From Palliser to Primaries: Bemoaning the Lack of Thoughtful Leadership in the New Hampshire Primary

The New Hampshire primary will be here in less than two weeks. I am thinking of writing in my preferred candidate for president: Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and Gatherum. It will be on the Republican ticket, and the Duke is a Whig, I know. But that’s all right. He proves that even a Whig can possess all the virtues I look for in a head of state. He’s intelligent, honorable, scrupulous, thrifty with the people’s money, morally upright, steady, calm, and boring. He sees right through cant and charlatanism, and he engages in none of it himself. He is not a slobbering old grafter, a narcissistic blowhard, a scolding fraud, a self-satisfied sloganeer, an ambitious twit, or a political weathervane for every passing breeze; he is not any of the things that can win the attention of people in the United States right now.

You’ll not be surprised to hear that my wife and I have been watching the excellent Palliser series the BBC put together some fifty years ago, based on the novels by Anthony Trollope. It has struck us quite forcefully that Trollope’s even-handedness with the important political issues of his time would not go over well with writers, actors, and directors today. They would have to turn his hero Palliser into a patriarchal oppressor and his beloved wife Lady Glencora into a proto-feminist shrew, wiser than her husband in all things, when it is clear that each of Trollope’s superbly drawn characters can see things that the other does not see, partly enabled and partly hindered by their sex. More than that, they would have to insert into the text some burning political issue with the “right” answer to it, making the Whigs out to be heroes and the Tories villains, though in the actual politics of Trollope’s time, the liberal Gladstone changed his mind on woman suffrage and at an ebb of his political fortunes, when he needed all the support he could get, and the conservative Disraeli pushed through a suffrage bill that brought more men onto the rolls than his liberal opponents had envisioned. British politics in the nineteenth century was always a crazy-quilt of opportunism, ambition, stubbornness, and short-sightedness, no doubt of it, but also of real moral vision, patriotism, and self-denying devotion to principles; and it was led by men who read books, who observed very closely the manners of other nations, and who submitted to be taught by history.

There is a lot of backroom politicking in The Pallisers, and you might think that such bargaining, strategizing, and securing of alliances is quite at odds with the democratic ideal. You would be correct: it is at odds with democracy. It is not at odds with republicanism. And of the two, as everybody used to understand, it is democracy that is a step away from tyranny.

Let us pause to consider. Trollope gives us many a scene in which several or all of his principal actors on the Whig side, Palliser, Barrington Earl, Phineas Finn, the sometime prime minister Monk, and the elderly and sharp-witted Duke of St. Bungay, are discussing when to hold an election, what the mood of the nation is, how far to press a reform, and who is fittest to lead in bringing it before Parliament or the public. In general, they want to attract good and loyal men.

But loyalty does not imply being bought and sold. One of the reforms that Palliser and his allies want to bring about is the elimination of so-called “pocket boroughs,” those that are in the control of the local lord and are his to hand over to whichever man he likes, as the voters in the borough will accede to his wishes, sometimes for the sake of old loyalties, but more often for the sake of promised monies. At one point in the series, Lady Glencora, against Palliser’s stated wishes, attempts to throw her influence in one borough toward a smooth-talking but unscrupulous and ambitious young man, one Ferdinand Lopez. The results are disastrous for Palliser, politically and personally.

The democratic force—that is, the force of the mob, the rabble-rousing force—in Trollope’s novels is represented by the press, personified by the venal editor Quintus Slide, ever on the lookout for scandal, vindictive, vituperative, energetic in investigation, but not too careful with the facts. You cannot, it seems, have a free country without it. Its existence as a constant threat to malefactors and, to a lesser degree, its function as a conduit of public opinion is to the good, even though its general action is to degrade discussion of the issues and to spread slander.

Now then, if I look out at what is going on now in New Hampshire, where we live, there is no party control at all, no careful selection of leaders, no sober discussion of the difficult problems the nation faces. All is handed over to our national non-system of primaries and caucuses, which means, in effect, to the media circus. A little etymology here is enlightening: in Italian, a ciarlatano, the source of our English charlatan, is a bunko artist who wins the crowds over by his constant chattering, his windy and empty talk, generally full of grandiose promises, flattering the public, and thumping his puffed-out chest. Also from old Italian, the montambanco, source of English mountebank, is the man who mounts the bench to hawk his wares, usually worthless nostrums, such as the old fox Volpone does, quite literally, in Jonson’s play by that name.

They don’t make charlatans and mountebanks as they used to. Those of old made phony appeals to the learning and intelligence of their audience, and that is why, when you read Victorian advertisements for medicines, such as I have seen gracing the issues of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, they are full of scientific terminology—for pills that will, with their hygienic virtues, cleanse the lungs of foreign substances that cause irruption of the blood and thus cure not only coughs and colds but tuberculosis itself. Such was “the science” of medicine then. In any case, our charlatans and mountebanks do not pretend to speak the patois of any branch of learning. Their slogans, even as slogans, are simplistic, even imbecile. Trump, I hear, must be stopped to “save democracy.” Democrats should write in the name of Biden to support “a woman’s right to choose.” We are to “protect our borders,” which is a sensible thing to do, a mere enforcement of laws already on the books, but the candidate whose main claim on our allegiance is what should be an unremarkable promise has nothing to say about immigration generally, that is, about whom we admit as potential citizens, from what cultures, and for what purposes. Still another candidate, who seems a decent enough fellow, says, in effect, that one of his first priorities will be to make sure that mental health care is nationalized, showing not the least concern for the vagueness of the category and its potential for enormous and unforeseeable costs.

I could indulge myself in a platitude here and say that “the system is broken,” but that is not what I mean at all. There is no system. A system, even a bad one, or even a patchwork of old traditions such as Victorian England had, implies order and some intelligence, and order and intelligence in human affairs require means of focusing the mind, defining a problem or an opportunity, appraising the costs of this or that enterprise, weighing probabilities, foreseeing hazards both practical and moral, bringing expectations into decent measure, and submitting oneself to a more or less clearly drawn pattern of the common good. Passions must needs be involved, but they must also be instructed when to remain quiet in their seats. We must think. It is what Plantagenet Palliser and his colleagues did all the time.

And nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way we choose nominees or winners of general elections is friendly to thought, let alone sobriety and honesty.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). He is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

Photo: The English novelist Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). He was born in London and from 1867 to 1870 he edited the St Paul's Magazine, in which several of his books were serialized. He is most famous for his series of Barchester novels, which includes Barchester Towers, (1857) and Doctor Thorne (1858). He also wrote plays, short stories, and literary sketches. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)