2016 Election • Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Deep State • Defense of the West • Democrats • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Harry Jaffa • Identity Politics • Michael Anton • Political Parties • political philosophy • Republicans • The Left • The Resistance (Snicker)

Romancing Reactionaries: Andrew Sullivan, the Left, and Not Getting It

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“Donald Trump is not being reasonable…. But, then, man does not live by reason alone, fortunately. Trump, who believes that excess can be a virtue, is as American as Manhattan’s skyline, which expresses the Republic’s erupting energies. He says the skyscraper is necessary because it is unnecessary. He believes architectural exuberance is good for us [and] he may have a point. Brashness, zest and elan are part of this country’s character.” George Will, as quoted in Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal, 1987 (2015), p. 341.

Trump prefaced that quotation with this observation: “My favorite reaction to the world’s tallest building came from columnist George Will. I’ve always liked Will, in part because he’s not afraid to challenge fashion.”

2016 saw political fashions overthrown not by the likes of George Will but instead by Donald J. Trump. The collateral damage included regard for conservative punditry as fostered by Will and other conservative intellectuals over the course of decades. In their place arose pro-Trump upstarts such as the short-lived but hugely influential Journal of American Greatness and its intellectual successors American Greatness and the journal American Affairs.

Recent commentary on this transformation comes from venerable pundit Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic who is now writing at New York magazine. With a Ph.D. in government from Harvard (his dissertation was on conservative political theorist Michael Oakeshott) he is also a  prominent gay rights advocate. Unlike many other critics of Trump, Sullivan finds much to praise in recent pro-Trump writing, finding in their authors what the younger George Will appreciated as the “[b]rashness, zest and elan [that] are part of this country’s character.”

In “The Reactionary Temptation,” Sullivan focuses on three pro-Trump intellectuals, Charles Kesler, the editor of the Claremont Review of Books; Michael Anton, “the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism”; and blogger Curtis Yarvin (a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug).

Rather than repeat his summary of their pro-Trump views, I will focus on the most interesting/provocative parts of his lengthy essay and in particular what he says about Kesler and Anton, whose work I have long admired and know better than that of Yarvin. In a review more about style or aesthetics than logos, Sullivan praises his subjects in the following manner,

I met Charles Kesler in March on an idyllic sunny day in Pasadena, California, where he lives. He’s a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with a shock of white hair and a bemused smile on his face.

What on earth was a professor like Kesler doing backing a man who has barely read a book in his life, seems to think Frederick Douglass is still alive, and who’d last less than a few seconds in a Kesler seminar? He smiled a little defensively….

Sullivan praises Kesler as one of a few “serious reactionary writers,” rooted in the ideas of Leo Strauss, who “are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives.”

The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone—anyone—who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.

Sullivan here attempts to summarize the administrative state, apparently missing that it now practices hard as well as soft despotism, as we see today in targeting of conservatives by the IRS, heavy financial penalties for florists, bakers, and wedding planners with orthodox beliefs, and now severe consequences for supporters of Donald Trump (or even those who allow supposed supporters to gather and be heard).

Contrast this respect for the sober, talented Kesler, a “classic reactionary,” with Sullivan’s apparent eros for Kesler’s former graduate student Anton:

Anton is the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism, today’s American version of reactionism. He’s the suave, credentialed foil to Steve Bannon’s rumpled autodidact, a Trump official who just published a paper on Machiavelli [and one on Xenophon, too] in an academic journal. I recently met him for dinner near the White House. An immensely tall man, of piercing intelligence and meticulous attire, Anton is a product of post-hippie California….

Sullivan sees daylight between Anton and his mentor Kesler: “The Claremont critique of the administrative state and the liberal elite does not appear to be enough for Anton. His aim is at what he calls, rather wickedly, “the Party of Davos,” or the “Davoisie.” This is the administrative state gone global.”

Anton is author of “The Flight 93 Election,” the single most important pro-Trump publication of 2016. Rush Limbaugh read the entire September 9 essay on his radio show. “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” This denunciation of Hillary Clinton and all she stands for is scarcely a positive case for Trump, but Anton has made positive arguments as well, as Sullivan notes:

The Davoisie were too busy lifting foreigners out of poverty and celebrating the latest disruptive tech invention to cast a glance toward, say, the beleaguered inhabitants of Kansas or Michigan. Anton admired Trump, he wrote last year, largely because “he’s single-handedly revived talking about government serving its own citizens first.”

Anton under the pseudonym Decius was also a major contributor to “a now-defunct group blog the Journal of American Greatness. The blog had a madcap feel to it, bristling with almost tongue-in-cheek assaults on the modern world, on stuffy career conservatives, and risible “social justice warriors.””

With a keen eye, Sullivan appreciates the surface. But he exaggerates in order to make his point, and he apparently ignores a lot of what he sees as he reports. As Sullivan’s own portrait reveals, Kesler is scarcely a pro-Trump enthusiast. In fact, the print issue of the Claremont Review of Books has never published what might be called a pro-Trump essay or review; notwithstanding Kesler’s valuable contributions to understanding Trump, they are at most anti-anti-Trump―with the laudable exception of Christopher Caldwell’s recent and brilliant “Sanctimony Cities.”

The most significant Claremont essay favorable to Trump was by John Marini, finally published in July 2016 on the Claremont Review’s less publicized (and somewhat difficult to access) website. While Marini is scarcely a famous public intellectual, he has had enormous influence in creating the “Claremont consensus” against the administrative state. Last year Justice Clarence Thomas described him (and me) as early mentors of his thinking on the American founding and political principles.

Anton as well has often acknowledged his influence. Among other writings, Marini followed up this article with an illuminating Hillsdale College-sponsored Constitution Day lecture/debate on the 2016 campaign.

Even by consulting only these sources (but there are others for the more ambitious student), one can draw from Marini a few points against Sullivan’s take on intellectual Trumpism.  Marini notes the left’s embrace of “identity politics”—thus privileging ethnic, racial, and gender identity groups (a criticism with which Sullivan might well be sympathetic). But Marini goes further than Sullivan seems to realize, expanding this criticism to cover the whole intellectual class as an interest group or faction. The media is the most visible face of the intelligentsia, but its roots are ultimately in the academy, the source of right as well as left intellectuals. Even more seriously, Marini observes that identity politics, by definition, cannot produce a common good; the partial goods are everything. The administrative state wants to will such a monster into being.

While there are differences among different academics or opinion journals, they are united in their opposition to Trump. Trump’s plain talk (or even crudity) and his rejection of political correctness encourages his supporters even as it condemns him in the eyes of intellectuals, including Sullivan.

One doesn’t need an elite education to appreciate Orwell’s saying about ideas so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them. Thus, the established right as well as the established left denounce as racist his support for a temporary Muslim immigration ban, his criticism of the Khans at the Democratic Convention, or his charge of bias against a “Mexican” judge. The elite cannot see this Trump as a supporter of the common good. They see someone ignoring their concerns and advice and instead impetuously defining political success in radically different terms than those that make them comfortable. Trump speaks as a builder and doer, not as a talker. He is a man who expects to see results, not ponderous statements of subtle complexity.  But truth to tell, haven’t intellectuals’ influence in politics—with some noble exceptions—been the cause of our major ills in foreign and domestic policy?

These Marini arguments are not ones Sullivan wants to confront. Needless to say, he would not spend any time on Marini’s wardrobe.

Instead, turning on “neo-reactionary” Kesler and Anton, Sullivan flees to the familiar last refuge of a leftist scoundrel: “Isn’t all this just code for white nationalism?” Long, long before leftist pundits seized on Claremont as the font of intellectual Trumpism it was really the font for the revival of the Declaration of Independence, led by the scholarship of Harry V. Jaffa.

Sullivan builds up intellectual Trumpism (the only kind of building he can do?) for the cat-like purpose of knocking it down, even quoting at length from Lincoln’s Temperance Address (to Jaffa students!) in frustration.

Only in a media world which reports on “Saturday Night Live sketches” can such fantasy be taken seriously.

Content created by The Center for American Greatness, Inc is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact licensing@centerforamericangreatness.com

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2016 Election • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Deep State • Defense of the West • Democrats • Donald Trump • Government Reform • Identity Politics • The Left • The Leviathian State • The Resistance (Snicker) • Trump White House

A New Hope: Trump is Han Solo, not Darth Vader

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As we enter yet another day of unhinged, unsupported attacks on the president, it is a good time to take a moment to analyze where the motivations on both sides are. Those on the left, with their core of true believers in the legacy media, see themselves as fighting a heroic resistance battle.

After all, Donald Trump is Darth Vader and the Republicans constitute the Empire, right? Trump and Trumpkins constitute the institutional embodiment of the dark side, the willing and/or unknowing advocates of evil on Earth. Leftist icon Noam Chomsky made this explicit in a May 11 interview with the BBC. Chomsky claimed President Trump and Republicans are a greater threat to the world than North Korea or ISIS. They are, he said, “dedicated to destroying the prospects for organized human existence.” These sentiments are shared by a lot of people, both in and out of positions of power in the Democratic Party.

Of course, this is ridiculous, but what inspires or explains it? The progressive movement has successfully re-defined what liberty means in the minds of so many Americans. Most people do not understand that liberty comes from the recognition and institutional protection of natural rights. Instead they simply believe in the power of “democracy” and “equality,” untethered to any universal truths. It is a kind of spiritual worship of willfulness. They believe that humanity itself is possible of greatness, if only we would trust the wisest and most educated to run everyone’s lives. There is no place for God or for the need of the individual will in the face of these new truths.

The great founding ideals of the United States have been under attack for more than a century. In 1907, future President Woodrow Wilson wrote of the natural rights foundation of the Declaration of Independence:

Every Fourth of July should be a time for examining our standards, our purposes, for determining afresh what principles, what forms of power we think most likely to effect our safety and happiness. That and that alone is the obligation the Declaration lays upon us.

Franklin Roosevelt makes clear that these progressive ideas are foundation of the New Deal in his 1944 State of the Union:

[T]hese political rights [natural rights] proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

Roosevelt argued that the American founding, and a liberty based on natural rights, had become outdated. To the progressive there is no eternal truth. That is why religion is often viewed as a regressive, hostile force in opposition to the natural progress, and inevitable perfection of man. And since then, progressive have more or less assumed that the battle to replace the founding ideals with these notions of progress was over. Republicans might push back around the edges. But there was no serious fundamental opposition.

Donald Trump stands against this progressive ascendancy like no leader since Ronald Reagan. He is unashamed to revere the founding principles that made our nation great. And people who paid no attention to other Republican politicians cheered him. He resonated with something deep in them.

Let’s look at what he’s done and started doing in the first months of his administration. He has replaced the greatest voice for founding values on the Supreme Court in Antonin Scalia with an equally strong voice in Neil Gorsuch. He has ordered a comprehensive review to eliminate redundant, ineffectual, and counterproductive bureaucracies. He has placed his crosshairs particularly on the Environmental Protection Agency, with its reckless record of violating private property rights in the name of justice and equality far removed from its mission to protect the environment. He has ended its ability to propagate and publicize radical climate theories. He is working to simplify the tax code and business regulation in order to empower the private sector.

President Trump is proud of American history and unashamed to assert U.S. sovereignty in immigration, trade, and national defense policies. He refuses to submit to guilt mongering. Trump understands the founding principle of the value of individual, natural rights. It is this foundation that is essential for real liberty to exist.

This is what the progressive cannot understand. As Calvin Coolidge said on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926, “Governments do not make ideals, but ideals make governments.” This is the anti-progressive notion that individuals are the key to collective liberty. Coolidge goes on to assert that which is universal is unchangeable, regardless of time or technology,

No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

Trump refutes the progressive narrative at every opportunity. This is where his conflict with the mass media has its roots. To the media, the progressive vision is unquestionable. To disagree is heresy. What do you do with heretics? Burn them. The fear of this virtual burning has cowered generations of conservative politicians. Trump is the rare politician who has no fear of the media. He can go home to his private life comfortably at any time; they have no power to destroy him. The media left does not know how to handle its impotence, and lashes out in more and more vicious attacks, regardless if they are supportable.

These aggrieved progressives also cannot understand how principled, religious conservatives can support Donald Trump on personal grounds. He is Darth Vader, right? How can good people support the dark lord? It is because he is willing to fight the progressive ascendancy, and can do so effectively that conservatives support him. Those people must be hypocrites.

Darth Vader is the wrong Star Wars analogy. Donald Trump is Han Solo, not Darth Vader. Han Solo was a scoundrel. He was a cutthroat capitalist, looking only to make money. He was willing to disobey Imperial law, he associated with gangsters and smuggled goods. Han Solo was good at looking after himself. He didn’t believe in the Force, light or dark. But circumstances changed his mission. He became a champion for good, a revolutionary vital to overthrowing the evil order he had never given much thought about before.

Trump’s agenda is the restoration of founding values. True conservatives are willing to tolerate and support a foul-mouthed, twice-divorced man of questionable character and personal values because of what he has come to represent, not for what he permitted or engaged in in the past.

The progressive battle against him has become a battle to the death over questioning progressivism itself. If they defeat Trump, no one will dare question the truth of progressivism again. Identity politics will be here to stay, the cult of victimhood our nationally established religion. The devaluation of private property and personal liberty in the name of equality will be back with a vengeance.

A victory of the Trump agenda will mean a real debate about what American liberty means once again. It may not result in a wholesale return to the values of the founders, but it is the last, best chance for it to happen. Help us Donald Trump, you’re our only hope.

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America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Education • self-government • The Culture

The Judgments of The Lord: Trump at Liberty University

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The establishment, Right and Left, spent the weekend imagining the Founders had envisioned the linchpin of republican government to be an independent federal celebrity policeman. President Trump spent the weekend acting as President in the manner the Founders hoped.

In a speech Saturday at Liberty University, President Trump traversed ground he has covered before and then some, revealing again how closely his views―worldly and otherworldly―align with those of the Founders.

The seat of Trump’s view of political right is a common sense understanding of human excellence and the divine. This understanding is rooted in the relationship of parents to children and the dead to the living. It is an order in which before God we are equals, and God has a stake in human affairs.

In his speech on Saturday, Trump said to the Liberty graduates:

You’re going to go out, you’re going to do whatever you’re going to do, some are going to make a lot of money, some are going to be even happier doing other things—they’re your parents and your grandparents, don’t forget them. You haven’t forgotten yet, have you? Never, ever forget them, they’re great.

Two things. First, Trump, the garish materialist, apparently values something more than money. He said so: “Some are going to be even happier doing other things.” Second is the importance of parents. Depending on how you enumerate the Commandments of the Decalogue, the injunction to honor one’s parents falls either at the bottom of the first five Commandments on sacred law or the top of the last five on civil law. The Decalogue thus links the divine and human with a command to honor one’s mother and father. The law of the Bible is thus structured around the transmission by parents of the central idea of one living God before whom thou shalt have no other gods.

America has a creed―an understanding of the human and divine―before which Americans shall have no other (Marxist academics take note). This creed too is transmitted by parents, but not only by immediate parents who teach these things at the hearth and kitchen table.

Trump’s parents are no longer alive, at least not as they once were. But Trump still sees them―indeed all heroic dead―as participating in some way in present day events. Trump speaking to the Liberty graduates referred to his mother:

I had a great mother, she’s looking down now, but I had a great mother. I have always loved Mother’s Day.

Trump then addressed Jerry Falwell, Jr. in a similar vein:

And Jerry, I know your dad is looking down on you right now and he is proud, he is very proud, so congratulations on a great job, Jerry.

Patrimony is important. The transmission of American mores is made through an appreciation of the Founders as though they were our ultimate national parents (one might call them “forefathers”)―like Trump’s mother and Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s father―watching, judging across the ages. That is why Washington is referred to as “Patres Patriae” the “father of his country” and Lincoln habitually referred to the Founders as our “fathers” (e.g., Cooper Union Address) or “forefathers” (e.g., Gettysburg Address).

Parents, literal and figurative, are the conduit of the American creed―as parents are the hinge of God’s law in the Decalogue―and the American creed is found in the Declaration of Independence. In Saturday’s Liberty University speech, Trump also mentioned prominently the Declaration, revealing that he shares the Founders’ understanding of the authority of the Declaration, which places man on an equal footing below God and in so doing, above government.

When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our creator four times, because in America we don’t worship government. We worship God.

Yet sharing the Founders’ understanding of the authority of the Declaration of Independence is not enough. One must also share the Founders’ understanding of its meaning. Justice Taney cites the Declaration in Dred Scott, but he so perverts its meaning that he ends up making the claim (eerily similar to the arguments of modern day leftists) that the Declaration did not mean to include any but white men. Trump made clear that he has a proper understanding both of the Declaration’s universalism with respect to the equality of all men before God and of its particularism with respect to securing for Americans the rights demanded by that equality.

We must always remember that we share one home and one glorious destiny whether we are brown, black or white. We all bleed the same red blood of patriots. We all salute the same great American flag, and we are all made by the same almighty God.

Trump, as noted above, thinks parents are “great.” Greatness is what Trump says he wants to help bring forth in the country. But what does he mean by such a vague term? Trump gave some indication in the opening of his speech, using a characterization we have heard from him before, extemporaneously, in his Joint Address to Congress:

This is your day and you’ve earned every minute of it. And I’m thrilled to be back at Liberty University, I’ve been here, this is now my third time, and we love setting records, right? We always set records. We have to set records; we have no choice.

Do not let Trump’s signature pedestrian manner of speech obscure the meaning of these words. There is something compelling about breaking records. Excellence (setting records) is compelling (we have no choice) because it is the essential ingredient of human happiness.

Human happiness is like athletics. In athletics you work hard for a goal. That goal is success in competition. Athletics is an important part of education, because in addition to exercise being good for health, athletics teaches excellence. It models achievement. It teaches breaking records. Trump linked the two:

The success of your athletic program arriving on the big stage should be a reminder to every new graduate of just what you can achieve when you start small, pursue a big vision and never, ever quit. You never quit. If I give you one message to hold in your hearts today, it’s this. Never, ever give up.

The word “athletic” is Greek in origin, from the root althlon, meaning prize. Athletics is the activity of an athlete. Politics is similarly Greek in origin. Politics is the activity of the polis, meaning nation. Politics is a higher human activity than athletics. It is a higher human activity than the pursuit of money, as Trump acknowledged in the first quote above. It is the highest practical form of human excellence (and conversely, if exercised viciously, i.e., tyrannically, the worst form of human activity). We can deduce that the Founders thought so too, since politics is the excellence with which they chose to occupy themselves.

Excellence does not happen by itself. It requires effort. Trump told the Liberty graduates:

The more people tell you it’s not possible, that it can’t be done, the more you should be absolutely determined to prove them wrong. Treat the word ‘impossible’ as nothing more than motivation.

Excellence requires more than effort. It requires the fortunate intervention of chance events which dominate human affairs, particularly human political affairs. Human happiness is a business of risk. Trump asked Liberty graduates:

What imprint will you leave in the sands of history? What will future Americans say we did in our brief time right here on Earth? Did we take risks? Did we dare to defy expectations?

Generally speaking, people take risks for the sake of something else. Trump spent a lifetime taking risks for the sake of two things: money and celebrity. Trump in turn risked these things on the highest political honor, the office of President of the United States. Why would anyone take this risk? Trump told the Liberty graduates why: “We have to set records; we have no choice.”

Risk and chance events are just one part of the picture. There are other events that are like chance events in that they might be described as causes outside of nature, supernatural causes. Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address, in perhaps its most moving passage, identifies these causes as essential to understanding the Civil War:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Before Lincoln, these causes were also very real to the Founders. The Declaration of Independence famously concluded with:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Publius (attributed to Madison) in Federalist 37 wrote of the Constitutional Convention:

It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.

Today, an administrative state in creeping fashion has arrogated to itself the authority that once belonged to kings and a global network of noble houses. The elite ranks of society, educated in universities, long lost in worship of the Golden Calf of the creeds of materialism and historicism, are very nearly in open rebellion at the election of Trump. In this context, Trump at Liberty University started with:

And here I am standing before you as President of the United States, so I’m guessing—there are some people here today who thought that either one of those things, either one, would really require major help from God.

The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.   

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Donald Trump • Immigration • Law and Order • self-government • Terrorism • The Left • Trump White House

Trump’s Border Wall Will Protect Human Rights

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Over the last century or so, the definition of rights has been, through heedlessness and cynicism, expanded to include “rights” that are not rights at all—a process that has had a pernicious effect on human freedom and the ongoing respect of genuine rights. Nevertheless, most of us here in America, no matter what our political inclinations, tend to agree on the basics: that everyone has an equal right to things like life, expression, property, association, etc. and that those rights ought to be protected.

So what sort of immigration policy best protects genuine human rights?

The Left’s answer (often driven by cynical electoral considerations and a seemingly boundless need to virtue-signal) tends favor uncontrolled borders and unlimited immigration. Many libertarians also support open borders, asserting that people and labor should be allowed to move freely, and that restrictions upon this motion is a violation of rights. This is certainly better grounded in principles than the Left’s customary position. However, both positions suffer from the same problem: they privilege the wishes of non-citizens over citizens.

This raises two questions:

 

1.  Do citizens have a right to have a say in who gets access to, or becomes a citizen of, their country?

The tacit social contract that informed the founding of our system of government—and the documents and laws that explicitly establish that system—enshrine the concept of citizen consent. But a border that the federal government refuses to control, or is unable to control, specifically precludes that consent on matters of immigration. That is a violation of a core right. Call it the right of consent, or the right of social contract.

The answer here should be obvious. A consensual government is one in which citizens’ wishes are consulted when making policy. That cannot apply to domestic affairs, and to foreign affairs, yet somehow skip over immigration policy.

But a federal open-borders policy does exactly that. It says one of two things: “It is our policy to let everyone in, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” or “We have no control over the border, so everyone is getting in and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The tacit social contract that informed the founding of our system of government—and the documents and laws that explicitly establish that system—enshrine the concept of citizen consent. But a border that the federal government refuses to control, or is unable to control, specifically precludes that consent on matters of immigration. That is a violation of a core right. Call it the right of consent, or the right of social contract.

 

2.  Are non-citizens’ rights violated when immigration is controlled?

This “social contract” is not an agreement between Americans and the rest of the world. It is an agreement among American citizens. Ours is an emergent social association that reflects our right to determine the rules by which we will be governed.

But what about the would-be migrants? Do they have any rights at stake here?

A thorough explanation of rights theory would require many pages, but here is the basic concept: Anything that must be provided at someone else’s expense is not a right.

You have a right to seek, work for, or voluntarily trade to get the things you want and need (food, shelter, medical care, entertainment, etc.). You do not have a right to be given these things, or to have a third party force someone to give them to you.

Similarly, a non-citizen has a right to seek citizenship, but there is no right to be given it. A non-citizen must have his actual human rights (life, liberty, conscience, etc.) protected while he is here, but there is no right to be granted entry or citizenship. Supporters of open borders not only seem to ignore the possibility that citizens have rights at stake, they are asserting a right on the part of non-citizens that literally does not exist.

And there are several other actual rights at stake for citizens . . .

 

The right of defense

Every human has the natural right of self-defense. When combined with our right of association, we have a right to mutual defense—we can work together to protect each other. This right usually finds its expression in the nation state.

A nation that fails to protect its citizens from external attack and internal predation is failing at its most basic duty—the core reason for its existence. We can argue about how dangerous the world is—about just how much security is needed—but we cannot pretend that there is no danger.

A nation that fails to protect its citizens from external attack and internal predation is failing at its most basic duty—the core reason for its existence. We can argue about how dangerous the world is—about just how much security is needed—but we cannot pretend that there is no danger.

Yet all too often, open-borders advocates suggest approaches to immigration that seem to see the world not as it is, but as it would need to be in order to justify the suggested approach. Of course there is a risk to individual liberty associated with granting to government the power it needs to control borders. But suggesting that there is no danger—that migrants do not also include among their number criminals and others who intend to cause harm—is also dangerous. And factually incorrect.

A sensible and balanced approach must be found, but asserting that the citizens of a nation must accept open borders is tantamount to saying that those citizens do not have a right to self-defense.
Property rights

Property rights are a sine qua non of a free society. Modern nations that have tried to eradicate property rights have been, without exception, human rights disasters.

Central to property rights is the concept of excludability. I have a border around my property. It tells everyone, “Here begins what is mine. I can exclude you from this.” If I cannot do this, then the property is not really mine.

When a migrant crosses a national border, he must either cross over private or public property:

If he crosses private property, and the government not only allows this but ties the hands of the property owner, the government is both suborning and perpetrating a violation of property rights.

Though we tend to forget this, public property belongs to the citizens of a nation. It is not reasonable to suggest that trespass across public land is of no concern to citizens simply because no one particular citizen owns it.

The free movement of peoples within a nation state is, without question, a core natural right. But does that also apply to moving across national borders? We let people move around the country, but they don’t get to violate the property of others. That’s why we build roads and sidewalks—to help balance the human right of property with the human right to move and travel. Why should that principle break down at the national level? Why are property rights fine within a country, but meaningless at its border?

 

Association

Human beings have a natural right of association. This, by definition, must include the right to choose not to associate.

Some random man (or woman) might wish to horn in on the conjugal perquisites enjoyed by a married couple, but the couple has the right to say no. Theirs is an exclusive association. A violent psychopath may wish to study karate at a dojo, but for the safety of the other students, the sensei has a right to say no. A group of friends, neighborhood supper club, business, or any other group has the same moral right to exclude people.

Why should this right not extend to the citizens of a nation?

A nation involves a particular group of people; it does not presuppose all people in the world. For all intents and purposes, citizens are part of a national association.

So what if the citizens of a nation wish to preserve a particular culture, language, or national character. Is that not their right? Does the government empowered by such a people have the authority to say, “Sorry, you do not get to decide what your culture is going to be—we do”? Is it ethical to force a group of people to accept others into their association?

The purpose here is not to judge the relative merits of various reasons why citizens of a nation might wish to control its borders. The question is whether or not they have a right to do so . . . and clearly they do.

What if the concern of the polity in question is not cultural but environmental? What if a large influx would further reduce already-dwindling wild spaces, habitats, or unique biomes?

Are the citizens of small nations—Andorra, Monaco, Vatican City—required to take in unlimited numbers of immigrants? Do they not have any say?

What if the concern is economic? Is that concern legitimate? And is it ethical to empower a government to pick and choose what reasons they do and do not deem reasonable?

The purpose here is not to judge the relative merits of various reasons why citizens of a nation might wish to control its borders. The question is whether or not they have a right to do so . . . and clearly they do. But an open-borders policy, whether de jure or de facto, makes the exercise of that right (and several others) impossible.

A wall along our southern border would be an effective way to control who gets into the country. With that control, we might decide to have a generous legal immigration system, or we might not. Without it, all we have is an ongoing violation of the rights of American citizens.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • History • Lincoln • self-government • Trump White House

Is Trump’s Embrace of Andrew Jackson a Problem?

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The arrival of a column by National Review founder William F. Buckley was almost always of some intellectual and literary significance. With his high command of the English language, Buckley would explore a vexing question of public policy or pillory an unsuspecting political opponent. He often made quick work of arguments that were logically defective and employed witty repartees with the skill of a gold medalist fencer.

The columns of the current editor of National Review, Rich Lowry, are something of a different nature. Though Lowry does see problems within the conservative movement and he seems sincerely to want to find solutions, his columns lately tend to slide into gauzy sentimentalism and thinly-veiled anti-Trumpism.

After all, the infamous “Against Trump” issue of National Review, whose only virtue was to show the world just how little pull the magazine has outside the elite conservative bubble, was Lowry’s brainchild. So it’s natural that he might feel as though he has something to prove.

Lowry’s analysis got marginally better once Trump became president, but he still offers banal but predictable assertions that fit the acceptable and conventionally respectable Beltway pundit narrative.

His post-inauguration columns typically go something like this: “Trump might be right, but—dammit—he’s Trump, so still a fool!”

In a recent column for USA Today, for example, he noted that the so-called “best and brightest” who comprised the 2016 Republican presidential candidate offerings foolishly thought that invoking Ronald Reagan endlessly would have the same effect upon Republican leaning voters that Dr. Pavlov had on his dogs when he rang a bell. As Lowry nicely put it, “The conventional Republicans in the 2016 primary race hewed to Reaganism as a creed frozen in amber circa 1981.”

But this analysis misses the significance of Trump’s political message about returning the power over government back to its rightful master: the people. Who better to appropriate in this manner than Jackson, a man who was always skeptical of internal improvement projects and other government-backed ventures which too easily became the crony capitalist schemes of his day.

But Trump, of course, couldn’t be right on the matter. His “heterodox mix of policies” are simply a “jumble” of disparate aims with no underlying principle holding them together. Oddly, Lowry then ended his column by bemoaning Republicans who “have fallen hard for something else” (i.e., Trump) and hoped that “Reaganism…will emerge again.” Why Lowry suddenly thought reviving the Reagan Mystery Cult is the needed strategy for winning a national campaign when he so eloquently bashed that very idea earlier in the same column is incomprehensible to this reader.

Lowry’s latest op-ed in Politico is no better. That column, with the unintentionally satiric title “The Party of Lincoln,” is full of bromides and asides that are better left to late-night dorm room conversations. Lowry argues that Trump is trying to revive the legacy of Andrew Jackson à la Lin-Manuel Miranda’s attempts at recovering Alexander Hamilton.

If the scale of this comparison doesn’t seem quite right, well, that’s because it isn’t.

Yes, Trump put Jackson’s picture up in the Oval Office and visited The Hermitage, Jackson’s estate in Tennessee. He also recently invoked Jackson in a thought experiment about how to keep our nation together at a time of disruption and disharmony, but our illustrious journalist class was happy to pretend that Trump was ignorant of Jackson’s death before the Civil War. Lowry, piling on and wearing his credentials well, writes as if Trump mused about Jackson randomly and with blanket approval, without giving the conversation a proper context.

Lowry then turns to his main argument, which is that by citing Jackson with approval in this way, Trump is kicking the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to the curb.

Trump’s invocation of Jackson in this limited way is intended to allow his anti-ruling class message to resonate with voters. And why this can’t be done without coming at Lincoln’s expense is a mystery. After all, though they certainly had disagreements, Lincoln and Jackson agreed that the principle of government by consent is the keystone of just government.

But this analysis misses the significance of Trump’s political message about returning the power over government back to its rightful master: the people. Who better to appropriate in this manner than Jackson, a man who was always skeptical of internal improvement projects and other government-backed ventures which too easily became the crony capitalist schemes of his day.

Trump’s invocation of Jackson in this limited way is intended to allow his anti-ruling class message to resonate with voters. And why this can’t be done without coming at Lincoln’s expense is a mystery. After all, though they certainly had disagreements, Lincoln and Jackson agreed that the principle of government by consent is the keystone of just government.

There is no zero-sum game in honestly appropriating past politicians and statesmen who agreed on principles for political purposes after their deaths. And there is no doubt that Jackson and Lincoln both would be appalled at the current state of our regime and the lack of obvious connection between the laws that govern the lives of Americans and their consent.

Further, Lincoln himself appropriated Jackson’s legacy on certain occasions for political gain, a point not missed by Lowry in his piece and yet, somehow, still lost. In light of sectional fighting in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, Lincoln happily told an audience how “General Jackson” swiftly “put an end” to the “Calhoun Nullifying doctrine.” After the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in the Dred Scott case, Lincoln noted Jackson’s efforts to maintain the idea that each branch has a duty to understand the Constitution independently of the Supreme Court’s interpretation.

Finally, Lowry’s contention that by using Jackson in this manner, Trump is casting off Lincoln as the standard-bearer of the modern GOP is the height of irony. This might be news to Lowry, but the Republicans did that themselves a long time ago. No help from Trump was required.

How Lincolnian is it to continually oversee the expansion of the administrative state (but, says the movement conservative, at least it’s at a slower rate!), increase the federal government’s role into affairs originally left to the states, spread “democracy” abroad thus violating the sovereignty of the people of other countries, and bow obsequiously to the idea of judicial supremacy? What would Lincoln think of a Republican Congress’s inability for years to pass an actual budget? And what would he think about Republican office holders clothing all the above in rhetoric fetishizing the Founders and himself?

Calling the modern Republican Party the Party of Lincoln is about as inapt as calling the modern day Democratic Party the Party of Jackson and Jefferson (that is, when the Democrats aren’t denouncing them as a racist deplorables). Lincoln wouldn’t recognize the Republican Party of today anymore than Jackson would the modern Democratic Party.

Living up to the standards of Lincoln is a lofty goal indeed. But by invoking Jackson, Trump is not doing damage to that legacy. In contrast, he is highlighting aspects of Jackson which Lincoln shared in order to re-orient our politics back toward the people’s interests and not those of the ruling class. Certainly, Lincoln and Jackson can both be cited and recommended for understanding this project.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • Harry Jaffa • History • political philosophy • self-government • The Constitution • The Media

Is Rush Limbaugh Right About the Declaration of Independence?

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Rush Limbaugh has always had a keen talent for rooting out liberal assumptions. A gadfly to the ruling class, the broadcasting powerhouse has the unique (and almost philosophic) talent of angering the Beltway literati while at the same time edifying his audience.

On his radio show last week, Limbaugh sensed he had happened upon yet another opportunity to show the depths to which liberal premises have taken over the American mind. He commented on the recent discovery of a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he claimed was appropriated by liberals to subtly teach Americans that the founders wanted a massive centralized government.

[T]he historical record shows clearly that the Declaration’s authority rested on “one people” rather than a compact between the states. Further, there is no necessary connection between the idea of a national union and the unlimited government we have today.

The rare parchment copy of the Declaration was found by Danielle Allen and Emily Sneff of Harvard University in a records office in Chichester, a town on the southern coast of England. It was certainly providential that Allen would make this discovery. After all, she is a scholar of the Declaration and the author of a recent book that is a word-by-word exegesis of its text. The copy may have originally been commissioned by James Wilson, a signer of both the Declaration and Constitution and also one of the first members of the Supreme Court. It is believed that Wilson had it sent to the Duke of Richmond, who was one of a handful of supporters of the American Revolution in the House of Lords.

What drew Rush’s ire was Allen’s conclusion that unlike virtually all the other copies of the Declaration, this one “scrambles the names so they are no longer grouped by state.” In fact, “It is the only version of the Declaration that does that, with the exception of an engraving from 1836 that derives from it. This is really a symbolic way of saying we are all one people, or ‘one community,’ to quote James Wilson.”

 Rush quickly pounced:

The Harvard researcher is suggesting the second copy blows to hell the whole premise of federalism and establishes an all-powerful command-and-control one unitary central governing authority. And the states, to hell with ’em, all because in this copy the signers did not group themselves by state nor are the states from which they hail mentioned.

As he is always quick to point out, when liberals aren’t attacking the founders as deplorable for their supposed racism, sexism, and bigotry, they read them as the progenitors of modern liberalism. But in this case, he missed the mark.

Though I can’t speak to Allen’s intentions, the historical record shows clearly that the Declaration’s authority rested on “one people” rather than a compact between the states. Further, there is no necessary connection between the idea of a national union and the unlimited government we have today. In fact, the state compact view of the union was articulated largely by pro-slavery politicians, who wanted to preserve that awful institution for future generations.

 

The Nature of the Union

The Declaration tells us that its authority rests upon the “one people” whose representatives “mutually pledged” their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the cause of self-government. The one people who inhabited America in 1776 were then already defined by certain characteristics and a common purpose. Abraham Lincoln examined the origins of this union in his Special Message to Congress on July 4, 1861:

The Union is older than any of the States; and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally, some dependent colonies made the Union; and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence, for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution, independent of the Union. Of course, it is not forgotten that all the new States framed their constitutions, before they entered the Union; nevertheless, dependent upon, and preparatory to, coming into the Union.

More specifically, Lincoln argued in his First Inaugural that the union “was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774” and was then “matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence.” The Articles were produced by the First Continental Congress, which formed in response to the Intolerable Acts—a set of harsh trade restrictions the British levied on Americans in the wake of the Boston Massacre. The passage of the Articles marked the first time Americans asserted themselves as a distinct people on the world stage.  

Lincoln then expanded on his claim regarding the Declaration of Independence:

Therein the “United Colonies” were declared to be “Free and Independent States”; but, even then, the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another, or of the Union; but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge, and their mutual action, before, at the time, and afterwards, abundantly show. 

Lincoln’s argument is backed with copious evidence. As Harry V. Jaffa has posited, the “resolutions adopted by the Revolutionary colonial assemblies” authorized “union as well as independence.” For example, Connecticut’s resolution for independence on June 14, 1776 called for “a regular and permanent plan of union and confederation of the colonies.” New Jersey’s resolution argued that the state was “entering a confederation for union and common defense.” (Note that union was the necessary foundation for defending the nation from British tyranny.) Even more clearly connecting independence and union, the people of New Hampshire stated their intention “to join with the other colonies in declaring the thirteen colonies a free and independent state.”

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson drafting the Declaration of Independence.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson confirmed this reading decades later. After naming the Declaration among “the best guides” on “the distinctive principles” of the United States, Madison noted that “the Declaration of Independence” should be understood “as the fundamental act of union of these states.”

Americans must recognize, then, that though the federal and state governments are sovereign within their respective spheres, the source of their authority resides with the people themselves. As James Madison once wrote, “The people, not the government, possess the absolute sovereignty.” Since the people are ultimately sovereign, they have the final authority over the meaning of the Constitution, which was created in order to secure their interests alone.

 

The Problem with State Compact Theory

The claim that the union was formed by a compact between the states qua states actually served as the foundation of the pro-slavery argument. In this bit of historical revisionism, the state legislatures are said to be the ultimate sovereigns and retain the right to order their internal affairs however they choose—no matter whether their purposes are consistent with the principles of republican government. Ironically, this misbegotten idea of the union has a much greater potential to unleash unlimited government than the partly federal, partly national union America’s Founders actually created.

According to this argument, if the “rights” of a state are contravened, that state has the right to lawfully secede from the union and to form a new political entity. But the Declaration clearly speaks of the rights of individuals—not those of the states. Properly speaking,“states’ rights” do not exist. States have powers; only individuals have rights, which were granted to them by their Creator. The job of every legitimate government is to protect those rights and safeguard the sovereignty of the people.

It is clear that this alternate view of the union is inconsistent with the union as the Founders and Lincoln understood it. The states do not possess a greater authority than that of the people whose interests they were created to help secure. The states, which are currently little more than administrative sub-units of the federal government, are not the political equivalent of the Holy of Holies as some conservatives seem to suggest. Only the people themselves, in Thomas Paine’s words, “have it in [their] power to begin the world over again.”

 

The Framers as Defenders of Big Government?

Rush also falls into another trap in describing founder James Wilson as “a huge advocate for nationalist government.” Alexander Hamilton is typically the founder targeted for his supposed love of big government, which is what I take Rush to mean by using the term “nationalist.”

But in labeling Wilson in this way, Limbaugh takes for granted that Progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Croly were correct in their appropriation of the Founders for their own political purposes. In campaign speeches and books, early Progressives routinely linked their politics to Founders with a more energetic view of government as a way to claim that their project was simply a continuation—and not a rejection—of the Founders’ regime.

Founders such as Wilson and Hamilton who favored a more extensive use of government powers nonetheless still saw the need for limits on that power. The Constitution in their minds only granted the federal government certain enumerated powers and the implied powers that were essential to carry them out. In fact, Wilson was so concerned about the government contravening its limited purposes that he was against the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution because he feared it would be taken to mean that “everything that is not enumerated is presumed to be given.”

Wilson had perhaps the deepest understanding of the Constitution next only to James Madison, the Father of the Constitution himself. And he always took the written text of the Constitution and the natural law and natural rights principles of the Declaration as his lodestar and compass. There is no doubt that Wilson would be aghast at the unlimited government we have today, which regularly violates the Constitution for the self-serving purpose of aggrandizing the various clients of the administrative state.

Getting right with the Founders is imperative. Understanding the nature of the regime they put in place is necessary to re-establish a politics based on the consent of the governed. Though the Founders certainly cannot provide direct answers to solving today’s challenges, knowing that sovereignty resides ultimately with the people is a crucial first step to recovering republican self-government.

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2016 Election • Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Big Media • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Democrats • Healthcare • Identity Politics • The Left • The Media • The Resistance (Snicker)

In the Battle for Liberty, Complacency is Retreat

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Another day, another health care debate being dominated by the Leftist opposition. Earlier this week, the Republican leaders in Congress announced that they had come to an agreement with the House Freedom Caucus and would be putting forward a new attempt at repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The reaction from activists on the Right has been as predictable as it is sad. One either hears the sound of crickets from the groups that support the new proposal, or cries of “No Complete Repeal, No Peace!” All the while, the Left is working the phone lines trying to kill any attempt at walking back Obama’s lone legacy.

The new proposal not only reverses large parts of Obamacare, it also empowers individual states to pull out deep institutional roots at the local level. Like other cancerous bureaucratic enterprises, Obamacare dropped deep roots in a short time. These cannot be pulled out in one movement and will require a sustained effort to prevent a resurgence, but the only sustained efforts one can see are those of the obsequious press and Leftist activists like Topher Spiro at the Center for American Progress who are providing “whip lists” to their allies. These are efforts to kill the bill, plain and simple. They are targeted, they are organized, and they are non-stop.

Now we must struggle to merely hold the ground we won last fall, even as we seek to expand the sphere of liberty. This means that we need to fight hard in favor of the repeal of Obamacare, but it also means that we must do so with the long view in mind. We should take any opportunity for victory that we can, but we should never stop in our own march through the institutions.

How are my friends on the Right responding? Many of them, especially those in the cozy confines of Conservative Inc., are complaining that the bill doesn’t do enough to kill Obamacare.

This is a true statement. The bill doesn’t do enough to kill Obamacare, but it does push the lines of battle away from single-payer health care and provides a roadmap for the complete eradication of the stifling and complex regulations associated with the highly unaffordable act. Conservatives, who represent the best of the Western Tradition, have to be mindful not to succumb to one potential strategic weakness of that tradition. We are often looking for the decisive victory, the legislative success that undoes decades of governmental overreach and that in one fell sweep returns power to local government and the people.

Sadly, that is not how wars are won, nor is it how institutions are changed. Battles may be decisive, but war is a prolonged test of wills. Institutions are, as they say, sticky. Once an institution has been created, it immediately begins to affect the legal, social, and political environment. In the case of the so-called Affordable Care Act, the takeover of the individual marketplace transformed independent insurance agents into quasi-government employees almost overnight. In effect, it took over an entire industry of small business owners and independent contractors. People who were once intermediaries in a genuine marketplace were shifted into a new role as form-filers. It turned entrepreneurs into bureaucrats. Add to the long litany of legal changes to the medical system an amendment that allowed the federal government to take over student loans and use that money to pay for Obamacare, and you begin to see that the bill has externalities piled upon externalities that must be overcome. These are deep roots, too deep to be removed in a single piece of legislation.

How does one fight against such a leviathan? Through a long battle of attrition. We must follow the advice of Michael Walsh and adopt the strategy that the Left has used to such great effect and make the long march through the institutions, clawing back every inch until we return to the people control over their daily lives. We need not use the same tools of deception and deceit that the Left has used while implementing this strategy, but we must take the long view and understand that the “Battle of Obamacare” is only one battle in a much longer war of ideas.

It’s a war that is being fought in every corner of society. The battle rages on college campuses where professors have long used their positions of authority to stifle conservative opinions in the classroom, and where conservative speakers need to worry about being physically assaulted. But threats of physical assault aren’t limited to college campuses; we now see these threats leading to the cancellation of family friendly festivals. The battlefield of ideas is everywhere. The Left has won so many battles, both in the open and in the shadows, for so long that the desire for a big win is understandable. This is especially true after last year’s election when Donald Trump demonstrated that it is possible to win even when all the forces of hell stand against you.

What we need to remember is that even though Donald Trump won, he didn’t win by a landslide. He won by securing nail-biting victories within traditional Democratic Party strongholds. His was but the first victory in what needs to be a long and hard fought war against the totalitarian Left. Now we must struggle to merely hold the ground we won last fall, even as we seek to expand the sphere of liberty. This means that we need to fight hard in favor of the repeal of Obamacare, but it also means that we must do so with the long view in mind. We should take any opportunity for victory that we can, but we should never stop in our own march through the institutions.

Even as the Left has created a strategic guidebook to enable perpetual “resistance,” we must use those tools to fight them in every sector. For every “Themed Protest March of the Week ™,” we must be ready to counter-protest. Every time they seek to silence a speaker like Ann Coulter, we need to be there in support of them. We need to let the Young Americas Foundation know it will not have to face the ultra-fascists alone. We need to call our congressmen and senators.The phone lines should be flooded with our voices, not merely the voices of organized authoritarians. The Left seeks our silence; let us give them a clamor.

Yes, our representatives need to do more in the effort to repeal Obamacare, but they are not the only ones who should be fighting the Left. We need to pull our own weight in the battle against an enemy who surrounds us and who never stops.

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America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Harry Jaffa • Leo Strauss • Lincoln • Michael Anton • political philosophy • Section 1 • The Constitution • The Culture

Rod Dreher, Meet Leo Strauss and Friends

Leo Strauss

Rod Dreher has discovered an exotic tribe known as the Straussians.

Dreher, in case you’re not aware, is a blogger at The American Conservative and is the author of several books, including his newest and much-hyped The Benedict Option. Prior to landing his own blog at TAC, he worked at National Review, was an editor and columnist at The Dallas Morning News, and then worked at the John Templeton Foundation outside of Philadelphia as its publications director.

Dreher’s discovery, and a sudden onset of severe Straussophobia, occurred after a recent talk at Benedictine College where he encountered a student of the late Harry Jaffa, Susan Traffas. (Traffas wrote her PhD dissertation under Jaffa’s tutelage, which was later published as Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss.) Professor Traffas, says Dreher, was very critical of the Benedict Option concept and described herself as “a die-hard Straussian.” Dreher copped to not “know[ing] a lot about political theory,” and to therefore being unfamiliar with Straussians. But, never fear. He did some digging. After apparently taking a whole fifteen minutes to read through an essay on a website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about how different groups of conservatives view the American Founding, he came up with this sweeping claim:

Assuming that this is an accurate characterization of the Straussian view, it explains in part why so many politically oriented conservatives (not only those who affirmatively identify as Straussian) react strongly against the Benedict Option. America is not a state so much as it is a religion. To give up on the liberalism that created this creedal nation is, to use New Testament language about the Church, to allow the gates of Hell to prevail against America. It would invalidate their political religion. Therefore, they cannot admit the possibility that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail.

There is so much to be said about these and so many other casual assertions that Dreher makes in this piece, I am not sure where to begin.

East vs. West Revisited

First, Dreher misses a crucial distinction apparent even in the ISI essay he claims to have studied. It is West Coast Straussians, and not necessarily Straussians in general, who tend to view the American Founding as a high achievement both politically and philosophically. But before delving into particulars, we must back up a bit to get a larger view of the Straussian genealogy.

As a quick primer, the term “Straussian” refers to students and admirers of Leo Strauss, the German émigré who revived the teaching of political philosophy in the twentieth century. Whatever their differences, Straussians see that the study of political philosophy is still possible because great questions such as “Who rules?” and “What is the purpose of a just regime?” are always relevant to political life. The lessons of the great texts of philosophy such as Aristotle’s Ethics or John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government are always available to us because the truth of an idea does not hinge upon when or where or by whom it was first articulated. This is because truth, right and wrong, just and unjust, exist by nature—which Strauss opposed to the reigning orthodoxies of his day: historicism, positivism, and nihilism (hence the title of his most famous work, Natural Right And History).

A split emerged between Strauss’s students in the 1970s specifically over how the American Founding should be viewed, which stems from a more general disagreement about how to understand the relationship between politics and philosophy. The camps were dubbed East and West since they mostly broke down geographically, with West Coasters based mainly in California and East Coasters based in metropolises like New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto. Today, the monikers East and West are less helpful since many East Coasters reside on the West Coast and vice-versa. As Charles Kesler once remarked in National Review, the “distinction is more a state of mind than of geography.”

West Coast Straussians are students of Harry Jaffa, his students, or his students’ students and can be found at places like the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College. To generalize for the sake of clarity, West Coasters believe that America is a high and noble regime (Jaffa argued that it was the best regime in the history of Western civilization) because it is concerned ultimately with securing the highest ends of political life, the safety and happiness of its citizens. The American Founders combined the best elements of classical and early modern philosophy, along with biblical revelation, to form a coherent political theory that served the cause of liberty. The cornerstone of the American regime for West Coasters is the Declaration of Independence—especially the principle that “all men are created equal.” Though they see the principles of the Founding as theoretically sound, the Founding in practice was incomplete until the conclusion of the Civil War because of the stain of chattel slavery, which was in clear contradiction with the principle of natural human equality.

In contrast, East Coast Straussians tend to see the American Founding as, in Leo Strauss’s words (quoting Winston Churchill), “low but solid.” Some of the more famous East Coasters are Harvey C. Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, and the late Allan Bloom. America, in their view, is a modern commercial republic that is based upon the utilitarian virtue of acquiring wealth and property rather than more noble virtues or caring for the souls of its citizens. It is a country born of the modern mind of John Locke, whose philosophy was primarily founded upon sheer self-interest and a doctrine of individual rights that lowers the importance of the duties one owes to one’s family, country, and religion. Though lower in its aims, and perhaps even in spite of them, America became a great and prosperous country. Since natural rights are a dubious foundation for the perpetuation of a republic over the span of generations, the touchstone for East Coasters is the Constitution and the institutional constraints it imposes, which act as a stabilizing force against the rights revolution the Founders helped unleash in 1776.

Thomas G. West’s essay on the West-East division, “Jaffa vs. Mansfield,” is essential reading for those interested in a more detailed examination of the fault lines between these groups.

It’s also important to note that ISI is a traditionalist conservative organization that is far more amenable to the views of the East Coasters than West Coasters. Before branding them as heretics, Dreher should check out the Claremont Institute and American Greatness (especially the essays of Michael Anton “Decius”) and get a clear understanding of how West Coast Straussians understand themselves.

Deifying the State?

Dreher intimates that “Straussians” (he means West Coast Straussians) have an “idolatrous faith in the American ideal.” “America,” in the eyes of the West Coasters supposedly, “is not a state so much as it is a religion.”

What counts as “idolatrous” in Dreher’s mind you may ask? According to the section of the ISI website he quotes, it seems to be the idea that “the Declaration is the statement of the fundamental principles on which the regime is founded.” Furthermore, it’s the “special emphasis” West Coasters put “on the second paragraph in which Jefferson declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”

But if looking favorably upon the Declaration and the principle of equality is a sin against God, then America has been corrupt in the worldly sense from the very beginning. Many Americans apart from those who inhabit the fairly small circle of West Coast Straussians have considered the Declaration and the ideas it espouses—especially that of equality—as the bedrock foundation of the American political tradition.

To get clear on terms, equality in the Founders’ sense means simply this: Unlike a colony of bees in which a queen rules her drones by nature, there are no natural rulers of men. As it is expressed in the Declaration, the principle of equality recognizes that regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, or religion, human beings are free to order their lives as they see fit.

Abraham Lincoln described the place of equality in the American mind this way:

Public opinion, on any subject, always has a “central idea,” from which all its minor thoughts radiate. That “central idea” in our political public opinion, at the beginning was, and until recently has continued to be, “the equality of men.”

In the Founding era, the importance of the Declaration and equality rightly understood is found virtually at every turn. Eight state constitutions written and ratified in the 1770s and 80s feature language that paraphrase “all men are created equal.” For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was written by future president John Adams, states in Article I, “All men are born free and equal.” Similarly, the Constitution of Virginia of 1776 contends that “all men are by nature equally free and independent.”

Jefferson, writing to George Washington in 1784, argued that “the foundation on which all [the state constitutions] are built is the natural equality of man.” In a letter to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration who would later serve as James Madison’s Vice President, John Adams called equality “our first principle.”

Regarding the importance of the Declaration, at the top of a list of foundational core documents for the curriculum of a proposed law school, James Madison named the Declaration of Independence as among the “best guides” on the “distinctive principles of the Government of [Virginia], and that of the United States.” Frederick Douglass called the Declaration the “ring-bolt to the chain of [the] nation’s destiny” and argued that the “principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.” President Calvin Coolidge noted in his speech on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration that it laid out “immortal truths” which would “liberate America” and “ennoble humanity.”

It’s difficult to understand how seeing the Declaration as the cornerstone of the American regime and its pronouncement of natural human equality as important to the meaning of America is somehow beyond the bounds of proper patriotism. Dreher, admittedly, isn’t too familiar with the Founders’ political theory (in his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, he butchers the Founders on religion and mangles a John Adams quote all in the span of two pages) so perhaps it’s not surprising he thinks along these lines.

Rod Dreher, Meet Decius

Dreher’s argument that West Coast Straussians would be aghast at conceding “that the American experiment might be failing, or can fail” is quite frankly absurd.

The irony in Dreher’s blind broadside against West Coasters in this instance is that West Coast-influenced places such as The Journal of American Greatness, American Greatness, and the newly established journal American Affairs all share a clear-eyed view of the current degraded state of our regime. In fact, it’s the very concern that “the American experiment might be failing” that served as the foundation of many West Coasters’ arguments for why Americans should elect Donald Trump.

If Dreher had read the writings of Michael Anton with care—especially his famous “Flight 93” essay (which I know Dreher read because he offered a critique of it)—he would know that they are replete with sober acknowledgements of how far we have descended from the Founders’ regime.

Here are some examples from Anton’s many writings that prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt:

  • The Flight 93 Election” – “If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed ‘family values’; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”
  • Restatement on Flight 93” – “I would also be overjoyed to be persuaded that the country into which I was born, which I have always loved instinctively, and which I was taught to love at the deepest theoretical level, is not in grave peril. Or if it is, that it can be saved even after eight more years of ‘fundamental transformation’—which means administrative state consolidation and managerial class entrenchment.”
  • Not ‘Reactionary’ But Right” – “I believe these are corrupt times and that America is on the downslope of the cycle. I don’t think the situation is yet irredeemable. But it soon may be.”
  • The Telos Crisis” – “My point here is not that we should cease to love America, our home, but simply that the sickness that has overtaken our country, a sickness that has stolen our sense of common national purpose, is quite possibly a sickness unto death.”

Actually, the last point was from a recent blog post written by none other than Rod Dreher. They sound remarkably similar, don’t they?

In fact just last September, Dreher argued that he wasn’t “remotely persuaded by [“The Flight 93 Election”] either, except in its contention that we are at a critical moment in the life of the Republic.” Why Dreher now thinks that West Coast Straussians would never admit that our country is balancing precariously on a precipice is a mystery that would take Sherlock Holmes to solve.

An Argument Between Citizens

Lastly, Dreher’s deeply immoderate rhetorical strategy seems to be to make hasty generalizations based on one-sided information and immediately hurl accusations rather than take part in reasoned reflection and dialogue. To paraphrase his arguments, “I’ve barely ever heard of Leo Strauss, and I hardly have any idea of who West Coast Straussians are, but they are committing heresy against God by deifying the state until someone proves otherwise” is probably not the best way to engage an audience who might actually sympathize with your arguments. This inquisitorial tactic is better at home with the modern approach of launching all-out rhetorical war against one’s political opponents, whereby individuals are said to be “DESTROYED” by the sniping of late night talk show hosts (yet, somehow, the individuals “annihilated” remain on earth to be targeted for future utterances that violate the ruling class’s god of political correctness).

Differences of opinion are, of course, welcome, and one need not accept the positions of West Coast Straussians in order to be counted among the learned. But, to quote Lincoln one last time, marking your opponent to be “shunned and despised” will cause him to “retreat within himself” and “close all the avenues to his head and his heart.” For not even “Herculean force and precision” will “be able to pierce him;” it would be akin to “penetrat[ing] the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”
Instead of immediately launching accusations that wither under the most cursory of examinations, Dreher should take some time to familiarize himself with the writings of Harry Jaffa, John Marini, Charles Kesler, William Voegeli, Thomas West, Ronald Pestritto, and others from which he would benefit greatly, even if he may ultimately disagree with their arguments. His regular readers would likely find such a dialogue to be very much worth their while. And those among the Straussian orbit would certainly find his opinions more compelling.

2016 Election • Administrative State • American Conservatism • Americanism • Congress • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Deep State • Immigration • Political Parties • Republicans • self-government • The Constitution

A Return to Government by Consent: A Response to James Rogers

At the Liberty Law Blog, Professor James R. Rogers makes a sweeping claim that Americans no longer believe in the principle of consent ensconced in the Declaration of Independence.

While “Americans at the Founding took seriously the idea that their consent could be conferred by their representatives,” Americans today do not.

On both left and right, Americans now talk about taxes being forced on them to pay for things for which they disapprove, even though their respective legislatures adopted the taxes. I doubt many Americans today seriously believe that they’ve consented to most of the laws and taxes that their legislatures adopt.

He asks rhetorically, “What changed?”

It’s not so much that the people misunderstand basic American principles and institutions (although far too many do) but that they are reacting to the basic reality of how government today operates.

The critical component Rogers leaves out of his narrative was captured with succinct clarity by Steven Hayward just days before the 2016 Election: “Elections no longer change the character of our government.” This state of affairs—and not the attitude of the whole people as Rogers contends—is what strikes at the very heart of the principle that just government is founded upon the consent of the governed.

For decades, Americans have noted their displeasure that the government is not securing their interests. From curbing illegal and excessive legal immigration to ending “free trade” agreements that mainly serve the interests of the highest bidding cronies and rival Tolstoy’s War and Peace in length, the views of many Americans have not only been neglected in the halls of Congress but actively have been undermined. And even when their views somehow manage to get enacted into law, such as in the 2006 Secure Fences Act signed by President Bush and passed overwhelmingly by a bipartisan Congress, these laws too often go unenforced. (Regarding the 2006 law, the Department of Homeland Security of course failed to follow through with building the hundreds of miles of double layer reinforced fencing on the border as mandated by the law.)

Are the American people wrong to grow weary of this or to wonder if they are being played for suckers?

Even more pervasively, our representatives in Congress regularly delegate their legislative powers to various agencies and regulatory commissions because they want to avoid blame from constituents back home for unpopular decisions. Congressional delegation of constitutionally delegated authority, which the Supreme Court began “constitutionalizing” in J.W. Hampton, Jr. & Company v. United States (1928), has effectively transferred the bulk of lawmaking power to the administrative state, whose underlings are entirely unaccountable to the people.

For example, in 2014 the EPA created the Clean Power Plan through authority supposedly granted to them by the Clean Air Act. The CPP set carbon dioxide emission targets for all fifty states, which would have sent utility bills through the roof if the plan was fully implemented. From a constitutional perspective, the EPA clearly took it upon themselves to issue such a rule apart from specific congressional authorization, and this is a clear violation of Article I’s holding that “all legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” Even the liberal law professor Laurence Tribe noted at the time that the EPA “was acting as though it has the legislative authority anyway to re-engineer the nation’s electric generating system and power grid. It does not.” And this is just one of an endless list of examples of how bureaucrats who are insulated from electoral politics routinely run roughshod over the consent of the governed—and ultimately govern in place of the people’s representatives.

Thus the disconnect Rogers observes in our modern political life is due to the dominant place the administrative state has in our regime. It seems a bit presumptuous, then, to place all of the blame on the American people for this state of affairs. After all, until the 2016 election, they hadn’t even been offered a true alternative on the presidential level since Reagan faced off against Jimmy Carter. The American people, therefore, shouldn’t be faulted for failing to make choices that weren’t even before them.

In 2016, Americans who were tired of being taken for a ride by the political class finally got the chance to make a choice that could re-establish their sovereignty. In electing Donald Trump, they rose up to defend their sovereignty and choose to secure their interests rather than those of the Davoisie and their collaborators in Congress. After hearing grandiloquent soliloquies made by “constitutional conservatives” and “full-spectrum conservatives” they picked Trump, who was the only candidate who spoke clearly about the basic principle that just government is derived from the consent of the governed.

The people still understand that they—and not some elites in a faraway elite residing in some remote capital city—know what is in their own best interest. They know that they have not, in Jefferson’s memorable formulation, “been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Far from rejecting the principles of the Declaration, they are affirming them with a manly self-assertiveness that is remarkable considering all the opprobrium and vitriol the ruling class is constantly launching in their direction.

The American people are willing to take part in self-government. The only thing remaining to be seen is if those they put into office will hold up their end of the bargain.

Administrative State • America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Donald Trump • Obama • Political Parties • political philosophy • self-government • Steve Bannon • The Media • Trump White House

Looking Down on Trump’s Brain

According to Ross Douthat, in his April 1, 2017 New York Times article, “Trump Needs a Brain”:

Trump himself doesn’t know what he wants to do on major issues and there’s nobody in his innermost circle who seems to have a compelling vision that might guide him.

Douthat says in an “ideologically unstable age” Trump needs ideological expertise. “The dearth of Trumpists” is a major problem because “Trump himself doesn’t know what he wants to do.”

Trump needs no such experts. The information Trump needs about what to do—information about the character of good citizenship and the good of the whole—is not technical in nature. A better theoretical understanding of Trumpism by Trump would make Trump worse, not better.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described wisdom as divided into practical and theoretical wisdom. While theoretical wisdom can provide advice to practical wisdom, as Aristotle did in the Ethics, it is not theory that chiefly informs statesmanship. Theoretical wisdom examines the true nature of the whole for the sake of knowing. While theoretical wisdom for Aristotle is in the superior position for the sake of understanding, it is in an inferior position with respect to direct application for practical enterprises.

In Metaphysics [1072b], Aristotle describes his theoretical understanding of God as pure actuality, as thinking, thinking about thinking. Following this description of the divine as understood theoretically [1074b], Aristotle explains that almost no one actually understands divinity in this way. Instead, ancient Greeks understood the divine as many anthropomorphic gods.

Harry Jaffa’s Thomism and Aristotelianism lays out in Chapter VI “Magnanimity and the Limits of Morality” (pg. 121) the dichotomy between the incentives of the statesman and those of the philosopher. The statesman and philosopher both direct their intellectual powers toward the highest thing, the imitation of the divine. But the philosopher imitates the divine—thinking, thinking about thinking—through contemplation. The statesman has a different view of the divine and imitates the divine—the gods of the city—acting as a benefactor to the people he serves. Think of how the anthropomorphic gods of polytheistic faiths are praised for conferring benefits on mortals, as—for example—Athena confers benefits on Athens. If the statesman had a theoretical understanding of the divine, he would not have a compelling incentive to do what he does. He would sit around some think tank in D.C. or worse, write a column for the New York Times.

We do not live in a polytheistic age, but this same basic understanding of the whole persists for many adherents of monotheistic faiths. In practice, these faiths allow for lesser participations in divinity, such as angels, saints, and heroic figures. Within each particular faith doctrinal distinctions exist that are crucially important. Polytheism, of course, is a heresy, but psychologically the views of our religions bear some comparisons with to those in the ancient world of gods, demigods, and heroes.

On some occasions, Trump personally has revealed these views. Trump is nominally Presbyterian, but he made clear with comments like “Two Corinthians” and “little wine and little cracker” and his comfort with other faiths and interfaith marriage, that the specific doctrines of the sects with which he affiliates are unimportant. On at least two occasions has discussed things even more revelatory of these views. He referred to his father, Fred Trump, as “looking down” on events and approving Trump’s conduct in securing the presidency. In addition, in his February 28 joint speech to Congress, Trump referred to U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens as follows:

Ryan died as he lived:  a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation . . . Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.

When the applause finally subsided, Trump, addressing Ryan Owen’s widow, said extemporaneously:

And Ryan is looking down, right now—you know that—and he is very happy because I think he just broke a record.

For Trump—and his “you know that” suggests he presumes this is the view of every decent person—the heroic dead are very much alive, and they are judging our conduct. They want to us to break records, or as Aristotle would say, achieve excellence.

If, for Trump, the heroic dead are very much alive as were the gods of the city to the ancient Greeks, then Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and other heroes of the American past are, for Trump, very much alive and judging Trump’s conduct. Washington, D.C.’s monuments to these men are laid out to overlay these heroic dead on the pattern of the ancient Greek polytheism—not to establish polytheism—but to establish a civic religion that can serve as a guide to citizens and statesmen alike.

Such a civic religion can be a guide only to people who are open to such a view, and Trump clearly is. Imitation of the divine for Trump consists in measuring up to the  standards and judgment of these heroes of the past. In that sense, Trump the statesman can be said to have the right opinions for practical wisdom, opinions that do not require any further ideological underpinning to tell him what to do.

These opinions are ones that progressives—who speak of faith traditions rather than of faith, consider unscientific and from the realm of the superstitious. President Obama placed importance of his father as a personal hero but modern psychology defined his view. Obama’s father was not “looking down;” rather there were “dreams from my father,” subconscious impulses, subject to the technical evaluation of Freudians and their kith. Obama, if I understand him, would not think of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as heroes against which his own actions could be judged, but merely as several of many parts in an irrational past up for evaluation only by the progress of science and ever-improving expertise. There is nothing inherent in the wisdom of our forebears to inform us today—only an openness to “progress” as such. Obama, I submit, could not be open to being informed by our classical civic religion as is Trump. As a result, Trump appeared to Obama to lack the temperament for the office, not just for policy reasons, but because his worldview seems to Obama to be genuinely alien.

A civic religion which calls us to live up to the judgments of the Founders is superior to the progressive worldview, despite the generous way in which progressives seem happy to  interpret themselves. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln worked to confer the benefit of securing self-government for their fellow Americans in the hope that each American could, in some sense, be molded after themselves, capable of and willing to live up to the equality before the law that their nature as men deemed proper and their inheritance as Americans promised. Below are illustrative quotes:

From Washington on rule of law:

The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

Lincoln on Jefferson regarding equality:

. . . in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, [Jefferson] had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

From Lincoln regarding equality and liberty:

As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.

These statesman knew what to do because they knew themselves—which is to say that they knew what sort of being they were and what sort of dignity that demanded. No further “ideology” was necessary, and there was little further useful formal expertise. The practical character of the American Founding is why it defies attempts—and there have been and will continue to be many such attempts—to impose upon it an ideological strait jacket as wholly defined the Enlightenment.

If one interprets Trump using this lens, Trump makes perfect sense. He wants for the American people the things he wants for himself: nationhood, rule of law, self-government, and economic opportunity. He says this all quite plainly:

  • restore the idea of American nationhood (“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” – Trump Inaugural),
  • restore the sovereignty of the people (e.g., “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” –Trump Inaugural),
  • restore rule of law (e.g., “To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this one question:  What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” – Trump Joint Address to Congress),
  • rescue the economy and the American people an out-of-control administrative state (e.g., “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost” – Trump Inaugural),
  • end perpetual war and invest in the United States (“The thing I do best is build. When you have an infrastructure of a country like ours that is absolutely decaying and rotting and falling apart and we—by the way, we’re spending $5 trillion in the Middle East instead of doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We have to knock the hell out of ISIS and all, but we have to get back to rebuilding our country because you look at our airports, our roadways, our tunnels, our bridges—67 percent of them are in trouble.” – Trump on Morning Joe, February 9, 2016), and
  • rescue the middle class from unfair trade and globalism (e.g., “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry.” – Trump Inaugural; “For too long, we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries. We’ve financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and so many other places throughout our land.” – Trump Joint Address to Congress).

Trump does not need a hired brain to tell him what to do. What Trump needs is loyal help implementing what he already knows. #Nevertrump Republicans and conservatives, such as Katie Walsh—a part of a disloyal opposition styled as “Resistance”—and even some so-called “non-partisan” employees of the executive branch have undertaken to impede the new administration. These are not checks on power as were envisioned by the Framers. These are bad actors. The help Trump needs now will come from those who know best how to break through these impediments, so he can do the work of the American people.

America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Big Media • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Democrats • Donald Trump • EU • Foreign Policy • Identity Politics • Immigration • Middle East • political philosophy • self-government • The Constitution • The Culture • The Media • The Resistance (Snicker)

Americanism vs. Marxism-Lennonism

I have a friend who is a retired public school teacher. She is very likeable and in some areas an independent thinker. One day in conversation she brought up the terrible poverty and near-anarchy that prevails just on the other side of America’s southern border. It quickly became clear that she believed America was at fault, that America’s prosperity was somehow the cause of Mexico’s problems. When I asked her what the solution might be, she replied without hesitation that we should get rid of that border, and not stop there but get rid of all borders. Then, she said, people everywhere could live in peace.

If I could capture for you precisely how she said this, you would hear as I did John Lennon’s “Imagine” forming her thoughts:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace…

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.

The simplest explanation of what happened to the modern progressive Baby Boomers is that they found for themselves a new national anthem, one they like much better than that old and out-dated one that asked them to be brave if they expected to be free.

When John Kerry in a commencement speech told college graduates they will live in a borderless world, he made it clear his muddled Marxist thinking—like my friend’s—is of the Lennonist variety.

In conversations with my progressive friends, I find they see America as the problem. They place their hopes in the world beyond America’s borders. When Kerry said America needed France’s approval to conduct foreign policy, his assertion made perfect sense to Lennonists. When Bill Maher said if half the country wants Trump as president then the United Nations needs to intervene, he spoke for American Lennonists everywhere.

You have to admit that American Lennonism has a certain logic. If America is the problem, then getting rid of America’s borders is an important and even an essential step toward a better world. But if America is not the problem, if America deserves to live, if there are still many Americans who want America to live, then not so much. And if getting rid of America turned out to be a mistake, it would be a mistake impossible to undo.

If you doubt that Lennonism has a powerful hold on the thinking and the imaginations of many in America, please consider this: “Imagine” has become the more-or-less official anthem played in the United States on New Year’s Eve.

I prefer “The Star-Spangled Banner.” To me, nothing expresses America’s uniqueness better than the fact that, as it is traditionally performed, America’s national anthem ends with this question:

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

That question is actually a challenge. Our national anthem issues a challenge to every generation down to our own, reminding us of our responsibility to preserve the Founders’ gift.

I’ll ask you the same question: have we kept America the land of the free and the home of the brave?

 

America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • self-government • Trump White House

Trump’s Brand of Self-Government on Display in Recent Rallies

Donald Trump famously promised to be a “cheerleader” for the country when he launched his 2016 presidential campaign, saying he would “take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” Now, in an ongoing series of rallies, he is doing just that. And, perhaps surprisingly, his idea of America’s brand highlights the idea of self-government.

I suspect that prior to Trump’s incredible rise to political prominence in the 2016 campaign, few would have thought that one who seemed to celebrate excess and to embrace the license to break all convention could or would do this.

But at his recent Florida rally, the president discussed self-government throughout his speech. And it was there again in Nashville, then again in Kentucky. Time and again in these rallies, Trump discusses the spirit of self-government needed in citizens of a republic. He attacks the administrative state that has grown out of a bastardization of our institutions and is contrary to self-government. And he highlights the qualities and duties of self-governing men.

As President Trump said in his inaugural address, “what truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” In Kentucky he claimed that “if we empower the American people, we will accomplish incredible things for our country…all across our government.” Progressives, who claim that experts must now control the operations of our government because of progress, hate these claims. The claims on behalf of self-government rest on an understanding of human nature that says men will always have poor power to control one another and, therefore, self-government is best.

As Jefferson said, some men are not “born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred,ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” Each man has only enough power to control himself—if, indeed, he even has that much. Progressives may wish to suggest that we have moved beyond such limiting notions of human nature, but their own art (to say nothing of the way most successful progressives order their own lives) often betrays them. Note, for example  the character of Aaron Burr in the Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” so beloved by progressives. The Burr of the musical belts out the defiant line “I am the one thing in life I can control!” the actions of the real-life Aaron Burr, notwithstanding.

So how does Trump talk about self-government?

When Trump tells the crowd that they are “all part of this incredible movement… People want to take back control of their countries and they want to take back control of their lives and the lives of their family,” he hits upon both of the common understandings of the term.

In one sense, self-government means we, as a people, govern our country. In another sense, self-government means we, as individuals, are obliged to govern ourselves. Individual self-government, also known as self-restraint or more simply as self-control, is the key element of a free society. As my greatest teacher has taught me, “a free society requires order, and order depends on restraint: yet it seems that the only kind of restraint compatible with genuine freedom is self-restraint.” In a certain sense, it is necessary for us to be worthy of or live up to the promise of our freedom. Unless we can do that, free government is never assured.

Elsewhere, Trump rejects the notion of control of individuals and government by experts in favor of self-government and government controlled by individuals. In Florida, he pledged to downsize “the bloated bureaucracy and make the government lean and accountable.” He made similar points in Tennessee and Kentucky. Trump seems to agree with Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn that the administrative state and its “czarist bureaucracy” are at odds with self-government.

And in Florida, the president said “we are not going to let the fake news tell us what to do, how to live, what to believe. We are free and independent people, and we will make our own choices.” Aside from being a great line, these words point toward an important element of self-government—our reason, or our capacity for “reflection and choice.”

More important, we must also use our reason to understand and evaluate the laws made by our representatives and judge for ourselves whether government remains accountable to us. Otherwise, how can we know if our representatives are representing us properly or if we are choosing them well? Trump likes to read aloud from the laws in his speeches and to remind his audiences that in a nation of laws,  any citizen from “a bad student in high school” to the college educated—should be able to understand the plain meaning of the laws. When we move away from that and toward a regime where understanding the law requires lawyers and experts, the relationship between citizens and law is too distant. We should be able to judge for ourselves whether the courts are following the law. And in Florida, Trump promised tax reform to make the tax code “understandable by everyone.”

Finally, free government requires that we each be governed by our duty to control our own government. Trump affirms that,

the nation state remains the best model for human happiness and the American nation remains the greatest symbol of liberty, of freedom and justice on the face of God’s earth … It’s now that we have our sacred duty and we have no choice and we want this choice to defend our country, to protect its values and to serve its great, great citizens.

Trump seems to understand the words of Declaration that political bodies are necessary to secure men’s rights, but that they must be controlled by citizens according our natural rights and duties.

All of this aligns with Trump’s pledge to unify the country. Quoting from Psalm 133 in his inaugural address, Trump looked to the Biblical lesson of “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.” Christian unity in the Church requires that members live by certain virtues, namely that they be “humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” In other words, life in community requires self-control.

As Lincoln put it, “though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Instead, “the mystic chords of memory” must be maintained by the “better angels of our nature.”

In this, Lincoln is echoing the founders in Federalist No 55. “Republican government,” they tell us, “presupposes the existence” of certain qualities in men. For if “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Trump may be an unlikely messenger for all of this. Nonetheless, as Lincoln did in 1858, the President of the United States appears to be carrying the message that our common “American heritage” stretches “back to the first day of our American independence” and contains the “principle of self-government.”

We live in exciting times, as Matthew Continetti wrote recently, and “we are about to find out” who rules in the United States. American Greatness publisher Chris Buskirk points out, “both political parties share an affinity for what is essentially an assault on self-government.” But Trump’s understanding of the American brand, it seems, is one in which we rule ourselves.

 

America • American Conservatism • Americanism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • political philosophy • Republicans • The Culture • The Left

Make Americanism Great Again

I recently received an e-mail—you may have seen it, too—from a person who has been a prominent spokesman for the GOP and now is a NeverTrumper. He notes that the GOP and American conservatism appear to have arrived at a turning point. Perhaps, he suggests, we should abandon the label “conservative” and reclaim for ourselves the word “liberal.”

Perhaps not. I certainly do not feel up to teaching Rush Limbaugh to call himself a liberal.

But the author of the e-mail has a point. The progressives first rejected the classical liberalism of the American Founders—and then they stole the name for themselves! The Founders focused on the theory and practice of liberty, and theirs is still today the most radical attempt to establish a regime of liberty in the entire history of mankind. The inscription on the Liberty Bell makes their purpose clear: “Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.”

Every policy of modern progressivism—from forcing American citizens to purchase government-approved health insurance to enforcing the dogmas of political correctness in the public square to imposing transgender bathrooms on our schools to advocating voting rights for illegal aliens—is profoundly illiberal. Yet the progressives get away with calling themselves liberals. (How this came about is a fascinating story, one that you probably need to have under your belt to make your way in this time of profound political change. I dedicated the last chapter of my book, Common Sense Nation, to telling that story.)

And it is also true that it was the progressives who chose the conservative label for their political foes, and then proceeded to impose that label on them. FDR, while confiscating the liberal label for progressivism, suggested that the champions of the Constitution call themselves “conservatives”. At first they were reluctant to do so. But because the progressive “liberals” were doing something radically new—fundamentally transforming the nature of American politics by setting out to overthrow the Constitution one step at a time, progressively—the champions of the Constitution were put on the defensive. As defenders of the Constitution they eventually came around to the idea of calling themselves conservatives. So it was that the champions of the radically Liberal American Constitution came to be called “conservatives.”

But “conservatism” is not a perfect fit for the American idea. The Founders certainly did not think of themselves as conservatives, so why should we? The Founders were, after all, revolutionaries. Of course, they were not like the madmen of the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. They were common sense revolutionaries—and that was the secret of their astonishing success.

If not “conservatism,” what should we call the politics of the American idea? Isn’t the obvious right choice “Americanism”?

The word is no longer in favor, driven to the margins of acceptability by the progressive Left’s rejection of everything traditionally American. But for our purposes that is an advantage. This gives us the perfect opening to reclaim the name for ourselves.

Americanism, as the name of our political movement, naturally has two elements.

First, Americanism is pro-American in the most practical and elemental sense. Americanism champions America’s safety, its prosperity, its uniqueness, its well-being.

Second, Americanism champions the American idea. It is dedicated to the Founders’ ideals, to the Constitution as written, to the study and celebration of the Founders’ gift to us.

This label has the political advantage of highlighting both parts of the progressive agenda. The progressives reject the American idea of the Founders, and—astonishingly—they also reject what is simply good for America. They are for flooding America with illegal aliens, bringing in Muslims while turning a blind eye to the risks of importing terrorism, dragging the economy down with excessive regulations and redistributive policies, submerging America in a welter of globalist entanglements, and on and on.

“Americanism” also has the political advantage of making clear what each side is for: the opposite of pro-American, after all, is anti-American.

If the anti-Americanism of the progressive Left has become so powerful that it can’t be stopped, at least we can know that we chose the right hill on which to make our stand. All that remains is for us to conduct ourselves in such a way that win or lose we deserve to win.

2016 Election • Administrative State • America • Congress • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Donald Trump • Government Reform • History • Lincoln • Neil Gorsuch • political philosophy • The Constitution • The Courts • The Left • The Media • The Resistance (Snicker) • Trump White House

Shootout Over Natural Law at Gorsuch Gulch?

Supreme Court justices sometimes devise overly clever “tests” in their opinions to determine the constitutionality of a law or government action.

Here’s my one-pronged (and multi-part) Supreme Court minimal competency test, derived from Abraham Lincoln’s critique of Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in Dred Scot:

Was Lincoln right in making the Declaration of Independence the basis of constitutional government? Was he correct in objecting to Senator Stephen Douglas’s assertion that all who question the correctness of the Court in Dred Scott are “offering violent resistance to it”?

When does the Court go too far? What is the role of the Declaration in its decisions? Was the venerable Justice Holmes, beloved on the Left and Right alike, wrong when he declared, “If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job”?

The alternative to Holmes’s nihilism, his mockery of democracy, is the Declaration of Independence with its natural rights philosophy. But of course, both Holmes and his fellow Progressive Woodrow Wilson had nothing but contempt for natural law and the Declaration. And they taught that contempt to generations of scholars and lawyers. Today those lawyers populate Congress, in a bipartisan plague.

These long suppressed struggles over natural law became prominent again in 1987 when then-Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) attacked Robert Bork for scoffing at natural law and affirming the power of majorities. Then, switching gears, in 1991, Biden ridiculed Clarence Thomas for appealing to natural law for limiting the power of majorities. Thomas’s interest in natural law was spurred by his interest in advancing anti-slavery arguments like those of Lincoln.

More recently, in 2010, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) showed that Elena Kagan would not acknowledge the Declaration of Independence as the basis for the Constitution:

KAGAN: Senator Coburn, to be honest with you, I don’t have a view of what are natural rights, independent of the Constitution, and my job as a justice will be to enforce and defend the Constitution and other laws of the United States.

COBURN: So you wouldn’t embrace what the Declaration of Independence says, that we have certain inalienable and God-given rights that aren’t given in the Constitution, that are ours, ours alone, and that the government doesn’t give those to us.

KAGAN: Senator Coburn, I believe that the Constitution is an extraordinary document, and I’m not saying I do not believe that there are rights preexisting the Constitution and the laws, but my job as a justice is to enforce the Constitution and the laws.

COBURN: I understand that. I’m not talking about as a justice, I’m talking about Elena Kagan. What do you believe? Are there inalienable rights for us? Do you believe that?”

We may see in this week’s Gorsuch hearings yet another twist of natural law. Gorsuch studied under “new natural law” scholar John Finnis and produced a remarkable 320-page treatise, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. The book is part of a series edited by America’s preeminent new natural law scholar, Princeton’s Robert George, who is likewise a student of Finnis.

Before proceeding, I should add here that I knew Gorsuch in 2006 when he was deputy associate attorney general at the Justice Department, where I was a speechwriter. Like his other colleagues, I was impressed with his intellect and collegiality and I strongly support his nomination to the Court. As will be seen I have some reservations about “new natural law,” which, however, do not diminish my support for Gorsuch for a seat on the Court.

My hesitation about “new natural law” amounts to this:  Why does the world need a “new natural law”? What’s wrong with the old one, going back to Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Jefferson? Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights made the case for the new natural law, which would appear to many scholars as an outgrowth of British analytic philosophy, with all its strengths, shortcomings, and dryness.

Advocates of the old natural law pounced on this break from tradition. Paleo-conservative legal scholar Bruce Frohnen complains, “What is lost in the process of reducing natural law reasoning to the derivation of rules of conduct from logical premises is historically grounded prudence.”

In fact, the new natural law may be more clearly understood by contrasting it with the old. The old was rooted in a teleological conception of human nature: man is understood by his purpose. Man was intended (by nature and/or creation) for a final purpose. Toward that end, our lives must hone certain human excellences or virtues, moral and intellectual. Duties rather than rights characterize human existence, which is by nature social and political, not radically autonomous. The common good struggles for recognition, urged on by visions of the best regime.

By contrast, the comparatively apolitical new natural law features a list of “basic goods” or “values,” which are essential for human life—knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability, practical reasonableness, and “religion.” Such goods cannot be reduced to utilitarian instruments. Nor do they exist in a hierarchy, and “practical reasonableness” determines how they should be realized in particular circumstances.

The prudence of old natural law statesmanship is thereby downplayed. Contrast Gorsuch’s use of the Declaration of Independence with that of Clarence Thomas. While Gorsuch would use the Declaration to question termination of life issues, Thomas might well use it to attack the legitimacy of the administrative state. Gorsuch’s moderation should comfort critics of the older natural law, such as then-Senator Biden or other ill-informed critics of originalism such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Natural law scholar Samuel Gregg is correct, however, to point out that “what matters is that [new natural law theory’s] understanding of the political common good underscores the necessity of limited and therefore constitutional government.” New natural law theory would limit judicial power, along with government power in general.

Gorsuch applies some of Finnis’s argument in chapter nine of his book where he offers reflections on the meaning of life as a “basic good.” Much of his argument can be found in article form in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, which encapsulates his book. By applying practical reasonableness in unpacking the meaning of life as a basic good, Gorsuch questions the shaky moral assumptions behind state-sanctioned assisted suicide and euthanasia. He brings the sagacity and the compassion of a Leon Kass to the bar. (Gorsuch never mentions Kass or Hans Jonas in his book.)

He does turn aside the sophisms of Judge Richard Posner and libertarian hero (and Biden villain) Richard Epstein on these issues. Against Epstein’s somewhat qualified defense of assisted suicide and euthanasia, Gorsuch responds: “[I]f laws absolutely proscribing slavery contracts and dueling can be defended as consistent with the libertarian ideal, why not also laws banning all forms of assisted suicide and euthanasia?”

One should add that this is also a remarkably courageous book, beginning as it does with a critique of the much-ridiculed sweet “mystery of life” passage in the abortion rights case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992):

These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

This passage is said to have been authored by Justice Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch once clerked. Gorsuch’s book contrasts this formless due process clause meandering with the relative discipline of equal protection and shows how human dignity can be protected by a rich understanding of equal lives being protected even in the most trying conditions.

In any event, the hopes of George Will and others to the contrary, it is a circuitous route from the old natural law of Jefferson and John Marshall to Gorsuch’s new natural law—to extent that he chooses to advance it. This qualification is crucial, since Gorsuch’s jurisprudence, for example, his critique of the administrative state, relies far more on the construction in his cases than in any application of natural law.

A robust jurisprudence of natural law, however, requires that Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Jefferson meet and discover themselves in each other, as Harry V. Jaffa argues:

There is no patronage here of the notion, popular today, that the pursuit of happiness means “doing your own thing,” no matter what that “thing” is. Finally, we see Washington asserting that the boundaries of national policy, the actions of citizens and statesmen, whether private or public, must conform to “the eternal rules of order and right.” Wherein does this differ from Thomas Aquinas’s concept of the natural law, as the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law? This, freed from the obscurantism of historicism, relativism, and nihilism, is our true inheritance.

Jaffa portrays the power of the natural law as conceived by the twin Thomas’s. By contrast, scholar Gorsuch—while humanizing debate over the fundamental right to life, as applied to termination of life issues—does not require or even sanction old or new natural law standards directly intervening in American jurisprudence. In doing so, he displays the new natural law “basic good” of practical reasonableness, a much-needed virtue in a Supreme Court justice.

Whatever the great differences between old and new natural law, Lincoln bridged the difference in denying that courts could not use them to subjectively overturn settled statutory law.

America • American Conservatism • Conservatives • Declaration of Independence • The Courts

Political Loyalty Precedes Fundamental Rights: A Reply to Jesse Merriam

Jesse Merriam makes an attractive case for a more principled and thereby, he hopes, more successful approach for conservatives arguing religious liberty cases in the courts. He is concerned in particular with State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, involving a florist who cited her Christian beliefs in refusing to make a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding.

Both a lawyer and a political scientist at Loyola University in Baltimore, Merriam comes strongly equipped to do battle. He observes that as “[t]he conservative movement is essentially fighting and clawing its way through spaces that have become cordoned off, largely due to its own concessions,” its followers should ponder his concluding admonition:

Instead of adhering to generally applicable conservative principles, such as freedom of association and religious liberty, they marshal all their concern for tradition and liberty against gay rights—as if the Founders had some obsessive preoccupation with regulating homosexuality.

So long as conservatives reason in this way, picking and choosing which liberties to preserve based on what the administrative state permits them to say at the given moment, the future of the conservative movement will go the same way as all of the traditions the movement has at one time defended—extirpated and eliminated, excised like a tumor from the organism of law, for having been on the wrong side of history.

While retaining my sympathies with Merriam’s conclusions, and also trying to avert my eyes from the bloody remnants he conjures, I would urge a shift of focus and a change of emphasis in his approach (as well as in that of libertarians and conservatives to the court).

What does it mean to adhere to “generally applicable conservative principles, such as freedom of association and religious liberty”—which are after all not so clear? Instead, the Constitution and the laws under it must be taken as one and resting on natural law, the teaching of the Declaration of Independence. This was the prevalent understanding of our limited government Constitution prior to the rise of Progressivism. Merriam’s freedom of association argument seems stronger (especially in the context of the administrative state) than his religious liberty argument. But both need further elaboration.

A quick survey of highlights of American political history provides some leading examples of some of the difficulties of relying on conservative principles outside the context of the Declaration.

George Washington’s celebrated letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport supplies the evident link to the Declaration:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights….

In other words, political loyalty precedes the exercise of fundamental rights, including the freedom of religion. Preceding even that freedom— as well as the natural right of property—is agreement about the equality of the citizens who share in the social contract with one another. Thus, there can be no talk of some citizens enslaving others or establishing national religions. Consider Washington’s qualification in his letter to Catholics:

And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.

Catholic freedom might be endangered by a lack of patriotism, such as demands for an established church or an alliance with hostile powers.

Faith and family have produced political controversy at least since the mid-19th century,  following the Republican Party’s condemnation of “those twin relics of barbarism—polygamy and slavery.” In his speech opposing the Dred Scott decision, Abraham Lincoln raised this question to his opponent Stephen Douglas:

If the people of Utah shall peacefully form a State Constitution tolerating polygamy, will the Democracy admit them into the Union? There is nothing in the United States Constitution or law against polygamy; and why is it not a part of the Judge’s “sacred right of self-government” for that people to have it, or rather to keep it, if they choose?

The Supreme Court and federal law did not recognize a religious liberty exception to anti-polygamy laws in the federal territory preceding Utah statehood.

Though today no politician or academic, let alone a jurist, would speak of “barbarism” any more than she invoke the Declaration’s “merciless Indian savages…,” the political consensus on common morality clearly excluded some religious practices.

Finally, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America celebrates the moral and political significance of both freedom of association and freedom of religion. But he also emphasizes the great danger the freedom of association poses and urges it only in nations that respect freedom. As for freedom of religion, Tocqueville notes how Americans confuse it with political freedom, as they so cherish both.

But in fact Americans thought clearly about these issues.

Political agreement necessarily precedes fundamental freedoms and even natural rights. Should Catholics (let alone Muslims) have freedom of religion? What are the limits to any natural right—does freedom of property include the right to own slaves? How far may the practices of a freely exercised religion go?

Harry Jaffa in A New Birth of Freedom observed that the Civil War was “as much a war between differing versions of Christianity (or about the teaching of the Bible) as it was about slavery and the Constitution.” Few relish raising such divisive issues, with their concomitant anger and even vitriol, not to mention violence.

These are not mere historical controversies, either. Do minority religions get a legal preference, exempting their adherents from ordinary citizen duties, ranging from military service to school attendance? Are Sharia law, animal sacrifice, and allegiance to foreign governments among protected religious activities? What about the rights of Japanese Shinto priests during World War II, many of whom were interned? Here we must apply Merriam’s opposition to the administrative state: its dangerous power to tax and regulate constitutes sufficient grounds for objecting to the reasoning of the Bob Jones University case, instead of asserting a religious liberty right.

Of course we cannot expect a mere incantation of “natural law” to provide clarity in properly deciding these questions. Nonetheless, the Declaration’s understanding of natural law is the only sensible starting point for understanding “generally applicable conservative principles, such as freedom of association and religious liberty.” Perhaps natural law scholar Neil Gorsuch will offer illumination on the Supreme Court.

 

Administrative State • America • Americanism • Declaration of Independence • Defense of the West • Democrats • Department of Homeland Security • Donald Trump • Economy • Education • Foreign Policy • Immigration • Infrastructure • Trade • Trump White House

Trump Revisits Gettysburg

As Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke of America by referring to the four score and seven years that had passed since its birth, President Trump envisioned an America twelve score and 10 from its birth; its 250th birthday, or sestercentennial. That would place us in 2026, a year and a half following an eight-year Trump presidency. Our rendezvous with that year has the potential to indicate an America alive with the revolutionary spirit that began its existence or a doddering nation, content to live in misery and delusion, on life support.

Trump’s theme in this speech before a joint session of Congress was his campaign’s theme: Make America Great Again!  The usual suspect pundits and politicians praised the speech for its tone and patriotism and comparative lack of partisan divisiveness and its alleged distance from the “darkness” of the inaugural address. Even the leftists at CNN, led by Van Jones, declared that with this speech “he became President of the United States of America.”

The uplifting notes nicely disguised the clear partisan (and I don’t use that word as an epithet) purposes, unchanged from his campaign. President Trump showed he can deploy a variety of rhetorical weapons, depending on his audience. One reason for the changed tone is his respect for constitutional forms. Though not a State of the Union message, one mandated by the Constitution, it functions as this constitutional duty to apprise Congress of his intentions and, as such, it should be as an occasion of dignity. This was above all a law and order speech, conveyed to the putative law-making branch of government.

The Founders envisioned the president speaking primarily to Congress, not directly to the people. President Trump’s speech emphasized the executive’s duty to enforce the laws, not only the Constitution and the laws of the land but the natural law upon which America is based.

In that spirit, Trump posed to Congress an unanswerable question that reflected these principles: “To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this question: What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or a loved one, because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” In unity with the Declaration of Independence, Trump maintains that securing “safety and happiness” are the great purposes of legitimate government.

To recover this common-sense moral horizon, the president began his speech with a reference to Black History Month and attacks on Jewish houses of worship and cemeteries. The Jewish Bible is the beginning-point of Western Civilization, and slavery was the original sin of America. How we deal with our origins and our flaws and apply these to our current crises is the challenge Trump poses to Congress.

Slaves in Egypt, slaves in America. We are now free, but our liberty remains threatened. Moreover, all citizens are threatened by the new slavery of the administrative state. Throughout his improbable campaign and into his presidency Trump’s speeches showed he understood that the contemporary threat to freedom is this new Slave Power, abetted by political correctness and shilled for by privileged elites.

It’s no wonder that the lines that stirred the most audible boos were these: “I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims. The office is called VOICE—Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.” Trump is a full-throated abolitionist for our times.

This continued his campaign themes. In his October 22, 2016 Contract with the American Voter speech at Gettysburg, Trump reiterated his campaign themes of limiting government to legitimate purposes and restoring the bedrock principle of rule by the consent of the governed. He cast a spotlight on inner city ills early on, in for example his May 26, 2016 speech on energy.

His speech to Congress reiterated his America First foreign policy that would protect America and its interests and reject progressive global diplomacy. “My job is not to represent the world,” he said. “My job is to represent the United States of America.” Earlier, Trump had even quoted then Congressman Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the benefits of tariffs.

I believe strongly in free trade but it also has to be fair trade. It’s been a long time since we had fair trade. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that the “abandonment of the protective policy by the American government… will produce want and ruin among our people.” Lincoln was right—and it’s time we heeded his advice and his words. (Applause.) I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of us any longer. They have taken advantage of our country. No longer. (Applause.)

The final section of the speech tied these issues together and returned to the theme of his opening lines. They soared to a height in the president’s recognition of the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, killed in action in Yemen.

Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom—we will never forget him.

We hear strains of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with its recollection of memory, sacrifice, national identity, rebirth, and world destiny. Trump’s speech brought together devotion to law and the grand themes of western civilization.

Our relationships as citizens are largely those of commerce and utility, but they can flourish and grow into something higher, such as the friendship of virtue that the President and Congress celebrated with Owens’ widow. But politically the higher friendship and its patriotism are dependent on the success of the lower, the prosperity of the country. America cannot project power around the world unless we have a robust economy. Our higher purposes can be realized only if our basic needs are satisfied.

In concluding his address he speculated on what the United States would be like in America’s sestercentennial year of 2026. He recalled the now familiar inventions celebrated on the centenary of the Declaration, such as the telephone. What advances would we see in less than a decade?

The arts and sciences will advance in astonishing ways. But progress in the human condition, the president implies, will always remain dubious. The inner cities might improve, or they might not. Congress may accept its constitutional responsibilities, or it might not. The moral dilemmas and choices abide, as we are always in danger of backsliding into slavery. But the possibility for “a new chapter of American Greatness” is the strongest it has been since Lincoln.

2016 Election • America • Big Media • Cultural Marxism • Declaration of Independence • Democrats • Donald Trump • First Amendment • Free Speech • The Culture • The Left • The Media • Trump White House

The Alternative to Facts

The reality of President Trump is driving the Left crazy—from the smears of “fake news” to this week’s hullaballoo over “alternative facts.” The media this week is attacking the crowds at Donald Trump’s inauguration and to continue their war of delegitimization against the new president. In this, they have been complicit in not just spreading actual fake news, as Trump rightly called out CNN for doing, but in building an entire alternative world out of their supposed facts.

We’re a few days out from the inauguration and we’re still seeing the same lame arguments about Trump not being a “legitimate” president. It started anew with Democratic congressman John Lewis announcing his boycott of the inauguration. Now the narrative of Trump’s legitimacy is still being debated everywhere from CNN to Buzzfeed. The way our media speaks, one supposes, we’re in the midst of some tyrannical usurpation unprecedented in the history of the republic, instead of an election that simply didn’t turn out the way a lot of people wanted it to go.

Truth is, we are just engaging in the time-honored traditions of America. Trump was dutifully elected by the Electoral College. He has spoken for the concerns of millions of Americans beyond the coastal bubbles of media elites. He restated those concerns in his inaugural address.

If anyone having a crisis of legitimacy today, it is the media-entertainment complex.

From Hollywood to the editorial rooms of the east coast, the media is no longer speaking to the people, but is speaking at them. Meryl Streep’s shallow bit of performance pity at the recent Golden Globe awards typified this. While railing against Trump and his supporters, she took a swipe at people who watch “football and mixed martial arts”—in other words, millions of average Americans.

Victor Davis Hanson talks about the divide in America as a growing country/urban split. It is one in which the very language we speak is leading America in two different directions:

Language is also different in the countryside. Rural speech serves, by its very brevity and directness, as an enhancement to action. Verbosity and rhetoric, associated with urbanites, were always rural targets in classical literature, precisely because they were seen as ways to disguise reality so as to advance impractical or subversive political agendas.

“Disguising reality” is key. Today’s moribund media outlets don’t just represent the biased coastal bubbles, but an entire alternative to the reality most Americans are living.

Across the demographic spectrum, rural Americans have been hammered by the loss of jobs, dignities, and families for the last several decades. Many, including our most recent former president, sought to pathologize these Americans as “bitter clingers” or attempt to understand them as merely “ignorant” of the causes of their hardships.

Neither of these views will do.

Today Trump set out in his first week in office. He immediately pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and had robust meetings about keeping jobs in America. He’s acting for the people, as he intoned Friday in his inaugural address.

In their lame attempts to delegitimize the president, the media isn’t just offering a counterfactual narrative about the world to Trump, but it serves up this nonsense to the very people of our country upon whom they rely for their vast good fortune.

For the rest of America, we don’t live in the alternative reality of the media mavens and entertainment elite, but rather in the world of cold, hard, facts that have only been addressed by President Trump.

2016 Election • America • Declaration of Independence • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • The Constitution • Trump White House

Trump Defends the Constitution

Critics who suggest that there is something “constitutional” missing from Trump’s rhetoric are missing the principles for the articles.

Finally, a president upholds his oath and defends the Constitution against its enemies, domestic as well as foreign.

Donald Trump’s inaugural address horrified his typical critics—the media, various conservative and liberal pundits, and sundry identity groups. All this signifies how far these insipid intellectuals and political hacks are from understanding the fundamentals of constitutional government.

In truth, no inaugural address has defended the Constitution so vigorously since Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural, because none so directly confronted the foundational threat to the Constitution in Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural. Our constitutional order has acquiesced in his command that all government bow to executive will. Roosevelt insisted that

we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.

Since 1933, all presidents, Republican as well as Democrat, have accepted this willfulness, which destroys the rule of law and even the pretense of constitutional government. Only Ronald Reagan forthrightly resisted this temptation:

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

Thus, Reagan argued that ordinary Americans are heroes, who can live quite well without a bureaucracy over them. But President Reagan had insufficient powers, forcing him to compromise with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats.

Yet President Trump never even mentioned the Constitution, his critics whine, so why accept a campaign rally speech on this solemn occasion as a defense of the Constitution?

The short answer is that since Reagan, 16 years of Democratic presidents plus 12 years of Bush Republican presidents have solidified the hold of the administrative state over America. This coup against republican government is the subject of Trump’s ire and the popular anger that propelled his unlikely election.

Often misleadingly described as the “fourth, unelected branch” of government or the bureaucracy, the administrative state is instead a regime change that grips all three branches, especially the elected ones, and the people as well. It reduces the Congress to its financier and makes the executive branch its protector and enforcer. The judiciary is as often its collaborator as its corrector.

Moreover, the administrative state’s reach goes beyond the government. It embraces and enhances the media, political consultants, the professions (especially the legal establishment), academia, and identity groups. These all legitimate each other while strengthening the administrative state.

The administrative state thereby forms a majority faction—to use James Madison’s term for a majority opposed to the common good—that has ruled America since the Reagan years. Whatever the disagreements within it, this majority faction has sanctioned reckless wars abroad, open borders at home, and a globalist economy that has favored some parts of the country over others.

Against this injustice Trump declared that “today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people.”

Thus, Trump recovers the principle of the Declaration of Independence, that just government is based on the consent of the governed. His demand is more than bipartisan; it is fundamental: “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people…. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Trump will advocate a government for the governed, not just for itself and its administrative state clients. Trump’s election— like Brexit last summer—was a victory not of “nationalism” but about an assertion of human dignity against bureaucracy.

The Democratic Party had betrayed Franklin Roosevelt’s appropriation of the “forgotten man” and so had the Republicans neglected the original meaning of the term, William Graham Sumner’s hard-working, anonymous person whose economic enterprise made the economy run. Bipartisan injustice had buried the forgotten man.

At home, with its blinkered view of reality, the administrative state glosses over a forgotten faltering economy, inept education systems, crime, and drugs. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” Trump said. This colorblind ”carnage” is not simply the actual slaughter of human beings via crime and drugs but as much the killing off of the heights of achievement by poor schools and a weak economy.

Abroad, the administrative state defends the feckless and constitutionally dubious use of military force abroad. Thus, Trump said, “We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own…. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” This is not an isolationist America, but rather, following John Quincy Adams, presenting ourselves as an exemplary nation.

This is not an America of narrow self-interest and selfishness. Only by respecting oneself and loving others for being fellow citizens can America be at its best for all its citizens:

When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The Bible tells us, “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” [the speech’s only quotation, from Psalm 133].

A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.

It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.

Trump didn’t need to quote Lincoln, even though his sentiments here embody those of the Gettysburg Address. The previous evening had offered Lincolnian poetry with Trump  simply standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This context the next day was clear. While Lincoln spoke at a cemetery during the Civil War, Trump spoke at the battleground of the administrative state that is blind to its faults or indifferent to its victims. Either way, it opposes the common good. He offers instead a new birth of freedom for Americans, a celebration of patriotism and self-knowledge.

“In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving,” he said. Of course it may not be possible for Americans today to live outside the security of the administrative state. We may identify it with the Declaration of Independence’s natural rights and pursuit of happiness, as President Obama tried to have us do. Too many Americans may no longer want to strive. Trump said: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” Can we live up to that aspiration?

After all, that’s the aim of not only Lincoln in his greatest speeches but also Aristotle in the Ethics and Politics, when they speak of the political friendship of fellow citizens united in mind and deed. They would form a “totally unstoppable” America.

This noble achievement would seem to be what Trump meant earlier by the “just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.” Such demands are in accord with justice and reason as well as the public faith or civic religion. Throughout the speech, when God is invoked, the religious appeal is soon supported by science or argumentation; the claims of revelation and reason belong together.

At his inauguration, Trump combined the sublime themes of Lincoln and the realism of Madison to produce a succinct defense of constitutional duty for officeholders and citizens alike. It was a tough-love of country speech. Most would rather claim rights or assert privileges rather than commit to duty. The only mention of race or ethnicity was to subordinate them to citizenship and patriotism. There was no mention of sexual orientation or sex. Without being doctrinaire, without calling on our “better angels,” Trump asked what you could do for your country.

An instructive contrast to Trump’s approach was U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s supposed “introduction” of Justice Clarence Thomas, who swore in Vice President Mike Pence. In his peroration, following his reading of the Civil War era letter from Sullivan Ballou to his soon-to-be widow, the senior senator from New York begins a Monty Pythonesque litany, “Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty, we are all exceptional….”

By emphasizing such deep distinctions, the unintentionally comic Schumer makes unity impossible except through force and compulsion—which the administrative state thrives on. He mocks the sacrifice Sullivan Ballou so movingly affirmed. Trump’s unity transcends these divisions without reliance on compulsion. In November, Americans had seen the difference between these two approaches and, sick of political correctness, adopted Trump’s.

The contemporary embrace of identity politics and one’s passionate devotion to one’s various subgroups may well undermine patriotism as traditionally understood. Evidently some slaves were terrified of living in freedom, when the 13th  Amendment was adopted. Trump’s challenge is to liberate us from the comforts of the administrative state and the dark caves of our subrational identities and to ask us instead to embrace the freedom and duties of patriotic American citizens. Are we up to being the sovereign people our republican Constitution assumes us to be?