Moderation in Pursuit of Trump

Re-posted with permission of The Claremont Review of Books 

August 26, 2016

In response to an essay of mine in the Spring CRB, my friend John Marini offers “Donald Trump and the American Crisis,” a philosophical and political justification for Trump’s presidential candidacy. Kesler’s “moderate criticism of Trump,” Marini ventures, “is surpassed only by his even more moderate defense of Trump.” Apparently, moderation in pursuit of Trump is no virtue.

At any rate, in my alleged awareness of the difficulty in defending Trump, and of the still greater difficulty in praising him, John allows that I am not alone. Few contemporary political analysts are “willing or able to praise Trump in an unqualified manner,” he notes with considerable understatement. And “nearly all of the public intellectuals, both liberal and conservative,” worship, or at least outwardly respect, the reigning pieties of political correctness that form the new “vital center” of American public life. Like Machiavelli’s prince, Marini says, Trump “has all those who benefit from the old orders as enemies, and he has lukewarm defenders in all those who might benefit from the new orders.”

But is that really Trump’s main problem? Consider how moderate is Marini’s own praise of Trump’s virtù. “Regardless of his motives, therefore, Trump has gone to the heart of the matter…. Trump has not attempted a theoretical justification for doing so. That remains to be made by the thinkers.” “Trump is not an academic or an intellectual. He seems to understand politics in an old-fashioned way.” “Trump appears to have understood that the political parties no longer establish a meaningful link between the people and the government.” “Trump has apparently refused to acknowledge the authority of this policy-making establishment….” “Yet Trump’s defense of the old America goes unrecognized by conservatives, either because they have succumbed to the postmodern narrative or because Trump is unable to make the intellectual case for the old America.” The emphasis is added, needless to say.

So Marini edges closer to the distinction that became so familiar to readers of the sprightly but now defunct pro-Trump website, the Journal of American Greatness (JAG). “It is possible,” writes John, “that the Trump phenomenon cannot be understood merely by trying to make sense of Trump himself. Rather it is the seriousness of the need for Trump that must be understood in order to make sense of his candidacy.” JAG liked to distinguish between Trump and “Trumpism.” It found the man flawed and rather frustrating, so much so that it could characterize its support for him as “lukewarm.” JAG found Trump’s message exhilarating, however, though in truth the message came less from the messenger than from the magazine. (No one ever heard the Donald argue for the confluence of “paleo-conservatism” and Straussianism.) Eventually JAG stopped calling its agenda Trumpism and christened it “American Greatness,” a term derived from Trump’s slogan and his hats.

Marini holds that those attracted to Trump believe “America is in the midst of a great crisis in terms of its economy, its chaotic civil society, its political corruption, and the inability to defend any kind of tradition—or way of life derived from that tradition—because of the transformation of its culture by the intellectual elites.” Marini believes, as do I, that this crisis is real. The problem is that if Trump cannot articulate or does not quite understand the crisis, what can “the need for Trump” mean? In truth, it’s a need “for a Trump,” John admits, “or someone like Trump….” But “someone like Trump” is not on the ballot.

Hence the abstract or theoretical character of most of the discussion in “Donald Trump and the American Crisis.” Rather than wrestle with Trump’s virtues and vices, and with how they might affect America’s condition for better or for worse, Marini provides a brilliant account of the origins and character of the present crisis—having to do with the rise of the administrative state, and the emergence of modern “intellectual authority” based on empirical science, historicism, and postmodernism. It explains a great deal.

For someone who insists on the distinction between theoretical and practical wisdom, however, he gives up too easily on the possibilities of prudential judgment, sometimes sounding as though the academic victories of liberalism and postmodernism had wiped out common sense. Marini is right to say that liberals and even some right-wing intellectuals tend to judge Trump “from the perspective of postmodern culture, labeling him a reactionary racist, a nationalist, and a xenophobe.” But why suggest that other conservatives’ efforts to judge Trump using the “old language of character, virtues, and vices” is futile or foolish because this language no longer has “a public or political meaning,” given the “contemporary discourse” of value relativism? That smacks of presumptive surrender.

Two words absent from Marini’s essay are “Hillary Clinton.” Yet the choice between Clinton and Trump is a spectacle of character, virtues, and vices, and it seems only natural for Americans to resort to some of that “old language” to make sense of it all. Don’t her stratospheric ratings as “untrustworthy” and “dishonest” imply not only moral disapproval but disapproval richly earned? Similarly, Trump’s personal attacks and other excesses, though overemphasized by leading NeverTrumpers, cannot simply be dismissed, as the essay does at one point, as “his way of connecting with a people who had become mere spectators, not citizens.” Not all his words and actions can be given such a high-minded defense. Realizing this, people will and should weigh them against Hillary’s notoriously lax ethics and leftist politics.

The choice is necessarily comparative, prudential. One of the most effective arguments for Trump, after all, is that he is better at least than Clinton. Marini ignores this argument—though his own reservations about Trump’s abilities open the door to it. Marini prefers to emphasize “the American crisis,” the crisis of human liberty and popular government, which only Trump and his supporters recognize. Hence “the need for Trump.”

As I’ve said, the crisis is real, and John’s essay is an indispensable guide to it. Yet at the same time, he warns, “the seriousness of the need does not mean that the need can be satisfied, perhaps even by a Lincoln, let alone a Trump.” The most extended comparison in the essay is not between Clinton and Trump, but between Lincoln and Trump.

Good luck with that! Even Trump has not dared such a comparison (yet). In fairness to Trump, I should note that President Obama compares himself to Lincoln all the time, and not unfavorably.

Marini recognizes that Trump is no Lincoln, but relieves the sting by observing that so deep is our crisis that Lincoln himself might fall short of being the “Lincoln” we need. Suffice it to say that John and I—and the Claremont Institute—share a school of thought that regards statesmanship as necessary for political health, a fortiori for political greatness, and that traces statesmanship to a certain education in the virtues. Trump lacks the usual signs of such an education.

That would not matter if the crisis could be counted on to resolve itself, if the Moment always generated the Great Man who could transcend it. The philosophy that could be said to guarantee such a result is Hegelianism, a vulgarization of which is an important element of the American crisis, visible in Obama’s confident assertion that if we only keep to the right side of history, his and Hillary’s side, everything will get better and better.

There is a sense in which all education is self-education, of course. Rather than Donald Trump’s acerbities, real and alleged, the thing to focus on is what he knows and is learning that would make him a better president. He has been a politician for a single year. He began almost as a complete amateur, whose acquaintance with the political arts, by his own admission, was confined to the low ones by which deals are too often made and elections carried.

Even in the beginning, however, he grasped as no other candidate did that the American people felt profoundly alienated from their own government, feared that control over it was slipping from their grasp, and hoped to reassert their right, and duty, of self-government in order to make America great again. His policies, however improvisational, sought to serve that end. And let’s face it, even if he had chosen his policies at random, they would be sounder than Hillary’s.

Since then, he has pressed his case against government by politically correct elites with notable courage. In the past few weeks, he has given a series of remarkable speeches on foreign policy, radical Islamic terrorism, immigration, law and order, and the economy. In depth, moral seriousness, and dignity of language, they go well beyond his prior treatments. “Pride in our institutions, our history, and our values should be taught by parents and teachers, and impressed upon all who join our society,” he has said. Assimilation to “this spirit of Americanism” will be good for immigrants and citizens alike, helping to heal the divisions in America by promoting “the exceptional virtues of our own way of life.”

I’m sure that John Marini joins me in hoping that these statesmanlike sentiments bode well for Trump’s candidacy, and for our country.

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About Charles Kesler

Charles Kesler is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute, Editor of the Claremont Review of Books, host of The American Mind video series, and the Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. Dr. Kesler also teaches in the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellows Program and Lincoln Fellows Program. He received his B.A. in Social Studies and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. From 1989 to 2008, Dr. Kesler was director of CMC’s Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World. From September 2000 to March 2001, he served as vice chairman of the Advisory Committee to the U.S. Congress's James Madison Commemoration Commission.