One of the most revealing moments of Donald Trump’s presidency so far went completely unnoted. “We all learned a lot,” he said following his recent discussion with the nation’s governors, which centered on his well-publicized support for arming qualified public teachers and staff. Speaking of the sheriffs who held back from entering Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during the February 14 shooting, Trump elaborated: “They don’t love the students, they don’t know the students. The teachers love the students and they want to protect those students . . . .”
Here Trump articulated the principle that governs his view of justice and politics—defend those you know and love. Later on in these exchanges with the governors, the president displayed his judgment in criticizing schemes for “hardening” schools with automatic door locks and even smoke bombs, reminding his audience of his career as a builder. Advocates of these and other measures know nothing of building and those who reject self-defense know even less about human nature.
Yet it is Trump whom our supposed intelligent observers mock for his alleged lack of intellectual heft and sophistication. Thus, my favorite writer at National Review, Richard Brookhiser, could write in a recent column:
Followers of Harry Jaffa, the most important Lincoln scholar of the last 60 years, rally round a Republican who does not know why the Civil War happened. Straussians, after leaving the cave, find themselves in Mar-a-Lago.
Of course, and maybe more to the point, Trump knows who won the Civil War and, unlike some of conservatism’s current and past intellectuals, he approves of President Lincoln. In his courageous memoir of his time at NR, Brookhiser recalls how Jaffa won him and other editors, including founding editor William F. Buckley himself, over to Lincoln.
In response to Brookhiser’s lament that Trump has somehow shattered Buckley’s influence on conservatism, my favorite psephological political analyst Henry Olsen observes:
Trump has given every element of the conservative movement what they want, save one. He has never given the movement intellectuals . . . a coherent argument for his vision that meets their approval and a demonstration that he is a serious man.
Perhaps these intellectuals should be open to the possibility that they are, again, missing something others—intellectual or not—see a bit more clearly. Trump showed his seriousness, for those open-minded enough to see it, with the governors. Arming qualified weapons-handlers among teachers goes to a general principle of fighting for the common good and defending the rights of those being tyrannized. The principle holds true, too, when it comes to trade, borders, wars, and terrorism: we should not think of ourselves primarily as victims, at our own expense and to the advantage of others. Citizens should not be lambs lining up for a slaughter. Trump’s talk in this instance, and in others, functions as a Franklin Roosevelt-style “Fireside Chat.”
Against Brookhiser’s elegant portrayal of a Buckley-elevated conservative movement subsequently destroyed by Trump and his followers, Olsen argues that “movement conservatism has been dying from sclerosis for years.” As he has elaborated in his American Greatness columns, he wants a revitalized conservatism that combines the talents of the two most successful American politicians of the 20th century: Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt. He would not annihilate Progressivism but roll it back to its bare bones, with government-supplied safety nets. Government would be strong but not oppressive. It would lift burdens, not create new ones.
Olsen contends that movement conservatism overlooked the views of “the plurality of Republicans,” who “aren’t movement conservatives at all.” And, he goes on, “most movement conservative voters care more about religious liberty and social issues than they do about the size of government, and that Trump has formed a covenant with them that allows them to overlook his many sins.…”
But this is too cynical a view of religious supporters of Trump. If we must speak of overlooking sins, why not also assail the morality of David, Solomon, and even the lowly Jephtha, all of whom delivered Israel at moments of peril? Or that prophet of “unclean lips,” Isaiah?
This distorts, it seems to me, the Christian interest in religion. Christians are religious not in order to become moral but because we hunger to know and love the Father-God who made us. As a consequence of such knowledge and love, we become more moral than they were, but this is a consequence and not a motive for Christians.
As Harry V. Jaffa criticized Allan Bloom for seeing the world primarily through books, so might Trump or his defenders criticize conservative intellectuals for disregarding the political souls of the voters—those celebrated first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book who may have a better grasp on the meaning of being “one nation” than some intellectuals may have.
Moreover, contemporary intellectuals generally disdain religion (Buckley being a major exception) in the name of an often atrophied notion of reason. As important, conservative intellectuals, entranced by Buckley’s run for mayor, were not serious about their politics, again in the name of the intellect. Not that they didn’t have many good ideas, including the founding of the Conservative Party in New York. But political seriousness was recognized in passing. Too often political discourse spoke to other conservative thinkers; involving the people, in the engine room of democracy, was unconnected.
Conservative intellectuals, as does their genus, overlook the two great poles of the soul and of the cosmos: politics and theology—the near and the far—of political philosophy. Here Trump, judging by his knowledge of human nature, seems closer to the great questions of life than are most intellectuals. And he has a seriousness about politics lacking in our national politicians since Reagan.
Thus, one sells Trump short by taking “Trump and Trump supporters seriously as an authentic expression of the modern American right.” They are, rather, an authentic expression of the American soul.
John Marini warns what a further delayed reconstruction of American politics might involve, from his essay “How the Ruling Class Rules” in the Winter 2018 Claremont Review of Books:
The verdict on America is not yet in, but as long as democracy includes the capacity to choose new leaders and transform political institutions, the rule by bureaucrat kings, however well organized and intended, remains precarious. If, on the other hand, the path of least resistance is to enjoy the benefits of rational rule rather than reestablish political rule, then only “the pitiless crowbar of events,” in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words, can reawaken the desire for freedom and self-government.
Which is the path of least resistance ahead of us now? Trump the builder is not this crowbar wielder, as much as some conservatives would like to portray him.