Reposted with permission from The Claremont Review of Books.
Well, that was unexpected.
Everything I said in “The Flight 93 Election” was derivative of things I had already said, with (I thought) more vim and vigor, in a now-defunct blog. I assumed the new piece would interest a handful of that blog’s remaining fans and no one else. My predictive powers proved imperfect.
Which should cheer everyone who hated what I said: if I was wrong about the one thing, maybe I’m wrong about the others. But let me take the various objections in ascending order of importance.
First is the objection to anonymity and specifically to the pseudonym. Anonymity supposedly proves that I am a coward, while the use of “Decius” shows that I am a hypocrite. What am I risking? I freely admit that I don’t expect to die. But I do have something to lose, and may well yet lose it. I could easily have not written anything. How could speaking up possibly have been more cowardly than silence?
Second is the objection to my invoking Flight 93. I refer such objectors to Stanton’s words at the death of Lincoln: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Heroes always belong to the ages. For all of recorded history, men have drawn inspiration from, and made analogies to, their heroes. Speaking only of us Americans, for more than 200 years, we’ve been making Bunker Hill analogies, Gettysburg and Picket’s Charge analogies, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood, D-Day, Okinawa, Chosin Reservoir, Khe Sanh, and so on and on. But all of a sudden this is “disgusting.” It’s quite obvious that what’s really disgusting to these objectors is Trump. Which they could say forthrightly without recourse to the cheap, left-wing tactic of feigned, selective outrage over a time-honored rhetorical device that goes back to the Greeks, which conservatives are perfectly happy to use when it suits their immediate interest.
Some also complained about the aptness of the analogy: the plane crashed! Well, yes, and this one might too. Then again, it might not. It depends in part on what action the electorate chooses to take. The passengers of Flight 93 roused themselves. They succeeded insofar as that plane did not hit its intended target. The temptation not to rouse oneself in a time of great peril is always strong. In another respect, the analogy is even more apt. All of the passengers on Flight 93—and all of the victims at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—died owing in part to a disastrously broken immigration system that didn’t then and still doesn’t serve the interests of the American people. Which also happens to be the core issue at stake in this election.
A third objection is that Trump is immoderate in the Aristotelian, or personal, sense and I don’t take that into sufficient account. I have even been lambasted for acknowledging, but not going into detail on, Trump’s faults—as if that theme hasn’t been done to death elsewhere. Trump is not the statesman I would have chosen for this moment. My preferences run toward Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, and the like. Trump doesn’t measure up to any of them. But his flaws are overstated. One of the dumber things often said about Trump is that “you can’t trust him with the nuclear codes.” This statement, first, betrays a complete lack of understanding of nuclear command and control. More important, it’s an extraordinary calumny, one that accuses the man of a wish or propensity to commit mass murder on the scale of Pol Pot. On what basis does anyone make such an accusation? Can Trump be erratic, obnoxious, and offensive? Of course, he can be all that and more. But while these qualities are not virtues, they may well have helped him punch through the Overton Window, in which case I am willing to make allowances.
For this objection to be decisive, Trump’s personal immoderation would have to be on a level that aspires to tyrannical rule. I don’t see it. Not even close. The charge of “buffoon” seems a million times more apt than “tyrant.” And even so, one must wonder how buffoonish the alleged buffoon really is when he is right on the most important issues while so many others who are esteemed wise are wrong. Hillary Clinton launched the Libya war, perhaps the worst security policy mistake in US history—which divided a country between two American enemies and anarchy, and took a stream of refugees into Europe and surged it into a flood. She pledges to vastly increase the refugee flow from the Middle East into our communities (and, mark my words, they will be Red State communities). Trump by contrast promises not to launch misguided wars, to protect our borders, and to focus immigration policy on the well-being of the currently-constituted American people. Who is truly more moderate: the colorful loudmouth with the sensible agenda or the corrupt, icy careerist with the radical agenda?
The fourth objection is that I, or what I advocate, am/is immoderate, dangerous, radical, imprudent, and so on. This is a large claim that will require significant exploration. To those of you who complained about the length of the other one, best to tune out now.
My use (once each) the terms thymos and virtù was taken as evidence that I am advocating a politics of “great daring” or some such. I’d like to be generous here and just presume this is a misunderstanding. I suggest to anyone who holds this interpretation to look at the specific contexts in which those words were used. The former referred to go-along, get-along conservative intellectuals, who could do with a double dose of thymos. Several writers on the Left obligingly made the point. Good conservatism adheres to the parameters we set for you. You may say this, but not this. If you do and say what we tell you to, your reward will be that we will call you racist Nazis a little less. Also, what we allow as “good conservatism” will drift ever leftward, so that something we permitted a year or two ago is subject to revocation without notice and you better get on board immediately or the deal is off. Conservatism has accepted this “bargain”—hence its lack of thymos—yet amazingly thinks of itself as standing firm for eternal principle. But when I write in praise of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character, education, social norms and public order, initiative, enterprise, industry and thrift, and prudent statesmanship; when I warn against paternalistic Big Government, the decay of our educational system, and the cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions—time-honored conservative themes all—the Left responds with “insane,” “deranged,” “chilling,” and “poison.” And the same conservatives who cite adherence to conservative principle as their reason for opposing Trump side with…the Left.
As for the reference to virtù, the context was my recommendation of that supremely radical and immoderate act of…voting. Has it come to this? Merely advocating that people vote for a candidate who promises to further their interests—and the nominee of one of the two major parties in a party system that traces back to 1800 at least—this is now immoderate and “daring.”
That is of course exactly the way the Left wants to frame this election. The same way that they define for us what acceptable conservatism can and cannot be, they now assert the right to choose—or at least veto—our candidates. And we supinely go along.
A point from the earlier essay is worth repeating. Conservatives have shouted since the beginning of Trump’s improbable rise: He’s not one of us! He is not conservative! And, indeed, in many ways, Trump is downright liberal. You might think that would make him more acceptable to the Left. But no. As “compassionate conservatism” did nothing to blunt leftist hatred of George W. Bush, neither do Trump’s quasi-liberal economic positions. In fact, they hate Trump much more. Trump is not conservative enough for the conservatives but way too conservative for the Left, yet somehow they find common cause. Earlier I posited that the reason is Trump’s position on immigration. Let me add two others.
The first is simply that Trump might win. He is not playing his assigned role of gentlemanly loser the way McCain and Romney did, and may well have tapped into some previously untapped sentiment that he can ride to victory. This is a problem for both the Right and the Left. The professional Right (correctly) fears that a Trump victory will finally make their irrelevance undeniable. The Left knows that so long as Republicans kept playing by the same rules and appealing to the same dwindling base of voters, there was no danger. Even if one of the old breed had won, nothing much would have changed, since their positions on the most decisive issues were effectively the same as the Democrats and because they posed no serious challenge to the administrative state.
Which points to the far more important reason. I urge readers to go back through John Marini’s argument, to which I cannot do anything close to full justice. Suffice to say here, the current governing arrangement of the United States is rule by a transnational managerial class in conjunction with the administrative state. To the extent that the parties are adversarial at the national level, it is merely to determine who gets to run the administrative state for four years. Challenging the administrative state is out of the question. The Democrats are united on this point. The Republicans are at least nominally divided. But those nominally opposed (to the extent that they even understand the problem, which is: not much) are unwilling or unable to actually doanything about it. Are challenges to the administrative state allowed only if they are guaranteed to be ineffectual? If so, the current conservative movement is tailor-made for the task. Meanwhile, the much stronger Ryan wing of the Party actively abets the administrative state and works to further the managerial class agenda.
Trump is the first candidate since Reagan to threaten this arrangement. To again oversimplify Marini (and Aristotle), the question here is: who rules? The many or the few? The people or the oligarchs? Our Constitution says: the people are sovereign, and their rule is mediated through representative institutions, limited by written Constitutional norms. The administrative state says: experts must rule because various advances (the march of history) have made governing too complicated for public deliberation, and besides, the unwise people often lack knowledge of their own best interests even on rudimentary matters. When the people want something that they shouldn’t want or mustn’t have, the administrative state prevents it, no matter what the people vote for. When the people don’t want something that the administrative state sees as salutary or necessary, it is simply imposed by fiat.
Don’t want more immigration? Too bad, we know what’s best. Think bathrooms should be reserved for the two biological sexes? Too bad, we rule. And so on and on.
To all the “conservatives” yammering about my supposed opposition to Constitutional principle (more on that below) and who hate Trump, I say: Trump is mounting the first serious national-political defense of the Constitution in a generation. He may not see himself in those terms. I believe he sees himself as a straightforward patriot who just wants to do what is best for his country and its people. Whatever the case, he is asserting the right of the sovereign people to make their government do what they want it to do, and not do things they don’t want it to do, in the teeth of determined opposition from a managerial class and administrative state that want not merely different policies but above all to perpetuate their own rule.
If the Constitution has any force or meaning, then “We the People” get to decide not merely who gets to run the administrative state—which, whatever the outcome, will always continue on the same path—more fundamentally, we get to decide what policies we want and which we don’t. Apparently, to the whole Left and much of the Right, this stance is immoderate and dangerous. The people who make that charge claim to do so in defense of Constitutional principle. I can’t square that circle. Can you?
(To those tempted to accuse me of advocating a crude majoritarianism, I refer you to what I said above and will say below on the proper, Constitutional operation of the United States government as originally designed and improved by the pre-Progressive Amendments.)
One must also wonder what is so “immoderate” about Trump’s program. As noted, it’s to the left of the last several decades of Republican-conservative orthodoxy. “Moderate” in the modern political (as opposed to the Aristotelean) sense tends to be synonymous with “centrist.” By that definition, Trump is a moderate. That’s why National Review and the rest of the conservatives came out of the gate so strongly against him. I admit that, not all that long ago, I probably would have too. But I have come to see conservatism in a different light. To oversimplify (again), the only “eternal principle” is the good. What, specifically, is good in a political context varies with the times and with circumstance, as does how best to achieve the good in a given context. The good is not tax rates or free trade. Those aren’t even principles. In the American political context, the good is the well-being of the physical America and its people, well-being defined (in terms that reflect both Aristotle and the American founding) as their “safety and happiness.” That’s what conservatism should be working to conserve.
Trump seems to grasp that the best way to do so in these times is to promote more solidarity and unity. The “conservatives” by contrast think it means more individualism. Neither of these, either, is an eternal principle. Prudence calls for a balance. Few would want the maximized (and forced) unity of ancient Sparta or modern North Korea. Only fool libertarians seek the maximized individualism of Ayn Rand. No unity means no nation. No individualism means no liberty. In an actual republic, a balance must be maintained, which can require occasional course corrections. In 1980, after a decade of stagnation, we needed an infusion of individualism. In 2016, we are too fragmented and atomized—united for the most part only by being equally under the thumb of the administrative state—and desperately need more unity.
Which means that Trump, right now, is right and the conservatives are wrong. His moderate program of secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy—all things that liberals and conservatives alike used to take for granted, if they disagreed on implementation—holds the promise of fostering more unity. But today, liberals are apoplectic at the mere mention of this program—controlling borders is “extreme” but a “borderless world” is the “ultimate wisdom”—and the Finlandized conservatives aid them in attacking the candidate who promotes it. Conservatives claim to deplore the way the Democrats slice and dice the electorate, reduce it to voting blocks and interest groups, and stoke resentments to boost turnout. But faced with a candidate explicitly running on a unity agenda they insist he is too extreme to trust with the reins of power. One wants to ask, again: which is it, conservatives? Is Trump to be rejected because he is too moderate or because he is too extreme? The answer appears to be that it doesn’t matter, so long as Trump is rejected.
So that’s my “immoderate” case for Trump: do things that are in the interests of lower, working, and middle class Americans in order to improve their lives and increase unity across all swaths and sectors of society. And in so doing, reassert the people’s rightful, Constitutional control of their government. “Dangerous.” “Extreme.” “Radical.” “Poison.” “Authoritarian.”
Which points to the fifth objection: in giving reasons for Trump, I oppose the Constitution and support “authoritarianism.” First of all, I don’t even know what the latter is—beyond the discredited Adorno study that the Left still uses to tar everyone to its right as Nazis. If we simply go by the wiki definition—“authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms”—that sounds to me much more like the administrative state than anything Trump has proposed. Or do you mean “fascist”? Then say so. I have some idea of what that is. Or do you mean “tyrant”? I certainly know what that is. Are you saying Trump is one, or wants to be, or that I welcome either?
More risible—downright intelligence-insulting—is to read liberals accuse conservatives of wanting to trash the Constitution. Really. The Left has been insisting for more than a century that our Constitution is fatally flawed, written for another age, outmoded, hypocritical, hopelessly undermined by slavery and racism and sexism and property requirements, and so much else. Conservatives who argue for originalism and strict construction and federalism—sticking exactly to the letter of the Constitution—are called racists because everyone supposedly knows that the former are mere “code words.”
This is a very large topic, and for those interested, there is an equally large body of scholarship that explains it all in detail. For now, let’s just ask ourselves two questions. First, how do the mechanics of government, as written in the Constitution, differ from current practice? Second, how well are the rights Amendments observed? As to the first, we do still have those three branches of government mentioned. But we also have a fourth, hidden in plain sight within the executive, namely the bureaucracy or administrative state. It both usurps legislative power and uses executive power in an unaccountable way. Congress does not use its own powers but meekly defers to the executive and to the bureaucracy. The executive does whatever it wants. The judiciary also usurps legislative and, when it’s really feeling its oats, executive power through the use of consent decrees and the like. And that’s just the feds—before we even get to the relationship between the feds and the states. As to the second, can you think of a single amendment among the Bill of Rights that is not routinely violated—with the acquiescence and approval of the Left? I can’t.
All this happened because, for more than a century, the Left has been working at best to “change” and “update” the Constitution, and at worst to ignore it or get around it. This agenda is not hidden but announced and boasted of. Yet when someone on the Right points out that the Constitution—by design—no longer works as designed, that the U.S. government does not in practice function as a Constitutional republic, we are lambasted as “authoritarian.”
That’s a malicious lie. The truth is that the Left pushed and dragged us here. You wanted this. We didn’t. You didn’t like the original Constitution. We did and do. You didn’t want it to operate as designed because when it does it too often prevents you from doing what you want to do. So you actively worked to give the courts and the bureaucracy the last word, some of you for high-minded reasons of sincere conviction, but most of you simply because you know they’re on your side. You said it would be better this way. When we opposed you, you call us “racists.” Now that you’ve got what you wanted, and we acknowledge your success, you call us “authoritarian” and “anti-Constitutionalist.” This is gaslighting on the level of “If you like your health care, you can keep your health care.” Exasperating and infuriating, yet impressive in its shamelessness. But that’s the Left for you: l’audace, l’audace—toujours l’audace.
My argument was and is a lament. I differ in no respect from my conservative brethren in my reverence for constitutional government in general or for the United States Constitution in particular. No respect, it seems, but one. They seem to think we are one election away from turning everything around—only, you know, not 2016, but the next one when we can run Cruz. Whereas I fear we are one election away from losing the last vestiges forever.
Which brings me to the final two objections, which are really the same: I am said to be insane, and my insanity is supposedly evident from my contention that things are really bad, when in fact they are not that bad.
I would be overjoyed to read a convincing account of why things are not that bad, why—despite appearances—the republic is healthy, Constitutional norms are respected, the working class and hinterland communities are in good shape, social pathologies are low or at least declining, our elites prioritize the common good, our intellectuals and the media are honest and fair. Or if that’s too big a lift, how about one that acknowledges all the problems and outlines some reasonable prospect for renewal? But only if it’s believable. No skipped steps and no magical thinking. Dr. Conservatism needs to do better than his habitual “Sorry about the cancer, here’s a bottle of aspirin.”
If someone writes such a piece, I promise to read it and try to be persuaded by it. You might be doing me—and others whom I have misguidedly misled—a great favor. Only a fool would choose pessimism for its own sake. In my case, it chose me, against my will, because in current circumstances it just seems more plausible—in greater alignment with the observable facts—than optimism. But if I’m wrong, have at it. That’s what I meant by my reference to the agora. Arriving at the truth is hard enough with open, honest debate. It’s impossible without it. So flay me, by all means, and I will try to learn something.
I would also be overjoyed to be persuaded that the country into which I was born, which I have always loved instinctively, and which I was taught to love at the deepest theoretical level, is not in grave peril. Or if it is, that it can be saved even after eight more years of “fundamental transformation”—which means administrative state consolidation and managerial class entrenchment.
Alas, my venture into the agora has not yet changed my mind. Every four years the electorate becomes more unfavorable to Republican candidates, owing above all to mass immigration, which so many Republicans still self-sabotagingly support. We could not even deny reelection to Barack Obama, whose first term was a dismal failure by every measure, because he was able to overwhelm us with sheer demographics. “Quantity has a quality all its own.” It will be worse in 2020 than it is now in 2016, just as 2016 is worse than 2012. Not to get all Rubio on you, but they know exactly what they’re doing.
If Hillary wins, there will still be a country, in the sense of a geographic territory with a people, a government, and various institutions. Things will mostly look the same, just as—outwardly—Rome changed little on the ascension of Augustus. It will not be tyranny or Caesarism—not yet. But it will represent, in my view, an irreversible triumph for the administrative state. Consider that no president has been denied reelection since 1992. If we can’t beat the Democrats now, what makes anyone think we could in 2020, when they will have all the advantages of incumbency plus four more years of demographic change in their favor? And if we can’t win in 2016 or 2020, what reason is there to hope for 2024? Will the electorate be more Republican? More conservative? Will Constitutional norms be stronger?
The country will go on, but it will not be a Constitutional republic. It will be a blue state on a national scale. Only one party will really matter. A Republican may win now and again—once in a generation, perhaps—but only a neutered one who has “updated” all his positions so as to be more in tune with the new electorate. I.e., who has done exactly what the Left has for years been concern-trolling us to do: move left and become more like them. Yet another irony: the “conservatives” who object to Trump as too liberal are working to guarantee that only a Republican far more liberal than Trump could ever win the presidency again.
Still and all, for many—potentially me included—life under perma-liberalism will be nice. If you are in the managerial class, you will probably do well—so long as you don’t say the wrong thing. (And, as noted, the list of “wrong things” will be continuously updated, so make sure you keep up.)
Professional conservatives seem to believe that their prospects will remain yoked to that of the managerial class. Maybe, but I doubt it. Eventually their donors are going to wake up and figure out what the Democrats and the Left realized long ago: conservatives serve no purpose any more. Then the money will dry up and—what then? To the extent that our “conservatives” soldier on eo nomine, life will be a lot worse for them than their current, comfortable status as Washington Generals. They will have to adjust to dhimmitude. I can’t tell if they don’t understand this, or do and accept it. Then again, what difference, at this point, would that make?
For the rest of you—flyover people—the decline will continue. But things are pretty bad now yet you can still eat and most of you have cars, flat screens, and air conditioners. So what are you complaining about?
Keep in mind, this is the best case scenario. Which leaves open the larger questions raised in the prior essay that gave so many the vapors: how long could that possibly last? And what follows when it ends? The #NeverTrumpers don’t even attempt to answer the second because their implicit answer to the first is: forever. Who knew they were all closet Hegelians? Yet I’m called nuts for raising doubts.
Can we at least finally admit, squarely, that conservatism has failed? On the very terms that it set for itself? I don’t mean that in an accusatory or celebratory way—I’m, quite sad about it, honest!—only as a matter of plain fact.
One of those who most objected to the Flight 93 analogy also accused me of “sophistry.” I remind him that, according to Aristotle, “the Sophists identified or almost identified politics with rhetoric. In other words, the Sophists believed or tended to believe in the omnipotence of speech.” Is that not a near-perfect description of modern conservative intellectuals, or at least of their revealed preferences? Except that one wonders what, in their case, is the source of that belief, since they haven’t been able to accomplish anything in the political realm through speech or any other means in a generation.
One can point to a few enduring successes: Tax rates haven’t approached their former stratosphere highs. On the other hand, the Left is busy undoing welfare and policing reform. Beyond that, we’ve not been able to implement our agenda even when we win elections—which we do less and less. Conservatism had a project for national renewal that it failed to implement, while the Left made—and still makes—gain after gain after gain. Consider conservatism’s aims: “civic renewal,” “federalism,” “originalism,” “morality and family values,” “small government,” “limited government,” “Judeo-Christian values,” “strong national defense,” “respect among nations,” “economic freedom,” “an expanding pie,” “the American dream.” I support all of that. And all of it has been in retreat for 30 years. At least. But conservatism cannot admit as much, not even to itself, in the middle of the night with the door closed, the lights out and no one listening.
I tried to tell it, and it got mad.