The arrival of a column by National Review founder William F. Buckley was almost always of some intellectual and literary significance. With his high command of the English language, Buckley would explore a vexing question of public policy or pillory an unsuspecting political opponent. He often made quick work of arguments that were logically defective and employed witty repartees with the skill of a gold medalist fencer.
The columns of the current editor of National Review, Rich Lowry, are something of a different nature. Though Lowry does see problems within the conservative movement and he seems sincerely to want to find solutions, his columns lately tend to slide into gauzy sentimentalism and thinly-veiled anti-Trumpism.
After all, the infamous “Against Trump” issue of National Review, whose only virtue was to show the world just how little pull the magazine has outside the elite conservative bubble, was Lowry’s brainchild. So it’s natural that he might feel as though he has something to prove.
Lowry’s analysis got marginally better once Trump became president, but he still offers banal but predictable assertions that fit the acceptable and conventionally respectable Beltway pundit narrative.
His post-inauguration columns typically go something like this: “Trump might be right, but—dammit—he’s Trump, so still a fool!”
In a recent column for USA Today, for example, he noted that the so-called “best and brightest” who comprised the 2016 Republican presidential candidate offerings foolishly thought that invoking Ronald Reagan endlessly would have the same effect upon Republican leaning voters that Dr. Pavlov had on his dogs when he rang a bell. As Lowry nicely put it, “The conventional Republicans in the 2016 primary race hewed to Reaganism as a creed frozen in amber circa 1981.”
align=”left” But this analysis misses the significance of Trump’s political message about returning the power over government back to its rightful master: the people. Who better to appropriate in this manner than Jackson, a man who was always skeptical of internal improvement projects and other government-backed ventures which too easily became the crony capitalist schemes of his day.
But Trump, of course, couldn’t be right on the matter. His “heterodox mix of policies” are simply a “jumble” of disparate aims with no underlying principle holding them together. Oddly, Lowry then ended his column by bemoaning Republicans who “have fallen hard for something else” (i.e., Trump) and hoped that “Reaganism…will emerge again.” Why Lowry suddenly thought reviving the Reagan Mystery Cult is the needed strategy for winning a national campaign when he so eloquently bashed that very idea earlier in the same column is incomprehensible to this reader.
Lowry’s latest op-ed in Politico is no better. That column, with the unintentionally satiric title “The Party of Lincoln,” is full of bromides and asides that are better left to late-night dorm room conversations. Lowry argues that Trump is trying to revive the legacy of Andrew Jackson à la Lin-Manuel Miranda’s attempts at recovering Alexander Hamilton.
If the scale of this comparison doesn’t seem quite right, well, that’s because it isn’t.
Yes, Trump put Jackson’s picture up in the Oval Office and visited The Hermitage, Jackson’s estate in Tennessee. He also recently invoked Jackson in a thought experiment about how to keep our nation together at a time of disruption and disharmony, but our illustrious journalist class was happy to pretend that Trump was ignorant of Jackson’s death before the Civil War. Lowry, piling on and wearing his credentials well, writes as if Trump mused about Jackson randomly and with blanket approval, without giving the conversation a proper context.
Lowry then turns to his main argument, which is that by citing Jackson with approval in this way, Trump is kicking the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to the curb.
align=”right” Trump’s invocation of Jackson in this limited way is intended to allow his anti-ruling class message to resonate with voters. And why this can’t be done without coming at Lincoln’s expense is a mystery. After all, though they certainly had disagreements, Lincoln and Jackson agreed that the principle of government by consent is the keystone of just government.
But this analysis misses the significance of Trump’s political message about returning the power over government back to its rightful master: the people. Who better to appropriate in this manner than Jackson, a man who was always skeptical of internal improvement projects and other government-backed ventures which too easily became the crony capitalist schemes of his day.
Trump’s invocation of Jackson in this limited way is intended to allow his anti-ruling class message to resonate with voters. And why this can’t be done without coming at Lincoln’s expense is a mystery. After all, though they certainly had disagreements, Lincoln and Jackson agreed that the principle of government by consent is the keystone of just government.
There is no zero-sum game in honestly appropriating past politicians and statesmen who agreed on principles for political purposes after their deaths. And there is no doubt that Jackson and Lincoln both would be appalled at the current state of our regime and the lack of obvious connection between the laws that govern the lives of Americans and their consent.
Further, Lincoln himself appropriated Jackson’s legacy on certain occasions for political gain, a point not missed by Lowry in his piece and yet, somehow, still lost. In light of sectional fighting in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, Lincoln happily told an audience how “General Jackson” swiftly “put an end” to the “Calhoun Nullifying doctrine.” After the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in the Dred Scott case, Lincoln noted Jackson’s efforts to maintain the idea that each branch has a duty to understand the Constitution independently of the Supreme Court’s interpretation.
Finally, Lowry’s contention that by using Jackson in this manner, Trump is casting off Lincoln as the standard-bearer of the modern GOP is the height of irony. This might be news to Lowry, but the Republicans did that themselves a long time ago. No help from Trump was required.
How Lincolnian is it to continually oversee the expansion of the administrative state (but, says the movement conservative, at least it’s at a slower rate!), increase the federal government’s role into affairs originally left to the states, spread “democracy” abroad thus violating the sovereignty of the people of other countries, and bow obsequiously to the idea of judicial supremacy? What would Lincoln think of a Republican Congress’s inability for years to pass an actual budget? And what would he think about Republican office holders clothing all the above in rhetoric fetishizing the Founders and himself?
Calling the modern Republican Party the Party of Lincoln is about as inapt as calling the modern day Democratic Party the Party of Jackson and Jefferson (that is, when the Democrats aren’t denouncing them as a racist deplorables). Lincoln wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party of today anymore than Jackson would the modern Democratic Party.
Living up to the standards of Lincoln is a lofty goal indeed. But by invoking Jackson, Trump is not doing damage to that legacy. In contrast, he is highlighting aspects of Jackson which Lincoln shared in order to re-orient our politics back toward the people’s interests and not those of the ruling class. Certainly, Lincoln and Jackson can both be cited and recommended for understanding this project.