This Election Year is No Time for Gentlemen

It's a metaphor.
Relax. It’s a metaphor.

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend somebody!” — John Adams1776

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.

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17 responses to “This Election Year is No Time for Gentlemen”

  1. Sharp piece, so expect to be savaged by the Pharisees of Conservatism, Inc. With that out of the way, let’s expand just a tad here:

    America has had its Golden Age and is now—as it inevitably must—leaving behind the days of republican liberty.

    Plato’s “Republic” has been consistently right. Tyranny inevitably follows democracy. If Clinton wins tyranny officially has prevailed. If Trump pulls it off, he buys us a little time to reorder and modernize our governing document and the arrangement among the states so as to postpone that sad but inevitable day. It isn’t ideal but better than the alternative.

    “American Greatness” has been sort of a digital Paine when one was sorely needed. Thanks.

    • It’s helpful to remember throughout history, there have been times of resurgence in a nation’s march to oblivion. A man steps onto the stage and makes a difference. I’m hoping Trump is that man. It’s a long shot, but it’s our best hope.

  2. The Never-Trumpers are generally straightforward, temperamental conservatives. As defenders of sobriety and decorum they are appalled byTrump’s brashness, egotism, and recklessness.

    The NeverTrumpers are conservatives in the sense of wanting to preserve the existing (liberal) order, in the sense of fearing change. They’re the sort of people who, if the US was a full-blown Communist state, would be defenders of that state. “Sobriety” and “decorum” are terms which are always used by the defenders of the status quo. I’m quite sure that in 1776 Washington, Jefferson and the other Revolutionaries were seen as brash and reckless and sorely lacking in sobriety and decorum by the one third of Americans who sided with the British.

    “Be not intimidated… nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberties by any pretense of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery and cowardice.” – John Adams

    Talking about the Constitution is meaningless, in a country while people do not agree on what the Constitution is or what it says. There are at least three different versions of the Constitution alive in Americans minds today. The first is The Constitution Mark I – the document ratified in 1788 and then immediately updates in 1789 via the Bill Of Rights. The Constitution Mark II was ushered in by the post Civil War “Reconstruction Amendments”. (Which were never ratified in accordance with Article V) The Constitution Mark III dispenses with the amendment process entirely and beginning in the 1970’s utilized the Supreme Court as a permanently sitting constitutional convention which can (and does) alter the Constitution any time it wishes. Given the dogs breakfast which is current US constitutional law, the wise man will not tie his fortune too closely to the Constitution.

    Effective and meaningful discussion requires that people utilize words and terms in an identical fashion, or nearly so. A great deal of bitterness and confusion occurs otherwise. One example of confusion and frustration is over the term “limited government”. Everybody on the right, and I suppose many of the left as well, will claim to be in support of “limited government”.. So how come we can;’t get it?

    While there are numerous different notions of “limited government” floating about, jet me point out the distinctive feature of the NeverTrumpers or “establishments” understanding of the term. By limited government they mean a government, control over which is limited to a narrow class of people. (Naturally, that class of people includes themselves) There exists a decently sized and steadily growing body of work arguing for exactly this position, from people who are nominally on the right. One example is The Myth Of The Rational Voter, by libertarian economist Bryan Caplan, which argues that citizens are not intelligent enough to be allowed to make (or cause to be made) changes in economic policy. Instead Caplan argues that economic policy decisions should be removed entirely from the political sphere. He thinks economic policy decisions should be made by economists – by people just like himself, in fact.

    Contempt for voters, or citizens as they were once called by people who respected them, is the distinctive feature of the anti-Trump faction. This is true regardless of whether we’re talking of anti-Trump “conservatives” or anti-Trump “progressives”. That’s the fault line in American politics, not concern over gentelmanliness.

    • We live in the time of Babel. The anti-Trump repubs are just like the progressives in that they think only they are qualified to tell us what to do. They take their orders from the Davoisie, instead of their constituents. They no longer have our Country’s best interests at heart.

    • This just needed to be highlighted and emphasized. It is precisely and concisely the hermeneutical lens through which to interpret the 2016 Presidential election (and Brexit):

      Contempt for voters, or citizens as they were once called by people who respected them, is the distinctive feature of the anti-Trump faction. This is true regardless of whether we’re talking of anti-Trump “conservatives” or anti-Trump “progressives”

      • Yes. The conservative NeverTrumpers I talk to don’t oppose him over conservatism; that’s just a rallying cry to try to get more conservatives to their side. They simply hate Donald Trump. If Ted Cruz or Rand Paul were the nominee and giving exactly the same speeches and promising exactly the same policies, they would be cheering him on and waxing poetic about how conservative his platform is. But because he’s The Donald, they won’t even look at his platform, lest they be tempted by it.

  3. Not bad. But how do you explain the betrayal of the repub base by those like Hayward?
    The GOPe has already destroyed the repub party. A Hillary victory will mean the end of our Country. How can anyone think what Trump says is worse than what Hillary has done and plans to do? You tiptoe around the issues, as if you’re afraid to offend anyone.
    The GOPe is going the way of the Whigs, regardless who wins in November.

    • The betrayers don’t know they’re doomed. They think a Trump loss will discredit Trumpism, all the Trumpkins will go back to ignoring politics, and they can regain control of the GOP and restore it to its proper place as the brake that slows the progressivism of the Democrats. If Hillary is as bad as expected, they see that as job security.

  4. “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.”

    It seems rather easy to see, in fact. The “cycle” inherent in “cyclical” describes the workings of the disease, not the specific features of the hosts. So the Founders did indeed establish a new order, as the Romans had before them, and both orders, along with many others in history, eventually succumbed to the same disease.

    But I completely agree re: the absurdity (my description) of insisting on gentlemanliness and “civil discourse” in the face of an opponent who respects neither.

      • Thanks. And for the link as well. The problem is I have seen numerous different html tags and can never seem to find the right ones to use in Disqus. But maybe that has now changed?

      • Blockquote italics links and bold are all I ever use, and they seem to work fine. Without the open and close brackets, so they’ll show, here’s what I use

        a href =”url”>link name

      • Disqus comment boards often block comments with html links. It seems to depend on the request of the site admins.

  5. Your article captured and clearly stated many thoughts I had on Trump and on the Constitution.

    My imagery is of the original Constitution as a sleek, beamy, classic wooden sailing yacht with lovely sweeping lines, sparkling paintwork and glossy rich teak prepared to be America’s vehicle. What she has become over the years is encrusted and dragged down by barnacles and garbage with ugly heavy planks amended on here and there, paint worn away and her wood splintering she rides slow and low in the water listing dangerously far to portside.

    I consider Trump will most likely govern in the mold of Bill Clinton, back slapping congeniality after the election animosity is over, and moving to the political center. But as Trump would arrest the HRC debacle, he could very well be a prophetic forerunner of a stronger conservative politician currently on the rise.

  6. Just read this, and thought it was worth mentioning here (to the few people who comment unless Jonas Goldberg is attacked). “Business Insider” has an article up titled The GOP must do something about the conservative media industrial complex if it wants to survive that completely affirms the elite view of citizens.

    The implied theme of the piece is: Voters are just stupid cattle, and conservative media manipulated and used them to its advantage. It liberally and sympathetically quotes Obama in Fl to “prove” its thesis.

    It completely misses the point. Citizens are driving the “revolution”, and the “conservative media industrial complex” has resisted it with few exceptions.

    Their contempt for the average American is such that the only explanation they can fathom is that the elite misled the people because otherwise they’d have to face the fact that the people can think for themselves.

    • That’s funny. But weird that BI is doing precisely what they accuse the “Conservative Media Industrial Complex” of doing.

      Considering even Fox has disappointed this season, and its ratings are proving this, it makes me wonder if these folks are all deranged.

      Who’s part of the CMIC, anyway? Certainly not Fox anymore. Not NRO, not any of the MSM.

      Breitbart and Drudge?