Natural Right and Historicism

Paul Gottfried has responded to a speech and an essay of mine which he interpreted as an attack on him, or on his position.

I intended no such thing. While I did criticize (unnamed) “conservatives,” I didn’t have him in mind at all. I have never thought of paleoconservatives as “historicist” in the sense in which I used the term in that speech, nor did it ever occur to me that any of them thought of themselves as such. I am not even sure, in rereading Gottfried, that we are using the term to mean the same thing.

I used it to mean the idea that all thought, and all standards of morality or justice, are timebound. That is, they cannot be understood except via appeal to their “context,” which determines their validity. A certain practice might be correct or acceptable in a given time or circumstance or context, but not in another, solely because of “the times.”

This is not the same as noting that different circumstances require different responses, and that what is right in a given time might be wrong in another, or vice versa. Certain extreme measures might be justified to meet an extreme emergency—for instance, revolution against a formally legitimate state behaving illegitimately. But those same methods might properly be deemed insurrection against merely unpopular measures conducted by a legitimate government.

The American Revolution was justified; were the Shays or Whiskey Rebellions? They might be encouraging signs of a spirited populace willing to take risks to protect its liberties, but they were also fought over issues hardly justifying armed rebellion against the government. It does no good to appeal to Jefferson that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” for in that same letter he immediately goes on to say that the salutary purpose of rebellion is make the government cautious of trampling on natural rights, but that rebellions must nonetheless be put down and punished (though not too harshly).

I may as well note here that I expect some to reply: yes! The Shays and Whiskey Rebellions were great! We need more like them! Fine, but do you mean that in Jefferson’s spirit or some other? Jefferson is not calling for endless revolution, much less is he saying that there is some natural right to rebel against any government edict that goes against you, much, much less is he saying that there is no standard that determines a government’s legitimacy.

If there is some alleged right to rebel as one pleases, first of all, that would depend on the existence of . . . natural right. Or are only heirs to the Anglo-American tradition entitled to rebel and all others obligated to endure tyranny in perpetuity? Second, this alleged right would lead to anarchy. It would be silly to call it anything else. If people can obey the law, or not, as is their wont, then there may as well be no law, which is the very definition of anarchy. I know there is a lot of overlap between libertarianism and paleoconservatism, but here I thought was a relatively bright line: the libertarians favor, or at least don’t fear, anarchy, while the paleos quite properly abhor it.

The point here is that in all these cases, there is an external standard by which to judge, one not invented by man nor depending on his preference or whim. At the most basic, commonsense level, that’s all natural right is: the notion that we humans don’t get to choose what right or wrong are. They exist, if not independently of us—they are inextricably bound to our nature—at least independent of our will. Our role is to determine what is right or wrong in a given circumstance, based on a standard we don’t set, and then behave accordingly.

Historicism declares a standard, but then declares it timebound, and hence changing. At a deeper level, historicism declares that all standards are timebound because all human thought is timebound. Men in a given era believe X, but that is because they are alive in that era. Men in the next era will believe Y, with Y being just as (in)valid in any objective sense as X, and so on throughout history. There is no possibility of a universally valid insight, of nonhistorical thought, or of a truth that transcends time.

Except this must mean that historicism itself is a historical insight, which must, as such, one day be supplanted. But historicism, or at least one branch of it, denies this. It claims rather that history has a direction or trajectory culminating in the historicist insight—the one insight that is, finally, true for all times. Its conclusion may be rendered as: all human thought used to be timebound, but historicism isn’t; it’s the insight that reveals all prior thought to be timebound, the final insight. As Leo Strauss put it, “Historicism thrives on the fact that it inconsistently exempts itself from its own verdict about all human thought.” I know Gottfried is skeptical of Strauss, but I don’t see how one can escape his conclusion here.

The branch of historicism Strauss calls “rational historicism” solves this problem by asserting that history has a culmination or end. This idea was famously popularized by Francis Fukuyama in 1989 and reaffirmed by him many times since, including quite recently. “Conservatives” laughed at him then and laugh at him still. My problem with conservatives in this is not their skepticism of Fukuyama—I think they are, or would be, right to reject the end-of-history thesis—it’s that in reality, they accept what they profess to reject.

My criticism in the speech to which Gottfried objects is that many conservatives say they’re for the American founding and its self-evident truths, but then attack as potential insurrectionists anyone who points out the possibility that the present corruption of that regime is decaying and may one day end. That regime, they say, is final, immutable, and forever. Its legitimacy cannot be questioned. To criticize it is to be disloyal, even seditious.

I think that’s obviously wrong, and my criticism of this has nothing to do with paleoconservatism. I think it’s safe to say that Gottfried and I see the abuses of the present regime in much the same way. We are equally alarmed by them. We think they are immoral and unjust.

Tradition as a Safeguard?

The question then arises why or on what basis do we think so. Gottfried appeals to the traditions of the Anglo-American world. I have nothing against that world; in fact, I would be delighted to live in it once again. But I do have the following reservation.

Gottfried, I know (because he has written about it) is Jewish. I am 100 percent descended from Mediterranean immigrants who came to the United States after the Civil War. Neither of us, therefore, is Anglo, and neither is related by blood to any of the men who founded the United States, or even were Americans at the time of the founding. It seems to me, then, that neither of us can be, strictly speaking, heirs to the Anglo-American tradition.

And yet we both claim to be American, to possess certain unalienable rights, and to be outraged at the ways the present perversion of the founders’ regime treats disfavored American citizens. Why?

I don’t think an appeal to tradition cuts it. For one thing, if the Anglo-American tradition confers rights upon us outsiders to that tradition, why wouldn’t it logically confer the same rights on other outsiders—on any and all outsiders? Yet I am certain that Gottfried and I agree that America has, and has had for some time, far too much immigration and that immigration should be sharply limited.

But on what basis can we say that? Do would-be immigrants have a “right” to come here? I assume Gottfried would agree with me that they do not. Why not? I would say: because America is a regime, constituted by a sovereign people, who instituted and now maintain their government via a social compact. Gottfried’s ancestors, and mine, were admitted to that compact by the consent of its existing members. I believe that, right now, it is unwise to admit new members. I would like the sovereign American people—the currently existing members—to limit immigration via the political institutions they (ostensibly) control. What would Gottfried say?

We would also have to note that both Gottfried’s and my ancestors were allowed to leave their respective homelands to come to the United States. The right of emigration, according to the American founders, is a fundamental natural right, indispensable to the principle and practice of consent. This is not to say that our ancestors’ former rulers let our forebears leave out of deference to natural right. In fact, many—most—rulers throughout history have tried to prevent losing subjects through emigration. The whole doctrine of jus soli—not incidentally the basis of so-called “birthright citizenship”—is based on the notion of perpetual subjectship, of obligatory allegiance to a crown that can never be renounced. This doctrine was in fact part of the “Anglo-American tradition” to which George III appealed in denouncing the American Revolution as illegitimate. By what right does Gottfried think his ancestors were allowed to leave wherever they came from? The pleasure of the sovereign? If so, by what right does he speak of right?

I assume, also, that Gottfried and I agree on the evils of the gulag and Nazi concentration camps, to say nothing of other foreign atrocities. But how can we object on the basis of Anglo-American tradition, when none of the peoples afflicted had any connection to that tradition? I object to those atrocities because they were wrong simply, by nature.

Thus my reservation about paleoconservatism is less that it’s historicist, and certainly not that it’s “rational historicist” in the manner of those “conservatives” who believe America to be immune from fundamental forces that have bedeviled all regimes since politics began. It is rather that I think paleoconservatism tries to place onto tradition more weight than tradition can bear—a weight that only nature can bear. This is not, contra many paleo rejoinders, a dismissal or denigration of tradition. I am all for tradition—so long as it’s a good tradition. And the only way to judge that is to be able to appeal to some standard outside and above tradition.

To come back to George III, what was to stop him from asserting that English rule over colonial subjects was an English tradition? Which, in a sense, it was, since from their earliest days, all English colonies owed their existence to charters from the king, most of which had royal governors answerable only to him. Self-governing Massachusetts Bay was a notable exception but not one which can carry the entire Anglo-American tradition of liberty. (Besides, surely neither Gottfried nor any other paleoconservative considers himself the heir of Yankee puritanism!)

Nor is it irrelevant to note that the rights most commonly identified with the Anglo-American tradition were those won in revolution, for instance in the parliamentary revolt against Charles I and the Whig junta ouster of James II. But a revolutionary act by definition cannot be the product of tradition. It can create a new tradition, but it is always undertaken in opposition to existing tradition, for the sake of something above tradition. This is why, as my colleague Glenn Ellmers recently pointed out, the American revolutionaries, feeling they were getting nowhere with this argument, stopped appealing to the “rights of Englishmen” around 1775 and started appealing to natural right and never looked back.

Gottfried also correctly distinguishes natural rights and natural law from natural right. So that we not veer into graduate seminar territory, I will leave a fuller discussion of these distinctions for another time and say here only that both natural law and natural rights, plural, are derivative from natural right, singular; thus, before the first two can exist, the third must exist. Natural right is, in Aristotelian terms, prior in the order of being. Since the whole question under dispute is the existence or nonexistence of natural right, this point is not unimportant.

I wish to reiterate here that my original speech was not an attack on Gottfried or paleoconservatism; I had neither in mind. It was a criticism of our common adversary “Conservative, Inc.” (a term Gottfried himself coined). In fact, the notion that history has a rational, progressive direction pointing toward an eventual fully-rational, expert-ruled, tradition-free “universal and homogenous state” is just about the last position I would attribute to paleoconservatism.

Why This Matters

To those complaining that more pixels should be devoted to such discussions, my first response is: no one is forcing you to read it. There’s plenty else to read on this website alone, to say nothing of others. Read those.

To those interested, but still wondering why it matters, I reply that these theoretical differences matter for the sake of the truth and also for the future. First, it is useful to have a standard by which to judge—and criticize—the present regime. The natural right standard is both more integral to America—just read what the founders said and wrote—and more appealing to those who, like Gottfried and me, can trace no lineage to the Anglo tradition. The reason the treatment of the January 6 defendants is outrageous is not because of some Anglo heritage that most of them likely don’t possess but because their natural rights are being violated, and the first duty and object of government is the protection of God-given natural rights. This is both true and an idea that hundreds of millions of Americans can rally around.

Second, contra the historicists, the United States as currently constituted will not last forever. Like all regimes—like all human things—it will perish. Something will have to be founded on its ashes. On what basis? Will the Anglo-American tradition suffice when so many of those who will want to join that new country will have no connection to that tradition? And, perhaps more to the point, how much inspiration will the “Anglo-American tradition” really provide after it’s obvious to all but their partisans that the final iterations of both England and America were grotesque parodies of their former selves: vile, woke managerial oligarchic tyrannies?

My friend Peter Berkowitz is, I may say, in but not of Conservative, Inc. He works and travels within its institutions but is too smart and too learned to fall for its stupidities. He also took exception to my speech, on the grounds that present conditions aren’t as bad as I say. I am always open to that argument, and even hope to have it proven to me. Only a nut enjoys pessimism. For my part, I pine for the days when it was reasonable to look forward with hope. (Although, as my friend Charles Haywood would say, “These are those days!” Maybe. But only, as he would be the first to admit, after a calamity that would destroy much of what we both learned as young men to revere. He would then say “But that’s already been destroyed”—and I’ll stop there, lest I get too much further off track.)

Peter’s criticism was respectful—indeed, so respectful that Francis Fukuyama himself weighed in to chide Peter for being too “gentle” with me. Fukuyama didn’t specify what I had said that warranted ungentle treatment, but if I had to guess, it was my assertion of the continued relevance of the right of revolution. Fukuyama—our time’s most devoted partisan of rational historicism—must believe, if he is being consistent, that the right of revolution has been forever consigned to the ash-heap of history. No wonder he objects to my saying the opposite.

At any rate, I hope Peter does not take it amiss if I say here what I said to him privately. It seemed to me that all he really said in his article was something that my speech had already acknowledged, namely that some conservatives admit as a theoretical matter that the right of revolution exists, but insist that it is inconceivable circumstances will ever again reach a point where it is justly invoked. I still maintain that this is historicism. That’s entirely apart from our differing views on the present situation. I could agree with Peter entirely on the latter and would still disagree on the former.

Which brings me, finally, back to Damon Linker. He disputes my account of our past interaction, as I expected him to do. We may as well leave things there. If Damon’s comfortable with what he did, that’s between him and his conscience.

But I do want to clear at least one thing up: I did not refer to Damon as a “former friend.” I never considered him a friend. He was someone I was asked to help, and did, who then betrayed me (admittedly in a not-very-consequential way) and then went on to betray others in far more consequential ways. I barely know, or knew, him. Many who knew him a lot better, whom he used far more egregiously than he used me, were (some have departed this world) and are far angrier at him than I ever was.

That said, I agree with Linker on one thing: let’s turn to substance. He says that “the six figures [I] criticize in [my] piece are guilty of having abandoned or rejected natural right.” Actually, in Linker’s case, I didn’t accuse him of having “abandoned” it since my contention is that he never believed in it in the first place. Linker now says he does and denies ever having been against it. I have no way of knowing if he’s sincere, but I also don’t care. Not that he needs or wants my permission, but my view is that he should hold whatever views he wants without feeling the slightest need to pretend to think something he doesn’t, however disreputable that view might appear to others. I thought looking into the abyss was supposed to give one courage and confer indifference to bourgeoise criticism?

A main point of my earlier piece was to show the inconsistency of denying natural right and being perpetually outraged at Donald Trump. I repeat here what I said there: any time someone speaks of right and wrong, just and unjust, and so on, they are implicitly appealing to that theory.

Linker admits that this is true, but then strawmans me into saying that “Donald Trump (of all people!) is natural right’s great ally and defender against its myriad enemies” and into claiming that “I and [my] political compatriots are alone in upholding eternal moral standards.”

I actually do think that Donald Trump, without knowing anything about the theory of natural right, is a commonsense defender of it, in the same way that Allan Bloom defended Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech on the same grounds in The Closing of the American Mind. But I hardly talked about Trump at all in my essay, and certainly didn’t make the claim Linker attributes to me. All I said was that those who bleat most loudly against Trump are, ironically, those mostly likely to poo-pooh the idea of natural right.

Linker then goes on to ridicule me for allegedly not understanding that natural right is complicated. I, you see, “believe [I] possess fixed, eternal knowledge of moral truth.”

Well, sort of. I do believe that natural right exists and is coeval with man, and so in that sense is fixed, eternal (so long as there is man), and a moral truth. Here I am only following Aristotle:

Of political justice there is on the one hand the natural and on the other hand the conventional, and natural is that possessing the same power everywhere, and not by being held or not, while conventional is that which to begin with makes no difference whether [it] is thus or otherwise, but when it is established, does make a difference—such as that a prisoner’s ransom is one mina, or that a goat ought to be sacrificed but not two sheep, and in addition as many matters as are legislated pertaining to one case, such as that sacrifice is to be made to Brasidas, and voted decrees. It seems to some that all are such, because that which is by nature is unchangeable as well as having everywhere the same power—even as fire burns here and among the Persians, but they observe that the just things change. [Nicomachean Ethics V 7, 1134b18–24]

Does Linker deny any of that? I assume he must, or else why call me a simpleton for believing it?

Linker then says that “for Plato and Aristotle, natural right wasn’t some table of self-evident moral commandments written in the book of nature, easily discerned by common sense or the exertions of ordinary reasoning.” The first half of this statement is correct, but hardly news to anyone who’s studied philosophy in even a rudimentary way. Linker sneaks this in to imply that I don’t know it, or that my own position contradicts it. But it’s something I have never denied, not in the article to which Linker objects nor anywhere else. True, I didn’t go into it in my recent essay, because it wasn’t relevant to the topic.

Whether Linker intended to or not, what he’s pointing to here is the distinction between natural right and natural law. Plato and Aristotle are doubtful of the possibility of the latter but confidently affirm the former. Later thinkers, Aquinas most fully, fleshed out a theory of natural law. It is an open question whether they ever satisfactorily addressed all of the initial doubts about its possibility. Leo Strauss appears to believe they had not and seems, if not necessarily to reject natural law outright, at least to prefer natural right.

The second half of Linker’s statement is more dubious, or at least is at most partially true. Plato and Aristotle do seem to believe that the basics of natural right are, for the most part, understandable by the ordinary citizen; they correspond roughly to the Ten Commandments’ Second Tablet. But this fact alone does not make natural right a sufficient basis for a sound political order. There must be laws, which men must be habituated to obey. Hence the Ten Commandments are commandments, not suggestions or reasons. Human nature is not such that the majority can simply be reasoned into good behavior, even if the reasoning behind most laws—no murder, no theft—is obvious. And there will always be some who are so inordinately selfish or impulsive that only the certainty of sanction will make them behave. The best laws are those most closely hewing to the requirements of natural right.

The real issue here, which Linker inadequately addresses, is the distinction between the normal and the extreme situation. In normal times, natural right is knowable to almost everyone, and thus is more or less adequately embodied in human law. In the extreme situation, this certainty breaks down. It is here that ordinary common sense is, more often than not, unable to discern the right course of action. Philosophic reflection and statesmanly prudence are required. And in such situations, the laws that embody ordinary commonsense may be inadequate to the task.

A story in Xenophon illustrates the point. Before young Cyrus of Persia goes off to war, he converses with his father, the king, who advises his son that, despite what the strict Persian laws have taught him, deception is not merely permissible but admirable in war. Cyrus observes that the Persian education and laws strongly condemn deception, and asks why he hadn’t been taught this exception before. His father replies that the Persians tried teaching that, but the result was that clever and unscrupulous men used the teaching to cheat compatriots. So the Persians resolved instead to make the basic education and laws unambiguously condemn deception, then teach the methods of deception covertly, against animals, and reveal its proper use against men only on the eve of an actual emergency. (Cyropaedia I 6 28-35.)

Why Natural Right?

To say that “natural right is nothing more or less than the outcome of a wise man’s prudent deliberation on the right course of action in a given situation,” as Linker does, is incorrect. I assume he is misinterpreting this passage from Strauss’ Natural Right and History:

When speaking of natural right, Aristotle does not primarily think of general propositions but rather of concrete decisions. All action is concerned with particular situations. Hence justice and natural right reside, as it were, in concrete decisions rather than in general rules. It is much easier to see clearly, in most cases, that this particular act of killing was just than to state a specific difference between just killings as such and unjust killings as such.

The point is not that there is no external, non-human-created standard. It is that general rules of conduct cannot anticipate every situation. This is the core problem not just with natural law but with all law: It cannot in advance provide for situations in which what the letter of the law commands is either inadequate or even the wrong thing to do, but those situations will surely be faced. The standard, however, remains—and remains the basis for sound judgment and sound decisions.

Strauss makes this clear on the same page: “Yet one can hardly deny that in all concrete decisions, general principles are implied and presupposed.” Also: “These principles would seem to be universally valid and unchangeable.”

Lest one try to wiggle out of the conclusion on the basis of the qualification “would seem to be,” Strauss goes on to explain that the common good—above all the survival or independence of a people—is the consideration that can stress the ordinary understanding of justice and legitimize departures from it. Even so, this doesn’t necessarily mean there are no immutable rules, much less that there are no immutable principles. Aristotle famously says there is no right way, time, or person with whom to commit adultery (Nicomachean Ethics II 6, 1107a-15-18). I would also note, for those who like to concern troll my Hillsdale and Claremont colleagues and me, that we believe Lincoln was correct, on the ground of natural right, to say that slavery was simply wrong. The question of what to do about that wrong is another matter, but one which must be informed by the very wrongness of the thing in question. Would Linker deny that?

In sum, natural right is external to the prudent man’s deliberation; it is what he discovers via his deliberation. To the extent that he is truly prudent, he discerns the naturally right course of action—“right” in the sense of both “moral” or “just” and also “successful.” Deception may be successful in ordinary times, but it is not moral or just. It is, or can be, just and even necessary—we may say, just because necessary—in extraordinary times. This is presumably what Aristotle means when he says that natural right is changeable. But he nonetheless maintains, as the above-quoted passages make clear, that the standard of justice remains outside man’s will. For those who wish to judge for themselves whether Linker or I are truer to Strauss’ understanding, I point you to Natural Right and History, Chapter IV, especially pp. 156-164.

Linker goes on to object—as many have done, and as I predicted they would—to my discussion of the right of revolution. He’s too well-versed in the topic to deny that the right exists. Like Scarlett O’Hara objecting not that Rhett Butler knows about pantalets, only that he talks about them, Linker objects to my discussing the right of revolution.

He denies my central contention: that those who deny the right, or admit it in theory but insist a circumstance in which it may rightly be invoked will never again recur, are historicists. Well—what else would we call them? What other reason would forever obviate the natural right of revolution if not a historical process that had obsolesced it? I would love to see an explanation, but Linker doesn’t provide one.

I note also that in his rather weak defense of Bill Kristol, Christian Vanderbrouk and Charlie Sykes, Linker nowhere acknowledges the heart of my complaint: that they falsely accused me of calling for violence. It’s slippery, to say the least, to object to my objection without even referring to the thing that occasioned my objection.

Linker compares me unfavorably to Harvey Mansfield, which is fair enough—I compare myself unfavorably to Mansfield, and did so in the prior article. But bringing up Mansfield only serves to illustrate the main point of my earlier article. Unlike those I criticized, Mansfield is able and willing to speak reasonably with those who voted for, and even supported, Trump. He hasn’t shut down dialogue, much less demonized and libeled former friends. I admire this, and am grateful for it.

Linker assumes he knows what motivated Mansfield’s 2020 vote. Does he? I don’t. I do know that Mansfield’s vote was the same as mine, despite Linker’s attempt to separate us. Apparently, in Linker’s world, there are good and bad (or pardonable versus unconscionable?) reasons for voting for Trump and mine were bad.

But that position seems shoehorned into Linker’s piece in order to exonerate Mansfield, a man Linker also professes to admire. To quote Mansfield, “if the preacher told a joke, then how can he be a preacher?” If a great man voted for Trump, then how can he be great? Some excuse must be found.

This is what I object to most of all in Linker (and the others) and find none of in Mansfield: the Manichean insistence that Trump is evil and if you don’t see it, you are evil too, or at least complicit with evil.

Linker again professes himself an adherent of “moderate” politics. How does it contribute to political moderation to declare illegitimate the candidate and agenda of at least 80 million Americans? OK, so you don’t like the champion they’ve chosen. But once you proceed from dislike of a candidate to the insistence that the price of being held a decent person and full citizen with the sovereign right to support whom one wants, is that everyone else disavow such persons who do support him, you’ve left moderation far behind. The country is well and truly divided. It may be impossible to reunite. But one thing is certain: telling half of it that they can never get anything they want, and that they are bad for wanting it, isn’t going to get us there.

Linker presents his entire response to me as a matter of “judgment.” Well, I judge that the times, the perversion of the founders’ regime, and the various assaults on natural right(s) being perpetuated by its successor regime, require a restorative politics to regain our God-given liberties. I can’t tell if Linker believes there hasn’t been any perversion of the founders’ regime, or if he admits that there has but supports the change. Similarly, I can’t tell if he thinks rights aren’t being trampled, or sees that they are but supports that too. Whatever the case, our judgments profoundly differ on this score. One difference between us is that I’m the one still looking to use ordinary politics—in the American context, voting, legislating, appointing officers of the government; or in Aristotelian terms, “ruling and being ruled in turn”—to get something of what I want. Linker for his part wants to declare my wants out of bounds, even if achieved by the founders’ means. Hence the only way we can really live together politically, on his terms, is for him and others like him to rule me and others like me without our consent. There’s no other way to say it. This, Linker professes, is “moderate.”

In what is clearly meant to be a zinger, Linker writes that “Ever since Michael Anton published his notorious ‘Flight 93’ essay, he’s struck me as a man addicted to the intoxicating thrill of his own righteous indignation, and eager to view politics through its distorting haze.”

I assume Linker’s dismissive mention of “righteous indignation” is meant to remind certain readers of the old saw that “moral indignation is the enemy of philosophy,” often attributed to Strauss, but which I can find no evidence of him ever having said. Strauss does however make clear that moral indignation—fierce attachment to justice—is indispensable to the political community. He also says that there are certain “subjects the understanding of which is incompatible with neutrality.” I suppose this might mean that whatever Linker declines to oppose, he supports? Or does he just not understand certain phenomena?

Anyway, I am not a philosopher and have never claimed to be. I happily admit that I neither possess nor try to feign an above-it-all posture. Things worthy of indignation make me indignant. Is Linker capable of indignation at anything? Other than Trump and his supporters, that is? He never says a word against the most grotesque evils of our times—telling a generation of children that they are evil because of their race, for instance—but he has plenty to say against those who object to them.

Linker summarizes me as having said that it was “absolutely essential for conservatives to vote for [Trump] in order to avoid the supposed existential catastrophe that would follow from electing a former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State from the other party.” Note how he lists Hillary Clinton’s various titles as if they offer self-evident proof that she would have been . . . what? Competent? Moderate? Linker doesn’t say. He seems to think that those titles alone prove that I was wrong.

Here is what I actually wrote on that score:

A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments. Nor is even that the worst. It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most ‘advanced’ Scandinavian countries and the most leftist corners of Germany and England. We see this already in the censorship practiced by the Davoisie’s social media enablers; in the shameless propaganda tidal wave of the mainstream media; and in the personal destruction campaigns—operated through the former and aided by the latter—of the Social Justice Warriors. We see it in Obama’s flagrant use of the IRS to torment political opponents, the gaslighting denial by the media, and the collective shrug by everyone else.

It’s absurd to assume that any of this would stop or slow—would do anything other than massively intensify—in a Hillary administration. It’s even more ridiculous to expect that hitherto useless conservative opposition would suddenly become effective. For two generations at least, the Left has been calling everyone to their right Nazis. This trend has accelerated exponentially in the last few years, helped along by some on the Right who really do seem to merit—and even relish—the label. There is nothing the modern conservative fears more than being called ‘racist,’ so alt-right pocket Nazis are manna from heaven for the Left. But also wholly unnecessary: sauce for the goose. The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.

The Biden Administration’s first two years (to say nothing of 2020) would seem to vindicate this judgment. I don’t expect Linker to agree with that, but it’s ridiculous of him to expect me—in the age of critical race theory, puberty blockers, and pro-kidnapping legislation—to repudiate or be embarrassed by it.

To return to where we began, both ordinary common sense and my education in philosophy bring me to these conclusions. Linker’s education apparently taught him something else. Try as I might, I cannot find support for his conclusions in the books we both studied. One of us must be wrong.

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About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. He is the author most recently of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

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