Henry Olsen is in the front rank of American political analysts. His involvement in practical politics plus the depth of his scholarship allow him to see and grapple with questions other conservatives overlook. His spiritedness and defiance of conventional thinking earned him a regular column at American Greatness, where his insights should be as appreciated as they are prescient.
To highlight one major Olsen insight: For years, he argued that Republicans needed to appeal more to working men and women, those who lack college degrees but are every bit as able—in many cases, perhaps, even more able—to understand their interests and govern themselves. For years, he rejected as politically tone-deaf the cookie-cutter, checklist conservatism that prioritized tax cuts and benefits to business. A recent C-SPAN conversation surveys his major views. His 2017 study of Ronald Reagan, “The Working Class Republican,” argued that Reagan was the first installment in the kind of transformed Republican Party America needs. Olsen’s Reagan is a far cry from the ideologue favored and parroted by many activists on the Right, whether social conservative, libertarian, or globalist.
Given these views, one might think that Olsen would welcome Trump as the Republican Party savior, but the facts are quite to the contrary. Olsen earlier this month expressed great skepticism for the “Flight 93” case for electing Trump: “We did not just have the Flight 93 Election. We are at the beginning of the Flight 93 Decade,” one as fraught as the violent 1850s before the Civil War.
Olsen is judicious (and imprecise) in assessing blame. “Neither side is wholly right about their wildest charges, but neither are both sides wholly wrong,” he writes. We can avoid a second Civil War if we can hope to find a bipartisan moderation—yet, he regrets, Democrats will not collude with Bill Kristol! (Kristol and former President Clinton adviser Bill Galston are already at work on an independent, “no-labels” approach that advances the value of results.)
Has Olsen painted himself into an apolitical corner? Is he a partisan of Stephen Douglas (not that Douglas lacked virtues), at a Lincolnian moment? In other words, is he looking for compromise where none can be made?
Misinterpreting the Declaration
The 1850s comparison is misplaced because Lincoln made the Declaration of Independence indispensable. He was willing to compromise on everything but that. Policy could be disputed, but the foundation of American politics is, and must remain, theequal human dignity of all men, which is the foundation of self-government and the sovereignty of the people. Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, eagerly tried to discard it. But FDR was more clever and instead interpreted (or, rather, misinterpreted) the Declaration to co-opt it for his purposes of making Americans look to government to make them feel secure.
By trying to put contemporary politics in a broader context, Olsen ends up moderating not only Reagan but also Franklin Roosevelt. Americans’ fondness for FDR and their continued appreciation and acceptance of what Olsen calls “the public New Deal” is indisputable. It is visible even in such classics as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The FDR coalition at movie’s end rescues George Bailey (whom the heavens honor as the descendant of Tom Sawyer), “the richest man in town.” And FDR also appears at the end of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” though it is hard to imagine today’s liberals feeling such affection and admiration for the American flag.
The real Roosevelt (as opposed to the idealized version of Reagan and the movies) whatever you think of his policies, had a partisan mean streak in him that makes Trump’s self-aggrandizing ways look humble by comparison. FDR in his First Inaugural address compared himself to Jesus Christ and anointed himself as commander in chief, with citizens as conscripts in his personal army. In his 1944 State of the Union address, Roosevelt characterized 1920s Republicans as fascists. But Olsen, like Reagan (and maybe Trump), wants to work with winners and shuns trying to make something out of the underappreciated Calvin Coolidge or the misunderstood Herbert Hoover.
Olsen embraces FDR for his practical compassion, which he claims is Reagan’s as well. That’s what shapes Olsen’s sensible view of Reagan’s political touch. In his review of Olsen’s book, Steven Hayward quotes Reagan from a speech in October 1988:
You see, the secret is that when the Left took over the Democratic Party, we took over the Republican Party. We made the Republican Party into the party of working people; the family; the neighborhood; the defense of freedom; and, yes, the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to “one nation under God.” So, you see, the party that so many of us grew up with still exists, except that today it’s called the Republican Party.
The Current Crisis
Finally, Olsen is oddly at his weakest in the way he uses current controversies. In addition to the evidence of division from his Pew Poll observations, Pew offers evidence of agreement, as well: “A majority (54%) of white Americans and four in ten (40%) Hispanics believe Trump is looking out for them at least somewhat well, but only 11% of black Americans agree.”
He derides the new tax law as “Romneyism unmodified”—as though this piece were the whole of Trump’s agenda. On the candidacy of Roy Moore (someone who did not meet my expectations when I heard him speak, decades ago) he appears stuck in conventional views when he maintains, “there was a time when his rhetoric alone would have pushed him out.” But why is Moore speaking at all? About the Reconstruction amendments that are now interpreted to protect abortion and gay rights, about falling monuments to Southern generals that earn significant public support across the board, about dizzying changes on fundamental moral issues?
The crisis that confronts us today differs from those facing FDR or Reagan. The political issues raised by the Left rest on the advancement and honoring of private passions that were previously left private and were never intended to be the subject of democratic politics. That radical shift accounts for political divisions becoming unbridgeable. To counter, Roy Moore (among others) advances private religious belief. Against such deep-seated private passions, Olsen’s call for moderation is unpersuasive.
The Trouble with Tolerance
Olsen repeats this confusion in his more recent appeal for tolerance. Would that more Americans agreed that the first three of the four American character virtues he calls upon us to reinvigorate are virtues worthy of emulation: self-reliance, risk-taking, and “community-mindedness.” The fourth virtue he calls us to support is a robust tolerance, which is more an intellectual virtue than a virtue of habit. “We must remember,” he writes, “that America was never, and today definitely is not, a people bound together by shared blood, common cultural customs, or even religious beliefs. Of course, we should hold things in common, most especially our devotion to our ideal of measured liberty, but there are many that we do not share. Tolerance of different viewpoints or views of the good is difficult: ‘everyone is orthodox unto themselves,’ said Locke.”
But Olsen begs key questions here: self-reliance, risk-taking, and “community-mindedness” all have a basis in Tocqueville’s “Anglo-American” culture, which contains the twin principles of Western Civilization: philosophy or reason, and revelation or Scripture. That means there are limits to what we should tolerate. Moreover, toleration follows naturally in a country that rejected a crabbed interpretation of Olsen’s other virtues. This has been to an astounding degree a live and let live country. Up to a point.
In his “Time for Choosing” speech, which Olsen quotes, Reagan responded to an earlier version of this challenge during the Cold War under the threat of nuclear destruction and soul-destroying Communism: “Winston Churchill said that ‘the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits—not animals.’”
At the heart of today’s crisis is the failure to see the connection between our spiritual side and our American side. In place of such a fundamental question, we have instead the dogma of sex, race, and ethnic identity politics. Mere toleration is insufficient for these partisans. It is true but insufficient to say that “American citizenship is ultimately based on shared ideals.” (And, as Olsen knows, they are shared because they are true, not true because they are shared.) Olsen is rooted in the Reagan California we both knew in the 1980s. Back then, waving a Mexican flag at Dodger Stadium when Fernando Valenzuela pitched a game exhibited pride, not provocation. We are no longer in Reagan’s America—betrayed, I would say, by his successors both Democrat and Republican.
By making the debate between Democrats and Republicans, Olsen has simplified the conflict, which really is between the establishments of both parties, on one side, and Trump. To revert to Madison’s language, watch out for the faction, the majority faction. Who will defend the people’s rights against uncontrolled majorities, in particular, those who pursued disastrous trade, immigration, and war policies, enforced by an ever more stifling political correctness that threatens to stamp out their sovereignty in the name of tolerance?
Exposing the majority factions at hand, along with the need to redefine what an American is, lay at the heart of critical periods in American politics, the 1790s, the 1850s, and it seems today: So we hear monocrat, mobocrat; tyrant, traitor; elitist, deplorable. FDR referred to the most stubborn of his opponents as Tories. Harry Truman asserted a conspiracy of Nazis, racists, and plutocrats hid behind the Republican Party’s banners. No Republican presidential candidate has come close to offering such denunciations of their Democrat rivals.
“One Allegiance That Unites Us All”
Trump is the first modern Republican to return partisan fire in kind—and then some. No wonder those accustomed to GOP pushovers are shocked. But isn’t Trump, besides his remarkable winning coalition, in the best position to satisfy Olsen’s demands for real toleration and consensus? After all, he is the least conservative Republican presidential candidate since Gerald Ford, with his ambitions to renew infrastructure and health care. With a cabinet as conservative as his, he can compromise from strength when pressed.
The amazing candidate Trump is not out of surprises. “The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker,” the president told an audience of conservative activists earlier this year. “There is one allegiance that unites us all, and that is to America. America—it’s the allegiance to America.”
In this, Trump echoes Abraham Lincoln: “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.”
As for those who have a visceral disdain for the 45th president: Can Americans be this frivolous in choosing their future?
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