After President Trump’s speech last week to a joint session of Congress, the inanity that Trump “became President tonight” was the new mantra of many in the media. Both Fox News’ Chris Wallace and CNN’s Van Jones concurrently uttered this vain nonsense and the opinion was repeated endlessly by lesser lights.
What Wallace and Jones meant, presumably, is Trump exhibited the etiquette and manner—the moderation—they expect of a president. This triggered in the part of their brains responsible for hubris a new willingness to accept the legitimacy of a duly elected president.
President Trump’s speech illustrated something else as well. We have a very big problem in this country. The vanguards of elite opinion, Democrats, sat on their hands, refusing applause to the point of affirmative disapprobation, for the following words:
1) “Our obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States.”
2) “Above all else, we will keep our promises to the American people.”
3) “To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this question: what would you say to the American family that their jobs, their income, or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?”
4) “I have kept my promise to appoint a justice . . . who will defend our Constitution.”
5) “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
6) “True love for our people requires us to find common ground, to advance the common good, and to cooperate on behalf of every American child who deserves a brighter future.”
7) “Finally, to keep America safe we must provide the men and women of the United States military with the tools they need to prevent war and—if they must—to fight and to win.” And “We want peace, wherever peace can be found.”
Such stuff is axiomatic. In summary form it is:
1) A nation exists for the benefit of its citizens. Self-government, the consent of the governed, requires 2) not just campaigns but the honoring of campaign promises, 3) rule of law, and 4) above all, that the government itself is subject to law, the Constitution. 5) A non-partisan public spirit is necessary for the function of republican government. 6) This public spirit springs from love of country and all its people permitting popular political deliberation that subordinates narrow interests to a common good. 7) Nations should seek peace, not conflict, but where conflict is unavoidable, the object of war is victory and a return to peace, not indecision and perpetual conflict.
The bitter reticence of Democrats reveals these principles are broadly in doubt today. But this should be no surprise. The principles Trump articulates are antithetical to globalism, anti-constitutionalism, identity politics, and their concomitant, perpetual war. This antithesis is the bipartisan consensus overturned by the election of President Trump. Restoring self-government, the rule of law, and consent of the governed is a monumental task on the order of the cleaning the Augean Stables.
Fortunately, Donald Trump is a monumental figure for a Herculean task. He has great passions, great achievements, and yes, he exhibits great faults. But this is precisely the sort of person one should think is needed to fix—if it can be fixed—the crisis we have reached, a crisis where elite Americans have embraced opinions that are incompatible with self-government.
These wrongheaded elite opinions are the reason Trump stirs such outrage. For elites, the arc of history has essentially resolved all political questions in favor of globalism and identity politics, with the courts and bureaucracy defining the expansion of rights accordingly and extraterritorial disfunction managed with unending war. Challenges to this order—such as Trump—are, in the view of elites, profane.
The man or woman who the bipartisan, elite consensus expects to implement a political order defined by globalism and identity politics would necessarily be a modest person. The job of administration is properly given to someone with the demeanor of an accountant, a corporate lawyer, a utensil, a “modest man, who has much to be modest about,” to borrow Churchill’s line about Clement Attlee.
But such false modesty is not moderation, properly understood. Moderation is a virtue, a human excellence. As Aristotle described it, moderation is a habit of choosing the mean between too much and too little, particularly in matters of the body. The habit is formed through instruction and through practical reason engaging problems related to the appetite in the right manner at the right time for the right reasons. It is highly circumstantial.
Moderation does not look exactly the same for everyone. Something that may be too much for a man or woman of limited appetite, ability or position may be too little for a man or woman of great appetite, ability and position.
To illustrate, Aristotle gave the example of Milo, a wrestler and gymnast, who carried a heifer on his shoulders through the stadium and then ate it in one sitting. Virtue must be proportionate to the individual and his or her circumstances, and what was too little for Milo was too much for almost anyone else.
Human nature is an uneven thing; valleys and peaks are far removed from one another. In a political crisis in which the very idea of nation and self-government are rejected in the elite ranks, the defense of these fundamental ideas exposes one to the full might and asperity of elite society. Only an unusual person can withstand the blows and more important, have the cunning to land blows in return. The moderation of such a person is the moderation of Milo.
So if Trump tweets things that may be unsubstantiated—such as that former President Obama tapped his phone—is it obvious to all observers that this is an example of immoderation? What if it is a calculated effort to change public opinion in the face of unsubstantiated and often simply false narratives pronounced by elites (and, alas, invariably endorsed by characters wearing his own team’s jersey)? In the face of that kind of opposition, one has to ask whether what is too much to tweet for others is too little to tweet for Trump.
In this crisis, a politician who chooses the path of convention will quickly be brought to ruin, because the conventions are laid down to preserve the status quo. Those conventions include never directly questioning “progress,” confessing offense whenever offense is taken, and a compulsion to acquiesce to the claims of “progress” in the final analysis. But now the status quo—”progress”—has migrated to an extreme, and the maintenance of the status quo has become the very worst sort of immoderation. Behavior that seeks to break the status quo may appear extreme but, in fact, it is moderate given the man and the circumstances, just as it was moderate for Milo to eat a heifer in a single sitting.
Here it’s worth recalling the example of Stanley Baldwin, another of Churchill’s great political rivals. Baldwin headed the British government from 1935 to 1937, key years in which Germany rebuilt itself into a doomsday device. During that time Churchill railed against the folly of tolerating German rearmament and reoccupation of the Rhineland. Baldwin was simply preserving the status quo of avoiding conflict at all cost. Churchill believed that willingness to make war with a weak Hitlerian Germany was the only sure way to avoid another conflagration like the Great War, and nearly all corners of the British political world considered him an extremist for these views. He was widely considered to be a madman not just for “warmongering” but for his well-known extravagant tastes and behavior considered untrustworthy and erratic.
Below are “mean tweets” by Churchill about Baldwin:
- I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived.
- Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.
- He occasionally stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.
Comparing Trump to Churchill may sit unfavorably with some because Churchill’s political and literary genius are without comparison. But there is an undeniable similarity—Churchill’s moderation appeared extreme when he stood by himself advocating by any means available (there was no Twitter in those days, Millennial friends) positions that were thoroughly rejected by his elite peers who had unwittingly embraced extremism in the name of moderation.
And so may it be with the moderation of President Trump.