Many thanks to Carl Eric Scott at National Review’s “Postmodern Conservative” blog for taking note of our efforts here at American Greatness and for his good wishes. And perhaps greater thanks are in order for including us in the ranks of “genuine conservatives.” We are included in his taxonomy under 4b, as “those who are trying to articulate, without at all waiting for The Donald’s lead, a coherent political platform and philosophy of Trumpism.” Whilst I appreciate and hope to return the bonhomie, I must note that some of us here at American Greatness support Trump while others, and I quote, are “still not gonna vote for the son of a bitch.” As an enterprise, we are electorally uncommitted, with each person free to advocate for or against any policy or candidate.
What unites us is something bigger and more enduring. It is best expressed in our inaugural editorial, “Our Declaration of Independence From The Conservative Movement” but can be summed up as a belief that the natural rights of mankind are best protected by government that is limited, constitutional, and republican. Our project is not just to advance that thesis — the truths, we believe, are self-evident but the implications require education — but to empower a political movement that acts on it.
So “in the spirit of (friendly) rivalry and disagreement among genuine conservatives” that Scott noted, I submit that many conservatives expect too much from our politicians and not enough from our institutions. The particular genius of our Constitution is that it is not dependent on producing successive generations of pols as enlightened, prudent, or selfless as the Founders themselves. Just the opposite. It specifically recognizes how rare a creature is the true statesman (the great souled man described by Aristotle in Book IV of his Nicomachean Ethics) and establishes a form of government in which they are welcome, even encouraged to develop, but unnecessary because power lies with the people who exercise it through constitutionally established institutions that are designed to impede the aggregation of power in any one person or faction. As “small-r” republicans, we believe that our form of government is best because, among other reasons, it recognizes man’s inherent flaws and accounts for them while also allowing — and perhaps encouraging — the better angels of our nature.
The impediments to the aggregation of power built into our Constitution are intentional and recognize man’s tendency to be venal, short-sighted, and vicious. But they have been a source of frustration and continuing consternation to the Left, which is always in a hurry to use government power to “get things done.” The result has been a general lack of recognition of the Constitutions’s particular genius and a highly successful multi-generational project to replace our written Constitution with a “living Constitution.” The Founders’ Constitution was written in a way that could be apprehended easily by just about anyone. The progressive Constitution is in constant flux, with volumes of case law and regulatory interpretations that can only be grasped in part and then only by specialist teams of lawyers.
Unfortunately, the regulatory state, empowered as it is by an unchecked judiciary, enjoys broad support from our bipartisan ruling class. Yet the regulatory state that rules so much of our lives is not limited, constitutional, or republican. With so much power ceded to a mostly unaccountable state within a state, most political arguments are now over style or speed, not principle. The Left is always and everywhere looking to expand state power. The Right, meantime, is generally left arguing not that the government has grown far beyond its constitutional limits but rather that should grow a little more slowly. (See Paul Ryan’s Omnibus Budget for an example) That is when Republicans are not busy expanding the state on their own. (See, for example, the Bush Administration’s creation of the Transportation Security Administration and the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit)
It is worth quoting from Federalist 51 at length:
But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. (Emphasis added.)
The Constitution gives us institutions that are not dependent on a “leader” — a Progressive and anti-republican concept in any event — let alone a statesman. But for all the invocations of fealty to the Constitution by conservatives, there has been precious little action to back it up in the past few decades. When in control of the White House, Republicans have overlooked constitutional limitations and pursued their own expansions of the state. During President Obama’s tenure in office, congressional Republicans consistently have failed to exercise their constitutional power to check his daily overreach fearing a public backlash if they use the power of the purse or refuse to confirm his appointments. The delay in approving Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court is a rare exception. But make no mistake, confirmation is only delayed unless Donald Trump is elected. If Hillary is elected, Garland or someone just like him will be confirmed after a few weeks of political theater to assure the base that Republicans are “doing something.”
In the present political moment it looks to many Americans — maybe most, given the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ anti-establishment rhetoric — that the bipartisan ruling class itself has become a faction working against the interests of the American people. In any event, the perception is as good as the reality. We saw a similar sentiment develop and play out in the Brexit vote in Great Britain. A majority of Brits — large majorities outside of London and Scotland — believed that their right to rule themselves through their elected representatives in Westminster had been surrendered to an unaccountable superstate in Brussels for the benefit of a well-heeled, well-connected elite.
Madison wrote in Federalist 10 that the “causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.” He went on that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” The same might be said of political power. It would not be a stretch to paraphrase Madison and say that “those who hold and those are without political power have ever formed distinct interests in society.”
And today, there is a sense both here and in Europe that a ruling class has formed and is becoming entrenched and that it undermines the sovereignty of the people. James Burnham wrote about this with surprising prescience in both The Managerial Revolution and in his later book, The Machiavellians.
Against this backdrop comes Donald Trump. To many conservative intellectuals, he is a boor and a buffoon; to others a would-be Caesar; and for many he is both at once, cognitive dissonance notwithstanding. But for most Republican voters — recall that Trump received more primary votes than any Republican candidate ever before — he gives voice to issues that their supposed betters have told them either don’t exist or that they’re not allowed to care about.
Some say he is the wrong man with the right message. This is probably the truest critique. For troubled conservatives, the question becomes whether or not to support the wrong man with the right message and to trust in our constitutional institutions and the American people to provide both guidance and a check on that man should he become president. Our Constitution was designed with this moment in mind, in fact believing that it might be more common than not. The better question might be whether the rest of the Republican Party is willing and able to fulfill their own constitutional role.