2016 Election • America • American Conservatism • Conservatives • Defense of the West • Greatness Agenda • political philosophy

The Greatness Agenda and American Greatness

American Greatness and, more generally, new means of promoting the Greatness Agenda are generating quite a bit of media attention this week.  And there is more to come in the weeks ahead.

In addition to all of that, Managing Editor Ben Boychuk, joined 710KNUS host, Matt Dunn, earlier this week to discuss the rise of the Greatness Agenda, the fall of Checklist Conservatism, the 2016 election and future of our publication American Greatness. 

Do tune in and have a listen here.


America • American Conservatism • Conservatives • Donald Trump • Government Reform • political philosophy • The Courts • Trump White House

Libertarian Judicial Activism Isn’t What the Courts Need

Were the Founding Fathers anarchists? Did the ideas contained in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859, somehow inspire the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787? Does the Constitution contemplate Robert Nozick’s minimal state, presaging his 1974 magnum opus Anarchy, State, and Utopia?

These may seem like facetious questions, but libertarian legal scholars have devised a novel theory that the Constitution, properly understood, protects a person’s “right to do those acts which do not harm others.” They contend that this sweeping right to personal liberty is enforceable against the federal government and the states. Moreover, within the three branches of government, it is only judges who get to decide whether a particular law is justified constitutionally. Incredibly, libertarian legal scholars are urging President-elect Trump to appoint an adherent of this fanciful theory to replace Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I bring this up to introduce an objection made by a libertarian acquaintance to my article, “The Trump Court: SCOTUS Could Stand Some Disruption,” which contrasted two competing models of judicial review: “restraint” versus “activism.” This acquaintance, a prominent lawyer, questioned the accuracy of the following statement from my post, which he broke into numbered subparts: “[L]ibertarian legal scholars who [1] advocate a more aggressive role for judges in all cases [2] deny the existence of judicial activism and [3] regard any form of restraint as ‘abdication.’ Many libertarians [4] view Roe v. Wade and similar decisions as a vindication of ‘unenumerated’ individual rights.” My acquaintance disputes that any libertarian legal scholar subscribes to even a single one of the four listed viewpoints, let alone all of them.

I’d like to address that challenge.

As someone who regards himself as a classical liberal, I did not intend to pick on—or malign—libertarians in general, with whom I share the goals of limited government, preserving the rule of law, and protection of property rights and economic liberties. I have, in the past, written for libertarian publications such as Reason and The Freeman, and participated in programs sponsored by the Reason Foundation and the Institute for Humane Studies. However, the objection raises a specific issue—libertarian constitutional theory—that I consider to be unsound and misguided. Hence my reply.

Libertarians, like atheists and some other groups, exert influence greatly disproportionate to their numbers because they tend to be vocal, intensely focused, tenacious, and dogmatic. Moreover, lavishly funded libertarian organizations such as the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice tirelessly proselytize their tenets. In matters of constitutional theory, libertarians (notably Cato’s Roger Pilon and Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett) have developed an approach that they sometimes refer to as “judicial engagement.” They offer this approach as a form of “originalism,” but as we shall see later in this post, it more closely resembles the judicial activism pioneered by the Warren Court.

Without getting too deeply into the weeds, the libertarian approach rests on the premise that the Constitution was not so much an arrangement among the individual states (which themselves were separate Lockean social compacts) as it was a very limited delegation to the federal government of individual sovereignty (harkening back to the Declaration of Independence and its reliance on “natural rights”). In this rubric, individuals continue to possess all unalienable rights to which they were endowed in the “state of nature,” other than the federal powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. “Natural rights,” they claim, are protected by the reference to “liberty” in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, and the Ninth and 10th Amendments preserve to the people—as individuals, not as states—all rights not specifically surrendered to the federal government.

Libertarians have a facile “solution” to the potentially vexing question of the states’ police powers, which antedated the drafting and ratification of the Constitution: they contend that the 14th Amendment applied the Fifth Amendment (including the protection of “liberty” in the due process clause) to the states, particularly through the “privileges or immunities” clause, which libertarians believe was erroneously drained of its intended meaning in the incorrectly decided Slaughter-House Cases in 1873.

Libertarians maintain, in other words, that the Constitution went off the rails almost 150 years ago, and that—in cabal-like fashion—the Supreme Court has subsequently refused to correct its grievous error. Pardon me for saying so, but in terms of convoluted plot twists, drama, and intrigue, this tale sounds more like an overwrought Dan Brown novel than serious constitutional history.

The rhetorical denouement of this far-fetched jurisprudential exegesis is that the Constitution is brimming with “unenumerated rights” (that is, rights nowhere set forth in the Constitution), leaving us with the aforementioned “right to do those acts which do not harm others,” a libertarian credo which—conveniently—echoes Ayn Rand more than it does The Federalist. (Tellingly, Barnett’s 2004 manifesto, Restoring the Lost Constitution, is dedicated in part to anarchist pamphleteer Lysander Spooner, who did not believe in the legitimacy of a written constitution.) And who is responsible for enforcing this state of semi-anarchy? Libertarians aver that the democratically-accountable branches of government (that is, elected officials) are “majoritarian” threats to individual liberty. Hence, all laws should be presumed to be unconstitutional (to vindicate the “presumption of liberty” inherent in natural law), and it is solely up to judges (and in federal court, unelected, life-tenured judges) to decide which laws can be justified as necessary and appropriate, based on the government’s case-by-case evidentiary showing.

I have described “judicial engagement” as “a judicially managed state of anarchy” in which “judges would have more power than legislators, rendering democratic self-government a feeble charade.” Conservative critic Ed Whelan is similarly disdainful, asking “is judicial engagement anything more than camouflage for libertarian judicial activism—an effort to smuggle in the back door what can’t be formally established by straightforward and persuasive arguments about original meaning?” Whelan has also said that Barnett’s latest book, Our Republican Constitution, “looks suspiciously like a fantasy libertarian constitution,” and not “the usual stuff of originalism.” Ouch.

So much for the overview. Let’s turn to the four challenged statements. I can barely scratch the surface of the torrent of words declaimed by the Cato/IJ camp. But here is a representative sample:

Some libertarian scholars advocate a more aggressive role for judges in all cases. Recall that libertarians reject the “presumption of constitutionality” currently enjoyed by most laws; Pilon maintains that “the Constitution, from its inception, established a clear presumption for individual liberty and against collective undertakings.” The corollary is that, in Barnett’s words, when reviewing laws challenged as an abridgement of “unenumerated” (that is, unwritten) rights, “Judges need to explain why a restriction on liberty is both necessary and proper and then realistically examine the preferred explanation.” Under judicial engagement, the government would have the burden of proof to justify all challenged laws. If the judge was not convinced, the law would be struck down. This is obviously a more aggressive role for judges than they currently play, which is the whole point of “judicial engagement.”

Throughout his 2013 book, Terms of Engagement, Institute for Justice senior attorney Clark Neily derides “rational basis” review as “make-believe judging,” “rubber-stamp style judging,” and an “empty charade.” Judicial engagement, Neily argued, requires “real judging in all cases,” with courts using something like the “strict scrutiny” now reserved for “fundamental rights” and “suspect classifications.” In a recent USA Today op-ed, Neily wrote: “An engaged judge will always require the government to provide a constitutionally proper reason for its actions and evidentiary support for its factual assertions.”

Some libertarian scholars deny the existence of judicial activism. In a National Affairs article titled “Against Judicial Restraint, Cato’s Ilya Shapiro urges a heightened judicial role and dismisses “the vacuous activism/restraint dichotomy.” Chapter 7 of Neily’s Terms of Engagement is titled “The Judicial Activism Bogeyman.” Libertarian scholars are fond of citing University of Pennsylvania law professor Kermit Roosevelt’s book, The Myth of Judicial Activism. In 2011, Neily and an IJ colleague, Dick Carpenter, wrote a report titled, “Government Unchecked: The False Problem of ‘Judicial Activism’ and the Need for Judicial Engagement.”

Some libertarian scholars regard any form of judicial restraint as “abdication.” Neily in his book disparages the current standard of review (under the deferential “rational basis” test) as “judicial abdication.” Presuming laws to be constitutional, placing the burden of proof on a challenger, and failing to recognize “unenumerated” rights are all cited by Neily as examples of “abdication.” Two chapters of Neily’s book are titled “Why Do Judges Abdicate?” and “From Abdication to Engagement.” IJ attorney Anthony Sanders has gone so far as to state that anything short of “judicial engagement” constitutes “abdication”: “The opposite of judicial engagement—‘judicial abdication’—is the real worry.”

Many libertarians view Roe v. Wade and similar decisions as a vindication of “unenumerated” individual rights. The first three refutations were easy. This one is a little more nuanced, because even libertarians realize that Roe v. Wade is the “third rail” for constitutional theorists, at least on the Right.

Accordingly, libertarians such as Neily often deny that recognition of “unenumerated” rights (through the use of “substantive due process” under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments) “necessarily entails Roe” (as Neily writes in Terms of Engagement) but Roe was the classic example of judges “finding” rights not actually specified in the Constitution. Constitutional rights, unless credibly derived from constitutional text or history, represent nothing more than the personal predilections of judges. “Natural rights” are an amorphous and potentially unlimited source of jurisprudential legerdemain, capable of extending to any judicial whim or caprice.

Under the theory of “unenumerated” rights, individuals possess a constitutional right to personal autonomy broader than Roe—sufficiently capacious to justify every activist decision rendered in the past 50 years, and then some. Abortion rights, unrestricted “sexual privacy” (including engaging in prostitution and incest), same-sex marriage, plural marriage, the right to assisted suicide, recreational drug use, and almost any individual impulse would have to be allowed unless the government was able to convince a judge that the law prohibiting such conduct was justified by a “compelling state interest” that could not be achieved through less restrictive means.

The doctrinal precursor for Roe was Justice William O. Douglas’s infamous opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which recognized an unenumerated right of “marital privacy” to overturn a state law restricting the use of contraceptives. Douglas relied on the contrivance of “penumbras, formed by emanations” from the Bill of Rights because the “right” recognized by the Court nowhere appeared in the Constitution. The libertarian theory of “unenumerated” rights is much more open-ended than Douglas’s risible artifice in Griswold, and would give a blank check to judges wishing to overturn legislative policy preferences. It is revealing that a Cato/IJ compilation of the 12 worst Supreme Court decisions of all time, The Dirty Dozen (2008), doesn’t include Roe. Libertarians play coy about Roe but readily acknowledge that the result in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)—constitutional protection for same-sex marriage—would be the same under “judicial engagement.”

Judicial engagement is faux originalism. At best, it represents wishful thinking by inventive libertarian scholars. At worst, it would unmoor constitutional law from the text of the Constitution and empower unelected judges to be society’s Platonic Guardians. President Trump should avoid jurists in any way sympathetic to this badly misguided theory.

America • American Conservatism • Conservatives • Defense of the West • Education • political philosophy • The Culture

Glasnost and Perestroika for American Higher Education

In 1986, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev announced two new policies: glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Five years later, Communism’s 74-year-long domination of Russia came to an end. Like the Soviet Union in 1986, America’s higher education system is careening toward a crisis, as costs spiral upward and measurable results slide inexorably downward. We need to apply the lessons of glasnost and perestroika to our college and universities, which are the world’s last bastion of Stalinist central planning.

Traditionally, conservatives have ignored higher education, focusing instead on K-12 education, or on narrowly economic issues. There are three reasons for this neglect:

  • They assume that higher education doesn’t matter, since most students are unaffected by their four years under crazy left-wing professors.
  • They minimize how bad things are, assuming that reports of left-wing dominance on campus are exaggerated.
  • They assume that nothing can be done, that the leftward bias of academia is an inexorable law of nature.

The conventional conservative wisdom is wrong on all three points. Higher education does matter. Take California, for example. It voted twice for Ronald Reagan and for George H. W. Bush in 1988. However, the influence of left-leaning universities has made California a bastion of progressivism for at least the last twenty years. In 2016 in Texas, Hillary received majority support from voters in the 18-25 year-old segment. If nothing is done about the Leftist monopoly on campus, conservatism in America is doomed within a generation.

The dominance of the Left is destroying higher education. Costs spiral out of control, while benefits to students and to society approach zero, thanks to grade inflation, curricular chaos, and the replacement of instruction by indoctrination. The system generates tens of millions of man-hours of useless research in articles and books that are never read. Millions of talented young people waste nearly a decade of their prime in graduate schools, preparing for academic jobs that don’t exist.

The situation on campus is far worse even than most conservatives imagine. Universities have become expert in disguising to the general public how total is the domination of cultural Marxism, with its devotion to multiculturalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, anti-Christianism, and anti-capitalism.

However, fatalistic resignation is the wrong response. Nothing about the social domain is inevitable or unchangeable. There are no social laws of nature beyond the influence of human choice. All it takes to effect profound and lasting change is a combination of intelligence and resolution, firmness of mind and will.

Academics are the most malleable of people: the “herd of independent minds,” to use Kingsley Amis’s memorable phrase. Once they perceive it to be in their long-run professional self-interest, 80 percent of academics and 100 percent of administrators will flip overnight from Left to Right. Campus leftism is pervasive now but spiritually and intellectually shallow, just as Marxist ideology was in pre-1990 Soviet Union. Marxism quickly evaporated in the dawn of glasnost and perestroika, and the same thing can happen on American campuses.

What is required is deep institutional change. That requires two things: a fundamental shift in the incentive structure (for both students and teachers), and the creation of effective freedom of choice, the empowering of new alternatives to existing institutions. In effect, we need glasnost and perestroika in American higher education.

Change must be both rapid and sustainable over the long run. We have only eight years to effect a transformation, and, for the transformation to work, it must be perceived by the participants (especially administrators and faculty) to be a permanent change, irreversible by future administrations. We must create a new system so obviously superior to the old one that students, parents, and prospective employers will insist on its continuation.

A direct assault on higher education, seeking simply to de-fund it, will never succeed. The American people think highly of the potential value of education. In addition, if we simply get federal government out of higher education, we will leave unaddressed the dominance of our universities by the cultural Left, which was put in power by past federal policies. Trumpist conservatives should instead emphasize how much we care about higher education, and how much we value its potential. We should be willing to invest more resources in a new and reformed version of our higher education system.

Glasnost: Open Information about Student Learning

In any large, complex social system, we get what we reward, and we reward what we can measure. So, in order to re-orient the system from indoctrination to teaching, we must measure student learning and reward effective teachers.

The present incentive structure is one of peer validation. Individual professors are evaluated solely on the basis of what their peers in their field think about their published research. Whole departments and universities are similarly judged only on the basis of the opinions of peer institutions. This dominance of peer evaluation is what has enabled cultural Leftism, following the prescriptions of Antonio Gramsci, to take over one field after another. Once the Left is in control, its position is unassailable, since Leftists simply validate each other’s professional qualification and excellence and disqualify all critics. This is beginning to happen even in the hard sciences: global climate change and other forms of ecological extremism are becoming entrenched.

A system of pure peer evaluation constitutes a situation of collective irresponsibility, and irresponsibility breeds ideology, fads, and shared forms of madness and hysteria.

We must effect a shift from peer validation to validation by measurable results. We can’t use long-term results (income, employment) or nebulous goals (happiness, virtue): these effects are too far removed from the practice of teaching and too unpredictable. Glasnost must take the form of entrance and exit examinations for students. We must learn from the mistakes made in K-12 testing: the tests must involve low stakes for students and incorporate high standards. Their primary purpose is to evaluate the quality of teachers, not to provide a barrier for students.

This will involve a two-pronged approach: mandatory local tests, and optional national tests.

Mandatory local tests:

  1. They should be graded in a double-blind fashion, in which graders don’t know the identity of students (nor the identities of the students’ teachers), and students don’t know the identities of graders.
  2. The tests should be transparent: curricular standards and grading rubrics must be made available to the public and must be periodically approved by recorded vote of the trustees. In addition, past questions and random samples of graded answers (without names of students) must be posted online.
  3. Tests should be used to evaluate (in a value-added approach, using entrance exams as baselines) the effectiveness of individual programs, instructors, courses, and instructor-course combinations. All of this information should be made available to the public.
  4. Test results (including percentile ranking) should be included in official student transcripts.
  5. Tests can be created and graded on statewide basis, on system-wide basis (for state universities with sufficiently large multi-campus systems), or on the basis of consortia of colleges, with at least ten participants. Relative rank (both absolutely and on a value-added basis) of each department on each campus should be made public.
  6. Colleges should also be required to have random samples of students take national standardized tests, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which measures skills in reading, writing, and argumentation) and the GRE, for the sake of calibrating the results of local exams.

Optional national tests:

  1. National honors exams in the masterworks of Western civilization, with optional specializations in literature, history, philosophy, classical and modern languages, and political, economic, and social theory. The curriculum and standards defined by a national board of eminent scholars, hand-picked by the President.
  2. Rich rewards for high scores, including (especially) automatic admission to the professional or graduate school of one’s choice, cash prizes, student-debt relief.
  3. Rewards for teachers of student prize-winners. Most importantly, having a specified number of students win first-class honors would become a prerequisite for receiving any federal grants, including NSF, NEH, NEA, and NIH. This would break the peer-approval cartel in scientific and scholarly research, rewarding instead teachers with proven record of student success in mastering a traditional, classical curriculum.
  4. Recognition for colleges and universities that excel, both absolutely and in terms of value added, in preparing students for the exams. This would include non-traditional colleges, including online, for-profit, and associations of independent scholars and tutors.
  5. Establishment of a private, non-profit foundation for creating and administering the tests, with self-perpetuating board of directors, and with the aim of depending entirely on private donations and student fees. In this way, it will become independent of national politics, self-sustaining.

Perestroika: Competition Among Autonomous Departments

Well over 80 percent of American college students attend four-year public universities. Any meaningful reform must target these institutions, which at present form a self-protective cartel, maintained by the actions of the accrediting bodies and campus-wide faculty curriculum committees. We need to abolish accreditation entirely, and require large universities receiving federal aid of any kind to decentralize power and budgeting, creating autonomous departments and academic divisions, and permitting the further creation of “charter departments,” bringing real competition to each large campus.

Each department would have four essential powers: (1) to set its own tuition and fees, (2) to define its own curriculum for the bachelor’s degree, (3) to hire, promote, fire, and determine the salaries for all of its instructors, and (4) to admit its own undergraduate students (so long as they meet some common standard). The department will have to pay the salaries of and rent office for its members and employees from some set ratio of tuition and fees received, without subsidy from the central administration.

This would enable large universities to eliminate the middle management of deans and colleges, and to shrink the role of the central administration to the providing of essential services and the physical plant (including classrooms and laboratories).

More importantly, this also would put departments in competition with each other for student dollars. It will also mean the effective abolition of tenure. Faculty within each department will have a strong incentive to fire the dead wood within the department, since under-performing colleagues will come at a very high cost to their own incomes.

Merely abolishing tenure in the present system might make conservatives feel good, but it would be entirely ineffective, since both faculty and administrators have every incentive in the present system to maintain tenure. Tenure is a relatively cheap way of attracting big names, well-known scholars who will raise the peer-determined reputation of the university.

In addition, all tenure-track professors have a vested interest in maintaining foolproof tenure, since it increases their own security and no cost to themselves. Eliminating tenure from the top down would be politically costly, eliciting impassioned defenses of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry from external threats. It is far better to create a system in which the faculty members themselves demand an end to tenure for their own enrichment.

This new structure would also enable legislators and trustees to permit the creation of “charter departments,” new and independent academic units formed by maverick professors or conservative think tanks or colleges, able to bring real intellectual diversity to the major campuses. Imagine Hillsdale sponsoring a charter department at the University of Michigan. Existing university administrations can be required to supply such charter department with access to campus classrooms, offices, and course schedules, on an equal footing with traditional departments.

By eliminating the stranglehold on curriculum maintained by the accrediting bodies and by campus-wide faculty committees, and by providing students, parents, and prospective employers with reliable information about which departments on which campuses are most successful in educating students, we can bring about real competition between autonomous academic units on each campus. This will make both politically correct hiring and classroom indoctrination costly to an intolerable degree and would create an environment that is friendly to conservative and moderate students and scholars. Students will be happy to vote with their feet and their tuition dollars for programs that help them to master a curriculum that is life-affirming and wholesome, in place of the alienating, hectoring, and soul-destroying indoctrination of the Left.

Even if the curriculum and standards for the mandatory local tests turn out to be semi-Marxist in some places, the simple introduction of real accountability for student learning would necessarily improve matters. Conservative teachers and students could flourish under such a system (given double-blind grading), since it is easier to understand falsehood from the perspective of truth than to understand truth from the perspective of falsehood.

Once conservatives begin to infiltrate the fields, they can change the curriculum. In addition, optional national tests would  set the agenda in a more conservative direction, and real competition (the perestroika component) will force departments to compete on the basis of broad and substantial content. Transparency of content would also provide pressure for reform. And forcing disciplines to define any common content necessarily moves them in the direction of classic texts.

2016 Election • America • American Conservatism • Book Reviews • Conservatives • Cultural Marxism • Defense of the West • Greatness Agenda • political philosophy • The Culture • Trump White House

The Gift of the MAGA: An AG Symposium on Great Reads for the Greatness Agenda

 Darren Beattie

Martin Ford’s book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, is unsettling, and unsettling in just the right way for anyone who is serious about Making America Great Again. Indeed, Ford makes a convincing case that advancements in information technology,–simply put, automation–have already and will continue to have a profoundly disruptive impact on economic, social, and political life.

Ford’s account of how information technology has transformed the relationship between capital and labor is especially relevant to the development of the bleak economic conditions that President-elect Trump intends to address. For example, in the post-war “Golden Age” (late 1940s to early ’70s when America was great) the effect of technological advancement, say, in the auto factory, was an increase in the productivity of the laborer and hence the value of the laborer’s work, which translated into higher wages and high employment. In stark contrast to this auspicious scenario, Ford shows how automation in IT dramatically increases the capability and productive capacity of many industries, but does so in a way that effectively renders many workers obsolete—just look at the incredibly market values, for instance, of major tech companies compared to the meager number of employees.

In one sense, the rapidly accelerating automation of the work force (and not only low-skilled) underscores the tremendous importance of Trump’s positions on immigration and trade, especially outsourcing. It is simply absurd that we have been importing unskilled immigrants precisely during a period of rapid automation of unskilled jobs, for instance. In another sense, however, the challenges posed by automation suggest sobering limits to the degree to which sound and patriotic trade and immigration policies alone can fix things. Such policies are absolutely necessary, but not sufficient, and will serve to buy us time as a country to address the challenges of automation with the big and bold thinking that Trump has exemplified, and which, more than any specific policies (which are all great, by the way), will prove the indispensable ingredient in Making America Great Again.

Darren Beattie is visiting assistant professor of political science at Duke University.

Ben Boychuk

Remember, Christmas in the Orthodox tradition runs through January 6, so you still have plenty of time to bestow your friends and loved ones with the Gift of the #MAGA.

If the gift is a somewhat better understanding of the Greatness Agenda—a strong border, economic nationalism, and an America-first foreign policy—then until Publius Decius Mus or any number of American Greatness writers publish their books in the next year, we’re left with what the market already has to offer.

On immigration, one of the best books to frame the question in terms of consent of the governed is Citizenship Without Consent: Illegal Aliens in the American Polity by Peter H. Schuck and Rogers M. Smith. The book is more than 30 years old and hopelessly out of print, but you can still find used copies on Amazon for a reasonable sum. Schuck and Smith make the rather unremarkable claim that “permitting a democratic community the power to shape its own destiny by granting or refusing its consent to new members is essential.” That their view is at once neglected and yet controversial today tells us much about the paltry state of our politics. But their argument is also the one we need to have right now.

On economic nationalism, we’re really talking about the Republican Party’s painful re-thinking of free trade. Here I would suggest two books to get the discussion started: The Myth of Free Trade by Dr. Ravi Batra and American Made: Why Making Things Will Return Us to Greatness, by Dan DiMicco. Batra’s book is a little more than 20 years old now, but it distinguishes itself as a fairly straightforward case against the bogus global “free trade” regime that has steadily hollowed out our middle class. DiMicco is the former CEO of Nucor and was the Trump campaign’s advisor on trade, so if you want to understand where Trump is coming from, DiMicco is a good place to start.

Finally, a brief word about “America First,” which is a much-maligned term in our politics today. For a lively history of the idea and the political movement in the United States, check out Bill Kauffman’s America First!. Kauffman is an unapologetic isolationist, but if you read his book with open eyes and a charitable mind, you might come to see why the term shouldn’t be such a term of abuse. (Feel free to skip the lame and tendentious introduction by Gore Vidal, however.)

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness.


F.H. Buckley

If we’re to pick a book that explained the election, then Peter Schweizer’s take-down of the dragon lady of the Clinton Cash machine was the book of the year. But as it is almost too obvious a choice, let me mention a lesser-known book that spoke to an issue quite as important as public corruption, the manner in which our Judeo-Christian heritage has shaped our Western political traditions. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism shows how our democratic institutions and ideas about personal rights derive not from Locke but from our religious beliefs that we all have souls and that salvation is individual. The Voltairien who seeks to efface this reveals his ignorance of our history and culture, and today’s progressive epigones have shown how easily Godless liberalism can descend into oppression and illiberalism. Those raised in a religious tradition will understand this, and when Solicitor General Verriilli told Justice Alito that a college which opposed same-sex marriage might lose government funding, he revealed for all to see the threat to religious liberty. In the end, the greatest of swing blocks, Catholic voters, broke plus 2 for Trump and plus 10 for white Catholics. Let me spell it out for you: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan.

F.H. Buckley is a law professor at George Mason University. His most recent book, The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America (Encounter) explains the urgent need for legal immigration reform.


Chris Buskirk

When Whittaker Chambers published Witness in 1952 it became an instant best-seller and a foundational book for the incipient conservative movement that would give birth to National Review three years later.  The book was immediately understood to be a classic and it became a guiding light for generations of American conservatives. It is also the book that my father made my mother read during their engagement in mid-60s so that she could better understand him and how he understood the world.

But that seems wholly appropriate—because Witness is as much a personal spiritual reflection as it is a commentary on the state and fate of Western Civilization. Chambers, for those not familiar with the story, was an American communist and a spy for the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. His spiritual and political move from Left to Right began in 1936 when Stalin’s purges revealed to him the truth about communism: it is oppressive, soul-crushing, murderous, and inhumane in all its forms.

Chambers begins the book with a letter to his children. Over the years I have told people that if they don’t want to read the whole book, they should at least read the introductory letter. Not one who read the letter did not go on to devour the whole book. Such is the power of Chambers’ writing to tell the story of humanity through the experiences of one man.

Much of the book is devoted to what Chambers describes as “The Great Case”—the espionage trial of Alger Hiss. Hiss was a Harvard trained lawyer and a member of what we would call today the Beltway Elite. He was also a communist spy. After Harvard he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. before joining white-shoe law firms in Boston and New York. He then held a number of positions in FDR’s alphabet soup New Deal agencies before becoming an adviser to Secretary of State Cordell Hull and attending the Yalta Conference near the end of World War II. It was at this conference that Roosevelt agreed to accept Soviet hegemony in eastern Europe. (This then became the subject of a classic expose by Chambers in Time Magazine called The Ghosts on the Roof.)

Yet Witness is much more than a book about Cold War spying. The spy story becomes Chambers’ lens for an examination of human nature in all its glory and tragedy. He explained it this way and I can do no better:

For it was more than human tragedy. Much more than Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers was on trial in the trials of Alger Hiss. Two faiths were on trial. Human societies, like human beings, live by faith and die when faith dies. At issue in the Hiss Case was the question whether this sick society, which we call Western civilization, could in its extremity still cast up a man whose faith in it was so great that he would voluntarily abandon those things which men hold good, including life, to defend it. At issue was the question whether this man’s faith could prevail against a man whose equal faith it was that this society is sick beyond saving, and that mercy itself pleads for its swift extinction and replacement by another. At issue was the question whether, in the desperately divided society, there still remained the will to recognize the issues in time to offset the immense rally of public power to distort and pervert the facts.

At heart, the Great Case was this critical conflict of faiths; that is why it was a great case…

Chris Buskirk is the publisher of American Greatness and the co-host of the Seth & Chris Show, heard daily on 960am/KKNT in Phoenix.


RJ Caster

In the introduction to Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future he lays out a scenario where the reader imagines himself in a face-to-face in an interview where he is pressed with the question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” No matter what settled opinions the reader believed before opening the book Thiel’s line of questioning will force him into a contrarian mindset right from the start. This masterfully primes the reader to receive what many might consider Theil’s own “contrarian truths.”

These contrarian truths include many assaults on conventional thinking. For example, monopolies he explains, are “not just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.” Similarly, while the general consensus holds that competition is good, Thiel shows that competition can lead to eating profits, detracts from future research and development, and creates the ruthless people of the sort most assume would be more likely to be found as heads of monopolies. Thiel argues, further, that globalization is not only to be frowned upon (a sentiment embraced by more and more people these days), but is dwarfed by intensive progress (or 0 to 1 progress) pushed by technological advancement. Vertical progress (doing new things) will always beat horizontal progress (copying things that work).

It is in the middle of the book, however, where the most important aspect for a successful startup is revealed: discovering and keeping secrets. Thiel points out that secrets still exist out there and the next startups not only have to find them, but they also need to keep them secret while surrounding themselves with people who can learn and keep those secrets and who have the same drive the founders.

2016 has been a year that challenged our collective conventional thinking. History has not been kind to those who want to maintain the unthinking status quo and people should read Thiel’s Zero to One if they want to understand the driving force behind the events across the globe. Bookstores are filled with books about entrepreneurship, business, being successful, but not many can be considered a true union of philosophy, business, politics, and history. To understand the man devoting tremendous amounts of money for fellowships to encourage kids to skip college, read Zero to One and see how a disruptive contrarian plans to make American businesses great again.

RJ Caster is a former Congressional staffer and current digital campaign strategist.


Steven F. Hayward

I have no idea whether Harry Jaffa or Walter Berns would have approved of Donald Trump. I can easily imagine them splitting on this question as they did on so many others. Jaffa, early to see the importance of Barry Goldwater in 1964, would likely have approved of Trump because of his potential to disrupt the complacency of the Republican establishment just as Goldwater did, while I think Berns would have thought Trump to be an irredeemable demagogue. In his very first book, Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment (published in 1957), Berns worried about the demagogue “who plays on the vilest passions of citizens in order to win political power.”

But I am not certain of these guesses. I can easily see Berns looking past the crude and demagogic aspects of Trump to see the potential of Trump’s patriotic populism, even if this involves understanding Trump better than he understands himself. The Berns book most appropriate to the present moment is his last book, Making Patriots. Here Berns argued that patriotism “is not natural, but has to be taught, or inculcated, or somehow acquired.” And while Berns dwells on the necessary intellectual sources of patriotism, he also understands the project requires a certain amount of willfulness, which only Trump seemed to convey in adequate measure in the course of the long campaign. At the end of Making Patriots Berns worried about the powerful and menacing anti-American strains of thought within our intellectual class, which begs for an assertive resistance—more assertive than was currently being offered. If nothing else, Trump’s victory represents the necessary first step of repudiating our intellectual class. Berns would surely have enjoyed the collective liberal freak out over Trump.

Abraham Lincoln was the point of intersection between Jaffa and Berns, and you can make out the echo of Jaffa’s great insights about Lincoln in Berns’s lyrical chapter on Lincoln in Making Patriots. If Trump represents for Berns the prospect of demagoguery, Lincoln represents the prospect of what the American founding makes possible and even demands of us. This is the tighter focus of Jaffa’s work in his two greatest books, Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom. The contrast between Jaffa and Berns on this issue corresponds to the difference between Hobbes and Locke (at least as Jaffa understood them). Berns’s worry about the demagogue is rooted in his fear of Hobbesian civil disorder. Jaffa seldom worried about the demagogue in his writing, instead orienting our view toward the rigors of statesmanship, which is a higher thing than philosophy. William Allen asked Jaffa not long before Jaffa died if a philosopher can be a hero in the same way as a statesman. Jaffa said the answer was “No”; the statesman pursues honor, while the philosopher pursues wisdom. It is precisely Trump’s plain sense of honor—both his own and the nation’s—that would incline Jaffa to give him the benefit of the doubt. But he would feel more confident still if Trump would read Crisis of the House Divided and Making Patriots.

Steven F. Hayward is Senior Resident Scholar, Institute of Governmental Studies, UC Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Redefined American Conservatism.


Roger Kimball

The philosopher James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: The Definitive Analysis of the Pathology of Liberalism, first published in 1964, was long out of print when a new edition was brought out in 2014. In some ways, the book is a period piece. A product of the Cold War, written by an ardent Cold Warrior, many of its examples are dated. But in its core message it is as relevant today as ever. At the center of the “pathology” Burnham anatomizes is an awful failure of understanding which is also a failure of nerve, a failure of “the will to survive.” “Suicide” and “pathology” may seem like hyperbolic terms, Burnham admits. But it is part of the pathology he anatomizes that such objections are “most often made most hotly by Westerners who hate their own civilization.” In his view, the primary function of liberalism was to “permit Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution,” to view weakness, failure, even collapse as not as a defeat but “as the transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization.” Sound familiar? Burnham excoriated “that jellyfish brand of contemporary liberalism—pious, guilt-ridden, do-goody—which uses the curious dogma of ‘some truth on both sides’ as its principal sales line.” He was, one admirer noted, “the living embodiment of what would later come to be known as political incorrectness.” I am sorry James Burnham is not with us today. An ardent champion of “the absolute value of the single human person,” he would be celebrating the extraordinary opportunity we have been vouchsafed, at the last possible moment, to make America great again.

Roger Kimball is an American art critic and social commentator, is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books.


Julius Krein

In The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World (1941), James Burnham explains the economic and intellectual history of the new “managerial” society that supplanted entrepreneurial capitalism over the course of the twentieth century. Closely connected with this economic transition is the shift from parliamentary and constitutional government toward administrative bureaucracy. Any work of this type will contain some anachronisms and mistaken predictions, but many of Burnham’s insights may seem more relevant now than at the time of writing, as the trends that he identified have only accelerated since then.

While rising “populism” receives significant attention today, our understanding of the composition and interests of the so-called “elite” is severely lacking. On one hand, “Conservatives” typically denounce the “adversary culture” and “postmodernism/relativism” of today’s intellectual elite, yet too often remain blind to the economic realities behind political and social transformations. “Progressives,” by contrast, protest rising inequality, yet ignore important differences between today’s elite and that of prior periods, specifically the separation between ownership and control that prevails in managerial arrangements and distinguishes them from classical notions of capitalism.

This failure to understand the nature of the current political and economic “elite” explains why so many politicians and intellectuals of the left and right have failed to understand voters’ dissatisfaction with the status quo. Reading Burnham is essential to correcting this misunderstanding and for developing better responses to present policy problems.

Julius Krein is the editor of American Affairs, a forthcoming quarterly journal of public policy and political thought.


Seth Leibsohn

The saying “the book was better than the movie” is now more than commonplace. But what does one say about a book that is better than its multiple reviews—all of them highly positive? Whatever that is, the book is Tevi Troy’s Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office. The subject of a great many reviews now, all positive, none of them quite do it justice. Best I can add is to tie this symposium’s question to Troy’s book: In contemplating the Greatness Agenda, we were asked “What book should one read if one wants to get smart about the things we need to do in order to make America great again.” This one.

Troy, a cultural and presidential historian, is also a veteran of the DC think-tank community and several domestic-policy offices under former President George W. Bush. He has turned all his learning toward an easy-to-read (and fun) manual not only for future presidents, government officials, and administrators in both the private and public sector, but for “we the people,” citizens as well. Whether dealing with acts of God or with acts of man, no country can be great when it is unprepared in the face of disaster and, as we become more and more susceptible to those disasters (as Troy demonstrates we are), we need to pay more attention to what we can do to be prepared—in every sense of the word—for such events.

In Shall We Wake the President?, Troy marshals history, Hollywood, politics, anecdotes, statistics, and advice in a book that could just as easily be titled Semper Paratus: How To Keep America and Americans Safe. If that theme and Troy’s advice don’t inform the greatness agenda, nothing else will.  

Seth Leibsohn is a contributing editor at American Greatness and the co-host of the Seth & Chris Show, heard daily on 960am/KKNT in Phoenix.


Jesse Merriam

One of the best ways I can recommend spending the Christmas Break is drinking a glass of eggnog, doused with a heavy shot of bourbon, while reading Professor George Hawley’s Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism.

Published nearly a year ago as a diagnosis of the fractured conservative movement, the book now reads more like a prognosis of the future of American conservatism, forecasting what will emerge from the crumble. I read the book shortly after my Christmas Break last year, in an effort to understand what was happening to the Republican Party. As a constitutional scholar and legal theorist, I was apprehensive about spending so much time reading a work so far outside my specialty. But my apprehension was soon assuaged by Professor Hawley’s stunningly lucid prose.

You will find in this book an incredibly erudite and even-handed coverage of a dizzying array of intellectuals – radical libertarians, paleoconservatives, and dissident right thinkers – all of whom have been purged by a conservative movement that has become increasingly preoccupied with currying favor with the Left, so as to adjust to a changing America and be on “the right side of history.”

Reading this book after the election, you will now see in this book not only an explanation for the Trump phenomenon but also the intellectual infrastructure for the Trump platform. Indeed, Professor Hawley’s timing could not have been better, as he has been interviewed over the last couple of months by various media outlets seeking to understand the election.

Moreover, you will see in this book precisely why America has been losing its greatness: A political system, in which the two major parties converge on issues on which millions of Americans diverge (e.g., trade and immigration), and in which the party of conservation mimics the party of progress, cannot secure greatness. Greatness requires representatives tethered to the electorate, bound by and with the root and anchor of the nation’s heritage.

I could think of few better ways to prepare for the coming gift of Making America Great Again than by ruminating with Hawley’s compendium of conservative critics about what American conservatism should look like in the 21st century.

Jesse Merriam, Ph.D., J.D., is assistant professor and pre-law Advisor at Loyola University, Maryland.


Ken Masugi

Conservatives should read more classics, it often (and rightly) has been preached. These great books would be lifetime companions, trans-political and thereby more authoritative in their political teaching.

The classic work that best explains Trump is Aristotle’s “philosophy of human affairs,” as described in his Politics (Sachs translation) and Nicomachean Ethics (Bartlett translation). The middle books (3-6) of the Politics inspired both Madison (see Federalist 10) and Jefferson (his praise of farmers) and advise how to create middle-class republics as not only the most stable but also the most just political communities. But unless these political communities produce virtuous citizens who are also good human beings they fall short of being good republics.

While the entirety of the Politics and Ethics describes the fostering of good human beings, the peak of this noble enterprise is Book 9 of the Ethics, in its description of the best republic and the highest and rarest friendships, those of virtue, that is, human excellence. These are the citizens Lincoln eulogized in the Gettysburg Address, whose sacrifice links our time with that of the founding fathers. When Trump speaks of “government of the [virtuous] people,” as he did at Gettysburg, he means restoration of this classical horizon to our consciousness and action. It will not sound fantastic once you (re-)read Aristotle.

Ken Masugi has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members and for Clarence Thomas, when he was Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, James Madison College of Michigan State University, the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University, and Princeton University.


Mackubin Owens

The United States has been blessed throughout its history to have avoided the sort of civil-military crises that have afflicted many other states during both war and peace. The main reason for this record is the universal acceptance of the principle of civilian control of the military. This doesn’t mean that U.S. civil-military relations have always been healthy. But the country has been spared from coups or military domination of domestic politics. Today, however, another potential problem has arisen: the gap between the very small minority of citizens who serve in the military and American society at large.

Warriors and Citizens: American Views of our Military, edited by Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, examines this gap and its consequences by exploring the attitudes of Americans toward their military. On the one hand, the military is the most respected institution in the United States. On the other, most Americans have little or no knowledge of the military and often do not know anyone who is serving.

The contributors to Warriors and Citizens attempt to ascertain the depth of this societal civilian-military gap and the implications for future civil-military relations and military professionalism. Can policy address the current civilian-military gap and if so, what policies are most likely to enhance healthy civil-military relations?

Mackubin Owens is dean of academics for the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC, a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal.  Dr. Owens is also a Marine Corps veteran and a recipient of the Silver Star.


Gladden J. Pappin

“If we do not succeed in tightening the dangerously loosening bonds in the Western world between human communities and the political action of their governments,” writes Pierre Manent in the headline essay of Democracy Without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, “the divorce between the nation and democracy will be no less dangerous for democracy than for the nation.” For many years, Americans who admired Manent’s criticism of the burgeoning European superstate had the luxury of adopting those criticisms from afar. But the prying apart of human communities and political action has been proceeding steadily in the U.S. as well.

American federalism, it is true, has allowed the preservation of state and local self-government alongside the construction of a national government. Yet the effects of our trade and immigration policies have been disparate across different American communities—distributional effects which have been largely ignored.

When trade and immigration policy are presented as matters of economic rationality rather than political action, their ties to democratic decision-making become weakened (e.g., through the president’s trade promotion authority). Since the European Union proceeded more quickly down this road than the United States has done, the problems described in Manent’s essays may have seemed further from our own when they were published in English in 2007. But the trends described by Manent are global, and their domestic stakes are clearer than before. The time for reading Democracy without Nations? is now.

Gladden J. Pappin is research assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and political theory fellow of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. He is the associate editor of American Affairs, a forthcoming quarterly journal of public policy and political thought.


Julie Ponzi

While I have long understood the revolutionary character (or should I say the counter-revolutionary character?) of Progressivism—that system of thought imported from Europe to supplant America’s original and truly revolutionary central idea as articulated in the Declaration of Independence—it was only during the last year that I came to understand the necessity of pushing back against it in such a way as to lend it zero legitimacy. I came to that realization as a result of reading Michael Walsh’s seminal work, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace:  The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West as well as his earlier work (published under the pen name, David Kahane), Rules for Radical Conservatives:  Beating the Left at its Own Game to Take Back America. Prior to reading these books and the emergence of Donald Trump with his forceful rejection of leftist tropes, I was attached to the quaint (and very unreasonable) opinion that one could fight the unreasonable Left with reason alone and still win.

The divisions on the Right during the last election cycle have convinced me that there is a real lack of understanding about the nature of the opposition we face. Principles of reason and good-faith when applied to debate with the Left, while well-intentioned, are often misguided because they are honored only by one side. Contrary to received opinion about the nobility of remaining “above the fray,” in political (as opposed to intellectual) combat, this posture does not make us admirable martyrs to the truth. It makes us gullible, naive, and worse—it makes us guilty of shirking our duty to the next generation of American patriots.

Julie Ponzi is senior editor of American Greatness.

Publius Decius Mus

In a recent interview about my amateur career as a pro-Trump intellectual, the first question was: what issue was the gateway to your journey away from Beltway “conservatism” and toward Trump?

My unhesitating answer: income inequality. This is not supposed to be of concern to conservatives. In a country where even the poorest have enough on which to live, and often much more, we are told to let unequal talents play out as they may and not worry about the result.

Yet I worry. F.H. Buckley’s The Way Back: Restoring the Promise of America explains why, better than I possibly could. First, while not abandoning alarm over inequality, Buckley explains that mobility is actually the more fundamental concern. Mobility is the lubricant of a classless society. Without it, we have patricians and plebs, de facto if not de jure, with all the attendant injustices and costs.

The Way Back was not written as a Trump book; it was completed before Trump even announced his candidacy. Yet it is the indispensable guide to our times. Buckley describes with unfailing accuracy the socio-economic arrangement—top plus bottom versus middle—against which Trump voters rebelled. And he delivers on the promise of his title, showing how to deliver “socialist ends through capitalist means.”

There’s a phrase that once would have made my hair stand on end. Back when I was a “conservative.”

Publius Decius Mus, or “Decius,” is a Contributing Editor of American Greatness

Mike Sabo

Essential reading for those looking to Make America Great Again is Ann Coulter’s fiery polemic Adios, America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole. Through an oftentimes hilarious and sometimes shocking investigation, Coulter makes the case why our bipartisan immigration policy has been an utter disaster for the country.

As she argues, rampant illegal immigration and mass legal immigration are slowly eating away at the fabric of our nation, driving down wages and producing rampant crime. Programs intended to bring in the best and the brightest from around the world are now vehicles by which entire generations of families are brought to our shores with little regard for our national interest.

Returning the principle of securing the common good back to the center of our politics—which was the central principle underlying President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign—is the book’s most important theme. Voters have consistently rejected “comprehensive” immigration reform such as the infamous bipartisan Gang of Eight bill, because they know that such schemes benefit political elites at the expense of the public good.

Having read the book “cover to cover,” hopefully Trump follows through with correcting the manifest problems Coulter outlines.

Mike Sabo is a recent graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He and his wife live in Alexandria, VA

Richard Samuelson

Our basic government textbooks need to be updated. They still teach that there are three branches, separations of powers, checks and balances, and the like. The trouble is that we have, in fact, four branches, and the fourth branch—the Administrative branch, seems to grow more and more powerful by the year. Seizing on decades old language in statutes, this branch regularly produces new laws, disguised as new “regulations” or “interpretations” to meet what members of America’s would-be “ruling class” regard as new threats to the republic.

In Constitutional affairs, the “living constitution” is a way for an elite group to change the Constitution when the people either reject an amendment (as in the ERA) or when no amendment is even in contemplation. More and more our statutes are being used similarly, reworked to meet what our governing class regards as today’s challenges. An honest civic textbook would recognize that.

The trouble with this new mode of governance is that it entails a rejection of the founders’ constitution in its essence. The laws under which we live are no longer passed by the men and women we elect, but are, instead, written by a tenured elite, a kind of post-modern robe nobility. As this fourth branch has grown off the constitutional books, so to speak, it is getting out of hand.

Even more than James Madison, John Adams was, among the founders, Mr. Checks and Balances. Moreover, his analysis of politics suggests that in every society there is, in fact, an elite or aristoi. In a good constitution, they are recognized officially in the constitution as such (Adams believed that the Senate fulfilled this role, creating an order of offices, not of men ) and, with such recognition, kept in check, so that, following a political jujitsu, their ambition serves the republic, rather than their own ambitions. As C. Bradley Thompson notes in his fine study, John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, Adams believed in a “mixed and balanced” constitution, combining the House, Senate, and executive armed with a veto with the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers.

An Adamsian analysis, grounded in his Defence of the Constitutions suggests that the biggest problem facing the republic today is that our would-be aristoi are starting to run free, outside any constitutional mooring. Adams also suggested that when an aristocratic order gets out of hand, the people are inclined to turn to a would-be tyrant as a savoir. To return America to its constitutional moorings, the administrative state must be brought into the scheme of checks and balances.

Richard Samuelson is an Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino, and a fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Dennis Teti

If President Trump could instruct every member of his administration to study (not merely read) one book that explains the crisis he was elected to address, it would be a now out-of-print book, written a quarter century ago: The Politics of Budget Control: Congress, the Presidency and the Growth of the Administrative State by John Marini. (It should be supplemented by Charles Kesler’s I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Future of Liberalism, which shares Marini’s analysis, brings it forward into the Obama presidency, and recognizes the crisis now upon us.)

Marini’s book does no less than establish the groundwork and premises for the popular uprising we can call Trumpism. Given the Constitution’s silence on the word “administration,” Marini takes us through a careful account of the struggle between the Executive and Legislative branches to control the administration of government. The hinge on which American political history turns proves to be the Progressive challenge to the founding principles of America: limited government, separation of powers, federalism, and popular consent. These are political consequences flowing from the Declaration of Independence’s self-evident truth that all human beings are created equal with respect to the natural rights with which they are endowed by “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”

Progressivism, an Americanized version of the German idea of Historicism championed by Woodrow Wilson, held that this nation, disordered by limited and politically divided government, must be made “rational” by science applying administrative rules promulgated by technically trained and tenured experts. Starting with the New Deal, then a second impulse through Johnson’s Great Society, and ending in Obama’s proclaimed transformation of America, Progressives put in place agency after agency to override and substitute for private decision-making by citizens and direct the entire society and economy. The national institutions of education, media and entertainment, finance, business, and law spawned a new elite class of the knowledgeable and wealthy united by politically correct thought patterns and open contempt for working class people. The purposes of centralized government grew more and more radical, beginning with the redistribution of private wealth, extending to the subversion of the traditional family order, and assaulting civil society with bizarre claims of a “diversity” made up of autonomous individual “identities” without “natures,” only constructed “selfs.”

President Nixon was the first to try to halt the Progressive expansion of centralized administration, recognizing that he uniquely spoke for a national popular majority to reduce the size of the administrative state and its exploding budgets. As Marini shows, Nixon’s strategy was faulty and he was prevented from carrying out his project by panicked bureaucrats who enlisted Congress in stopping him cold. As a result, administrative control now moved sharply toward Congress whereas all of Nixon’s successors until Obama knew there was a persistent majority that wanted spending reduced and bureaucracy limited. Yet its decentralized power structure renders Congress incapable of crafting long-term administrative budget plans on its own, resulting in uncontrolled spending under Democrats or Republicans.

Trump’s election can be understood at the deepest level as the majority’s desperate determination to move past the crisis of the administrative state which culminated in such Obama-created measures as Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Bill, both of which created a myriad of new federal agencies to seize control of the health care, banking, and investments sectors of the nation. Trumpism is nothing less than a profound but prudent conservative movement to reassert majority control over the meritocracy that drives the administrative state and to restore limited government grounded on equal natural rights. President Trump and his administration could do nothing better than to study this book in order fully to grasp the need for, the difficulties, and the nobility of the task to which they have been called: curtailing the administrative state and restoring government by the people.

Dennis Teti has over three decades of political service in Washington, including 11 years at the Department of Housing & Urban Development and 14 years in Congress (including 6 years on House Budget Committee staff under then-Chairman Paul Ryan).


Tevi Troy

One of the best books ever written on American politics is Daniel Boorstin’s “The Genius of American Politics.” Boorstin, an historian and former Librarian of Congress, understood that American politics were fundamentally different from European politics. According to Boorstin, there is no American political philosophy that could be exported elsewhere and adopted by a nation that lacks our openness, our freedom, and our lack of ethnicity at the root of our national character. This does not mean that America is not great. Boorstin has a deep love of America and explains many aspect of American greatness in the book. Despite our greatness, though, he argued that “our institutions cannot be transplanted to other parts of the world.” Effectively, Boorstin made the case that America was so exceptional that it could not be replicated.

Boorstin’s book is a welcome tonic following an administration that explicitly rejected the notion of American exceptionalism—remember Obama’s “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” At the same time, Boorstin is also a perfect complement to an incoming Trump presidency, which is led by a man who via his best-known slogan demonstrates his belief in the greatness of America, but is also wary of tilting at windmills abroad.

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book is Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.

America • History • Immigration • political philosophy • The Culture

Hamilton’s Actual Views on Immigration

Not too long ago, the cast of the hit musical “Hamilton” ostentatiously lectured Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in attendance, about “diversity” and “American values.” Implicit in these remarks was criticism of the incoming administration’s position on immigration.

But the comments by the “Hamilton” cast miss an important point. Although Alexander Hamilton was himself an immigrant, he was adamantly opposed to the open immigration policies that President Thomas Jefferson proposed in his first annual message to Congress in 1801. Although the incoming president had once opposed unlimited immigration, Jefferson now saw it as a way to secure the future political dominance of his own party over Hamilton’s Federalists.

Hamilton, like most Federalists, was concerned about French influence on American politics. Although the French Revolution had descended into terror and led to the rise of Napoleon, Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party persisted in their attachment to the French. Hamilton feared that Jefferson’s proposal for unlimited immigration would lead to the triumph of the radical principles of the French Revolution over those of the more moderate American Revolution.

Writing as “Lucius Crassus,” Hamilton argued: “The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias, and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.”

Invoking Jefferson’s own “Notes on Virginia,” Hamilton observed that “foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners.” He argued that “it is unlikely that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism.”

Read the rest at the Providence Journal.

Defense of the West • History • political philosophy • Uncategorized

Travel is an Antidote to American Political Hysteria

A few weeks ago I met a man with backwards feet.

This was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, halfway through a vacation in Southeast Asia. It was at a dingy old-school gym with rusty weights and a corrugated tin roof that made a thunderous racket when it rained. A frail, middle-aged man sat at a counter and collected the $1 entrance fee. The place was just a few blocks from my hotel, and it felt good to throw around some iron after several days of casual sightseeing. It was on my second visit when the man at the front desk got up to tend to some errand, and I noticed the reason for his limping gait: his feet were simply the wrong way around. One doesn’t see that in the United State or other developed nations. Such a birth defect would be corrected in infancy, as soon as surgically feasible. Not so in Cambodia.

My previous stop had been Bangkok, Thailand. On the street level, the two capital cities are similar: teeming, chaotic traffic, all-but-impassable sidewalks thronged with merchants, parked vehicles, and the ubiquitous food stands selling spicy soup, grilled fish, and exotic fruits.

Gazing upward, however, the differences become stark. Bangkok is a metropolis, its downtown thick with modern skyscrapers. Phnom Penh is mostly flat. Apart from a few medium-tall buildings, almost nothing in the city rises above five stories. Whatever other factors explain this underdevelopment, a primary one is surely catastrophe wrought by the communist Khmer Rouge during their iron grip on Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, when an estimated one-quarter to one-third of the population perished from forced labor, starvation, or execution.

Many people are familiar with the Khmer Rouge “killing fields.” But some of the worst atrocities were committed at Prison Site 21 in Phnom Penh, now called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (after the name of the high school it had been). It is a grim place to visit. According to Pol Pot’s perverse utopianism, Cambodian society was to be re-started at “Year Zero” on the basis of the “Old People”—the uncorrupted rural peasants. “New People”—urban dwellers, professionals, monks, and intellectuals (anyone wearing eyeglasses was ipso facto an intellectual and subject to arrest)—were to be expunged; but only after providing an adequate confession of their anti-revolutionary crimes. Some 20,000 victims endured torture and death at Tuol Sleng to fulfill this ideological mandate.

The structure built for the physical fitness of students was turned into an instrument of torture for the Khmer Rouge.

Upon seizing the facility, Pol Pot’s men subdivided most of the school’s classrooms into tiny brick cells. The windows and ventilation shafts were boarded up. Each unit held two inmates, shackled to the floor in leg irons. In the dark, suffocating heat, unwashed, unfed, unable to move, the terrified prisoners were taken from their cells only to face the even greater torment of interrogation. I offer one gruesome example. [Warning: this is graphic. Some readers may wish to skip to the next paragraph.] In the pretty school courtyard where 50 year-old mango trees still grow, there is a wooden frame some 25 feet high, now called “the gallows” The school had built it and attached ropes to iron rings on the cross-beam, for the students to practice climbing. The Khmer Rouge used it for a different purpose. Prisoners were bound with their hands behind their backs and then hoisted up on the ropes, often dislocating their shoulders. If, or when, they passed out from the pain, they would be flipped over and dunked head-first into large pots of human waste. The instinctive revulsion to this often revived the prisoner and they were then flipped back up, where the interrogation was resumed.

A cell at Prison Site 21

Officially, inmates were not supposed to die under torture. Only after the guards decided, at some arbitrary point, that a prisoner had made a sufficient apology would an execution order be signed by the prison commandant—the unspeakably wicked Comrade Duch. On one death warrant for 17 children and teenagers, he wrote, “Smash them to pieces.” Duch, whose real name is Kang Kek Iew, is still alive, alas. Now 74, he is serving a life sentence in a Cambodian penitentiary. May he soon rot in Hell.

Under torture, of course, many prisoners confabulated stories they thought would satisfy the guards and ease the pain. In 1978, a New Zealand swimmer and surfer name Kerry Hamill sailed too close to Cambodian waters, was captured by the Khmer Rouge and along with his shipmate was swept into the nightmare of Tuol Sleng. Under interrogation Hamill said that his CIA handler was “Colonel Sanders.” The guards—unfamiliar with Western popular culture or fast food—duly noted this in his confession. Like nearly every other prisoner, Hamill was killed and his body destroyed. In fact, only seven inmates (out of 20,000!) somehow managed to survive.

After Phnom Penh, my next stop was Sydney—the site of Britain’s first Australian penal colony. (I did not plan my vacation as an international prison tour. I went to Sydney for the usual reasons, having more or less forgotten its historical origins.) On the edge of the beautiful harbor, a popular tourist attraction known as “The Rocks” preserves some of the original structures and describes the conditions of the early settlement. One explanatory marker I found particularly interesting was this plaque. 

A few things are worth noting. First, the word “convicts” necessarily implies a conviction—the end result of at least some rudimentary due process, were evidence or proof of an actual crime has been brought forth. Second, though the plaque says the convicts were “treated and worked like animals,” note the list of rations at the bottom (including a pound of beef (!) and a portion of soap every day). Convicts were required to perform hard physical labor, but the British had the decency to know that if you work men, you need to feed them—which they did.

Additionally, neither at The Rocks nor online could I find a single allegation that these prisoners were subjected to the random, stomach-turning abuse that was not merely a daily, even hourly, occurrence at Tuol Sleng, but its very purpose. Finally, consider that the first penal colony at Sydney was established in 1788, some 190 years before Enlightenment and Progress plunged Cambodia into unprecedented barbarism.

Let me conclude this rambling travelogue with a few brief observations, now that I’m back in the United States and more or less over my jetlag. First, my patience for inane blather about a Trump dictatorship—minimal to begin with—is now nil. The next time I hear someone hyperventilating about incipient tyranny, I’ll simply say, “Google ‘Tuol Sleng,’ and explain why Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t seem particularly worried about having their shoulders dislocated in a high school courtyard.”

On a more positive note, I find myself in fresh awe at the miracle of being an American. If there is one concession I would make to the liberal critique of conservatives it is that we can be too complacent, too uninterested in the daily lives of people abroad. I now believe it is vital to travel, especially to less developed countries, to truly appreciate how remarkable is our Greek, Roman, and English inheritance of liberty and law.

And to friend and foe alike, let me humbly suggest that the next time you count your blessings, try to imagine some of the things you never thought to be thankful for—like two straight feet.

America • Defense of the West • political philosophy • The Culture

Most Great to Them that Know

The City of God

The City of God

Christians, we are told by the greatest of their teachers going back to Augustine, are citizens of two cities: An earthly city to which they owe the duties commanded by the laws, and a heavenly city to which they owe their primary loyalty as subjects of the Kingship of God. Faithful Christians engage in politics, even or especially in democratic politics, halfheartedly—always questioning and subordinating the imperatives of politics in the light of what their “Christian consciences” demand.

In my view these Christian doubts about politics, about the value of political activity, were what really stood behind the opposition of many contemporary Christian teachers to the candidacy of Donald Trump.

These teachers condemned Mr. Trump, and rightly, for a long history of distasteful comments about women. Many of them saw his stated political objectives as in conflict with those that, in their view, the Gospel demands. The Church is the commonwealth of all Christians; churches are “sanctuaries” for Christians persecuted or prosecuted by earthly authorities, and as such, Christian organizations have played a big role in producing the cultural climate that makes enforcing the immigration laws passed by Congress and signed by the president seem like a crime worthy of Herod.

But behind all that is a refusal to grant primacy to one’s earthly country or to one’s American citizenship. A Christian should dedicate his or her life to the glorification of the greatness of God, not to “winning.” “My soul doth magnify the Lord”: Can one really sing that with one’s whole heart and soul while wearing a hat that reads “Make America Great Again”?


Cecil Spring-Rice

No modern work exemplifies these difficulties more clearly than the English hymn, “I Vow to Thee My Country” with words by the British diplomat Sir Cecil Spring-Rice (ambassador to the United States for most of World War I, until his heart was broken by his recall) and music adapted by Gustav Holst from the “Jupiter” movement of his suite, “The Planets.” This hymn was sung at the wedding and then at the funeral of Princess Diana, and at the funerals of England’s two greatest modern Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. The hymn is sung throughout the Commonwealth on Remembrance Day, the solemn alternative to what in America we hardly notice anymore as Veterans’ Day.

Spring-Rice’s hymn, as sung, consists of two stanzas. The first stanza speaks of love of country, which claims, and often receives, the sacrifice of any and all of a citizens’ worldly goods, health, life, even the lives of one’s children.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Stephen Lowe, then the Anglican Bishop of Hulme, complained in 2004 that Rice’s words were “heretical, because a Christian’s ultimate responsibility is to God as revealed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.” Love for country, Bishop Lowe claimed, cannot for a Christian be “the love that asks no question.”

Two replies could be made to His Grace: “the final sacrifice” does not mean the “greatest sacrifice,” but the sacrifice after which there can be no other, the sacrifice of life itself. Only the most rigorous of Christian pacifists have denied that one’s country can demand that.

The second reply, made by many then and now, is that the hymn’s first stanza must be understood in the light of the second, which speaks of “another country”:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Pride in one’s heavenly country is not pride in winning but “pride in suffering.” One’s earthly country may be great or small, but it is God’s country that is “most great to them that know.” One’s earthly country must have defined borders and guards who enforce them. The other country can increase its bounds “soul by soul” without compromising its nature or identity.

To me as an American born in Canada who expatriated to Israel, with two citizenships by birth and one by naturalization, the notion of a conflict of loyalties is familiar, at least in theory. In practice, nobody has been torn between the United States and the Queen since the Treaty of Ghent, and dual loyalties between America and Israel have claimed only one victim in almost 70 years, the wretched convict Jonathan Pollard.

As a Jew, I have to say that I find the particular conflict of loyalties expressed in Spring-Rice’s two stanzas utterly foreign to me religiously. Judaism is a political religion. The army of God is the visible Host of Israel from its commanders down to its latrine-diggers, though it is not to be counted or enumerated except as ordered by His express command (2 Samuel 24).

Jews work to realize the kingdom of God by fulfilling his commandments here on earth: “Rabbi Samuel the son of Nahman said, ‘At the hour at which the Holy One Blessed Be He created the world, He desired that there be for him a dwelling place among the lower things as there is among the supernal things’” (Midrash Tanhuma, Naso 16). We are commanded to build this dwelling place out of earthly materials, wood and stone and gold and silver and copper and skins and jewels: “And they shall build me a Temple and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Under present political circumstances, however, we cannot contract with Donald Jr. or Eric to bring it in “on time and under budget.”

As I gaze from afar at my fellow Americans, most of them professed Christians, I can see why so many of them have qualms about following a builder who speaks as if he has only one country and never two. I don’t know if Mr. Trump, like a great patriot of the past, loves his country more than his own soul. But I would like to leave my Christian friends with the words of another Jewish teacher, Maimonides, a great physician of bodies and of souls: “If a person has gone far to one extreme he should move himself to the other extreme and conduct himself according to it until he has returned to the best path, which is the middle quality regarding every single trait” (Laws Regarding Opinions 2:2, my translation).

In its 75-year run, globalization and other solvents of the love of country have gone too far. Four or (God-willing) eight years of wholehearted patriotic devotion may be bitter medicine for many Christians, but no less seems to be required for the healing of the United States and the world.

2016 Election • America • Donald Trump • political philosophy • The Culture • Uncategorized

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends

110121-A-2911M-337It’s so much easier to be in opposition. Since the electionis mirabilis, I’ve received a lot of entreaties to say something. Anything! These have come mostly from well-wishers looking for guidance. Tell Trump what to do next! Does anyone actually think I’ve told him what to do up to now? Or that he would listen to me if I told him what to do next? Or that he even knows I exist?

In any case, I don’t need to tell Trump what to do. I supported him in part because it seemed (and still seems) that he already knows what he wants to do, most of which I broadly support. He isn’t always the greatest at explaining his program to intellectuals—though he explained it well enough to 62 million Americans. Still, even though I’m pretty sure Trump doesn’t give a damn either way, I took it upon myself (in a moment of Sisyphean idiocy) to explain him to the intellectuals.

That effort has mostly consisted in a series of polemical horse-whippings. Now that Trump has won and conservative opposition has proved less effective than the Maginot Line, I just can’t rouse myself to whip them anymore. Why destroy a prostrate Paris? Paris is beautiful. Not that the conservative movement these days is much to brag about. But the Beaux Arts apartment block at 1789 (!) Massachusetts Avenue sure is! The feeling will no doubt pass, especially as the conservatives regroup and start being hubristically obtuse and stupid again. Obtuse and stupid I can tolerate, but the hubris brings out the poisoned keyboard. But for now, all I can muster is “meh.”

A Worthy Interlocutor

Yet still I am asked to write. It is therefore a pleasure to have Nathan Pinkoski as an interlocutor. I enjoy his flattery, as I presume he enjoyed mine. Or maybe he is better than I in that regard; I hope so. I will nonetheless flatter him a bit more because he is, thus far, the best of my critics to have emerged, and perhaps the best I could have asked for. If this all sounds too treacly for some readers, I make an additional warning: this is another one for the geeks.

Pinkoski congratulates me—more than once—on “[my] victory.” But of course I won nothing. Had I been on the ballot, running on Trump’s (or any) platform, I would have lost in a worse-than-Goldwater blowout. I would be so bad as a candidate that I might even have lost Wyoming. Or been out-polled by Evan McMullin. I think it is also over-generous, and not supported by evidence, to suggest that my writing made any material difference in the outcome. But once again I appreciate the flattery.

Pinkoski writes:

One of our few genuine disagreements may be over whether, for Strauss, this concern for political things arises through a heightened awareness of the nature of the philosophic life; or through a synthesis between the philosophic life and political life

I am not sure that this is a disagreement because I am quite sure that I did not argue for “a synthesis between the philosophic life and political life.” I am well aware of Strauss’s insistence that, in the final analysis, the two ways of life are at odds and incommensurable. I do not find, or at least have not yet found, a sound reason to reject Strauss’s analysis. I stated but one reason that philosophy must concern itself with politics. I thought I was clear that there are others. But sticking for the moment with the one I did discuss, while philosophy can make a strong case that the philosophic life is higher than the political, it’s indisputably true that while philosophy is dependent on the city, the reverse is not the case. A philosopher then must wonder in what sense a dependent being can be ultimately superior to that upon which it depends, which does not in turn depend on it.

The Eccentric Core

Beyond this there is the issue of “the eccentric core”—in Seth Benardete’s enigmatic phrase. I will not claim to understand Benardete. Even Strauss (I have been told) confessed that he found it difficult to understand Benardete. But I will quote Benardete anyway because this thought is also worth pondering: “the problem of the human good is grounded in the city, and the problem of being in god”; hence “political philosophy is the eccentric core of philosophy.” There is no suggestion here of a synthesis, but rather of a necessity: the necessity for philosophy to concern itself with politics, not merely for self-protection, but precisely as a means to achieve its own highest end.

Pinkoski cites my frequent use of ancient examples as a covert signifier that I am approaching the problem of our time through a purely classical, secular lens. That was not my intent. I chose ancient examples simply because they seem the most apt to our situation. The “petty republics” of the Renaissance hold fewer lessons for us, I think, than the grander ones of the ancient world. In any case, I certainly did not mean to deny that our situation differs in fundamental respects from that of antiquity, or that one of those differences is the presence of Biblical faith in the post-pagan West. Certainly, we cannot “go back” nor do the classics offer us “recipes” for today’s use.

Nonetheless, I believe that the cycle of regimes has not been repealed—not by modern philosophy (which explicitly tried to do so) nor by Biblical faith, which does not seem to address the question at all. Rather, as a few of Pinkoski’s comments suggest, Biblical faith would seem to be indifferent to the cycle of regimes, except insofar as it holds that life on earth will culminate in a final state; but that state has nothing to do with the rise and fall individual regimes or even broader political trends, which are man-driven. Render unto Caesar. (Although, I should mention, so as not to be accused of being ignorant, that I am aware of Augustine’s argument that the Roman conquest of the ancient world was ordained by Providence so as to facilitate and even make possible the spread of Christianity.)

Thus, even the faithful must contend with the possibility of secular political failure, as well as the impact that secular politics can have on the practice of faith. I am sure I don’t need to point out that the secular left has been for some time hell-bent on restricting the free exercise of conscience in the name of “non-discrimination,” “anti-bigotry” and the like. The faithful qua faithful may always find refuge in the soul no matter how bad political conditions get. And martyrdom can be admirable when there is no other option. But is it wise—or required by faith—to choose martyrdom for its own sake? Shall we decline to oppose trends that may, if left unchecked, make martyrdom necessary?

Not a Synthesizer

I fear Pinkoski will once again accuse me of being a synthesizer. But I am not here arguing for the ultimate commensurability of faith and reason. I am rather saying that it’s reasonable to believe that the natural world created by God reflects the moral order of His revelation. And that rational investigation of that moral order confirms, or at least strongly supports, this conjecture.

Therefore, it is not a question of “demonstrating the applicability of the classics over the moral conservative and Biblical faith.” It is rather to show that despite their fundamental disagreement at the highest level (over the status of authority), there is ample agreement on the content of morality and the ends of politics. Although there is one sense in which Pinkoski’s posited either/or is probably true: the Bible—especially the New Testament—does not offer much guidance on the institutions or conduct of politics. These are left to secular authority to figure out and enact. Here we have no choice but to have recourse to political philosophy—ancient and modern alike. We of course have recourse to Biblical morality, but in choosing how to promote and enforce that morality—how to create the conditions in which it may thrive—we are mostly on our own. The one exception might be Jews who wish to go back to the time of Judges. There must be at least one somewhere. However, even the most devoutly Orthodox Israelis of whom I am aware accept the essential legitimacy of the secular Israeli state. That is to say, they follow the way of all Jews since the Roman conquest, in separating the faith from the state. There is no Jewish longing for the equivalent of a Caliphate. Gentiles of course have no recourse to Judges and must, of necessity, render unto Caesar. Therefore, for Christian and Jew alike, the political problem looms no matter what one’s view of Biblical faith.

Pinkoski further asks: how would my justification of natural right avoid relativism or historicism? In preparation for this question, he fairly summarizes Strauss’s critique of Aquinas (and by extension of natural law) but he misses or at least does not call out the main point. “In Strauss’s view, one can conjecture certain situations where the exception to the rule may actually serve the common good.” Yes, exactly. And the answer is right there: “common good.” Which is itself a subspecies of the good.

I could not say to what extent Republic VI is exoteric. An East-Coaster would say (or at least think, and perhaps hint): all of it. I am not so sure. At any rate, it seems to me that if we are to talk about morality at all, then there must be a good, whether or not there is a literal, Platonic eidos of the good. The good is, if not fully and finally knowable, definitely investigable, and progress in knowledge is possible. That there is a good—including a human good, and a common good—also seems in accord with common sense and ordinary observation. Remember that political philosophy originates from both. The intellectual and civilizational ills that Pinkoski identifies seem to me fundamentally at odds with basic common sense and would amount to the absurdity that we could not tell the difference between the health of soul in (say) a Strauss or Washington versus a mafia don or a drug addict. We don’t need the Gorgias to see the difference immediately, though perhaps we do to understand that difference at the deepest level. Relativism, in other words, is no less obviously or palpably false than it turns out to be, on investigation, also theoretically and philosophically false.

Never a Justification for Tyranny

Later, Pinkoski claims that if there is “no immutable principle of justice,” we “cannot face down historicism.” The following correction may seem semantic; I think not, but if others know better, I welcome counter-correction. Must there be an immutable principle of justice? Some action or actions that are always good and others that are always bad? It seems to me that there is never any justification for tyranny (as opposed to Caesarism) but beyond that, an adventurous mind can dream up extreme—and extremely improbable—scenarios in which extreme measures are justified.

Natural right is, alas, changeable (Nicomachean Ethics, 1134b30). But the good is eternal. Thus if we substitute “the good” for Pinkoski’s “justice” I think we have solved his problem and avoided his snares.

However, what manifests itself as good—whether thing or action—changes with circumstance. Chemotherapy—a.k.a., radiation poisoning—is good for a cancer patient but very bad for anyone else. We can know this because we can identify health as a goal, and we can say—based on common sense and reasoned investigation—that health is good. In much the same way, we can identify what makes for a healthy soul, based on both common sense and reasoned investigation into the good. Similarly, we can identify ordinary “rules” or guidelines that are both true and good nearly all the time, but that break down in extreme situations. No just man would kill another except in the extreme situation of warfare or self-defense. The law does its best to identify every possible situation in which killing may be justified, and does so reasonably well, but even the most sagacious legislator may not anticipate every possible circumstance. This is an essential limit inherent in the nature of law. The same problem becomes much more complicated at the level of statecraft. A nation may be forced to do terrible things to survive that it would never consider, much less countenance, in peace and that its wisest statesmen would recoil from ever giving the imprimatur of law.

In this vein, Pinkoski asks me to “to specify the principles by which, in a post-constitutional situation, one could choose the path of De Gaulle and resist the temptation of Pétain.” I may shock him with this answer, but I honestly do not see how one could choose De Gaulle in such a situation. Is not the very meaning of “post-constitutional” that the path of De Gaulle is, for the time being, foreclosed?

But then it seems to me that we have to back up and recognize that the analogy is inapt. The choice in 1940 was not between accepting or resisting Caesarism. It was between accepting or resisting foreign conquest. Whether to resist the former is much more likely to be a fraught and open question than whether to fight the latter. Against a foreign invader, Saguntum looms as a heroic act even if no immortal glory results (and even if God’s attention is elsewhere) because resistance is nobler than slavery.

Can we make the same case about civilizational continuity under a native Caesar? Is forlorn opposition here as prudent, noble, or necessary? Is accommodation quite as base? Pinkoski quotes me referring to “the most glorious literary, artistic, architectural and economic achievements” of Rome but transfers this thought to France in 1940. But there is a difference between the continuity of Roman-ness, of Roman civilization, under the Roman Caesar and subjugation by foreign barbarians. I said in my last that there are some regimes in which no just man could possibly participate. It should not be difficult to guess one or two I had in mind.

Pinkoski implies, but does not quite say, that the path of Pétain is never acceptable. I am prepared to accept that, though I’d prefer to debate it thoroughly before I do. But I repeat, and hope that I have shown to his satisfaction, that acquiescence to Caesarism (should it come to that) is not the same thing.

Down from the Mountaintop

But let us climb down from this mountaintop. I shall close with clarifications on my stance on what to do now, in response to Pinkoski’s implied questions.

Had the election of 2016 gone the other way, I believe I would have fought on. Certainly against the idiot conservatives, because I enjoy that and because any renewal will only come to be on the basis of truth. Conservatism’s errors must be understood, shucked off and replaced. I might have—and I anticipate that I would have—considered “all lost” for the American Constitutional order as it, until recently, existed. But mankind goes on. As will, one hopes, the West.

It would have been (and in a way still is) a difficult matter to decide: to what extent should I dedicate my energies (such as they are) to addressing the here and now versus “what comes next”? I think in my case, I would have favored the latter. Someone has to think about that, few others seem inclined to, and many of those who do seem irresponsible (to put it politely).

But given the victory, I think that, for now, the discussion of what comes next can wait. I will still think about it, and I may write about it, but not in public—not yet. The task is to help Trump’s program succeed. It has a chance to save us and it should be given that chance, and all our effort to help it work. The challenge before Trump is large. The forces arrayed against him are powerful and vast. His own aptitude for governing is yet unknown. I do not rule out the possibility that he can succeed, but I do believe it is foolish to expect success, just as it is prudent to work toward success.