The pseudonymous Publius Decius Mus has angered and mystified his critics with his bracing assessment of our political moment in his essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” which—along with the follow-up essay—quickly went viral and generated commentary from left and right. With so many questions and so much controversy swirling around his ideas, American Greatness spoke with Decius this week about the pursuit of greater clarity in thinking through the politics of our time.
American Greatness: Hillary Clinton has described at least half of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables,” including racists, sexists and the usual litany of leftist epithets. What do you think is the proper response to this charge and what do you have to say to conservative critics who suggest that she has a point?
I’m not much of a campaign guru, so I should leave the response to others. Actually, I think the Trump campaign is doing a good job with it. It could be a gift that keeps on giving for them. Though I would caution Trump supporters against thinking this is a silver bullet. The rules are different for us than for them. The media hung “47 percent” around Mitt Romney’s neck like a millstone. Not that he would have won otherwise. The point is simply that the propaganda value of the Megaphone only really works to damage us and not them. Obama was not sunk by “bitter clingers” and Hillary won’t be sunk by this. She may lose and this may contribute, but it’s a mistake to put too much hope in it.
The conservative critics who think she has a point are liberals. Or useless. Or not conservative. Or maybe all three.
Of course there is ugliness in the hearts of some Trump supporters. Is it any uglier than the ugliness of fringe Democrats and leftists? We just lived through a summer in which police were targeted simply for being police officers—risking death to protect low income, primarily non-white lives. It wasn’t Trump supporters who were doing that or egging it on. But the Left and its propaganda arm instantaneously disavow any connection between that kind of fringe violence and official leftism or Democratic politics and that norm is enforced. Whereas our side is always Hitler and David Duke no matter what. Wolf Blitzer lambasted Mike Pence about Duke recently, but Hillary can have radical BLM activists on stage at the Democratic National Convention and it’s just fine.
The reason is “the narrative.” The media, intelligentsia, and the opinion-making organs of our society have become overwhelmingly biased, partisan, shameless, dishonest and corrupt. They still wield enormous power, which is a problem, but it’s become virtually impossible not to see them for what they are, which might mean that a turning point is coming.
The “conservatives” have at least two motives for band-wagoning with this nonsense. One is that they simply don’t understand higher principle anymore, because their whole mindset is unconsciously leftist, so they believe that everything the Left calls “racist” is in fact racist. Oppose more immigration? Racist! Don’t believe the police systematically try to kill blacks? Racist!
The other is simple cowardice. Conservatives are terrified of being called racist. I don’t know if this is bad conscience or what—maybe at heart they really believe it? Maybe living in all-white neighborhoods perhaps makes them feel guilty. But being called out for it scares them above all so they are always desperate to make public declarations of their purity as non-racists. They think they will get credit from the Left, which of course they never do, but that never stops them from trying.
AG: Some scholars have suggested that Trump is the only candidate making a serious defense of the Constitution. Yet your critics accuse you of supporting a would-be tyrant who would burn the Constitution. Would would you say to the people who claim you lack sufficient respect for the Constitution? And what about Trump as a constitutionalist?
I’m grateful to Ken Masugi and John Marini for first suggesting in print that Trump is a serious Constitutionalist, which I did not initially take seriously. Not that I was anti-Trump but I just took for granted that a real-estate mogul and reality TV star would not be serious about the Constitution. It turns out that I think they are more correct than my initial assessment was.
It is not that Trump really understands or has thought deeply about the Constitution, but he is trying to do something fundamentally constitutional in my opinion. He wants to assert the right of the sovereign American people to control their government, which is the core constitutional principle. I think he understands this in an instinctive rather than intellectual way. But that’s OK because, one, most of the people who claim to understand it, don’t; two, most of those (very few) who do understand it are ineffectual at defending it; and three, nobody has really tried to do what Trump is doing in a generation. So who cares if his understanding is flawed?
I wrote about this at great length at the Journal of American Greatness, but I think the idea that Trump wants to be a tyrant is preposterous. Does that mean I think his motives are as pure as George Washington’s? No, Trump clearly likes to be a star, to be the center of attention, he’s clearly—if not a narcissist—something in that vein. Then again, Machiavelli says that the selfish desire for glory can only be satisfied by the highest level of service to others, to the greatest possible multitude.
But a tyrant is a very specific thing. People use the term so loosely today—all terms are used loosely today—and they just want to tear him down. So “tyrant” will suffice for that crowd. Or, really, “fascist” is more common, since it makes people think of Hitler.
As for Trump’s respect for the Constitution, first let me answer that in the negative. Could he be more destructive of the Constitution than recent political experience has been? I suppose he might be, but what has he actually said that would lead one to believe that this is his intent? He’s said disturbing things about the First Amendment and he is a litigious man, and that is troublesome. But a tyrant is someone who wants to seize or usurp power for his own ends, use it only selfishly and arbitrarily, and never surrender it. What has Trump said to indicate or even hint that this is his intent?
The real issue here is that the mainstream has accepted that the only legitimate rule is rule by the administrative state. Therefore anyone who challenges that, however inchoately, must be a tyrant or proto-tyrant, is by that challenge alone illegitimate. Thou shall not challenge the administrative state!
Personally, I love the Constitution. I find it to be one of the greatest marvels of human history and perhaps the greatest political achievement of all time. But John Adams was right when he said it was designed for a moral and religious people. It requires a certain virtue or character in the people to maintain the Constitution and unfortunately we’ve let that decline. The biggest question of our time is whether we can get it back.
One attack that people have made against me is “this idiot thinks Trump is a savior!” Of course I haven’t said that and don’t believe it. He is like a burly blocker who’s opening a path for us to run through. It’s still up to us to run through the gap. He won’t—and can’t—do that for us. We have to do it ourselves.
AG: Michael Walsh, the PJMedia columnist and author of The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, notes that the most vociferous in the conservative NeverTrump camp tend to be those under 50. Do you think there is a generation gap among conservatives and, if so, what accounts for it?
It does seem that, the younger a (nominal) conservative is, the more likely he is to be against Trump. I think this is owing to two things, at least. This will sound like an old man being cranky, so take it with due allowances.
The first is that the young are not educated. Not that I got the greatest education, but it was pretty good. Still the people who taught me were far more educated than I am now, and the oldest ones were the best educated of the bunch. And my sense is that their teachers—most of whom I never met, or were even dead before I was born—were better educated than even they were. So in terms of education and knowledge, we’re on a downward trend and have been for a while.
What that means is that young conservatives learn conservatism as a checklist. They don’t really read books, except recent “conservative” bestsellers. They read excerpts from the Federalist at a summer fellowship and think that’s an education. Not to knock summer fellowships, but they are supposed to be gateways, not complete educations. And they don’t really read anything harder or deeper than the Federalist (not to knock it, either, but the Founders read Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, Montesquieu and more).
So on the basis of a rather flimsy education, they think they know what conservatism is, but it’s just a catechism for them, a hymnal. And they compare Trump’s policy positions to their hymnal and they see discrepancies and they just default to “Heretic! Not conservative!”
Which points to the second, which is that older conservative intellectuals tend to have better educations and read more widely so they have a broader perspective. They also have the benefit of hard-won experience and an understanding that compromise, course changes, tactical adjustments and so on are sometimes necessary. They’re less “idealistic” in the sense of uncompromisingly foolish. And—speculating here—they have seen America at its best, or when it was much better, so they know we’ve fallen and they don’t want to see us fall further.
The kidlets, as I call them, were raised on a diet of racism-this and equality-that and that’s-not-who-we-are, so they can’t process anything that seems to contradict the narrative. To them “conservatism” is the 1980 campaign’s economic platform spot-welded to Millennial identity politics and sexual libertarianism. Freedom!
AG: What do you say to the charge that the Trump you describe exists only in your mind, that the Trump you describe is not an accurate reflection of the real DJT?
I admitted from the beginning of the old Journal of American Greatness that Trump is not the candidate that I would have wished for and that I (we) were trying to “understand Trump better than he understands himself.” Or if not Trump, then Trumpism or what you’re calling “the Greatness Agenda.”
Even so, it’s a silly criticism. Statesmen—even the very best—are practical, not theoretical, men. There is a role for interpretation of what the statesman does instinctually. A Lincoln who fully understood his mission on an intellectual level is I think very rare. I would actually not even give Washington or Churchill the same credit. And certainly not Trump.
That said, Trump did something no one else has done in a long time. He broke through the taboo on talking about immigration, trade and economic policy in ways not reflective of Davos-class, administrative state ideology. And he won on those issues.
All the other “conservatives” who’ve run in the past 20 years either opposed Trump’s take on those questions or ran from them or ignored them. But Trump comes along and succeeds and we’re supposed to reject him because he doesn’t have a sufficient command of political theory? Come on.
Trump, perhaps because he is of an older generation, is just patriotic in an unapologetic way. He wants us to win even if that means someone else loses. To the narrative, that’s a blasphemy. We can’t prefer ourselves over others! What about “equality”? Trump just does not get why preferring America is a problem.
Again, I don’t think he’s thought about equality in a theoretical way, but neither has he been corrupted by perversions which say that it’s immoral and illegitimate to prefer fellow citizens over foreigners. That thought literally does not occur to him and when the Left tries to bludgeon him with it he instinctively reacts and says, “That’s insane.” And when the intellectuals say, “How dare you! We know better than you! You must say X, Y and Z and never A, B or C,” he just laughs at them.
Second, I speculate that on some level he remembers how the government used to work and is supposed to work, recognizes that it doesn’t work that way now, and wants to get back to that. Because when it worked correctly we were, in his parlance, “winning.” And he likes that. It’s not a theoretical defense of constitutionalism. But again I find it laughable that we’re all supposed to reject Trump and support the election of a corrupt Progressive-Left administrative state apparatchik because Trump never took constitutional law from a Federalist Society professor. And, oh by the way, how have all those Federalist Society judges worked out for us? John Roberts, anyone?
AG: When did Conservatism, Inc. go off the rails and why?
This is a huge question better posed to a true intellectual historian of the American right, which I am not. Then again, most—if not all—of them are so anti-Trump that their answer might not be so useful.
Modern conservatism is a creation of the 1950s, to replace the so-called “Old Right” which was routed by FDR, the New Deal, World War II and the like. William F. Buckley and the crew he assembled had to build something new to respond to the challenges of their time. Which, as they perceived it, was a totally dominant liberalism in academia, the intelligentsia and the bureaucracy plus an accommodationist Republican party. Sound familiar?
The Old Right didn’t want the New Deal. It lost. It didn’t want World War II. It lost. It didn’t want desegregation and Civil Rights. It lost. Buckley’s “New Right” at first thought Ike and the post-war Republicans were too soft on the New Deal, but they eventually gave up that fight. They fought the Great Society and also lost, but at least scored a partial victory with the Reagan Revolution. They thought the Republicans were too soft on Communism, and they eventually won that argument almost totally. And they began by supporting the old South on Civil Rights but eventually turned.
The point is, the New Right was a departure from the Old Right. It was trying to respond to what it perceived to be the challenges of its time. In a way, every bow-tied “conservative” kidlet who invokes Buckley today is just saying, “The solutions of 1955—stand athwart history yelling stop!—are all still apt!”
Conservatism has not adapted in half a century or more. It “adapts” in that it takes up new policy prescriptions, on broadband and the like, but otherwise it still thinks that the fundamental challenges are always the same. Now, the great issue of 1860 was the possible expansion of slavery into the territories. Is that an issue now? There is an underlying matter of high principle, to be sure, but is that issue the issue? Any fool can see that answer is “no.” Why would the great issues of 2016 be the same as those of 1955? Or even 1980?
“Fusionism” is a case in point. This is the so-called three-legged stool: economic freedom, strong defense, “moral values.” These are great things, so it seems. Are they always the priority? For instance, in Puritan times, what’s more needful? A greater emphasis on moral purity? Or maybe a little recognition of human weakness? In dissolute times, of course the former is more needful.
Economic freedom is a human right. But with finance having seized the economy by the … whatevers … and income inequality skyrocketing, should lower taxes really be top priority? Carried interest, 2 and 20? Or is fostering economic solidarity more important? Conservatives have conniptions at the very question. But Aristotle says that the greatest wealth gap in a good regime should be 5 to 1. I’m not saying we want that, but in what way does making hedge fund managers the ultimate winners in our society make any sense? It made sense to challenge the Soviet Union, as it still makes sense to maintain a strong defense. But “strong defense” has morphed into endless, pointless, winless war.
In 1980, we had to unshackle the economy, rebuild the military and alliance structure, and recover from the ’60s-’70s orgy. Today our priorities are different—or should be. But conservatives only know the formula they learned from the crib sheet.
On a higher level, the success of people like Harry Jaffa and other Claremont scholars had a very negative consequence, one they did not intend. They properly interpreted the Founding and Lincoln, in my view, but in so doing they made it very easy for lazy people to say “America is an idea” full stop, and “equality means open borders” and so on. These people abandoned prudence for abstractions. The Founders are very clear about the particularity of Americans as a distinct people. They warn against indiscriminate immigration. They insist on vigorous assimilation and Americanization. We’ve abandoned almost all of that. The Left says that to do anything else is “racist.” The conservatives, as noted, are terrified of that charge. But more than that, they believe the abstraction. Rootedness is bad. Particularity is bad.
The Old Right was, in my view, too particular in that it tried to base everything on tradition, on kith and kin, blood and soil and so on. It rejected any transcendence (beyond the religious) as “universalist” and liberal. This is my ultimate problem with Kirk, Bradford and the like. They want to say that certain things are good while rejecting any fundamental, permanent ground for the good. The New Right swung way to the other direction and insists on universals and sees all particulars—at least when asserted by Americans and Europeans—as insular and racist. The truth is that both are true in their sphere and both are necessary. Restoring a proper relationship between the universal and the particular is in my view the paramount theoretical challenge for whatever it is that follows conservatism. I made the beginnings of an attempt in an essay called “Paleo-Straussianism,” but there is much more to do.
AG: How do you respond to conservatives concerned about Donald Trump’s character? They perceive his shortcomings as somehow unique, though Reagan was divorced, Lincoln and Truman failed in business, Romney flip-flopped on abortion, and so forth Yet it is only for Donald Trump that these things are perceived as evidence of a uniquely bad character.
I’ve read troubling things about Trump’s character so I don’t dismiss those concerns. But character isn’t everything. Aside from smoking a lot of pot, Obama’s character seems sterling. He’s a good family man, was a good student, has had a good career (in the narrow sense), does not appear to be corrupt in any way, and so on. But he is an ideological disaster for America. Really, since Nixon, American has had only one president of bad character—obviously I mean Bill Clinton.
I find what I know of Hillary’s character, it is much worse than anything alleged against Trump. If I thought Trump were an Aaron Burr, I would feel differently. But I don’t. He’s a showboat and a ladies’ man and I gather he has done some shady things in business. But I don’t think he wants to use the presidency for his own ends, beyond self-aggrandizement, which I noted above, can correlate with the common good. Bottom line, if he builds a wall, gets serious about trade and economics, stops the bleeding overseas, and takes on the administrative state, then I can overlook his sins. I would rather have a sinless president, sure. But I wonder if a sinless man could win in these times. Plus, all the sinless men—such as Jeb—are horrible on the issues that really matter. I am against infidelity to be sure. But it is fundamentally unserious at this point to say that you would rather have a chaste president who favors open borders than a horndog who will build a wall. Hell, at this point I would reelect Bill Clinton if I thought he would build a wall.
AG: Finally, what do you say to people who claim that Trump is just a false prophet, whipping up the masses with promises of things he cannot deliver?
What difference, at this point, does it make? What have you got to lose? Can’t you see that Hillary is certain death for constitutionalism and conservatism?