“This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend somebody!” — John Adams, 1776
After this election, conservatism is washed up . . . and it’s about time. The word itself was never very useful. Remember when the New York Times would refer to the most hard core Marxists in the Kremlin as “conservatives”? It was a cheap ploy, but it had a semblance of plausibility since conservatism does or can mean defending the reigning orthodoxy and status quo—whatever those might be.
Conservatism has always been a bit of a paradox in this country, because America was founded in a revolution; a revolution, moreover, dedicated to the abstract, universal ideas of natural rights and human equality. Conservatives generally avoid revolutions, preferring their politics like many prefer their scotch—neat. And they are wary of Big Ideas, not without reason, since Big Ideas are so often invoked by busybodies trying to curtail other people’s freedom.
But conservatism, if it means anything, means preserving the past, or at least the best part of it, and our past—certainly the best part of it—is exemplified by revolutionary ideals.
This paradox helps explain the acrimonious split among conservatives today over whether or not to support Donald Trump. The acrimony is only exacerbated by the fact that both sides have valid points. The Never-Trumpers are generally straightforward, temperamental conservatives. As defenders of sobriety and decorum they are appalled by Trump’s brashness, egotism, and recklessness. His character flaws, lack of policy expertise, and seat-of-the-pants rhetoric disqualify him from even being considered for the august station of the Oval Office. Perhaps above all, they lament that he seems to know, or care, almost nothing about the Constitution.
Another strain of conservatives acknowledges that Trump is not a notable defender of the Constitution. But they think he has latched onto a more basic point: that the Constitution doesn’t really work any more, and our current predicament requires a fundamental re-set that, in a way, goes beyond the Constitution. This latter group believes, as Steven Hayward recently noted in the Weekly Standard, that elections no longer change politics. We can call this group Declaration of Independence conservatives. (The overwhelming majority of Trump supporters, of course, don’t identify with either camp in a particularly conscious or articulate way. More on that in a moment.) The “Declaration conservatives” can be found mostly at the Claremont Review of Books and here at American Greatness. In terms of framing the stakes of this election, articles and essays on these sites have elucidated, incisively and dismayingly, what will happen if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency: the solidification of a nearly irreversible hegemony of left-liberal Democrats, made all the more punitive by the abuses that will come with one-party rule and the corruption that attaches to the Clintons.
Among the pro-Trump writers, one of the earliest and still the most prolific is “Decius,” who has described with great thoughtfulness the deep philosophical issues underlying this bare-knuckled election contest. In the course of his incisive analyses, Decius has speculated that America may be headed into a downward spiral, as it passes into the next phase of what the classical philosophers called the “cycle of regimes.” America has had its Golden Age and is now—as it inevitably must—leaving behind the days of republican liberty.
Personally, I wonder if this classical diagnosis of America’s fate gives sufficient weight to the Founders’ self-understanding that they were, if not transcending, certainly expanding upon the wisdom of the ancients through their “improved” political science. They did, after all, triumphantly declare that they were creating a new regime—a novus ordo—and that for first time, their nation of sovereign people would be built on the basis of “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” It’s hard to see how this can be squared, so to speak, with a cyclical view of politics.
The revolutionary, natural rights character of the American Founding, and the implications this has for all subsequent American politics, were elucidated nowhere more thoroughly than in the scholarship of Harry V. Jaffa—who died in 2015 at the age 96 after teaching generations of students at Claremont McKenna College and the Claremont Graduate School. His essay “How to Think about the American Revolution”—written in commemoration of the Bicentennial—was a response to several prominent lectures and monographs expostulating the meaning of America at it’s 200th birthday. The purpose of the essay was to refute what he considered these commentators’ “deradicalization” of the events of 1776, a deradicalization that fostered a distorted understanding of American politics—in 1776, in 1976, and even (I would argue) in 2016. What any of this has to do with Trump becomes apparent when we consider why and how Jaffa strenuously opposed these attempts to tame the “Spirit of ’76.” Above all he rejected the idea that the success of the Revolution and the establishment of the Constitution had somehow closed the books on the issues raised by the Declaration, issues such as the meaning and implications of equality. The unsettledness of these questions was confirmed in blood by the controversies and sacrifices of the Civil War—monumentally, but by no means finally.
“How to combine popular government with constitutional government and the rule of law, majority rule with minority rights,” Jaffa wrote, “are problems that can be never be solved once and for all. Their solution must be sought again and again, as new difficulties arise to challenge old answers.” The Constitution is one of the most brilliant documents ever constructed. But for all that, it is in the end instrumental; it serves principles and purposes deeper than itself. This is by no means an endorsement of the promiscuously loose notion of “a living [i.e. plastic and ultimately meaningless] Constitution. It is rather a simple recognition that, in the order of logic and philosophy, the right of the sovereign people to establish forms of government best suited to their happiness must be the sine qua non of social compact theory, and therefore any particular formal structures created to serve that purpose must perforce be means to an end.
One of Jaffa’s favorite quotations by Lincoln (using imagery from the Bible) expounded on the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution:
[The Declaration’s idea of “liberty for all”] is the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.
In other words, the Constitution is the form and the Declaration the essence of our republican regime. How far we have departed from both has been lucidly described by many commentators on this site: a century of Progressive assaults, beginning overtly with amendments that altered the Constitution’s carefully balanced structures (the introduction of the income tax, the direct election of senators) followed by more surreptitious attempts to undermine the Constitution’s authority and moral foundations in schools and popular culture, and culminating in the tectonic shift of legislative authority from Congress to an ever burgeoning bureaucracy that is increasingly insulated from popular opinion and consent—all of which has been brilliantly explained by John Marini.
The picture of silver—the constitutional forms meant to adorn the principles of the Declaration—are now so tarnished and bent, so deformed, as be almost unrecognizable. With this we get to to the heart of the Declaration conservatives’ impatience with their more genteel, anti-Trump brethren. The temperamental conservatives castigate Trump for his lax or non-existent fidelity to the Constitution. But in their fixation on that dusty and crooked frame they begin to resemble the devotees of some superannuated cult fetishizing an inert relic. (In this sense, the inchoate conservatism of the American people gets the heart of the issue better than many Federalist Society intellectuals, as evidenced by that populist, revolutionary, pre-constitutional uprising—the Tea Party.)
Shocking as this disparagement of the Constitution may seem, it is not the first time the nation has confronted such a conundrum. Writing about Lincoln’s challenge at the cusp of the Civil War, Jaffa noted:
Taken by itself, the Constitution of the United States, for all [its] coolness, moderation, and sobriety… was, at that moment, a mere blind thing. Like the nation which as a whole no longer accepted it, it was divided against itself. It could yield no coherent meaning of its own. It became again a living, vital, organic thing, only as Lincoln applied the touchstone of the Declaration to it.
Gentlemanship, Like Patriotism, is Not Enough
One for the more potent arguments made against the Declarationists’ defense of Trump is that we are projecting onto him high-minded qualities and principled stances he manifestly does not embody. Fine. Let us then stipulate, as Harvey Mansfield argued in the Wall Street Journal, that Donald Trump is no gentleman. (With Mansfield, of course, one must always think carefully about what he is really saying.)
Does Trump need to be a gentleman? Hayward, when not writing articles for the Weekly Standard, churns out very good books. The next one, set to appear in February, is called Patriotism is Not Enough. That phrase, or rather of a version of it, appears in the Jaffa essay from which I’ve been quoting: “Gentlemanship, like patriotism, is not enough.” Of course this raises the questions, Enough for what? And for whom? I would venture to say that for some political actors, gentlemanship is not merely insufficient; it’s not even necessary. These are qualities we attribute to statesmen. But who ever said Trump needs to be a statesman in order to be president? Certainly many men have occupied that office who were not even within a emanation of a penumbra of that exalted title.
It’s worth recalling that in the affairs of men many great events have been preceded by prophets or harbingers of the tribulations to come. As the gentlemen of the Continental Congress were setting into their work in Philadelphia, they already had Thomas Paine turning the colonists on their ears with the most popular book, per capita, ever produced in the United States. Lincoln regarded John Brown as a counterproductive zealot, but there is no disputing his influence in galvanizing anti-slavery opinion. One might even go so far as to point out (since pro-Trumpers have, absurdly, been accused of regarding The Donald as a messiah) that Jesus had John the Baptist to prepare the people for his coming. In each case, these prophets churned the popular imagination and softened the ground for the seeds of a momentous transformation. They were loud, reckless, often uncouth, slightly wild, and yet stunningly effective in exposing the corruption and abuses of the elites of their day—the Pharisees, the British monarchy, and the Southern Slave Power.
Here is Jaffa’s comment on the less than refined style of the author of Common Sense:
Paine’s ‘vulgarity,’ such as it was, gave him an ability to talk to the common man in accents they understood. None of the colonial leaders—certainly not George Washington, and probably not even Jefferson—even with the advantages of their official positions, could rouse the mass of men as could Paine. It is well to keep in mind that, by a general estimate of present-day scholars, the American public, on the eve of independence, was about one-third favorable, one-third hostile, and one-third neutral or indifferent. It was the intensity of the patriot feelings that carried the day, and Paine’s contribution to this intensity was incalculable.
Jaffa ends by quoting Richard Alden’s The American Revolution: “burst[ing] like a meteor into the arena of public affairs… Paine denounced the masters of his native country and pleaded for an American proclamation of independence.’”
Could anyone contrive a more apt description of Trump?
If the notion of Donald Trump as prophet seems strained (has any prophet ever been less articulate or more self-aggrandizing?), the metaphor approaches a breaking point if we reflect that in order to accomplish anything at all, he must win this election. Hillary Clinton in the White House for the next eight years would render Trump’s prophetic warnings not merely cries, but barely whimpers, in the wilderness. Prophets don’t generally campaign for, let alone win, elections. They are typically men of words rather than action—foretelling events rather than instigating them. And yet, Thomas Paine didn’t simply write books; he carried a musket in the Revolution and became embroiled (often to his detriment) in the public controversies of his day. Even more dramatically, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry attempting to incite a slave rebellion ended with his death in a hangman’s noose, and proved him to be far more than a mere palterer with words.
So Trump will need to be more than a prophet. He needs to be what he most enjoys calling himself: a winner. If he wins, he is unlikely—to say the least—to transmogrify into a savior of the Republic. Charles Kesler has predicted that the most likely danger or disappointment of a Trump presidency is not that he will become tyrannical, but that, like Arnold Schwarzenegger occupying the governor’s office in California, he will become bored. After all, as Kesler cleverly observed, there are precious few people in the federal government to whom the president can say, “You’re fired!”
Trump is no statesman, or even a gentleman; he is no constitutional scholar, and apparently not even casually conversant with this fundamental charter of our government. And yet he may, perhaps, be that voice of the common man reminding us—at the very moment when time is has nearly run out—that our government has not quite slipped out of our grasp. That it still remains possible to reject the pretense and affection of the smug, bipartisan ruling class.
By breaking down the temple doors he may leave an opening through which some future unknown statesman or statesmen can bring the American people back to a reconsideration of first principles, and resuscitate a government “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.”
If that means a little vulgarity along the way, it’s a small price to pay.