On the eve of the election I want to express my gratitude to Donald Trump. The election of 2012 cast me into deepest gloom about the fate of what used to be my country. Never again did I expect a “conservative” majority to be able to win a presidential election. I recovered from it, over a long while, with the help of my daughter, by acknowledging that it was now “after America,” and that the only way to look was to what lay “after” it, to what was ahead. Neither of us expected Donald Trump. Who of us did?
Trump’s surprising emergence cast that after-future in a new light. From the beginning Trump framed the issue of the election in terms of the very possibility of our remaining a political regime, to say nothing of a country under the rule of law. Will we remain a place with borders, a defined location? Will we govern with the good of the governed in mind? Will there be a common good? Is there ground any more for common affection amongst ourselves, among those who are here? How might that be brought about?
Seeing the election in this way explains why this could be the last American election, and Donald Trump the last American. Of course, should he win, the last shall be first.
Much has been said about Trump’s character. Only Theophilus has approached the substantive truth of the matter. Aristotle in The Politics says that those who are going to rule in the authoritative offices of state ought to have three qualities. The first is “affection for the regime,” the second is “a very great capacity for the work involved,” while the third is “virtue and justice.” And then he adds with respect to the latter, “in each regime the sort that is relative to the regime.” It is astonishing how Trump qualifies on all three counts. His love for America and her political tradition, and his tremendous capacity for the work involved in executive leadership are his most evident characteristics. With respect to virtue, Theophilus made a persuasive case for Trump’s courage and prudence. I’d like to add another virtue to the list: the very Aristotelean virtue of magnificence.
Magnificence is the virtue regarding great expenditures of a private person, so it presumes great wealth. It is the virtue of great but fitting expenditures for great public goods. Aristotle mentions in particular the building of temples or the endowing of public feasts. In the case of Trump, not enough has been said of his spending of his own substance on his campaign, especially in the nomination phase. This did enable him to run independently of the donor class. He was able to campaign on matters he had thought about for years precisely because he had spent those years acquiring wealth. Trump’s spending of his own substance in the context of a last gasp attempt to keep America from dissolution, and to do so in the face of universal condemnation and contempt, qualifies in my eyes as the sort of noble expenditure Aristotle contemplated.
Perhaps one might raise the objection that Trump was inclined too much to make himself rather than the work the object of wonder, but that goes with the territory, the risk, of the sort of self-assertion Trump’s campaign involved. Yet I would say, as one who has listened to Trump’s speeches throughout the campaign, when I look at it in these final days, the campaign, the work, is what is wondrous, even to the now old campaigner himself.
Aristotle also indicates that magnificence particularly involves spending on things concerning the gods of the city, and that leads me to a final point. Political philosophers make much of “political religion.” Political religion is the use of poetry or rhetoric to bind the sentiments of the citizens to the regime. Far from demagogic, Trump’s rhetoric of political religion is well suited to the national conservatism he professes. A sentiment of affection for the country, for each other, for our history as Americans, is the condition for national progress. Only through this sentiment can a perception of what it means to be a citizen again emerge. There may be only a bare majority of us who can still feel that sentiment, but we will all be mobilized to the furthest extent on Tuesday, thanks to Donald Trump.
A very special wonder of the Trump candidacy has been the political thinking it inspired in many of us. That will remain, and continue, no matter which one of two completely different worlds opens up upon us with Wednesday’s morning light. So no matter what, thank you Donald Trump. Magnificent!