The Etiquette of the Late Dauphin or the Morality of Americans?

“I am the late Dauphin,” or so goes the line from Huckleberry Finn. American fraudsters long have sought to clothe themselves in the trappings of European aristocracy.

A permanent elite is alien to American culture. Being alien, it is altogether fascinating. The distraction opens the door to swindle.

Last week in City Journal, Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfield wrote: “A conference that I attended recently at the Chateau of Alexis de Tocqueville in Normandy brought me to confront Tocqueville with Donald Trump.”

As Chekhov said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Mansfield hangs a symbol of European aristocracy, a chateau in Normandy, on the wall. The next act comes quickly.

“As I have studied, taught, and translated the Frenchman . . . ” Mansfield doesn’t fail to inform his readers. The pretensions to the superiority of European aristocracy—it’s multilingual, you know—thus go off in the same paragraph.

The upshot of Mansfield’s opinion is that Donald Trump represents the weakness of democracy which Tocqueville had recognized and the Founders had sought to suppress.

Trump’s critics, of which Harvey Mansfield numbers as neither unique nor especially innovative, mistake etiquette for virtue.

Corrosive democratization, vulgarity, whether from Right or Left, is what today most threatens the American Republic. Trump, he insists, is the embodiment of the weakness of popular government, a demagogue of the Right who has hacked the constitutional and extraconstitutional bulwarks and procedural thickets to access the Oval Office.

Mansfield does not mean to credit Trump, who Mansfield notes—sacre bleu!—doesn’t read, with having cracked the American constitutional code. By Mansfield’s account, Trump is more Mr. Magoo than Caesar.

“Trump is great,” Mansfield says, “mainly in the amazing extent of his pettiness and willingness to level insults at his rivals.”

This goes to the heart of the matter. As I noted early on, Trump’s critics, of which Mansfield numbers as neither unique nor especially innovative, mistake etiquette for virtue.

Mansfield, a bookworm effeminate—even by Cambridge standards⁠—hilariously, is celebrated as an expert on manliness. He has made part of his career analyzing manliness as an ingredient of good government and happiness. Odd indeed, as Mansfield’s public persona evokes thoughts of a shy and diminutive Freiherr at a Viennese waltz, whose importuning to cut in is too soft to be heard over the shuffling of dance shoes.

Through mastery of this docile etiquette, Mansfield has remained in good standing with his peers. His colleagues at Harvard tolerate his stances urging the preservation of elements of the American regime progressives hate, one supposes, because Mansfield makes points so lightly they are not taken seriously.

Un chat dégriffé (a declawed cat) makes a fine chateau pet.

Trump, probably because he is temperamentally incapable of it, lacks the etiquette of the class of technocrats, really petty bourgeoisie, that at once service and compose the centers of power—D.C., New York, Hollywood, Silicon Valley—of the American regime.

This etiquette acts as a sorting mechanism, determining who may be admitted to the ranks of power. Master the etiquette, ape the posture and speech of the credentialed class, and the most grotesque venality may be overlooked, as the Jeffrey Epstein affair reveals.

But—au contraire, learned Mansfield—this is not the etiquette of the Founders, who embarked on a civil war with English nobility, signing their names large enough for the king to read without spectacles.

When the boldness of civil war abated, the American etiquette the Founders imagined would facilitate the election of representatives to hold office and to carry out, on behalf of the people, key responsibilities of the national and local governments.

A federal republic, as the Founders saw it, takes a certain kind of citizen, one that particularly values a certain etiquette above all others: the respect for the results of elections.

Jefferson put it this way in his first inaugural address, “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority.”

This acquiescence is a form of self-respect, as it insists above all on self-government—freedom for the whole of the citizenry to pursue excellence through deliberative politics —as the highest feature of government.

Trump—due in no small part to the eruption from the petty bourgeoisie of the regime, whether as #TheResistance or the conduct of the FBI or the “intelligence community” or the disgrace of the “not my president” claque—has come to embody this etiquette in his person and, more importantly, in his tenacious and lawful defense, in the face of shocking lawlessness, of the prerogatives of an elected president.

If the soulcraft of statesmanship is to model the virtues of the good regime, Trump, in embodying the spirited defense of self-government against interested ranks who would seek to form a permanent ruling class, has the very best etiquette—indeed a great morality.

About Jay Whig

J. Whig is an attorney practicing in New York and a resident of Connecticut specializing in insolvency and restructuring. Opinions are his own.

Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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