In “The Flight 93 Election” and subsequent writings, Publius Decius Mus presents the argument of voting for Donald Trump. Decius is a fool. In calling him a fool, I mean not to insult his intelligence. On the contrary, he is what Alexander Hamilton calls a “public fool.” He addresses his writings to the very audience most skeptical of his proposition. He knows few will read his argument carefully, and he knows he will never be a popular writer. Nevertheless, he performs a great public service. It is an extraordinarily rare occurrence when a learned master in the history of political philosophy states a controversial political opinion so spiritedly yet so thoughtfully. Indeed, a recent essay of Decius has raised the fundamental questions of political philosophy.
My intention is not to praise or condemn Decius’s counsels for how to vote in 2016. That task can be left to those who are actually U.S. citizens. My task, as a spectator, is to give Decius the careful reading he deserves, to see how he understands political things. This is an essay on Decius’s political science.
It is Decius’s conception of political science that grounds his argument for how to vote in the 2016 election. Decius reveals his conception of political science in how he answers three questions, what he considers to be the only three questions that matter.
First, how bad are things really? Second, what do we do right now? Third, what should we do for the long term?
Parturient montes, nascetur Decius Mus1
Decius’s answer to the first question orients his practical reasoning for the second question: vote for Trump, because things are “really bad”: namely, that the American body politic is rife with cancer. For conservatives, this cancer is liberalism. But they must realize that the body politic is increasingly liberal, and on the verge of becoming permanently so.
Trump, argues Decius, recognizes that three things are strengthening the cancer in the body politic: mass immigration, hyperglobalization, and protracted foreign wars. Trump sees that the economic and political interests of American citizens have been ignored in these three areas, and wants to change that. By changing policies in those three areas, the economic and political interests of Americans can be prioritized again, and it is possible—but no means probable—to heal the body politic. A vote for Trump is not a cure for cancer, but it is at least going in for chemotherapy rather than staying home and taking an aspirin.
Decius’s answer to the second question seems outrageous, because it sets aside every other consideration that might direct practical reasoning. The most obvious would be Trump’s serious deficiencies in virtue, both political and personal. Let us call those who make this argument “moral conservatives.” Moral conservatives argue that supporting Trump compromises the capacity of public figures to support the moral principles associated with conservatism. It threatens to tar these public figures, permanently, with hypocrisy.
Decius disregards this objection, but it is important to understand why. On one level, it seems that Decius is making a weak utilitarian argument, a lesser of the two evils calculus. He responds to Trump’s vices by noting that the same or worse vices apply to the Clintons. Trump’s vices are still the lesser of the two. But Decius’s reasoning is actually addressing something different. In fact, Decius does not think the character of the candidates has any decisive bearing on practical reasoning. If Trump’s policies were different, Decius would oppose him. Conversely, if the Clintons turned out to be for those policies, Decius would support them. After all, he says: “I would reelect Bill Clinton if I thought he would build a wall.”
Decius and the Best Regime
What sets Decius apart is that he rests his practical reasoning less on virtue and more on political science, the analysis of political things. Decius does not use the term in his first essay, but it is evident he is thinking of political science, and thinking of it in two ways.
First, Decius’s political science is not merely a descriptive science, but an evaluative one. Notice Decius’s first question: it is a normative judgement on the state of the Union. This indicates that Decius’s political science is a form of practical reasoning; for Decius, it must be the most comprehensive form of practical reasoning.
Second, Decius’s political science is motivated by a single question, prior to the three questions he poses above. It is a question that should be unsurprising to students of classical political philosophy, since it is the guiding question of Aristotle’s Politics and of his political science. That question is: what is the best regime?
In classical political philosophy, the question of the best regime arises because human beings pursue their excellence in common. When Aristotle writes that man is a political animal, he emphasizes that politics is the field on which human excellence shows itself. Every form of excellence therefore is in some way dependent upon politics. To reach excellence, human beings must live in the society most conducive to excellence. By taking human excellence seriously—by taking virtue seriously—and acknowledging that virtue is pursued in common, one concludes that man must live in the kind of political society most conducive to his excellence.
Moreover, one must bear in mind that political science is practical, that it must provide reasons for acting. Political science must seek out the best regime above all other concerns. While pursuit of this question would never demand that a single citizen sacrifice his own pursuit of human perfection by acting viciously, a single citizen’s pursuit of human perfection must not damage the common pursuit of perfection found in political life. Hence Decius’s ally Julie Ponzi writes this pithy phrase on Thomas More: “More made a martyr of himself; he did not ‘offer up’ his country.”
Now, one can answer the question of the best regime theoretically, imagining the best possible regime in the best possible circumstances, and consider a best regime with no actual political existence—a city in speech, as if were. If the best possible circumstances are not present, then pursuing the best regime is impossible (and likely to result in very bad regimes). So whatever Decius might think is the best regime in speech, Decius’s best regime must be the practically realizable best regime, possible to realize in the particular, contingent circumstances one faces.
When clarified, the question for American political science becomes: what is the practically realizable best regime, in the circumstances of the modern North American continent? Decius has a clear answer, to which he returns to again and again: constitutional republicanism.
Constitutional republicanism rests on the rule of the people. For the United States of America, it rests on the rule of the American people. For legitimate constitutional republicanism to exist, the whole American people must retain their ability to change the direction of government. In 2016, argues Decius, America is facing a fundamental crisis of legitimacy. The rule of the whole people, their capacity for self-government, is being threatened by an illegitimate oligarchy. As the best regime is that which is most conducive to the excellence of its citizens, this decay compromises every citizen’s pursuit of excellence. It makes prudent action more urgent.
Political Science and Prudence
With Decius’s concept of political science clarified—the identification and pursuit of the practically best regime—it is possible to relate political science to practical reasoning; in Decius’s own language, practical reasoning is the virtue of prudence. Stemming from his conception of political science, which identifies the practically best regime and seeks to pursue it, Decius sees the most comprehensive exercise of prudence as acting correctly in the correct circumstances to realize the practically best regime. Every citizen must try to do this, and if they do, then they display political virtue (this is how Decius uses the term virtù at the end of his first essay).
To restate Decius’s argument: voting for Trump is prudent. Trump would prioritize the economic and political interests of American citizens. This would re-assert the self-government of American citizens, which is required for the practically best regime, constitutional republicanism, to exist healthily again.
In arguing that constitutional republicanism is the practically best regime, Decius suggests that the truest form of political science concludes constitutional republicanism is the best regime. Inasmuch as political conservatism pursues constitutional republicanism, Decius identifies political conservatism with the truest form of political science. Decius thereby aligns the true political science, the pursuit of the practically best regime, and the virtue of prudence, to conservatism. A conservatism that does not pursue constitutional republicanism as the best regime is not conservatism at all. Decius challenges his critics who ostensibly agree with him about the content of the practically best regime to justify their categorical opposition to Trump. Either they disagree about whether constitutional republicanism is the best regime, and show they are good liberals. Or they agree, as “good conservatives,” but disagree that Trump is the best way to get there.
To refute Decius, these “good conservatives” have to show why the practically best regime is still realizable; or they have to show why other ends are more important than the pursuit of the practically best regime. Decius sees the responses conservatives have given him so far as evidence they do not seem to be thinking seriously about this question of the best regime. It shows the gap between their version of political science—really a version of applied moral philosophy—and Decius’s classical political science. The parry-and-riposte around Decius’s writings almost always concerns these issues. They are all addressed to Decius’s first two questions.
Decius’s Third Question
Yet Decius’s third question is equally if not more important. For it raises the limitations of his political science—limitations which can only be overcome by gaining greater clarity on how he addresses the fundamental problems of political philosophy. Decius establishes that prudence dictates a choice for the practically best regime. But what guidance does he provide for prudence in the long term? Decius provides some guidance if Trump is victorious, pointing to specific policy proposals as the sine qua non of realizing the practically best regime. But there is no such guidance as to what happens if Trump is defeated. This is a great weakness in Decius’s writings thus far. If Decius is right about 2016, and right about classical political science, then once America decisively leaves constitutional republicanism in the past, classical political science can no longer guide action.
Decius makes no secret of his Straussian approach to political philosophy. An effective engagement with Decius’s political philosophy, therefore, must come from within the Straussian approach to political philosophy. In the remainder of this essay, I shall engage with Decius from the point of view of Strauss’s “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero.”
In his “Restatement,” Strauss first responds to Eric Voegelin’s critique. Voegelin argues that Strauss is overstating the applicability of classical political philosophy to modern politics. For Voegelin, the issue is the limits of classical political science. It describes the best regime as constitutional government, but any descent to post-constitutional government, is tarred as a descent into tyranny. Voegelin observes that in a post-constitutional situation, absolute rule is not the same as tyranny. For example, one can think of a defence of how Julius Caesar and Augustus operated, faced with the inexorable decline of the Roman Republic. Absolute rule (“Caesarism”) could be justifiable, but classical political philosophy does not provide an analysis of this situation.
Strauss grants the point: to enter into the murky world of “post-constitutionalism” is to step into the most nebulous regions of classical political philosophy. This is the place where classical political philosophy is most scanty in detail, and most unclear about providing counsels how to act. Here, a vigorous application of classical political science will not immediately suffice. One needs a restatement of classical political philosophy, providing the vital principles for prudence. Therefore, if Decius wants to show the applicability of his political philosophy to the impending postconsitutional situation, he must provide the transition from classical political science, to classical political philosophy that Strauss only sketches in “Restatement.”
Decius’s pessimism argues that if Trump is defeated in 2016, the pursuit of the practically best regime has no practical realization. It is no longer practically possible, and conservatism dies. Calling to mind the Marxist arguments from the 1950s and ‘60s about the diminishing political prospects of socialism, Decius argues that conservatism has failed as a political project. By arguing that history is overwhelming conservatism, Decius threatens to consign conservatism to the dustbin of history. He emphasizes this right from very beginning of “The Flight 93 Election,” where he toys with the idea that history may be more decisive than conservatives usually believe. Decius believes there is an order in history. Yet against some misunderstandings of his position, Decius’s view is neither Progressivism nor left-Hegelianism, but Platonism. Decius holds to a cyclical view of history. Those who espouse conservatism but embrace left-Hegelianism through an unshakeable confidence in history are philosophically on the same side as Progressivism—and for Decius, are probably also politically. Decius does insist, however, that we are in the moment of descent. In our age,
the possibilities would seem to be: Caesarism, secession/crack-up, collapse, or managerial Davoisie liberalism as far as the eye can see . . . which, since nothing human lasts forever, at some point will give way to one of the other three.
It is not the End of History per se, but it is the descent into the Last Man:
One of the Journal of American Greatness’s deeper arguments was that only in a corrupt republic, in corrupt times, could a Trump rise. It is therefore puzzling that those most horrified by Trump are the least willing to consider the possibility that the republic is dying.
Just as in Plato’s Republic, Democracy will necessarily produce the democratic man (what Nietzsche appropriates as the Last Man); the democratic man will motivate the descent into tyranny, with that dangerous doctrine of Caesarism esoterically placed within that process. As the regimes descend, there is a time when political action is possible, but also a moment when political participation becomes impossible. To state the issue most sharply: one should refuse to participate in tyranny. To use an image from the Republic, as the storm looming over the polis intensifies toward tyranny, withdrawal from politics may become necessary.
How does Decius’s political science address this descent? It does not. Decius’s political science is concerned with the best regime, the one that is conducive to human perfection. Decius does not treat the details of this descent save for the list above. One can partially see why. The breakdown of a constitutional order, and its decisive replacement by “post-constitutional” politics, emits no sweet odour of nobility; it is “sophisticated rottenness” that is hardly a conduit to human perfection (On Tyranny, 180).
Post-constitutionalism paralyzes Decius’s political science. Recall that Decius understands prudence as the pursuit of the practically best regime: not the best regime per se, but the regime that could be pursued in particular, contingent circumstances. A drastic change in circumstances can make the practically best regime impossible to achieve. An action-guiding political science cannot therefore pursue it. Prudence cannot very well act to try and realize something that is impossible—one might as well try and realize the city in speech! Once the particular, contingent circumstances change, so that there is no reasonable prospect of the restoration of a republican constitutional order, the applicability of classical political science is called into question. Does Decius take us into that position?
With his repeated arguments for “comprehensive conservative failure,” Decius does.
Prudence and the Perils of Post-Constitutionalism
Following defeat in 2016, post-constitutionalism is here to stay. Decius consigns the remnants of conservatism to either collaboration or a permanent opposition. It is prudent to pursue neither strategy to realize the practically best regime: again, prudence cannot tell us to pursue something that is impossible to achieve. So what is left to do? Decius’s thinking allows us to consider some possible prudent choices, but commitment to any of these choices bears great risks. I therefore pose a series of questions to Decius, to help us navigate the post-constitutional situation prudently.
- Moving to the East Coast
Decius raises the Strauss and Kojève debate, inviting his readers to draw lessons for prudence from Strauss’s “Restatement.” Decius emphasizes one lesson: he asserts that Strauss’s defence of republicanism against Kojève’s cosmopolitanism means he would support Trump in 2016. This is a shocking statement. It will no doubt inspire some Canadian academic to write books on how Strauss encouraged the rise of Trump, subjecting Straussians to decades of persecution. Decius could learn the value of esoteric writing. He obviously needs to take East Coast Straussianism more seriously. As Decius defines it, East Coast Straussianism takes philosophic life as the higher way of life than the political life, and regards the philosopher’s concern for politics as a matter of self-preservation, of resisting political persecution.
Decius’s position invites this as a serious choice; Strauss himself invites it. Decius’s second education in political philosophy could start at the end of Strauss’s “Restatement”:
on the basis of the classical presupposition, philosophy requires a radical detachment from human concerns: man must not be absolutely at home on each, he must be a citizen of the whole (On Tyranny, 212)
Whatever Strauss may advise about voting in 2016, this passage does favor the East Coast Straussian turn away from politics to philosophy. The strength of East Coast Straussianism is how it raises the question of what is the best life, the question of human perfection, in light of the inability of politics to answer it completely. There is some hint of the imperfection of politics already in how Decius’s political science formulates the question of the best regime. After all, it concedes that one is pursuing the practically best regime, which is an incomplete realization of human perfection, not the actually best regime, which is a full realization of human perfection. Moreover, an awareness of the imperfections of politics would only become more acute in a post-constitutional situation. In these situations, when politics is so impoverished, would not prudence dictate a turn out of the storm of politics to the consolation of philosophy? That would be the most appropriate occasion. Elsewhere, Strauss writes:
for kingship in the highest sense belongs to the dawn of the city, whereas philosophy belongs to the later stage and the completion of philosophy—Aristotle’s own philosophy—belongs rather to its dusk: the peak of the city and the peak of philosophy belong to entirely different times. (City and Man, 37)
However, the risk with this choice, for Decius, would be that any adoption of East Coast Straussian tenets denigrates political things. For Decius, it is not prudent to turn away from politics to philosophy. This requires engaging with the problems of tyranny and Caesarism.
- Providing a Teaching on Caesarism
To be absolutely clear, Decius provides ample resources to refuse to participate in tyranny. But would Decius refuse to participate in Caesarism? If we have to choose between Caesars, by what principles do we guide our action?
Caesarism arises when the republican constitutional order has completely broken down, and there is no reasonable prospect of its restoration. As long as one recognizes that it arises in a corrupt time, there are some circumstances where Caesarism is necessary and legitimate. Decius provides no teaching on Caesarism. But in post-constitutional situations, a Caesar will arise.
From the point of view of Strauss’s “Restatement,” Caesarism raises a question as to the standard for evaluating post-constitutional rule. Should one defend a Caesar with the resources of classical political science, like Coluccio Salutati? A standard is possible: more fundamental to the distinction between good and bad regimes, there is the difference between good and bad (c.f. On Tyranny, 179).
Now, Decius cannot be advising us to see this difference between good and bad in the same terms as the moral philosopher would see it. I doubt he would tell us Vespasian was a bad Caesar because he kept mistresses, and occasionally gave them large gifts from state coffers. So what is the standard for judging Caesar? Strauss does seem to concede that post-constitutional rule is justified by “historical necessity” (On Tyranny, 179). Those who reach for a moral principle, like Cato, refuse “to see what his time demanded” (On Tyranny 180). Strauss is ambiguous as to whether Cato acted prudently. Decius is in a position to resolve that ambiguity.
If Decius resolves the case in favor of Cato, he establishes a clear principle for prudence—but as Cato did not act on the principle of trying to realize the best regime, his prudence cannot be called political. Decius has to explain by what moral principle Cato refused to surrender to Caesar. Decius would have to concede that there are some moral principles which transcend politics, which are of greater import for guiding action than the best regime (c.f. Natural Right and History, 144-45). Yet is this not what the moral conservatives have argued all along?
- Standing in the Storm of History
If Decius resolves the case against Cato, because Cato misunderstood the cycle of regimes and historical necessity, then Decius concedes that it was prudent to acknowledge that the Republic was finished. The energy of Decius’s argument seems to be in this direction. After 2016, his conclusion about Cato would imply that resistance to Caesarism, or managerial Davoisie liberalism, is futile because one cannot win. Republican constitutionalism is finished. It would be prudent, moreover, to stop supporting resistance in whatever imperfect form it might take, because its chances of victory are so slim. Alas, one frequently finds that those who cease fighting for a cause on the grounds of its being on the wrong side of history spend much of their energy convincing their former brothers in arms to stop fighting for the cause as well. Their actions then align with the actions of their opponents. For example, social conservatives are well familiar with their ostensible political allies telling them to stop fighting for “lost” causes. Ostensible political allies often become indistinguishable from the political opponents. For those who submit to the arbitration of historical necessity, then, there is but a series of small steps from defeatism to collaboration. As Strauss says in the full version of his “Restatement:” “et humiliter serviebant et superbe dominabantur.”2
Strauss is reticent about discussing cases of 20th century post-constitutionalism, but one can draw an example from the French political philosopher Simone Weil. Weil examined what had happened in France’s own post-constitutional situation of the Second World War, starting from May 1940. In L’enracinement (The Need for Roots), she argued that German military might alone could not account for the speed with which the French had gone from war, to defeat, to accepting the loss of their political sovereignty. Weil concluded that the French had been exclusively focused on their political state, their regime, and had ceased to consider the traditions of thought that transcended the regime and politics. When the chance of preserving the regime of Third Republic vanished, they were left with no higher reason or principle to resist capitulation.
To escape a capitulation to the movement of historical necessity would demand a fuller understanding of political philosophy. Decius must answer the question: how do we act prudently in the face of political defeat? Otherwise, during the long, drawn-out confusion of post-constitutionalism, we shall lose ourselves in the storm of history. To appreciate the gravity of acting prudently in defeat, Decius will appreciate a metaphor.
You are France. It is May 1940. The Germans have broken through the Ardennes. President Reynaud is prepared to fight, but his political virtues are doubtful and he lacks support within his own cabinet. Many already encourage surrender. You can decide to support Reynaud, certainly. But if he does not succeed in stopping the Germans, and leaves office ignominiously, then Paris falls, and all of metropolitan France. More than a defeat, it is a disaster: yet you must still act, and act prudently. Prudence must be given the philosophical resources to choose between those who say: “En ces heures douloureuses, il faut cesser le combat”3 and those who say, “Quoi qu’il arrive, la flamme de la résistance française ne doit pas s’éteindre et ne s’éteindra pas.”4
1 “The mountains will labour, and Decius Mus will be born.”
2 “Themselves obsequiously subservient while arrogantly lording it over others.” (Livy, History of Rome, XXIV.25.8)
3 “In these painful hours, the fighting has to stop.”
4 “Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”