were confident that time was on their side. Their project might take a couple of centuries, but those would be centuries of improvement and “winning.” We don’t have that kind of time, it seems to me.
So the conversation must take place after all. Its full scope can wait, but perhaps there’s no harm in raising certain questions now.
I’ll now to turn to Pinkoski’s specific critiques, emendated with a few necessary corrections. Much of what I will say is relevant as well to an earlier critique by P. T. Carlo, to which I promised to respond.
Pinkoski’s first intimation is that I, or we, accept that we lost (a point on which he agrees with Carlo). Pinkoski suggests that acceptance of our loss should prompt us to become apolitical or less political.
First, as noted, I’m not prepared to accept the loss until it actually takes place, which it may not.
Second, I note Pinkoski here says that I asserted Strauss would “support Trump.” I did not say that. What I said—and still maintain—is that one of the core issues of the Strauss-Kojève debate is the “universal and homogenous state” versus a world of distinct countries; that this alternative is more than merely similar to the globalism versus nationalism divide animating the 2016 campaign; and that there is a fundamental kinship between Strauss’s philosophical position and Trump’s political position. That may be suggestive of where Strauss would stand on the political debate of 2016, but I make no claim that it’s dispositive. From what I have been told, Strauss voted Democratic in every presidential election in which he was eligible, until his last, in 1972. Given Strauss’s personal conservatism and evident concern for virtue, I have always found this puzzling. His turn in 1972 was, I am told, over foreign and not domestic policy. Still, these facts (if they are facts) are enough for me to assert confidently that it would be presumptuous for me or anyone to say how Strauss would vote today.
Pinkoski goes on to attribute to “East Coast Straussianism” positions that I would attribute to Strauss himself. It was Strauss, and not his Eastern followers, who in our time first revived the classical argument over the relative merits of the political versus the philosophic life and who excavated and explained the classical preference for the latter. But Strauss did not himself fall into the dogmatism of his Eastern followers, who insist that philosophy has finally settled this question (just as they insist, contra Strauss, that philosophy has settled the question of reason versus revelation). The quote that Pinkoski marshals in support of his intimation that Strauss conclusively decides for philosophy cannot quite carry the full load Pinkoski attempts to place on its shoulders:
on the basis of the classical presupposition, philosophy requires a radical detachment from human concerns: man must not be absolutely at home on earth, he must be a citizen of the whole (“Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero”; On Tyranny, p. 212) (Emphasis added.)
The importance of Strauss’s caveat becomes clearer when we consider the essay’s prior sentence:
On the basis of Kojève’s presuppositions, unqualified attachment to human concerns becomes the source of philosophic understanding: man must be absolutely at home on earth, he must be absolutely a citizen of the earth, if not a citizen of a part of the inhabitable earth.
In other words, Strauss contrasts classical circumspection with modern certainty. Kojève thinks he knows. For Strauss, who follows the classical presupposition, the question is never finally closed. For Kojève, man decisively chooses this earth. For Strauss, the philosopher must try to remain at home on earth and in the heavens. I offer another quote:
To return to the argument of the Republic, by realizing the essential limitations of the political, one is indeed liberated from the charms of what we now would call political idealism, or what in the language of Socrates might have to be called the charm of the idols, the imaginative presentation of justice, with the understanding, however, that it is better not to be born than never to have felt that charm. But the liberation from that charm will not weaken but strengthen the concern for political life, or political responsibility. Philosophy stands or falls by the city. Hence Plato devoted his most extensive work, the Laws, which is the political work of Plato, to politics. (Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, p. 162.)
Philosophy stands or falls by the city. We cannot—philosophy itself cannot—close out the question of philosophy versus politics, if for no other reason than that the former is radically dependent on the latter.
This consideration strikes me as very much a live concern—urgent even—in our time. The enemies of freedom of thought today are nearly all on the left. Certainly, those with the power to enforce their wishes are overwhelmingly on the left. We seem to be facing a public-private alliance to constrain what can be said and to punish those who violate leftist constraints. Media monopolies—old (TV, print) and new (social)—alike voluntarily police speech and also actively collude with politicians and other leftist authorities from whom they take direction and in whose interests they act. More leftist political victories—further consolidation of the levers of power under leftist control—will further threaten freedom of thought, and perhaps constrain its exercise for a very long time. I note to any East Coast or #NeverTrump Straussians reading this: if you think this consideration doesn’t apply to you, that the thought police will hold you exempt because of your high-minded opposition to Trump, you’re delusional. Laugh at me all you want. But once again, I’ve asserted a testable thesis. You’re doing everything you can to ensure that you’ll have to take that test. We’ll see how it works out for you.
In any case, the risk to freedom of thought would seem to be a good reason for philosophy not to retreat from the political sphere just now. Of course, the left may win despite our best efforts. Then what? Perhaps retreat back to “the consolation of philosophy” would then be the best practicable option. But only for those capable of it, who are few. This seems to me to be a weakness in Pinkoski’s argument. What of all those other people? The East Coast position is: who cares about them? (That may be ungenerous of me, but I think not wholly inaccurate.) I cannot, as the kids say, “go there.” And not merely because that position appears to me anti-philosophic and dangerous to philosophy. It also strikes me as inhuman. In any event, it may be that the Empire’s victory will, for the time being, be so absolute that the Tatooine-Dagobah Option will be the only one practicable for the philosophically aware. For the time being. But Yoda and Kenobi didn’t give up forever. They waited for an opportunity, which eventually came. Plato went to Syracuse. Aristotle tutored Alexander. Both wrote books to shape the fate of man. Even Prospero did what he could to restore justice in the political. This is hardly to disdain the political.
Carlo says that Caesarism is upon us. Angelo Codevilla seems to agree. I take the (admittedly weaselly) position that I don’t know yet. Formally, it seems indisputable that Caesarism has not yet arrived. We’re still holding an election, on schedule. We’re still honoring the 22nd Amendment. I don’t rule out, and in darker moments expect, some future Caesar trying to stay for life. I even half expect someone to get away with it, eventually. But we’re not there yet.
We may be headed for it. But that outcome is not inevitable. Even if the republic is already dead—a far more plausible assertion than that Caesarism has already arrived—there are other ways things could turn out.
Pinkoski does not say that Caesarism is here. He does, however, ask what I think ought to be done should it come, or should its eventual arrival become palpably inevitable, at least to a few minds. Strauss himself, as Pinkoski admits, distinguishes between Caesarism, which is sometimes necessary, and tyranny, which is always a monstrosity. That would seem to suggest that some measure of participation in Caesarism by those who consider themselves moral may actually be permissible, beneficial, even necessary. Strauss does not say this outright. In fact, he seems to deny it with the words “Caesars can take care of themselves.” But I wonder if this enigmatic statement is Strauss’s last word and, if it is, whether we should accept it as final.
If the republic really is over, then the three most likely or plausible alternatives would seem to be: 1) the indefinite continuance of the bipartisan/uniparty Davoisie managerial oligarchy; 2) some form of secession or break-up; or 3) Caesarism.
We may further assume that, however likely possibility 1 is in the near or medium or even long term, it can’t last forever and at some point must give way to something else. That something else might be possibility 2 or possibility 3, but I make no claim that it must be: these are, again, merely the two that I think are most probable or plausible.
Then we must ask: is a principled man obliged to sit back and accept whatever comes, come what may? Does principle require us to fight for constitutionalism only? Once it’s clear that constitutionalism is no longer viable, does principle require us to keep fighting for it anyway, in vain? Or does principle instead sometimes require or suggest that we simply leave the field for the time being (Tatooine-Dagobah)? Or does principle allow us to deliberate over, and work toward, what we may consider to be the lesser of two (or more) evils?
If this last option is permitted, then we would first have to debate the relative merits of Caesarism versus secession. That debate would necessarily treat not merely the relative desirability of each, weighing advantages and disadvantages; it would also have to consider the probabilities, the relative likelihoods of success and failure.
Without going into this long and high matter in great detail here, we may speculate as to some of the advantages of Caesarism in a post-constitutional situation. Caesarism would allow the existing territory of the country to stay together. It would allow for a measure of continuity in our institutions—public and private—and in the economy. Our standard of living might not be affected at all, and if it were, its decline would be far less than in the event of a breakup. Our infrastructure would remain a national, coast-to-coast system. The immense costs of breakup would be avoided. Caesarism would be less disruptive and almost certainly less bloody than breakup. In holding all our present territory, including strategic ports and other key points, and in keeping the military whole, we would remain North America’s hegemon, greatly reducing any temptation to foreign adventurers. And Caesarism would seem to be the more likely outcome—that is, easier to achieve. Breakup could lead in a lot of directions, many of them unpleasant, with the best outcome—a new, free republic—perhaps the least likely and certainly the most difficult to achieve.
This is, again, to say nothing of the relative advantages of secession or of the relative disadvantages of Caesarism. Nor is it to say anything of their relative ignobility. If we are to consider acting along either of these—or other—lines at some point in the future, all of this will have to be hashed out.
For now, I’m merely responding to Pinkoski by asking the following. Suppose we’ve held our debate and concluded that, if and when it becomes clear that the constitutional order is gone and cannot be restored (until the cycle of regimes bottoms out and once again begins its ascent), Caesarism is preferable to secession. That still, as Carlo points out, leaves the question: who will be Caesar? More to the point: whose side will Caesar be on?
If we recall the historical example from which Caesarism takes its name, this question animated a century of conflict, from the Gracchi to Augustus. There were then, as today, two parties. And, as today, one party broadly aligned with the elites and one with the people. The parallel is not exact, however, in that our optimati ally with the lower orders and press a left-wing agenda, whereas our “conservative” party has negligible elite or hoi polloi support. In our situation, the populare are the broad middle, which is more conservative than the elites.
Still and all, there are two sides, and the character of Caesarism here very much depends on who gets to sit in the curile chair. In Rome, the party of the “left” won. That was not inevitable. In fact, before the Left’s final victory, the Right had won twice but surrendered its gains (Sulla) and then lost owing to imprudence (Pompey). It might have won a third time if only Cassius had not heard a false account of Brutus’ failure.
The point here is: if constitutionalism becomes non-viable; if Caesarism is preferable to secession; and if it’s clear that a “conservative” Caesar would be preferable—less intrusive, rapacious, ideological and vindictive, and also more just, more decent, more respectful of tradition—to a left-wing Caesar, then are prudent and moral men permitted to work toward seeing to it that Caesar is “ours” rather than “theirs”? Would that in fact be the prudent course? That’s yet another debate I fear we may have to hold.
Pinkoski concludes this section with the following:
Decius would have to concede that there are some moral principles which transcend politics, which are of greater import for guiding action than the best regime (c.f. Natural Right and History, 144-45). Yet is this not what the moral conservatives have argued all along?
Touché! But this is again a question of circumstance. There are some regimes in which no just man could possibly participate. If one such were to arise here, no matter what it replaced, of course I would oppose participation (even if I declined to impale myself on the spike of forlorn opposition). The more interesting question, because the more likely scenario, is: what if what comes next is not so irredeemably bad? Worse than constitutionalism, to be sure, but relatively competent at performing core functions and that treats the people decently? The most glorious literary, artistic, architectural and economic achievements of ancient Rome all occurred after the advent of Caesarism. The “golden times when each can hold and defend the opinion he wishes” peaked more than a century after Caesar. Was this a regime in which no just man could participate? I would recommend to Pinkoski Tacitus’ Agricola, a little biography whose tacit purpose is to explore how the just man may navigate non-republican and even corrupt times. Suffice it to say for the moment: Agricola did not hide from politics.
I agree with what Pinkoski says about conservative collaboration. I disagree that his remarks accurately characterize me. My entire oeuvre (such as it is) has been devoted to rallying conservative resistance to what I fear is the long-term triumph of oligarchic left-wing managerialism. In these painful hours, I am still fighting.
Pinkoski seems to imply that since I admit we might lose, I am succumbing to “historical necessity.” Well, yes, in the sense that I do not believe the cycle of regimes can be repealed by man. But, no, in the sense that I think it can be resisted, manipulated and delayed by man. So long as we have the power to move events in liberty’s favor, we ought at least to try. But, yes, there will or may come a time when all our best efforts have failed. I will not say so until failure is plainly evident, not least so as not to encourage defeatism. But there may—eventually, there will—come a time when prudent men must face a bad situation squarely.
Plutarch’s judgement of Cicero is relevant here. Cicero died nobly, but did he fight prudently? Was what he wished for possible in the circumstance in which he found himself and his country? Would a more prudent man have seen more clearly what the times allowed? If Pinkoski is saying that the only noble course is to fight forlornly for a forlorn cause, I am open to that message, which carries an intrinsic nobility. But I would ask him to consider the following.
It very much matters what is the likely outcome of a loss; that is, what are the stakes. Caesarism is worse than constitutionalism. But Caesarism—if Caesar be ours and not theirs—is manifestly not worse than foreign conquest, slavery, or techno-totalitarian tyranny. A prudent man may prefer Caesarism on precisely the ground that Pinkoski suggests in his closing remarks: that, by ensuring a measure of continuity, Caesarism may support the continuance of serious thought by a serious few (especially if Caesar calls off the dogs of the professorate, the corporate media blob, the victimhood industrial complex, and the Voluntary Auxiliary Thought Police).
By maintaining, even in degraded form, our civilization, Caesarism may nurture just enough fertile ground for the green shoots of thought eventually to foreshadow a genuine philosophic spring. Presumably Pinkoski is not saying that the only moral course—the only non-defeatist, non-collaborationist course—is resignedly to accept a replay of the Fifth Century and all that followed?
On the other hand, if the outcome of defeat is something much graver than Caesar—if we are truly facing a Saguntum situation—then the Saguntum response is the only choice. We should wish that the flame of the West not be extinguished. We should do everything in our power to prevent that flame from being extinguished. Yet we cannot guarantee that it will not be extinguished. The superiority of nobility to baseness “shines forth particularly when the noble is destroyed by the base.” But unless there are eyes to witness, record, and transmit the shining, the act of resistance redounds only to the individual conscience. That’s not a reason not to resist to the end. It is a reason to think through all alternatives carefully.
If Saguntum falls in a forest, but no one gets out alive, does it make a sound?