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John McCain, Donald Trump, and the Sirens’ Song

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Was John McCain a great American or a profound disappointment? Sensing another opportunity to berate and criticize a president they loathe, much of the media have championed the late U.S. senator from Arizona and excoriated President Trump for daring to criticize him. It speaks well of our culture that we are discouraged from speaking ill of the dead. But McCain still has great symbolic resonance for many Americans, and if we want to understand the essence of American greatness, he can still teach us much.

The greatest thing an American can do is to sacrifice for his or her country, and McCain’s torture and imprisonment during the Vietnam War reflect such a sacrifice. Still, after the war, McCain in his role as a senator was one of the miscreants in the “Keating Five” scandal. Although McCain escaped punishment, he did seem to demonstrate at least some corruptibility.

In his last election to the Senate, McCain prevailed, in no small part, because he had promised to participate in the repeal of Obamacare, a promise he famously broke with his nationally televised thumbs-down gesture. That action apparently was designed to frustrate the plans of President Trump, whom McCain famously disdained.

Recently we have had confirmation that McCain was also instrumental in circulating the spurious Steele dossier with its fanciful, though damaging, allegations of Russian collusion on the part of the president. Whether McCain was the dupe of those implementing their “insurance policy” against the president, or whether his efforts flowed from genuine and continuing enmity and jealousy for a man who had achieved a goal that eluded McCain, we can now only speculate.

Grievous though his experience at the Hanoi Hilton may have been, adding up McCain’s years in the public eye, especially his reputation as a “maverick” and his constant currying of favor with a Republican-hating media, leads one to see McCain’s career as more one of relentless self-advancement rather than one of selfless virtue.

None of us is without flaws, of course, but a man so petty that he would exclude a sitting president from his planned and elaborate obsequies is something less than completely admirable.

McCain’s greatest legislative achievement was his collaboration with liberal Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on campaign finance reform, but that reform, as virtually all such efforts turn out to be, was little more than an elaborate incumbency protection device. As such, McCain’s championing of that particular cause was of a piece with his other self-protective and self-interested efforts.

McCain’s fickle friends in the national media relentlessly excoriated him for his choice of Sarah Palin as a presidential running-mate in 2008, but Palin was at least a truer adherent to conservative principles than was McCain himself. It is worthy of note that while McCain subsequently distanced himself from the former governor of Alaska, she has never strayed from apparent loyalty to him.

A reputation as a trimmer is often poisonous for a politician, even though an ability to compromise is also regarded as a virtue of a statesman. This is a paradox of politics, but that compromise, to be laudable, ought to be in service of higher goals than self-aggrandizement, and the evidence that McCain was ever capable of that is slight. During his peacetime career, more often than not, McCain was actually a creature of the swamp that President Trump has sought to drain. It’s no wonder that Trump, sometimes a teller of inconvenient truths, cannot help himself from saying that he has never been an admirer of the late senator.

What is necessary now to achieve American greatness is a return to the principles of the American Founding, to the appointment of judges who seek to implement the original constitutional understanding, to the taming of the federal leviathan and the administrative state, to the promotion of economic progress and social mobility, to the strengthening of state and local governments, and to the reformation of our border security and immigration policies. The administration of Donald Trump, in spite of the uniform hostility of most of the media and the administration’s deep state enemies’ machinations, remains committed to these goals. These were not the aims, unfortunately, of the Obama Administration, and McCain’s presidential campaign, equally unfortunately, was not able to present a powerful enough argument to the American people to prevent Obama’s election.

It is now incumbent on those of us still committed to the vision of the Founders to do what we can to further this nation’s actual needs, and frustrate the designs of the self-serving—including, sadly, the late John McCain and his acolytes. Right now that means that Americans concerned for the preservation of our republic should be supporting a president brave and sensible enough to resist the siren songs of the “progressives,” the socialists, the proponents of the Green New Deal, and their full-throated supporting media chorus.

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America • Center for American Greatness • Deterrence • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • North Korea • Post • statesmanship • the Presidency • Trump White House

Trump Lost Nothing in Hanoi

When Donald J. Trump took office in January 2017, the outgoing Obama Administration national security team cautioned Trump’s transition team that North Korea was a significant nuclear threat. Obama White House officials explained how North Korea’s leaders had built up their nascent nuclear arsenal. Since at least 2013, the Obama Administration knew about the rising threat of a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea and did nothing.

It was not a matter of ignorance; it was a matter of indifference on the part of former President Barack Obama and his national security team. Obama—the man who the media claimed was the smartest of all of America’s presidents—likely had no idea how to mitigate the North Korean threat and therefore didn’t even try.

How’s that for leadership?

Tag, You’re It, Donald Trump!
Two years into Trump’s presidency, the world seemed poised for nuclear war in a way that it hadn’t since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yes, the combined forces of the United States, South Korea, Japan, and any other ally inevitably would have overcome North Korea’s military in combat. But, the cost would have been great—particularly to South Korea and the Americans stationed there.

Such a war also would have forced the United States to lead yet another regime change mission, this time in Pyongyang. And it is likely that such a war ultimately would have placed the United States in direct contention both with China and Russia. The Chinese in particular view North Korea as a client state. .

As tensions escalated in 2017, the media argued that President Trump was too slow to engage in diplomacy; that his “my button is bigger than your button” rhetoric toward Kim Jong-un was outrageous. After months of mounting hostilities between the two leaders, Trump switched gears and met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

During that historic summit the two sides had a chance to look each other in the eyes to see if they could do business.

It was a Nixon-goes-to-China or a Reagan-meets-Gorbachev moment: no one in the American elite believed that it could have happened.

But President Trump made it happen.

The president got Kim to acquiesce to our continuing demands for a slowdown in his nuclear weapons tests and his ballistic missile tests. Since that time, the world has enjoyed nearly two years of peace and quiet from North Korea. Meanwhile, Kim returned the remains of multiple American servicemen who had died on the battlefield in North Korea more than 60 years ago. More historic reckonings happened over the course of 2018, this time between North Korea and their American-backed rivals in democratic South Korea.

Diplomacy Is Messy—War Is Worse
Trump’s summit in Hanoi this week was a more muted affair—mostly because the Western press opted instead to follow along with the fictitious melodrama playing out with Michael Cohen hearings on Capitol Hill.

Talk of greater opening and contact between North Korea and the United States continued but the Western media complained that Trump was moving too fast toward diplomacy with Kim. Some people will never be pleased.

Despite his rhetoric, Kim appears uninterested in abandoning his nuclear program. The entire point of the Trump-Kim summits was not to put a temporary hold on North Korea’s inexorable march toward nuclear weapons capability. Rather, the goal was to get North Korea to abandon those nukes completely. But they do not call North Korea the “Hermit Kingdom” for nothing. And, diplomacy is a piecemeal and oftentimes convoluted process.

Despite this, the Trump and Kim interactions before the press made clear that there still exists some level of understanding between the two leaders. During the first day of events, both President Trump and Kim Jong-un had a five-minute televised sit-down before the press. In the last five seconds of the video, one of the American reporters began shouting questions to Trump (who did not respond). At that moment, Kim started chuckling to himself and gave a sympathetic glance to the president who returned with a nod of understanding. That was one of the most honest—and human—interactions I’ve ever seen between Kim Jong-un and another leader. No level of personal understanding between leaders will overcome fundamental ideological disagreements or conflicts of national interest. But they are essential to the understanding that makes negotiation possible.

That the second summit between the American and North Korean leadership was not as successful as the meeting in Singapore is something that was probably to be expected. This is high-stakes diplomacy. That Kim Jong-un did not cry, “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of nuclear war when President Trump decided to cut his losses and leave the summit early is also telling. It means that Kim wants to make a deal, and still believes he can get one.

Does Kim Risk Peace or Court War? It’s Now Fully Up to Him
Whether Kim Jong-un will be able or willing to abandon his desire for nuclear arms in order to get this deal is another matter entirely.

Once it becomes clear to Kim that the president is not going to acquiesce to North Korean demands the way that former President Obama gave into Iranian demands in 2015, North Korea will have to reassess. If they refuse and persist in their ambition to acquire a nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang will precipitate a conflict the likes of which Kim and his regime will not survive—and regime survival, at this point, is essential for Kim. In fact, it is likely the desire for regime survival that belies North Korea’s continued quest for nuclear arms. He needs to be made to see that this is not the way to achieve that goal.

Peace may be dangerous for Kim, but war will destroy him. Because of Trump’s decision to terminate the Hanoi summit prematurely, he now leaves Kim in a bind, having to choose between risking peace or courting war.

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Democrats • Donald Trump • Government Reform • History • Post • Progressivism • Republicans • statesmanship • The Culture • The Left • the Presidency

Take This SOTU and Shove It

In the annals of American political showboating, it’s tough to top the annual circus called the State of the Union message. Mandated by the Constitution—and at first delivered to Congress in written form—it has metastasized since the Wilson Administration into a full-blown political rally, celebrating not the party in power, but the president of the United States personally. Once a year, at the invitation of the Speaker of the House, he commands the attention not only of the Congress, but also members of the Supreme Court. It’s the nearest thing we have to a monarchical moment: all pomp and damn little circumstance, offering a president the chance to reel off, at stupefying length, a laundry list of policy prescriptions that have almost no chance ever of being realized. In short, the hot air that keeps the Capitol dome inflated doesn’t get much hotter than this.

This year, however, may be different. In their ongoing tug-of-war over the partial government shutdown, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has decided to stick her thumb in the eye of President Donald Trump and, citing security concerns, has asked him to delay his scheduled January 29 State of the Union address until the government re-opens or, alternatively, send it up the Hill in writing, as every president from George Washington to William Howard Taft did.

What a good idea.

The key to understanding what the SOTU was meant to address in the first place can be found in its Article II constitutional wording, which states that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Accordingly, early presidents concentrated on the nuts-and-bolts of government, including budget requests, the general economy, and other mundane matters.

It wasn’t until Wilson, who prior to the election of Barack Obama was the most “progressively” radical president we’d ever had, that the annual message started morphing into the thing we know today—a full-throated advertisement for the president’s foreign and domestic policies, symbolizing the shift of power from the legislative branch to the executive.

Now, thanks to Pelosi, Trump has an opportunity to turn it into something else altogether: an actual report on the “State of the Union.” As Pelosi’s sidekick, U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), cracked: “the state of the union is off.” Boy, is it ever.

As Pelosi suggested, Trump can easily send a written report to the Congress. He should do just that. Even better, he can then take his disinvitation and move the venue elsewhere. He could then deliver his speech from the Oval Office—although he just gave a short talk from behind the Resolute Desk. Or, he could take it to Trump Country, and find a 50,000-seat stadium somewhere in Indiana or Texas and rock the house; if the SOTU is little more than a campaign speech in disguise, might as well go whole hog.

Or, more audaciously, he could take it into the heart of Progville—San Francisco, say, or Chicago, or his hometown of New York City—and let his political opponents see just how many folks even in their own constituencies agree with him. As the victorious Roman consuls and commanders knew, there is much to be said for triumphalism, just as long as there is always the one slave, riding in the quadriga behind the victorious Caesar, holding the laurel wreath above his head while whispering in his ear: “Memento homo”—remember, you are only a man.

And what should he say? That the State of the Union is not good, and is not emotionally strong. That after nearly 75 years of cultural-Marxist battering at the doors of all the major American institutions, half the country thinks its own nation is fundamentally illegitimate; that it was founded in venality and exploitative racism and sexism, for the purpose of establishing “white privilege” in North America—and no amount of evidence to the contrary will persuade them otherwise. That as faith has foundered, a new, secular religion has arisen, whose first burnt offerings were wafted aloft by the Wilson Administration, a government of experts celebrating a rule by the elites, a faith in which any gender could grow up to be president, as long as that gender went to Yale or Harvard.

More: that the other half of country has finally had its manners and its good will tested long enough; that it liked the way we used to be, and saw nothing either evil or exploitative about our country. That it resents the influx of Marxist professors—vipers, whom it welcomed as refugees—who via their sacred tenet of Critical Theory encouraged their naïve charges to pull down the pillars of American society. All the social troubles we have witnessed since, from the Weather Underground to the current racial and sexual unrest, derives from them. But wrapped in their false flag of “real patriotism,” they demand that the impossibly perfect always be the enemy of the good, and ascribe only villainy to their opponents.

He should say that the bloated federal bureaucracy is far too large and expensive, and that he will begin reductions in force as soon as practicable. He should say that trillion-dollar deficits—at a time of record tax revenues—prove not that taxes are too low but that government is too big, and that henceforth all extra-constitutional functions will be wound down, including the regulatory agencies created by Congress, until we at least reach some stasis point.

He should assert the equality of all three branches of government when it comes to interpreting and defending the Constitution, inform the lesser federal judges that they have no power over the executive acting either in his constitutional administrative capacity or as commander-in-chief, and tell them that henceforth he will ignore restraining orders and injunctions that are, in his opinion, unconstitutional, until such time as they are adjudicated by the Article III-established Supreme Court (the only federal court not established by Congress, as it happens).

Most important, he should say that the state of our union in a time of Cold Civil War is weak, but could once again be strong if we accept that we are all Americans, benefiting from the same system of government and living in the same blessed land, and that the sooner we remember that, the better. That we don’t have to be prisoners of imported central-European Marxism. That the genius of the American Founding was precisely that it was not ideological, systemic, academic, or programmatic, but based simply on the notion of individual freedom and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—a society built from the bottom up, not the top down.

In that way, the president can extend an olive branch to his enemies, “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural, and try to turn the corner on the bitterness of the 2016 election. The Trump election signaled a desire for a sea-change and, now that things have come to this pass, it’s time to sink the showboat on the Potomac and move on.

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America • American Conservatism • Center for American Greatness • Congress • Conservatives • Donald Trump • Elections • Post • Republicans • statesmanship

Stuck in the Middle with Mitt

If there’s one thing about Donald Trump all right-thinking folks can wholeheartedly celebrate, it’s the way he’s made the masks slip on so many alleged conservatives. First to go were the #NeverTrumpumpkins (no names, please!), as their magazines foundered and their reputations declined along with the quality of their shticks. Also out the door are many, if not most, of the “neocons” (Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, et al.) who have abandoned their alliance of convenience with the post-9/11 War Department and have returned to their progressive roots.

Finally, there are the elder statesmen of the Republican Party, men much maligned by the Democrats during their active political careers—especially when running against Bill Clinton or Barack Obama for president—and then embraced as the very models of the kind of Republicans a leftist might think about voting for (sane, sober, judicious, dignified, honorable, and brimming with bipartisanship) if a leftist ever thought about voting for a Republican, which no one ever has.

Not coincidentally, these judgments generally are delivered after the demise of the Republican in question (John McCain, George H.W. Bush); in life, of course, they were vilified as sadistic plutocrats who happily caused the deaths of millions of women, children, minorities, and other living things, while marveling in privileged wonder at checkout scanners and having putative affairs with lobbyists not their wives.  

Failing death, the next best path to rehabilitation and redemption is to take a shot at the man who accomplished what you failed to do twice—win the White House. And that is the path that the ineffable, “severely conservative” Willard Mitt Romney has chosen as he takes his Senate seat from Michigan Massachusetts New Hampshire California Utah this week.

You remember Mitt: the man who a) courageously decided not to run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts because he knew he would lose, b) lost the GOP nomination in 2008 to the left-for-dead candidate John McCain, and c) lost the 2012 election to Obama after winning the first debate and refusing to challenge the obvious electoral hinkiness in Ohio that still has Karl Rove scratching his head.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, the recrudescent Romney blasted the man he once begged to nominate him for secretary of state as he publicly announced his candidacy for the office of the Media’s Shadow President. That unpleasantness about the dog on the roof, or bullying the gay kid in prep school? All forgotten now!

It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office. 

That’s Mitt front and center, holding the mantle of his office. And this from the guy who wanted Trump to give him a job in order to (as Bill Clinton famously said) “maintain [his] political viability within the system.” Mitt’s willingness to cozy up to Trump even had some completely disinterested reporters fretting: “The statesmanlike version of Mitt Romney has left the building, and the self-proclaimed ‘severely conservative’ one has returned,” wrote Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post last March after Mitt took a “harsh” line on illegal immigration.

But once rebuffed, Mitt pivoted, ran for the U.S. Senate, won, and now stands ready to inherit the mantle of Bob Corker and Jeff Flake as the only living Republicans the media will quote with approval. That both of their political careers ended thanks to their opposition to Trump doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Romney peppers his piece with his own policy positions (as if they mattered), offering us a window into how he sees the world. Unsurprisingly, it’s a place of comity and stability, ruled over simultaneously by the spirits of the gracious Bush I and the bellicose McCain: an interventionist fist in a velvet glove. He cites Lincoln’s appeal to the better angels of our nature, offers a high-minded interpretation of foreign policy that would have appealed equally to Jimmy Carter and Bush II, but says we must evidence “leadership” by confronting Russia and China lest we suffer “less prosperity, less freedom, less peace.” And to that end, says Romney, leadership begins at home:

To reassume our leadership in world politics, we must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us. It includes political parties promoting policies that strengthen us rather than promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment. Our leaders must defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.

The bien-pensant boilerplate is strong in this one, as is the hypocrisy of a guy whose vulture capitalist firm strip-mined corporations, sold them off for parts, fired their workers, and told us it was for the good of the shareholders while Romney and his colleagues grew rich.

But now that Mitt’s mask has slipped, the good news is, it’s gone for good. No doubt he harbors thoughts of challenging Trump for the nomination in 2020—although he denies it—and God knows, there are exiled GOP political consultants and “strategists” across the country more than willing to encourage him for the price of their media buys. But if Mitt runs, he’ll run as a 1990s Democrat—nationalized health care and all—not only in opposition to the ogre Trump but against the Bernie Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez Democrats as well. And what a campaign that will be. I can hear the campaign song now:

Clowns to the left of us, jokers to the right, here we are, stuck in the middle with Mitt.

Perhaps “Won’t Get Fooled Again” might be an even better choice. But then, fooling people has always been what Willard’s about, and he’s got the masks to prove it.

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Center for American Greatness • Conservatives • Donald Trump • Post • statesmanship • the Presidency

Jonah Goldberg and Cardinal Newman

My friend Jonah Goldberg has prompted me to think a bit about the issue of character as it relates to public service. Jonah thinks that Donald Trump is a man of bad character. He’s written this several times, most recently, I believe, at National Review where he puts it negatively: it is an “obvious truth,” he says, that “President Trump is not a man of good character.”

In August, on Twitter, Jonah issued a challenge that, he noted, he had been pressing for three years: “Please come up with a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.”

I’ll take a crack at that in a moment. First, I want to agree, at least provisionally, with Jonah’s observation in his column that “Character is one of those topics, like culture or morality, that everyone strongly supports yet also argues about.” I say “provisionally” because although I agree that character, culture, and morality are typically matters that interest us deeply and, hence, are things that we endlessly discuss and often argue about, I am not quite sure what he means when he says that “everyone strongly supports” them. Thinking it over, I am not sure I have ever heard anyone say “I support character.” Have you?

Jonah is fond of quoting Heraclitus’s aphorism ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων against the president. He says that it is “most often” translated as “man’s character is his fate.” It has indeed been translated thus, but it is perhaps more accurately translated as “Man’s character is his daimon.” The usual Greek word for fate is μοῖρα. “Daimon,” which was that inner admonitory voice that Socrates said guided him, is something else.

While I am at it, I should perhaps also say I am not sure that ēthos means quite what Jonah’s weaponization of the aphorism implies. As I understand it, ēthos means one’s settled disposition; the Liddell and Scott lexicon mentions the Latin word ingenium among its definitions. Someone in the early modern era might have described it as a man’s “humor.” Jonah begins his most recent column by noting

For a very long time now, I have been predicting that the Trump presidency will end poorly because character is destiny.

The logic is: Trump’s character is bad. Character is destiny. Ergo Trump’s administration will come a cropper. The aphorism by Heraclitus is offered as confirmation of this syllogism.

It is, I’ll admit, amusing to speculate about what Heraclitus would have made of Donald Trump. But for my money, a more pertinent saying of the old Ephesian is φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ: the true nature of things likes to conceal itself.

In any event, Jonah goes on to say, notwithstanding the “obvious truth” that Donald Trump is “not a man of good character,” some people disagree and, mirabile dictu, “seem to have convinced themselves that Trump is a man of good character.” Some of these people, moreover, “take personal offense at the insult, even though I usually offer it as little more than an observation.” The contention that Trump is “not a man of good character,” you see, although it is “an insult,” is also an “obvious truth.” Which is to say, like the proposition “All men are mortal,” one is not free to disagree with it. You might dislike it. You might wish it were not true. But there is something coercive about “an obvious truth.” It is simply beyond debate.

That, I believe, is Jonah’s contention, which makes his irritation at those who persist in disagreeing with him about this understandable. “They rush to rebut the claim,” he says “citing banal or debatable propositions: He loves his children! He’s loyal to a fault! He’s authentic! Never mind that many bad men love their children, that loyalty to people or causes unworthy of loyalty is not admirable, and that authentic caddishness is not admirable. Moreover, he is not remotely loyal to his wives or the people who work for him.”

There is a lot that one might say about those observations, which, speaking of banal propositions, seem to me to mix the banal (“many bad men love their children”) with the highly debatable: is it, for example, unarguable that the president’s fundamental loyalties are to “unworthy” people or causes, as Jonah implies?

One frequent objection to Donald Trump’s behavior—and one that is made by friends as well as opponents—revolves around his sometimes intemperate rhetoric. The president’s friends lament this but exonerate, or half-exonerate, him with the contention that the tweets and the insults are merely a matter of style whereas his achievements are a matter of substance. Jonah anticipates and dismisses this gambit. “[H]is insults are not simply an act,” he says; “they are the product of astonishing levels of narcissism, insecurity, and intellectual incuriosity. Trump’s Twitter account is simply a window into his id.”

Jonah concludes his indictment with this inventory:

Trump’s refusal to listen to advisers, his inability to bite his tongue, his demonization and belittling of senators who vote for his agenda but refuse to keep quiet when he does or says things they disagree with, his rants against the First Amendment, his praise for dictators and insults for allies, his need to create new controversies to eclipse old ones, and his inexhaustible capacity to lie and fabricate history: All of this springs from his character.

Again, I’d say there was a lot that was debatable in this list. For example, there are many instances, as the public record shows, where Trump not only listened to but also heeded the counsel of his advisers. I cannot myself recall any “rants against the First Amendment,” per se. And I’d say that his “praise for dictators” was really praise for their possible good behavior or acquiescence to policies that the president thought were in our national interest. One might agree or disagree in this or that case, thinking the president ought to have said or done this instead of that. But that is my point: the issues are debatable, not settled.

As for coming up with “a definition of good character” that the president can clear, let me begin by backing into it and offering a negative definition a friend of mine offered: “Maybe not having sex in the Oval Office with an intern, weaponizing the IRS, DOJ, CIA, and FBI, being impeached for lying under oath or wiping clean thousands of text messages and emails under subpoena…”. The concluding ellipsis, it should go without saying, looks forward to a much longer list.

My question is this: what is the character that Jonah wants us to champion and that he stipulates Donald Trump lacks? Let us grant that the president is an imperfect man. What betokens worse character: tweeting rude things or having sex with your intern in the Oval Office? What’s worse, insulting Bob Corker or using the Department of Justice and the IRS to harass and persecute your political opponents?

I remember being taken aback when Bret Stephens this time last year took stock of Donald Trump’s accomplishments and concluded, “I still wish Hillary Clinton were president.” The list that Stephens mustered was long and impressive. It began with tax cuts, the effective obliteration of ISIS, and the decertification of the Iran deal and ended with the robust economy and the ascension of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. (Brett Kavanaugh was yet to come.) “What, for a conservative,” Stephens asked, “is there to dislike about this policy record as the Trump administration rounds out its first year in office?”

I thought that was a very good question. But Stephens’ answer was the same as Jonah’s: Donald Trump’s character, his “personality,” was defective. He suffers, said Stephens, from a virtue deficit. “Character does count,” Stephens insisted, and Trump does not have it. On the contrary, the president, he said, “has imported a style of politics reminiscent of the cults of Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez.”

This is where Cardinal Newman comes in. In his book The Grammar of Assent, Newman devotes some interesting pages to Aristotle’s concept of φρόνησις, “prudence.” “Properly speaking,” Newman says, “there are as many kinds of phronesis as there are virtues: for the judgment, good sense, or tact which is conspicuous in a man’s conduct in one subject-matter, is not necessarily traceable in another.”

[H]e may be great in one aspect of his character, and little-minded in another. He may be exemplary in his family, yet commit a fraud on the revenue; he may be just and cruel, brave and sensual, imprudent and patient. And if this be true of the moral virtues, it holds good still more fully when we compare what is called his private character with his public. A good man may make a bad king; profligates have been great statesmen, or magnanimous political leaders.

I don’t know anyone who voted for Donald Trump, or who later came to support him, because he thought the president was a candidate for sainthood.

On the contrary, people supported him, first, because of what he promised to do and, second, because of what, over the past two years, he has accomplished. These accomplishments, from rolling back the regulatory state and scores of conservative judicial appointments, from moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem to resuscitating our military, working to end Obamacare, and fighting to keep our borders secure, are not morally neutral data points. They are evidences of a political vision and of promises made and kept. They are, in short, evidences of what sort of character Donald Trump is.

Add them up and I think they go a long way towards a definition of good character that Donald Trump can clear.

Voltaire, writing against Rousseau and his self-intoxicated paeans to “virtue,” occupied a similar semantic neighborhood: “What is virtue, my friend?” Voltaire asked. “It is to do good: let us do it, and that’s enough. We won’t look into your motives.”

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Photo Credit: Portrait of John Henry Newman by John Everett Millais

America • Congress • Donald Trump • Government Reform • Post • statesmanship • The Media • the Presidency

President Trump’s Missed Opportunities

Almost two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, it is time to take stock not only of his many successes, but also of the times when he has failed to make the most of his opportunities. Trump has, by almost all accounts, presided over one of the strongest economies in recent decades, fueled in part by a sizable tax cut that he championed, and overseas he has wrung numerous and historic concessions from our allies and our enemies alike. And yet President Trump’s approval rating hovers in the low to mid-40s—hardly a ringing endorsement from the American people.

Although relentlessly hostile media coverage explains most of this dichotomy, it is impossible to deny that some of Trump’s wounds are self-inflicted. On several occasions, he has failed to capitalize on opportunities to improve his political standing. Conservatives must hope that Trump and his top aides are capable of learning from these mistakes and can perform better in the two years ahead. Their performance, after all, will determine whether voters will give the Age of Trump a new lease on life in 2020, or whether they will instead empower a Democrat, and possibly a wild-eyed socialist. The stakes could not be higher.

First, we should admit that the Mueller investigation of alleged “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, although it has been conducted irresponsibly and mean-spiritedly by Mueller himself, represents in the first instance, a failure of leadership by President Trump.

A special prosecutor probably would never have been appointed if Trump had chosen his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General more circumspectly, or if he had not fired FBI Director James Comey when and how he did. Trump also repeatedly has indicated fear of the various probes when, in fact, as an innocent man he would have been better served by welcoming investigations that could clear his name.

Alternatively, if Trump stands by his statements about Mueller’s conflicts of interest and prosecutorial misconduct, he might have fired him, and thus ended the inquiry, or he could have replaced Mueller with someone marginally less diabolical. The resulting hue and cry would have been earth-shattering for a time, true, but by now it would have subsided, and the country would be better off.

In the end, therefore, if Trump had handled the challenge of “collusion” more deftly, chances are that the narrative would have long since disappeared from the news cycle. Instead, Trump gave Democrats an opening, and they continue to exploit it.

Second, neither Trump nor his Attorney General have pursued the numerous avenues of investigation that could have put Democrats on the defensive. If Mueller can scour the Republican ranks for tax cheats and “liars,” giving them the squeeze and getting them to “sing” their secrets, then surely the same treatment could be meted out to Democrats.

The Steele Dossier, FISA abuse, Hillary Clinton’s email cover-up, efforts in the Democratic Party to sabotage the Sanders campaign in 2016, brazen obstruction of the enforcement of federal immigration laws, the campaign of illegal leaks designed to discredit the Trump administration, Democrats’ own role in “foreign meddling”—any one of these outrages, or all of them, could have provided justification for the appointment of one or more special prosecutors who, in effect, would have been tasked with shaking the Democratic “tree” to see if any indictable miscreants fell out. Such an aggressive strategy probably would have uncovered substantial wrongdoing, but even if it hadn’t it would surely have given the news media something juicy to talk about besides Russian collusion.

Third, President Trump, although he has been savaged by economic “experts” and the press for his trade war with China, deserves credit as one of the only American Presidents in the post-war era willing to stand up for U.S. national economic interests. In particular, he is pushing back against unfair trade practices that have, over many years, cost us millions of jobs and trillions of dollars.

Although Trump will never get a fair shake from the establishment or from the media on this point, he ought to be able to play upon the fact that patriotic Americans, including many liberals and union members, have long resented the deceptive and selfish trade policies of countries like China. The unapologetic pursuit of trade fairness ought, therefore, to be a theme around which President Trump can build some degree of bipartisan unity.

Indeed, a certain number of Democrats do support the President’s trade policies, including tariffs, viewing them as long overdue, but Trump has gotten remarkably little credit, nor does he lay much emphasis on trade in his public statements and tweets. Many Americans believe in an “America First” trade agenda and foreign policy, but Trump has so far failed to build a broad coalition of support for his brand of nationalism.

Fourth, President Trump believes not only in the vigorous pursuit of American interests, but also in the limiting of governmental power. His efforts to reduce government regulation in, and federal oversight of innumerable aspects of our economy and society accord with a basic and ingrained American attitude: suspicion of intrusive government.

Trump, like many Republicans, is too apt to play the Democrats’ game of lavishly funding and expanding programs that accord with his stated priorities (like the military and veterans’ affairs), when arguably he would be better off holding the line against governmental expansion, runaway spending, and over-regulation. Some of these battles are hard to wage without Congressional support, but at least in terms of regulation the Trump administration has achieved remarkable progress in freeing the American people from the unwanted attentions of “Big Brother”.

If American politics is a contest between those who want more government and those who want less, Trump should not hesitate to advocate the latter approach because it is always the more popular one when fairly presented. The alternative—socialism—is not, never has been, and never will be, in the spirit of America. The American people want to keep as much of their own money as possible, and they want government bossing them around as little as possible. These are themes that President Trump could emphasize much more than he has up to now. But he has to do it or the media will control the narrative.

Fifth, although President Trump cannot dictate how the media will cover the news, he can push back against media bias, using the leverage conveyed by his control over access to the White House and to himself. Trump has been freewheeling in his criticism of the press, and that is fair enough, but he has not held rogue journalists to account in any meaningful way, Jim Acosta’s short lived expulsion from the White House Press Corps notwithstanding. Why not simply cease to call on them? Why not extend invitations to outlets whose coverage is more balanced, if less widely disseminated (at least for now)? Trump, though, long ago sent the unfortunate message to the news media that it could disrespect him with impunity, and not surprisingly he has suffered from their slings and arrows ever since.

The good news is that, even though Trump and his team have made numerous mistakes in the last two years, and even though he has missed many opportunities to gain political capital or to improve his public image, he has plenty of time to make good in each of the five areas I have mentioned.

Mueller’s rampages can still be contained, new special prosecutors can still be named, the mobilization of a patriotic coalition to support trade fairness is still possible, the message of limited government is still salient, and a greater degree of discipline can still be imposed on the White House press corps. The next two years can, in other words, be a distinct improvement on the last two, in terms of the Trump administration’s adroit exploitation of political openings.

If Trump seizes any or all of the opportunities I have outlined, his chances of reelection will rise, and he will have proven that his political judgment is as “great” as his vision for the country.

Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Center for American Greatness • Democrats • History • Identity Politics • Lincoln • Post • Progressivism • statesmanship • The Declaration • the family

Are We Facing a New Civil War or Just Continuing the Old One?

The passing of George H. W. Bush might be a cause to reflect more deeply on his famous civility and its relation to the coming of a new civil war with which we are threatened today. Was his own “thousand points of light” and his son, W’s, “compassionate conservatism” the best response to the threats posed by the Clintons, John Kerry, and their allies in Congress and the bureaucracy? Or were those merely dodges serving to paper over the inevitable struggle with the worst and the most powerful yearnings of the 60s? (I credit that philosopher of the administrative state, John Marini, with this provocation.)

With all the talk of a new civil war among Americans today, we would do well first to understand the original one. In the ordinary understanding, that war was about slavery. The coming conflict is over multiculturalism and the politics of identity.

Although the multiculturalists would have us believe that the saga of American slavery was a struggle over the narrow question of race from the start, the more intelligent, more profound, and more American understanding of the conflict takes it to be a manifestation of the ancient struggle between tyranny and freedom. This is why those wrapped up in identity politics cannot embrace the notion of American exceptionalism. To them, it ignores this brutality of racism that was, they claim, at America’s heart.

Fake Civility or Brutal Truth?
So which America are we: The America of liberty-loving emancipators or the America of tyrannical masters? Civility might urge the suppression of such divisive questions, even if the dodge evokes the odious visage of Stephen Douglas’s popular sovereignty. But if we answer these questions untruthfully, however artful the dodge, of what use is investigating any other questions?

Our precedent in understanding the Bushes’ lost opportunity can be seen in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union Address, in which FDR made this shocking comparison:  “. . . if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the so-called ‘normalcy’ of the 1920s—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.” The Republicans of the 1920s, FDR charged in effect, were the equivalent of Nazis.

Would it have been so difficult for the Bushes to fire back a similar charge against the Clintons and Kerry? Should not the World War II hero Bush have been justified in returning FDR’s insult against his parents and grandparents? Should he not have taught his sons about true nature of Democratic partisanship? This was a time to confront the worst generation of Americans with perhaps its greatest generation.

America has been in a civil war for generations but we have turned a blind eye to the violence it has perpetuated, not only in literal terms, but also to the truth.

The first step in coming to a more productive understanding of where we are today is to know and understand the Civil War that no one disputes already happened.

What Civil War History Can Teach
Of the more than 1,000 books published annually on the Civil War, two promise to offer guidance for the current one: Forrest Nabors’ From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction and a collection of essays, The Political Thought of the Civil War, co-edited by Alan Levine, Thomas W. Merrill, and James R. Stoner, Jr. Both books present America as a republican nation, one at least intended for self-governing citizens. Moreover, they instruct us in the nobility and justice of Lincoln and of others who supported his republican principles, defying their sophisticated opponents as well as those favoring slavery or professing indifference to it.

Nabors, making the audacious claim of fulfilling the work of his teacher, Harry V. Jaffa, details the oligarchic character of the South, and not just among those who held slaves. The majority of white Southerners did not hold slaves, but the whole of Southern society felt the ill effects of the master-slave relation. As Alexis de Tocqueville illustrated in his stunning contrast between slave state, Kentucky and free state, Ohio—America was becoming a nation of two contrasting versions of republicanism, with the Slave Power dominating national politics.

Nabors illustrates the distinction on several scores: Southern indifference toward public education, vastly larger size of farms, slaveholder dominance in Southern State legislatures, and constricted conceptions of rights (recall that Lincoln was not on the ballot in most of the slave States in the election of 1860). Withholding freedom for blacks had dire consequences for whites as well. Blacks and working class whites were under the rule of slave-holding oligarchs.

The Civil War and Reconstruction amendments did not even restore black Americans to the status of free blacks at the time of the American Revolution. For example, in most Southern states blacks were not barred from voting at the time of the Revolution. Nabors is correct to acknowledge the American founding principles of natural rights, government by consent, and constitutionalism most clearly articulated in the Declaration of Independence as the touchstone for Reconstruction. We have failed our forefathers. Nabors is correct to claim he has in many regards fleshed out the work of his teacher.

The diverse essays of The Political Thought of the Civil War, many of which appeared in American University’s formidable Political Theory Institute annual lecture series, reflect the work of 14 of the leading scholars on their subject matter, as the table of contents reflects. Their topics cover a wide range, including natural rights, jurisprudence, scientific racism, Lincoln’s rhetoric and statesmanship, Frederick Douglass, Reconstruction, and the Confederate constitution and legacy. These essays will remain for some time the leading ones on their topics.

Rather than single out particular essays, I will reiterate some leading themes. Though diverse, they all point toward the centrality of the American Founding. The question of whether natural rights is a sufficient basis for just governance is a question Americans of all generations have had to face, most vividly at the Founding and during the Civil War.

The South, with the growth of slavery, delayed, rationalized, and came to protect and even honor that original flaw. Even the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was not exempt from this temptation. But wasn’t the Civil War little more than Thomas Jefferson arguing with himself? Aren’t the requirements of perpetuating the republic something above and beyond the conditions of founding? The challenge is risible in the greatest statesman of the South—its vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens, who declared slavery to be its “cornerstone” and claimed the authority of modern science, a science superior to that of the Declaration. (Beware those who assert science as their foundation.)

Lincoln instead read human nature as he read Shakespeare and warned Americans that their self-interest required them to acknowledge the fundamental equality of slaves with their masters, and obliged them to treat the masters with charity as well. This logic won over Frederick Douglass, among others. Lincoln’s strategy with the Emancipation Proclamation remains a model of statesmanship. While the military order freed no slaves under Union control, once it was done the need to return to the founding was clear as was the need for the 13th Amendment.

Lincolnian statesmanship, which recognized the political necessity as well as the nobility of charity, was sorely lacking during Reconstruction. Behind the book, as one of the editors noted in a panel on the volume, loomed Harry V. Jaffa, who was likewise the inspiration for Nabors’ work.

Yet both of these outstanding books fall short in different ways of Jaffa’s emphasis on Calhoun, not only as the South’s defender of slavery but as well the assailant of the Founders’ thought in his own books on political theory. In that sense, Calhoun emerges as a major inspiration for Progressivism. How someone who took pride in racial slavery and ridiculed the Declaration inspired Progressivism is a long story, but Americans today need to be reminded of it. This collection of Harry Jaffa essays, due out shortly, may help Americans to understand their duty.

The Long Game of the Civil War
The South may have lost the battles, but its leading theorist imposed “the yoke of its own thought” on this nation in the form of Progressivism. Natural rights has lost its hold on Americans. Equality is about socialism. Government is unlimited in its powers—unless used in support of traditional morality. Thus, the “reconstruction” in Nabors’ subtitle threatens to become John Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy, that is, a perpetual, growing, ultimately postmodern disconnection from the American founding.

Such a “reconstruction,” changing America beyond recognition, is behind the party of the Clintons and Kerry, and much worse in today’s “fundamental transformation.” It is not enough to be anti-oligarchic; tyrants and mob rule are perfectly capable of mustering that sentiment as well, and oligarchs may come in many different flavors. To be republican is more difficult. But this is America’s often unpleasant task.

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Photo Credit: Engraving From 1881 Commemorating The Surrender Of Robert E. Lee To Ulysses S. Grant Marking The End Of The American Civil War

America • GOPe • History • Post • Republicans • statesmanship

In Memory of George H. W. Bush

No matter what you may think, you can’t prepare for the expected.

I stopped what I was doing and sat down at the computer when I heard President George H. W. Bush had passed. I’m a writer in part because of the knowledge I gained serving in his White House. It was, as they say, an honor and a privilege. But it was not just a line on a résumé. My life was shaped by one of the great American lives.

When George Bush was a child, he earned his first nickname. No, not “Poppy”; that would come a bit later. He was called “Have-Half.” Whatever he had he would share with his playmates and siblings. He was selfless, right from the start.

In the ruthless world of politics—which, as the fictional Mr. Dooley noted, “ain’t beanbag”—his shy generosity made him stand out. Who cared if others thought him an easy touch? He knew what it was like to eject from a fighter plane, land in a vast ocean, and bob about like bait, braced for certain death. A Navy submarine and the sailors aboard it saved his life. After that, how on earth could you hold grudges?

As a civilian, he stood tall but never looked down on others. He married Barbara, the love of his life, who said he was the first man she ever kissed. They raised five wonderful kids, and would have raised a sixth had leukemia not claimed her nascent life. He struck out on his own to Texas, away from the comfort afforded by wealthy and prominent parents, a worthy successor to the pioneers of yore. After building a prosperous life for his family, he entered politics.

While serving in Congress, George Bush earned other nicknames, some too vulgar to reprint here. It was a time when Texas was represented almost exclusively by Democrats, massive men with giant egos. Poppy again stood out. Not comfortable with what he saw in race relations, he voted for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the first such bill to pass Congress. You can imagine some good ol’ boys drinking bourbon and saying, “Is this guy for real?”

He was. He served his country in myriad ways, from representing America in Communist China to rebuilding the CIA after it was picked apart by politicians. Presidents valued his loyalty, work ethic, and comportment. One future president chose him to be his running mate. In 1980, the ticket of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won a world-changing election.

Predictably, the media would try to split them apart. They repeated with glee his crack about “voodoo economics.” They mocked his service by saying he had a “résumé, not a record.” They tried but failed to pin him to the Iran-contra affair. Some on the fringe Left floated conspiracy theories about dealing drugs. The keyboard warriors even developed a new nickname, one he and his family detested; Newsweek printed “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor’” on its cover.

Through it all he kept his cool, and even threw a few knockout punches of his own. When fellow Texan Dan Rather attacked his honor on the evening news, Bush fired back. “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” he said to Rather, whose face resembled a steer caught in the headlights.

More Than a Caretaker
Around this time I formed Students for Bush at Penn State University. I admired his loyalty to Reagan. My friends and I drove to New Hampshire and South Carolina to knock on doors for the candidate. This led to a job on the general election campaign in Washington D.C., where I managed a group of volunteers, including Tucker Carlson’s mother, who phoned radio stations to spread the word that Bush would be a much better president than Michael Dukakis.

In November, Bush beat Dukakis by seven million votes and 315 electoral votes, even winning the states of California and Illinois. Ann Richards called him “poor George” in her speech to the Democratic National Convention. Now she would call him “Mr. President.”

I joined the Bush White House in April 1989. My job, in those pre-Internet days, was to summarize the news overnight and give it to the president at 6:00 a.m. One morning I surprised the First Lady in her bathrobe as she walked her dog Millie. She was fully dressed from then on.

Pundits predicted a caretaker administration. So did conservatives. After all, President Reagan made America great again; what was left? A great deal.

President Bush managed the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was accused by the media of being too laid-back. It was the end of the Cold War, they said. Why not brag a little? Because it was not in his nature, nor in America’s interest. Lives were saved because of his leadership.

Even I was angered at our cool response to the freedom movement in China. After the Communists ruthlessly cracked down on the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, a photo surfaced of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft toasting China’s leaders. I was young, idealistic and appalled.

But a greater test soon followed. When Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait, President Bush stood firm. He drew a line in the sand and made it last. He imposed economic sanctions and created a worldwide coalition of freedom fighters. Later Bush went to war with Iraq. Saddam promised the “mother of all battles.” He lost. Fighter pilots flew 100,000 sorties to soften Iraq’s defenses. Over 500,000 troops were deployed. Kuwait was liberated after a one-hundred hour ground war.

I read countless media reports about how the “Vietnam Syndrome” would ensure an unwinnable war. President Bush’s leadership proved them wrong. A massive response saved American soldiers’ lives. I was proud to attend the military parade in Washington that summer.

President Bush was less celebrated for his domestic policies. But he appointed the nation’s first head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy which, along with mandatory minimum sentencing, began to turn the tide against the crack epidemic. He signed a profound civil rights bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act, against the wishes of some conservatives. He also introduced market forces to help end acid rain, the “climate change” of the 1990s.

Through it all, I learned what leadership was all about. Bush faced a hostile media, recalcitrant Democrats and wishy-washy Republicans. But he did what he set out to do.

“My opponent’s view of the world sees a long, slow decline for our country, an inevitable fall mandated by impersonal historical forces,” he said at the 1988 Republican National Convention. “But America is not in decline. America is a rising nation.”

For a man not given to boasting, George Herbert Walker Bush—a good man and a great leader—gave us much to be proud about.

Photo Credit: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

GOPe • History • Post • Republicans • statesmanship • The Culture

George H.W. Bush, the Last WASP President

George Herbert Walker Bush was president when I was in high school. While my beliefs were beginning to take shape, I volunteered on both his election and re-election efforts, where the culture wars figured prominently. Whether the issue was the death penalty, the Cold War, or affirmative action, the dispute was between old school patriotism and his opponents’ full spectrum critique of America as a source of evil in the world, overly repressive of sexual minorities, and insufficiently penitent of its sins of racism.

While George H.W. Bush won his 1988 campaign as the successor to Ronald Reagan, ultimately he governed as a mostly nonideological patrician WASP from the Northeast, a product of the culture that used to define the high culture of America more generally.

The Way of the WASP
WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but the meaning is something more precise. Richard Brookhiser wrote a useful book on the subject in 1991: The Way of the WASP. He defined “the way of the WASP” as a number of closely related values, including conscience, civic-mindedness, industry, and anti-sensuality.

The most important in Brookhiser’s telling was conscience, “the great legacy of Protestantism.” Conscience means not self-expression, but rather a commitment to doing the right thing, even when it is difficult, unpopular, or unpleasant. Civic-mindedness is the “operation of conscience in social relations.” As the late Lawrence Auster put the matter, civic-mindedness means that “honor, family, [and] group take a back seat to the good of society.” Anti-sensuality was a counsel of self-restraint, which we see demonstrated by wealthy WASPs riding around in 20-year-old Buicks and, more relevantly, through the intact families and high-trust communities that once characterized America.

Bush exemplified the WASP virtues. He volunteered to serve in the Navy during World War II at the age of 18, eventually earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. He later went into the oil business, served in Congress, and then as the U.N. ambassador, director of the CIA, Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and ultimately as president of the United States. He was a low-key, competent, and hands-on leader. The media called him a “wimp,” a terrible insult for a man who was shot down in the service of his country. Most of his media critics were smoking pot in college and protesting the Vietnam War at the same age.

The Caretaker President
One of the themes of his presidential campaigns was that he “did not do the vision thing.” If Reagan was the ideological warrior, tackling both big government and cultural decline, Bush’s life and politics were those of the post-World War II consensus: a bipartisan commitment to containing Soviet communism, maintaining the New Deal welfare state, and accommodating social changes, including the civil rights reforms of the 1950s and ’60s. Thus he was a small “c” conservative, devoted to keeping the ship afloat without any particular view of the destination.

In the 1980 presidential primary, Bush opposed Ronald Reagan, expressing skepticism of his tax-cutting mantra under the rubric “Voodoo Economics.” This term eventually became a rallying cry of Reagan’s critics.

The world shifted underneath Bush’s feet during his one and only term as president. The Soviet Union began the process of collapse, and the Berlin Wall came down. He had prepared his entire life to manage the Cold War national security apparatus in opposition to the Soviets. Instead, the enemy was in full-scale collapse.

While “movement conservatives” at the time criticized Bush’s reluctance to risk instability by “rolling back” the Soviets and punishing the ex-Communists for their crimes, his instincts, as well as those of his WASP Secretary of State James Baker, appear wholly sound in retrospect.

The big fear at the time was the Soviets would become “Yugoslavia with nukes,” as each of the constituent republics tangled with ethnic squabbles and their future relations with the independent Russian Republic. The value of stability and peace are underrated, and Bush’s management of this process, which included brokering a deal to keep the nuclear arsenal solely in Russia’s hands, likely prevented what could have been a disastrous meltdown.

Similarly, whether in Panama or the First Gulf War, Bush’s foreign policy pursued limited, realist aims: removing a troublesome, drug-running dictator in one case and preventing a hostile, unstable country from getting its hands on the world’s largest supply of oil in the other. Instead of seeking to depose Saddam Hussein—as his son would do under the influence of the neoconservatives—he ceased offensive operations after Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait.

Lacking guideposts for the new era, Bush did proclaim commitment to a New World Order, a dubious goal of maintaining the United States as the sole superpower while using the United Nations as cover to disguise this state of affairs. The phrase itself fueled the paranoid fringe and became a bogeyman of the militia movement during the 1990s. Nonetheless, the concept, its meaning, and its application were modest during Bush’s presidency, and he generally was reluctant to get involved in messy quagmires such as Yugoslavia, unlike his successor, Bill Clinton.

Domestically, Bush showed a lack of commitment to Reagan’s domestic policy and always had an uneasy relationship with the conservatives. He never seems to have thought the fight against “big government” was critical, nor did he embrace the vaguely libertarian rejection of interference with private businesses. He had the views of a man of his background: moderate and avoidant of conflict, even in the face of a relentless cultural and political opponent.

He adopted the 1989 assault weapon import ban, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the 1991 Civil Rights Act (which undid various Supreme Court precedents that limited disparate impact claims). He also enacted NAFTA, which proved controversial and had much to do with the loss of the loyalties of the white working class, whom Reagan had brought into the Republican fold. Worst of all, he betrayed his promise of “no new taxes” by acceding to tax increases in the middle of a recession. Combined, this led to a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan and Bush’s eventual defeat in the 1992 election.

The WASP Class is Displaced
Bush exemplified the broader inability and unwillingness of the WASPs to control events in the post-war era. The height of their power—the age of John Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower, and Adlai Stevenson—was also the turning point.

The postwar era saw the introduction of Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, and minorities into the nation’s elite, a product of the WASPs’ own commitment to competence and ability over lineage. These newcomer groups’ tendencies—conservative, liberal, and radical respectively—would define most of the postwar era’s political fights, with the WASPs largely abandoning the field, retreating into their increasingly irrelevant social organizations and country clubs.

The WASP ruling class was the chief loser and perceived enemy in the culture war. Under attack, they lost confidence and willingness to defend themselves and their position, demonstrating through their actions that they thought somehow their good example alone was sufficient rebuttal to the changes of the times and the charges of their critics. Bush’s stately loss to Clinton—with the help of old family enemy Ross Perot dividing the Republican vote—was the epitome of WASP class. But it was a loss nonetheless.

Bush continued to exemplify the WASP virtues in his post-presidency. He generally avoided criticism of his successor, was not a prominent figure on the campaign trail for his son, and eventually cooperated with ex-president Clinton in various charitable endeavors. His example of non-ideological public service and restraint largely has been rejected by his Democratic successors.

During Bush’s presidency and following the devolution of the Soviet Union, one could say unironically that we had reached the “end of history.” The disputes, issues, and scope of politics were narrower. While demographic changes had begun, their impact on electoral politics and the culture was minimal. It seemed that way, right until 9/11, when issues of immigration, identity, and security became dominant.

Bush stands in marked contrast to every president that succeeded him. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Trump are all baby boomers, whose need to leave a “generational mark,” rejection of the old ways, and commitment to authenticity (which old WASPs would see as vulgarity) are defining characteristics. Obama was a late Baby Boomer, but he was more defined by his far left politics and racial background. Nonetheless, those politics were explicitly a rejection of the old WASP order.

One might think WASPs and their values remain relevant; after all, Clinton and George W. Bush are technically WASPs. But they each come from the evangelical tradition, which incorporated the modern, ’60s-era embrace of self-expression, sentimentality, and epoch-changing social justice. The evangelicals, though technically WASPs, enacted a revolt against the staid, quiescent, and largely accommodationist approach of the “mainline” Protestant churches to the cultural changes of the Vietnam War era.

In the end, both Clinton and W. were each more concerned with “making history” than with honoring it. Clinton was drawn to various “idealistic” wars, including interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush would not simply attack al-Qaeda, but had to “spread democracy” in the Middle East. Trump with his bull-in-a-chinashop lack of decorum, while defensible in light of the stakes, is more ethnic New York than WASP, even though he comes from a patrician, Northern European background.

George H.W. Bush was not terribly ideological, even though he learned his voters were. Rather, he approached the office with a sense of awe and treated the country with a sense of filial love and devotion. He was content to keep the ship of state afloat and had no particular need to stay on the stage when his service was over. In this sense, his life and presidency are a lesson about the end, not of history, but of the way of the WASP.

Photo Credit: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)

Center for American Greatness • Political Parties • political philosophy • Post • statesmanship

A Taxonomy of Conservatives: The Candidate

He has a firm handshake and a confident smile. He is already planning his congressional run with his staff and advisors, but for now he will have to do with being the student government president and then a local politician. He is well versed in the conventional platitudes of political rhetoric but also has an uncanny ability to tell you exactly what you want to hear. You can never really tell who he is or what he believes, but you’re still going to end up voting for him. After all, he is “the candidate.”

Fifth in a series. Read part one, part two, part three, and part four.

Growing up on a steady diet of “The West Wing” and Fox News, the candidate spent years perfecting his political persona. By the time he reached college, he had developed a false sense of modesty to mask his otherwise off-putting unbridled ambition. He’ll skillfully deflect questions about his political aspirations and will always deny that he wants to run for office. He’ll explain that politics is a dirty business that requires tremendous levels of personal sacrifice. Why would he put himself through all of that if he didn’t have to? But… of course… he has to. It’s his duty to work in public service—after all, he’s the only person who can fix all of the problems that we have. So, can he count on your vote?

Much to the candidate’s chagrin, there is an age requirement to run for national office. And so, he settles in for his runs at student and local government. Realizing that conservatives are social pariahs on campus, he cultivates his image as a well-meaning pragmatic practitioner who won’t drag ideology into his decision making. He works hard to solve the practical problems that affect average students on a day-to-day basis and he runs one hell of a ground game on campus. And because of this, everyone knows him. And though many know that he’s a conservative, he doesn’t make it central to his identity. Instead, he makes it easy for liberals to excuse away his political affiliation. “Oh, he’s from a small town in a rural state . . . he’ll come around eventually.” “Oh, he means well and he is so devoted to his religion . . . besides, look at his dreamy eyes.”

The candidate spends his summers working as an intern at the White House or at a congressional office in order to bolster his credentials and his resume. And after college, he will enroll in law school or in the military—after all, he has a few years to kill before he can stage his congressional run. But make no mistake, he started fundraising three years ago and already knows his district inside and out. He has also made significant inroads with the Republican establishment and regularly schmoozes with conservative pundits. He has Karl Rove on speed dial and Frank Luntz as his personal mentor. And much like the Bookworm, he has convinced all of the party elders that he is the last hope for western civilization.

Ultimately, the candidate positions himself as a necessary fixture of campus conservatism. He is pragmatic enough to engage with the mundanities of student government politics while being enigmatic enough to avoid the ritual tarring and feathering of conservative students. He is also ruthless enough to routinely win campaigns. His entire life is aimed at holding political power and spends most of his time working toward that goal. With enough intelligence and diligence, there is little question that he will eventually become a congressman or a senator. And there is no doubt that conservatives need good, hard-working career politicians to fill the ranks of government.

But the candidate has a major weakness. He is following a well-defined path and is checking boxes. And because of this, he is unable to take risks or truly to speak his mind in public. He always has two sets of positions: the ones that he actually believes, and the ones that he will ultimately embrace as part of his future campaign. And he must constantly assess how any particular statement, action, friendship, or life choice will affect his political career. There is a chance that he will at some point become a leader, but at least for now, he is a follower, following the path that others set a long time ago. Ultimately he cannot call his own shots because he is too beholden to the establishment systems that allow him to function.

Most candidates are well meaning—they have been instilled with a sense of duty and service and truly want to make the world a better place. But be wary. The higher the candidate climbs up the winding path of politics, the harder it will be for him to discern the line at which the means no longer justify the ends; and given his lifelong practice of pragmatically playing politics, there is no guarantee that he won’t bound over it with gusto.

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Conservatives • Donald Trump • Post • Republicans • statesmanship • the Presidency • Trump White House

Trump the Politician

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” So said Polonius, one of the most famous political advisors in the Shakespearean canon. If Polonius, who was rather silly, could see this about Prince Hamlet, why can’t our most seasoned political commentators and practitioners see that the same thing could be said about Donald J. Trump?

The conventional critics of the president—and even some of his conventionally-minded friends—accuse him of conducting his political career haphazardly, like the proverbial bull in a china shop. He is impulsive. He speaks without sufficient reflection, and as a result he causes all manner of public relations fiascos for himself and for his party. So runs the usual indictment of Trump as a politician.

Such criticism is not entirely wrong. Trump probably is more verbally impulsive than most politicians, and certainly more so than most presidents. Nevertheless, this critique overlooks something important: Trump is disciplined in his approach to politics in certain ways, just not in the ways to which most political observers are accustomed. The model he follows differs from what many Americans have learned to expect from politics.

In modern times, most presidential campaigns, and indeed most presidencies, have operated according to the following tried and true political model: Win the news cycle, daily and weekly, and then repeat the process continually. Have a plan to do and say things to win good press coverage today, and tomorrow, and for the whole week. This will create a positive impression with the voting public and will therefore generate high polling numbers. If a candidate does this over a long period of time, he or she will at least be in a position to compete on election day. And if a president does this over a long period of time, he will keep his public approval numbers high enough to keep the Congress cooperative and to contend for re-election.

Donald Trump, needless to say, has shown very little interest in doing any of this. Instead, he seems to have concluded a long time ago that such a model would be impossible for him. He is not going to win any news cycles, because the media and the political “experts” they consult are overwhelmingly opposed to the issues he raised as a candidate and the things he wants to do as president.

Trump has a different model: Occupy positions that are popular with a sufficient number of voters, although they are unpopular with the media and the political class—positions such as skepticism about immigration, existing trade arrangements, and a foreign policy that seems to require America to act as a self-sacrificing good Samaritan to the world. And hammer those positions so forcefully and so continually that nobody can forget your association with them.

The downside of Trump’s model is that it guarantees that he won’t win any news cycles. But the upside is that it means he does not need to win any news cycles. As long as he remains firm in these positions, and in the others on the basis of which he has assembled his coalition (such as lower taxes and deregulation, respect for traditional religion, and conservative judges), his fundamental position remains strong, or at least strong enough that he cannot be politically incapacitated and instead can compete to win. Trump, in other words, does not have to be a good tactician because he is such a good strategist.

Indeed, losing news cycles is not only not necessary to Trump. It is actually helpful to him. When he gets trashed by the media, it simply reminds his core voters that he is remaining true to the platform that won their support in the first place.

Although our expert political commentators cannot, for the most part, seem to credit Trump for successfully implementing this model, it is worth noting that it has some advantages, both for Trump and for the country. The advantage for Trump is obvious—it works for him. It got him the Republican nomination, the presidency, and the implementation of enough of his agenda that his administration cannot so far be judged a failure.

The advantage for the country is that Trump’s political model offers a more purely republican form of leadership. It is based upon a direct appeal to voters—to their interests and beliefs—unmediated by the role of, and therefore conceding nothing to the power of, an unelected and unrepresentative press and broadcasting establishment. Even Trump’s critics ought to be able to see the value of that, and even his rivals might do well to try it themselves.

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2016 Election • America • Americanism • Conservatives • Democrats • Donald Trump • GOPe • Greatness Agenda • Post • Republicans • statesmanship • The Left

A Winning President is Better Than a Presidential President

Donald Trump never studied political philosophy; and for that those of us who have might say, “Thank God.”  For one thing he would have been bored, and for another, if he had picked up any ideas from the effort, they more than likely would have been the wrong ones. More important, he didn’t need to read books by Niccolo Machiavelli and Xenophon, in order to demonstrate the instincts  of boldness and cleverness that those authors observed and explained.

Reading the classic texts makes one marvel at how crafty and ambitious men, like the Persian emperor Cyrus the Younger, deployed breathtaking ingenuity to take power; in Cyrus’s case, even altering the political structure of his empire. Today scholars tend to assume that those wild days are long behind us because the American Constitution established a stable, well-regulated, and predictable system—which is almost always what we want. Almost. Sometimes, however, the system gets gummed up and needs someone a bit reckless and a bit crazy to kick things loose. This is where Trump’s natural instincts as a clever political animal have proven to be a kind of divine dispensation.

Historians can debate whether Trump is indeed a genius playing 3D chess, or instead just a very lucky blowhard who lurches from one victory to the next. But it’s hard not be impressed by three really daring strategies that represent what Machiavelli might have called “new modes and orders” in American politics. These original and unorthodox techniques could not have been pulled off—indeed would never have been conceived—by any of the more conventional candidates. In Trump-like fashion we can use three bold, exclamatory phrases to describe these strategies:

Stuff it! Every presidential candidate claims to run against “the Establishment.” So what? Trump ran as the anti-expert. Big difference. Most people aren’t really sure what “the Establishment” is anyway.

But nearly everyone’s life today is infested by arrogant weenies telling them what kind of toilets we can have, what lightbulbs we may buy, and which chicken sandwiches we aren’t supposed to eat. People don’t like this. They may want a certain level of expert knowledge in their doctors and airline pilots, at least in the abstract, but they hate having busybodies get in their faces every day. The collapse of so many conventional liberal institutions (what some have called the Blue Church) has exacerbated this inclination to be annoyed by experts enormously. From the media and pollsters, to Wall Street and the craziness of college campuses, it is increasingly clear that most self-appointed experts are—if you will forgive the technical jargon—full of shit. (This is the theme of Nassim Taleb’s excellent new book, Skin in the Game).

Trump capitalizes on this brilliantly. He fumbles and bumbles and brags and often seems to get mixed up as he talks. But no one cares, because even if his phrasing is sometimes inelegant, he will boldly say things  that no one else dares to utter. What he lacks in eloquence, he makes up for in moral clarity. He means what he says. He talks like a bartender not a banker or a lawyer. He may not be right all the time, but he’s honest and blunt and, and thinks for himself. We know where he stands on the issues. Holy cow! Imagine that.

So people take him “seriously but not literally.” (That line was the most incisive thing said about the 2016 presidential campaign.) Importantly, however, he never pretends to be dumb. Just the opposite.

Flaunt it! Trump is not an expert, because experts are stuffy bores who live a disgusting, parasitic existence telling people what to do: consultants, economists, professors, financial advisors, journalists, etc. Trump is an entrepreneur and a tycoon. He doesn’t “consult.” He is successful, and he wants everyone to know it. He made his money building things, not just running his mouth.

This also means he’s smart. After all, he’s very rich, and in America, let’s face it, that matters. Along with the collapse of the liberal oligarchy we are seeing the genteel, understated good taste of the Bushes and the Obamas going down the drain as well. Its part of a vast social change that is under way. Rather than clinging to the remnants of this decrepit gentility, Trump is jamming down on the plunger with his big gold watch and poofy hair. And a lot people love it (some secretly). Again, no one else would have taken this approach. Indeed, any other Republican politician would have been horrified, and many still are. That’s why they aren’t in the White House.

Bring it! This is the biggest stroke of genius of all. In chucking the bullshit respectability of fake expertise and false modesty, Trump is making a brilliant calculation that it is time to sacrifice something real—the dignity of the office of President. This is probably what bothers a lot of people the most. (It’s certainly what the NeverTrumpers claim to be most offended by.)

But Trump needs to do this to finish off the liberal establishment, especially the press. He came to office with a certain outsized, garish, New York persona, which set him up perfectly to send outrageous tweets, be politically incorrect, and drive liberals into a frenzy. He plays them like a fiddle in some respects, but he also has to be willing to get down and dirty.

He stays close to the edge and slips sometimes. This is necessary. His reputation is important, to be sure; but Trump is making a strategic gamble with it. He knows that, unlike him, the media has only its reputation. It has nothing else to fall back on. No one can make people watch a news program or buy a newspaper or read a blog.

When Trump is done, and a plurality of Americans clearly see the conventional media as phony liars, they are dead. He, however, has earned credit with his policies and judicial appointments, and has a dozen other ways to recover and rebuild. So he’s a sacrificing a knight or maybe even a queen to checkmate the liberal media. It’s a mud-wrestling match, and he will look ugly; but he will survive and they will lose. And there will be no coming back for them. It’s brilliant. No one else would even have dreamed of this.

Trump is willing to be unpresidential to win. He is willing to use what Machiavelli called the beastly arts—the virtues of the lion and especially the fox, which is expert in spotting traps. By implication, this includes setting traps—one of Trump’s great gifts. A politician who uses the way of the fox is willing to “stoop to conquer.” Again, this makes him unique among Republicans, who generally care more about themselves—their meretricious dignity and prestige—than they do about their country. But a winning president is better than a presidential president. That’s one lesson his rivals still don’t understand.

And it’s why he will keep winning.

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America • Americanism • Center for American Greatness • Congress • Elections • Greatness Agenda • Political Parties • Post • Republicans • statesmanship • Trade

Ohio Squeaker Shows GOP Has A Lot To Learn About Winning

Republicans and Trump supporters needed some good political news, and they got it Tuesday night in the special election for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.

Republican Troy Balderson’s narrow, one-point win doesn’t mean a “red wave” is swelling. Instead, the results contain both good and troubling news for President Trump and his party. Rather than setting the GOP at ease, these results should serve as a wake-up call to improve their focus on swing voters before the November elections.

These swing voters fall into roughly two camps: those who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016—“Romney/Clinton voters”—and those who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump—“Obama/Trump voters.” Despite millions of dollars and pro-Balderson ads featuring moderate Republican Governor John Kasich, Balderson on Tuesday ran behind Trump’s already historically low percentages in suburban Delaware and Franklin Counties. Some of this surely is due to Democratic enthusiasm, but the bulk of it is not. Romney/Clinton voters are still dead set against President Trump and what they think he stands for, and they are voting for Democrats to send the party a message.

It might be troubling for many Republican leaders to hear this, but it appears these voters are lost to the GOP in most races this year. The booming economy might be attracting yet another group of voters, those who voted for Romney and either Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin, to stay with the party. But there is no evidence that this, the tax cuts, or any other policy measure yet devised can overcome the antipathy many of the Romney/Clinton voters feel for the president.

Ultimately, enough of these voters have to be won back if a new Republican Party is to become the clear majority party. But that won’t happen this year, and the party needs to plan accordingly.

What should trouble the party more than this drag on their numbers is the apparent weakness Republican candidates have among the Obama/Trump voters. Apart from the urban and suburban parts of Franklin and Delaware county where the Romney/Clinton voters live in high concentrations, Balderson won by huge margins in the district’s other five counties. The problem, however, is that he still ran behind Trump’s share of the vote in all but his home county of Muskingum.  Even worse, turnout in each of these counties—which swung to Trump by up to 29 percent in 2016—was much lower compared to 2016 than it was in Delaware and Franklin. Again, some of that is because of Democratic enthusiasm, but some of it is also due to lack of enthusiasm from Obama/Trump backers.

Trump’s rally on Saturday night surely energized some of these voters, but Trump can’t visit every seat the weekend before the election in the fall. Instead, campaigns in places with large numbers of Obama/Trump voters—which is to say, all of the key Senate seats in play and the majority of the House seats up for grabs—need to build strong messages into their campaigns early to motivate turnout.

That involves understanding what Trump’s appeal to these voters is—and most Republican campaigns still show they just don’t get it.

Restricting immigration is part of that appeal, but only a part. Trump won these voters’ loyalty because he showed them he cared about their lives, their aspirations, and their role in building America. That means talking about a lot of things many Republicans prefer to avoid.

Trade is one of those things. The Obama/Trump voter wants someone fighting for them, and for many that means fighting against unfair trade deals that have put them under enormous economic pressure. A Republican candidate does not have to come out and endorse all of the president’s specific tariffs, but the idea of fighting for American jobs against unfair foreign competition is a winner.

Democrats in swing states understand this. Ohio’s senior U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown has been running ads against unfair Chinese competition for years, and Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly is hitting his Republican challenger for allegedly shipping jobs overseas in his business. With Trump in the White House, however, fighting for American jobs should be an issue Republicans own. But for that to happen, Republicans have to claim the field and too many don’t.

Love of community and country should also be part of this appeal. Too many of these voters live in places that have seen better days, and those who don’t might know life would be much harder for them if they were young again. They love America, but they feel America doesn’t necessarily love them back. “When we make America great again, we’ll make {insert name of area} great again” communicates both the president’s slogan and his theme in aid of the GOP cause.

Republicans shouldn’t be afraid to mix it up a bit on culture, but that doesn’t mean talking incessantly about so-called social issues. Many Obama/Trump voters feel Democrats don’t respect them. “We’re not deplorables, we’re Americans” should be a tagline in at least one GOP ad in every state or seat with lots of these voters. Let the media howl with disdain or argue it’s a dog whistle. That just makes it easier to get these voters riled up, because they know they’re not bad or racist folks.

Put these things together, add them to standard appeals to partisan Republicans, and you can repeat Trump’s stunning margins outside of the major metro areas. That means gaining Senate seats, protecting House incumbents in seats like Iowa’s First District and Maine’s Second, and maybe picking up some of the five open House seats currently held by Democrats but won by President Trump. Do that and we’ll be talking about a blue lagoon, not a blue wave, after the midterms.

The political challenges Republicans face are the same as those faced in almost every developed country. Smart conservative parties and leaders everywhere are trying to surf these waves and include disaffected blue-collar workers in their coalitions even if it means they lose some of their traditional support. Republicans barely dodged a bullet in yesterday’s special election. Time then to load their own weapons, shoot wisely, and fight to win.

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

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America • Deep State • Defense of the West • Deterrence • Donald Trump • Foreign Policy • Post • Russia • statesmanship • The Media

A Look at Helsinki from a Friendly Critic

President Trump took a risk by meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. My friend and sometimes colleague, Angelo Codevilla, with whom I often agree, gave the meeting and the press conference an A+. In the end, however, I believe Trump took an unnecessary risk. He did himself no favors during the press conference. Of course, we will have to wait and see what, if anything, actually comes of the meeting.

That said, the over-the-top reaction of his critics may minimize the danger to him. The worst summit ever? Really?

It seems to me that the president made three unforced errors in Helsinki.

First, Trump violated an important rule: a president never criticizes his own country and never throws his intelligence services under the bus on foreign soil. Second, Trump seemed unnecessarily deferential to Putin. Third, he mistakenly conflated “meddling” with “colluding” and seemed to accept his critics’ argument that such meddling affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Of course Russia meddled, but there is no evidence of collusion and no evidence that Russia’s meddling had an effect on the outcome of the 2016 election.

But the reaction of his critics was over the top, especially the insane yelps of “treason!” As usual, the overreaction of his critics will benefit Trump. And as Andrew Bacevich argues in the Boston Globe, it will also harm the United States itself. Bacevich writes:

I am increasingly persuaded that Trump’s election has induced a paranoid response, one that, unless curbed, may well pose a greater danger to the country than Trump himself. This paranoid response finds expression in obsessive attention given to just about anything Trump says, along with equally obsessive speculation about what he might do next—this despite the fact that most of what he says is nonsense and much of what he does is reversed, contradicted, or watered down within the span of a single news cycle . . . Yet today the G-7 still exists (and won’t be readmitting Russia anytime soon). The United States remains committed to NATO. And international sanctions imposed on the Kremlin for offenses real and alleged are still firmly in place. For all of Trump’s bluster, insults, and diplomatic gaffes, in other words, nothing much has changed.

The fundamental mistake that Trump’s critics make is to focus on his words and not his policies. As Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute just observed in The Atlantic,

[I]t’s Trump’s words that are terrible. His policies are, in the main, not. The United States has crushed Russia beneath escalating sanctions, pulled out of the dreadful Iran deal, armed the Ukrainian opposition to Putin, stood up to China’s theft of American intellectual property, actually bombed Syrian chemical-weapons sites, and increased defense spending. Sure, there’s plenty to dislike in Trump’s foreign policy, including his trade wars, his dismissal of allies, his toying with NATO, and his Obama-esque desire to skip out of Syria. But his stupid rhetoric masks a mostly normal, if not always sensible or desirable, foreign policy. And Trump’s national-security strategy is at least coherent when compared with the incoherent global retreat embraced by the last administration.

She might also have added that on Trump’s watch we have seen the actual construction of ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Poland; browbeating NATO to spend more on defense while actually deploying U.S. forces into NATO bases in Central Europe; killing Russian mercenaries in Syria, expanding sanctions against Putin’s inner circles, enforcing penalties against U.S. and foreign companies that violate those sanctions; the expelling Russian diplomats; and most importantly for a geopolitical standpoint, unleashing American energy production, which hurts the Russian economy. These steps are all much tougher and impose much more cost on Russia than anything Obama did, or Hillary Clinton might have done.

Nonetheless, the president needs to understand that words matter. We only have to look to the 1961 Vienna summit between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet premier, believing  Kennedy was weak, took provocative steps designed to test the president, including actions that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Certainly, circumstances are different today. For one thing, Russia today is a declining state. The United States is playing from a position of strength. I hope President Trump realizes this.

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America • Americanism • Post • separation of powers • statesmanship • The Constitution • The Courts • Trump White House

Not Your Father’s Supreme Court

President Trump on Monday announced that he was appointing D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court. Not since his trip down the escalator to announce he was running for president has Donald Trump uttered more significant words.

Almost exactly a year and a half ago, I wrote the following for American Greatness: “The day after a Supreme Court nomination announcement is like Christmas morning for court watchers. It’s even more special, really, because we only get a Supreme Court nomination every five years or so.”

As it turns out, we got two nominations in the first two years of President Trump’s first term. This appointment is by far the more significant one, both as a political and a jurisprudential matter.

Last year, President Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch to replace Justice Scalia, who, by most measures, was one of the most conservative justices on the high court. And Scalia was certainly the most outspoken Justice in endorsing originalism as a constitutional theory of interpretation. Although Neil Gorsuch does not appear to be quite as conservative as Scalia, and is certainly not as outspoken in endorsing originalism, he does not differ significantly on either point.

The Kavanaugh nomination is different, however, because in this appointment, President Trump is replacing Anthony Kennedy, who was always a mystery, both politically and jurisprudentially.

Kennedy, it is important to remember, was nominated in 1987 by President Reagan only because Judge Robert Bork had not been confirmed. Kennedy’s 30-year career on the Supreme Court meandered—steering conservative on legal issues relating to economic liberties, but liberal on issues relating to social and cultural matters. So Kennedy was a reliable conservative vote, for example, in cases involving campaign finance, the Affordable Care Act, and the preemption of state economic regulation. But he was a reliable liberal vote in cases involving abortion, sexuality, and race relations.

Put simply, Kennedy represented the libertarian wing of legal conservatism.

As I have written elsewhere, this is not the future of the American Right. The election of Donald Trump was historic, monumentally so, but not so much because of Trump himself. It was historic because of what Trump represents: a shift in the electorate’s willingness to eschew the encrusted ideological strictures of past generations, particularly when it comes to economic matters.

As Trump said more than a year before the election, it was not really about him: “This is a movement,” he proclaimed.

And indeed it is. It is a movement that rejects the foreign policies of both parties—policies that have wrought death and destruction, principally in Middle America. It is a movement that rejects the trade policies of both parties—policies that have hollowed out the middle class, leaving American cities with the contrasts of opulent high-rises and crumbling housing projects. It is a movement that rejects the immigration policies of both parties—policies that provide cheap labor at the expense of cultural conflict and community dissolution.

So when Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, my only question was the following: Which of Trump’s candidates displayed the greatest promise in advancing this agenda?

The answer was easy: Brett Kavanaugh.

As I wrote for Real Clear Politics last week, Kavanaugh was the right pick, because the other candidates, though strong conservatives, “have thin or questionable records on the defining issue of the 2016 election—whether American sovereignty, and the forgotten American worker, will once again play a critical role in our polity.”

Brett Kavanaugh was the only one of Trump’s candidates who has repeatedly interpreted American statutory and constitutional law against the background of our national sovereignty. In case after case, Judge Kavanaugh has sought to understand our immigration law, trade regulations, and constitutional guarantees in light of how they affect average Americans.

This is what I have called “America first originalism”—a process of understanding our most fundamental law according to the ways and traditions of our lived experiences, not the abstractions and platitudes of party slogans.

What does this say about how Kavanaugh will vote on hot-button issues? Predicting how a lower court judge would decide cases if appointed to the Supreme Court is a fool’s errand. I can’t say how Kavanaugh will rule on abortion. I can’t say how Kavanaugh will interpret the Second Amendment.

But I can say that Kavanaugh will be more grounded to tradition than his predecessor. And he may be less wedded to interpretive strictures than Scalia and Gorsuch. As Kavanaugh proclaimed last night in accepting the nomination, “a judge must interpret the constitution as written, informed by history, and tradition, and precedent.” This is precisely what led me to say that Kavanaugh would be the best pick for Trump’s constitutional vision.

That is not to say that Kavanaugh will be the embodiment of Trump’s political or legal vision. Heck, Trump is not the embodiment of Trump’s vision. But the election of President Trump and the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh are perhaps the two biggest signs in the past two years of where the Republican Party and American conservatism are heading.

In short, this is not your father’s (or George Will’s) Republican Party. And soon this may not be your father’s Supreme Court, either.

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America • Book Reviews • Conservatives • History • Post • statesmanship • The Constitution

Getting Right with Alexander Hamilton

Why should anyone study the life of Alexander Hamilton? According to the Left, studying “dead white males” perpetuates racist, patriarchal, and heterosexual power structures that have subjugated minorities of all kinds since Columbus and his bloodthirsty crew dropped anchor in the New World. And for some on the Right, Hamilton was a precursor to the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson and FDR in supposedly arguing for a large and centralized government unmoored by any constitutional constraints. 

A review of Hamilton: An American Biography, by Tony Williams (Rowman & Littlefield, 208 pages, $19.95)

But as Tony Williams shows in his new book, these critics from both the Left and the Right get Hamilton wrong by equal degrees. In fact, Hamilton was a statesman of the highest caliber and advocated for a “strong, reputable, and honorable nation at home and abroad.” At a time when there is much confusion over the fundamental elements of politics such as nationhood, sovereignty, and consent—all things Hamilton knew almost instinctively—this biography is indispensable.

In clear and concise prose, Williams ably sketches out the broad strokes of Hamilton’s life, giving his readers a full and accurate picture of the man.

He chronicles Hamilton’s rise from poverty and obscurity in the West Indies, born out of wedlock to an absent father (John Adams in his more cantankerous years called Hamilton “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”) and a mother who soon perished due to tropical fever. From these low origins, Hamilton went on to become General Washington’s aide-de-camp, fought at the battle of Yorktown, played a crucial role in getting the Constitution ratified, and served as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. His life was cut far too short in a duel by the bullet of the despicable Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s archnemesis whom he called an “embryo-Caesar.”

Hamilton’s life would become the very model of the American dream, a meritocracy that actually delivered on its promises of social mobility. It demonstrated to Americans that in this novus ordo seclorum the natural aristocracy of “virtue and talents” Thomas Jefferson wrote about could triumph over an “artificial aristocracy” based on the wiles of human nature and accidents of birth.  

In lieu of examining every facet of Hamilton’s life, two overarching themes in Williams’ biography are especially useful for us today. First, Hamilton put his personal honor and reputation in the service of creating a strong national Union, and second, he rejected the rigid constraints of ideology in favor of a politics of prudence.

Hamilton’s National Union
Securing a national Union for the purpose of establishing “American greatness” was, according to Williams, the “glorious purpose” that animated Hamilton’s political life. In Hamilton’s understanding, the United States must be an economically dynamic nation aimed at achieving prosperity and maintaining peace with all nations.

Whatever disagreements invariably exist between citizens, it was plain to Hamilton—and the founders generally—that a common bond of friendship marked by similar character, traditions, and politics was the vital foundation upon which this perpetual Union would rest. The pluribus (or many) was to be founded upon the American unum (or one).

Hamilton took John Jay’s teaching on the importance of Union in Federalist 2 as self-evident:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people…descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs . . . .

The drive to create a formidable national Union that could be respected the world over was powered by Hamilton’s own deep sense of personal honor. Williams writes that in Hamilton’s understanding, “Honor was the measure of a man, the preservation of one’s public reputation. To have honor was to be heroic and manly.” Just as Madison taught regarding the character of office-holders and statesmen in Federalist 51, Hamilton “tied his honor and fortunes to that of America and the national honor.”

For Hamilton, as an “honorable man was free of debt and not dependent on any man,” an honorable nation must have good credit and remain free from foreign entanglements, guided only by its national interests. Independence of action was a vital prerequisite for the perpetuation of a great national Union.

Another necessary part of a national Union was an energetic government capable of protecting and defending the rights of its people. Williams argues that this is why Hamilton counseled for the “creation of a stronger constitutional government.”

In contrast to the confederal government of the Articles of Confederation, the government established by the Constitution needed to feature “energetic government with a strong executive” that “executed its powers and protected the liberties of the people.” Such a government must also have “the power to tax, regulate trade, and establish a national bank to set the nation’s finances on a proper foundation.” Buttressed by a “prosperous economy” and a “powerful military establishment to defend its interests,” the American national Union could exist for as long as the people could keep it.  

Hamilton Was No Ideologue
A second useful lesson Hamilton can provide us today is his rejection of political ideology and abstraction in favor of political prudence. Though he grounded his politics on the unchangeable natural law and natural rights principles of the Declaration of Independence, his statesmanship was always guided by the particular circumstances the nation confronted.

At a young age, Hamilton knew that to be useful, the theoretical must be able to inform the practical. While he was still toiling away in the Caribbean, he wrote to a friend that he was “no philosopher” and did not want to waste the rest of his life building “castles in the air.” Hamilton followed that path for the rest of his life.

For example, Hamilton as treasury secretary was not an advocate of a policy of pure free trade. He acknowledged that nations typically promote their own interests first and foremost and thus an equality of exchange between nations was rare. From this premise, he supported import tariffs and other means the American government could use to safeguard and promote its young domestic manufacturing sector.

Williams notes that Hamilton’s Report on Manufacturers charged the American government with “protecting innovation, protecting American manufacturers from foreign competition, and spending money on internal improvements such as roads and canals to facilitate trade and link markets.” While free trade was the internal policy of the United States, trade that promoted American interests above those of other countries formed the cornerstone of the nation’s external trade policy. Changing circumstances—not a strict adherence to a single policy irrespective of reality—would dictate American trade policies with foreign nations.

Williams also addresses an incident that many have used to claim Hamilton was an ideologue. In an hours-long oration at the Constitutional Convention, he supported the obliteration of the states and lifetime appointments for senators and the president. Williams argues that this speech “gave his enemies plenty of ammunition in labeling him a monarchist.”

But there is another interpretation of this event that Hamilton’s detractors overlooked then and now. Williams notes that Hamilton was a “brilliant political thinker and strategist” and could have offered this “radical plan” in order to make “the Virginia Plan seem more moderate and break the deadlock in the convention over” the competing Virginia and New Jersey Plans. Though it cost him politically, Hamilton’s speech likely saved the Union from being torn asunder.

Going so far as to campaign openly for his major political rival, Thomas Jefferson, in the Election of 1800 due to the prospect of the diabolical Aaron Burr becoming president, Hamilton’s political prudence was a key part of his public life.

In Hamilton: An American Biography, Tony Williams succeeds in his stated goal of writing “a consciously popular history aimed at a general audience.” But more than that, he presents a convincing case that America would not have become a great nation without Hamilton’s prudent statesmanship.

Photo credit: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

America • Center for American Greatness • civic culture/friendship • Conservatives • Donald Trump • Greatness Agenda • Post • statesmanship • The Constitution • The Courts • The Culture • the family • The Left • The Media • the Presidency • The Resistance (Snicker) • Trump White House

Nominating Amy Barrett Would Be Political Genius

The desperation of the Democrats to stop the apparently inexorable rise of a president they so completely discounted and despised, and assumed they could remove or emasculate just by turning up the volume and activity of their media organ monkeys, may drive them to accidental suicide over the latest Supreme Court vacancy. I have no standing at all to intuit whom the president may nominate. But if, as I suspect, it is Judge Amy Barrett, it would be a tactical masterpiece on the level of Napoleon’s conduct of the Battle of Austerlitz or Hannibal at Cannae.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Barrett to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on October 31, by a 55-43 vote. Three Democrats voted for her and two did not vote. It would not be easy to justify changing their votes now, as she has served unexceptionably. At her confirmation hearings, Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Judiciary Committee’s aged ranking Democrat, asked Barrett about her religious views, and the nominee responded that no judge should allow personal views, whether based on faith or anything else, to influence the imposition of the law. “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that is a concern,” Feinstein said infamously. This was an outrageous comment; Feinstein doesn’t know anything about the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, and she has no idea what privately motivates Judge Barrett.

The fury and haste of the Democrats once the starting gun went off with the announcement of the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court, expressed their blind panic that their entire protracted regime of encroachments and embellishments on the Constitution—buttressing their centralized and authoritarian notion of administrative juridical governance with pretense to defending the rights of women, affirmative action, and the legislative role of the judiciary generally—was now under mortal assault.

Both sides have followed the legendary practice of Irish footballers of getting their retaliation in first, and in an astonishing permutation of the ambitions of the country’s founders for a non-political judiciary, have launched massive television advertising blitzes to whip up opinion for and against the president’s nominee, whose identity will not be made known before Monday.

Roe Über Alles
The Democrats seem convinced, and are in any case trying to convince the country, that the president is going to assault the authority of Roe v. Wade, the shabbily reasoned decision of 1973 that gave a carte blanche to abortion on the ground of a woman’s right to determine what goes on within her own body. They have amplified this issue, vital though it is, to personing the barricades for the female sex against the president, and defending it against chauvinism, servitude, serfdom, and concubinage.

Knowing the president as we now do, it is hard to believe that he can resist the temptation of giving battle, putting forth Judge Barrett as his candidate as an entirely qualified, recently Senate-approved, woman judge who is on record as resisting personal feelings in the application of the law, and is in all respects a poster-lady for contemporary career women and for devoted wives and mothers, with five natural and two adopted (Haitian) children. She is a distinguished alumna and 16-year law faculty member of Notre Dame University, former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia, a member of the Federalist Society, and practicing Roman Catholic. There are signs, as seasoned and balanced news commentator Brit Hume of Fox News remarked this week, that the Democrats are cranking up to portray her, if she is the Supreme Court nominee, as “a kook.”

It is, in Keatsian terms, “a wild surmise,” but I believe the president is luring the Democrats into a trap constructed of their own witless fanaticism, compounded by his long victory streak as he has stretched them out on the rack of elusive, tantalizing, but evanescent semblances of vulnerability.

Muslim migration, white supremacy (Charlottesville), war in Korea, health care, breaks for the rich and ”crumbs” for everyone else, Russian collusion (now reduced to quarterly onslaughts against Paul Manafort for matters that allegedly happened years before he knew Trump, and down-loaded harassment of one of Trump’s many lawyers, Michael Cohen); it’s all piffle. The Democratic media cannon will fire on command: Joe and Mika, the malignant CNN dunciad, the pitiful wailing sirens of the old networks, and of the Times and Post, will all rage and foam and fume at the nominee, whoever it is, but it is the sporadic fire of a defeated army.

I believe the president will nominate Barrett, that the Democrats will take definitive leave of their depleted senses, apostrophize the judge as a Trojan Horse of female submission, that she will clear her hearings with flying colors while the president’s formidable battery of social media and talk show supporters roast the Democrats for attacking an exemplary female achiever and a fine jurist whose only offense is to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church, by far the largest in the country with more than 70 million adherents. Remember, too, the Supreme Court in the final days of its term ruled that crisis pregnancy centers need not advertise the virtues of abortion with Planned Parenthood, and in 2016 said the Little Sisters of the Poor could not be compelled to pay for birth control and sterilization.

Watch Them Crumble
As at Cannae and at Austerlitz, the center of the defending force (Democrats), will crumble and President Trump will sweep the field. The Democratic playbook of endless ear-splitting allegations of serial outrages by the president, will not, finally, bring him down. On this issue, of mobilizing unfounded sexist paranoia against a flawless nominee, thereby insulting tens of millions of American women and U.S. Roman Catholics, before raising the objections of fair-minded non-Catholic men, at least another 20 percent of the population, the Democrats will immolate themselves in an unprecedentedly spectacular launch of their midterm election campaign.

If Roe v. Wade is ever overturned, it will send abortion to the states for individual regulation, not confine reluctantly pregnant Americans to back alleys and butchers. This controversy, if it happens, will also expose the hypocrisy of the Joe Biden-John Kerry school of Catholicism, that in the name of liberality declines to “impose” anything on anyone and redefines the Church of Rome that Christ allegedly asked St. Peter to found, as lapsed Unitarianism leavened by Catholic church-step photo-ops.

With their demand for a rollback of the Trump tax cuts and their affection for open borders, the hydra-headed pygmy army of the once (and future) great Democratic Party will complete the conversion of the blue wave, en route to the electoral shore, to a crimson tide of molten lava. It could be a merciful and early deliverance of the Democrats from rabid Sandersism, the self-destructive fantasy of Democratic Socialism, and spare them a reenacted McGovern electoral suicide.

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America • Americanism • civic culture/friendship • Declaration of Independence • Greatness Agenda • Post • self-government • statesmanship • The Culture • the family • the Flag • The Left

God Bless America—Right and Wrong

On our nation’s 242nd birthday, national holidays are increasingly an occasion for Americans to disparage patriotism. On social media, fringe and establishment voices on Left and Right spew outright cynicism or, at best, a paltry, half-hearted patriotism of sentiment, disconnected from any firm belief in national principle and purpose.

Disregarding the tired clichés promoted by the small-minded spite of our educational establishment and the irresponsibility of our dissolute elites, the truth is that habitual patriotism is better than intentional value-signaling; and even thoughtless patriotism is better than witless cynicism, as cynicism is not a virtue, but the default mode of decadence.

Apathy and snark about politics and political forms are the hallmarks of the worst tendencies of modernity; a sign of the severe decay of the corpse of western political thought. This current distaste for patriotism—made possible by a bloodless corporate globalism and the disgraceful lack of serious political thought in elite education—leads to much that could be called mere “silliness” if the results were not so harmful. And the hollow mainstream value-signaling of the virtue-less is not any worse than the hopeless dirges of the tiny groups of fringe traditionalists or leftists harboring utopian visions of unicorns and rainbows amidst their anger at “modernity” or “liberalism” or whatever.

These tribes are united in their essential impotence.

Claremont Review of Books editor and Claremont Institute senior fellow Charles Kesler opened the Institute’s annual Publius Fellowship program last week with readings that put these hollow voices in context:

“The crisis of the West consists in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose,” wrote Leo Strauss in 1963. After leaving his native Germany before the rise of the Nazis, the Jewish professor spent the rest of his life helping American students read the great books and ideas of the western tradition, which American education had already begun to neglect.

Alongside this loss of purpose, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn,the famed Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize winner, told the 1978 Harvard graduating class, “[t]he Western world has lost its civil courage” and this loss is “particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite.”

Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address, remained deeply concerned that the result was that “parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children” and warned us “of an eradication . . . of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

Our educated class is taught to use a wry aura arising from an  unconsidered and arbitrary moralism as a shield to evade dealing directly with the serious political questions that undergird the swirling currents of opinion. Paradoxically, they use this shield to avoid looking closely or for long periods at what is moral. As they hold to an ethics of simplistic assumptions about pure ideals, which they think are beyond rational or systematic consideration, they simultaneously develop a habit of political thought that simplistically savages the reality in which we actually live. Our collective ignorance and miseducation thus prevent any serious attempt to think about politics, never mind maintain a healthy political regime.

The net effect is to render cheap and easy cynicism a kind of civic virtue. The “news” becomes something best imbibed ironically through satirical comedic performances. But insofar as citizens deliberately cultivate this breezy ironic posture, we remain divorced from reality and unable to deliberate or evaluate deliberation over politics, thus perpetuating the very problem that caused our cynicism in the first place.

Cynicism is a never-ending, self-fulfilling prophecy of civic decay. What the critics of Trump fail to understand is that he is not buoyed primarily by gullible rubes fooled by carnival barking, but by a cynical public who has completely lost faith in the powers that be — by a cynical public that sees him as a visceral response to hollow, ineffective propaganda they increasingly recognize as such. Many do not wish to follow those they perceive as chestless, apolitical, unspirited pseudo-leaders anymore, but would rather follow Trump—in full knowledge of his defects—rather than follow those who mistakenly believe that they cleverly disguise their own defects.

Americans Are Tired of Being Pawns

Habituated to think that serious political thought is mere condemnation or deconstruction amidst a world of propaganda, we are unaware that this habit of thinking undermines and ultimately eviscerates our own political desires and aims, rendering us pawns in the game — leaving us at the mercy of forces, the existence of which we may be completely unaware. Yet, increasingly, at the end of television’s reign, amidst yet another era of new modes of media, we are all too aware that such forces are trying to manufacture our consent. And, like good Americans, we have begun to rebel.

This is not the kind of “unthinking patriotism” at which our elites are so ready to sneer. That sort of thing is rarer today than our pseudo-educated snobs believe, and, at least, it has the benefit of being a kind of necessary and normal sort of defect.

The intelligentsia loves to think that the many are simple idiots who adopt a “my country right or wrong” mentality even as the commoners generally understand political life in a much more realistic manner. Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, for instance, is a serious work of political philosophy, providing a better definition of politics and patriotism—for good and ill—than much modern political science. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is another great case in point. The intelligentsia loves to point out that such works are pure protest, and misunderstood by the poor, benighted, and common people who listen to them with some kind of patriotic feeling. These rubes just don’t get it, they jeer.

The idea that the people who actually had to fight in wars like Vietnam or who daily have interactions with worthless public schools and the bureaucrats who administer them believe in a simple “my country right or wrong” mentality is asinine on its face. They know more of what is “wrong” in the country than the elites who welcome self-criticism only when they think they are above it.

Poll after poll shows most Americans have little faith in their leaders and national institutions, and this faith has declined over time during the post-World War II era. The idea that those who are most affected by the decisions of their leaders every day—those who must live with those results—are simply sanguine ‘Merica lovers is absurd.

In fact, the common understanding you hear in both pieces of music is a bittersweet and nuanced one. You hear the whole of politics—good and evil together—set within the underlying realization that one can’t escape political life and ought not to try. It is a patriotism that understands we live in a painfully imperfect world and nation and yet it is ours, and we love it as we do our family, and it is sometimes painful, sometimes noble, sometimes ugly, but always serious and our love remains.

Love Looks Beyond the Warts

What the common man understands looking up from the ground floor of the regime is that you often can’t do much about the bad decisions of your leaders, especially after they happen, and you have to learn to live with them. But that’s life, which is naturally communal, or political.

Even more significantly, what the common man understands is that what makes the intellectuals possible is a politics that the intellectuals often do not understand—a community that sticks together and protects its own and deals with its many imperfections the best it can precisely because it loves its own. That this love—which is necessary, normal, praiseworthy and good—is often the source of pain when things, inevitably, go awry.

One ought to fight against bearing the weight of injustice, yes, but bearing this weight is also part of political life—and all of human life, really. The political community and its corresponding sentiments of this basic, communal sort are necessary and the ground upon which our increasingly apolitical (even if politically active) intellectual stands, and not only when it comes to tangible, material necessities.

It’s rarely “my country right or wrong” but rather an understanding, however inchoate, that “my country” allows for the basic ground of my existence and even to some extent moral judgment itself. Communal life is rife with imperfection, but it’s all we’ve got. This is why more people than you might think intuitively understand what Gilbert and Sullivan meant by the “idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone/all centuries but this/and every country but their own.”

Charles Kesler puts it this way:

Courage never demands that one be perfect or morally pure, and [Trump] isn’t, so this virtue fit his rhetorical needs and strength. America does not have to be perfect for him to defend her wholeheartedly against her enemies. He does not have to be perfect to seek or to assert the privilege of defending her. Warts and all. It’s necessary only to love her.

Citizens and Intellectuals

The problem with “America First” taken literally without historical baggage is not that it is morally repugnant but that it is redundant. Like saying “Family First.” Far from being immoral, such sentiments are in some sense the basis of morality itself. It is true that we are called to love others: as we love ourselves. You can only love others to the extent you love yourself.

When the masses are asses, their problematic sentiment isn’t normally “my country right or wrong” but “what can we get away with” or “how can I avoid discomfort?” Then again, it’s the same problem for the experts.  Like all humans, they like to act as if they are simply humble lovers of the common good—mere retired investors living on a pension in Florida.

But if the masses are asses, the intellectuals are sophists. Any of the sophists, one gets the sense, would have taken up the offer of his friends and escaped from Athens if the city unjustly sentenced him to death. The city-state, he might say, was clearly decaying as a political form and good riddance to it and all its injustice. My country right, but not wrong.

Socrates, of course, did not do so. He let his country unjustly sentence him to death and willingly accepted the punishment. My country right or . . . wrong? But then again, thankfully for us, he was no intellectual.

We hear more calls from intellectuals for a change to the Constitution and witness a sad lack of confidence in—along with a lack of understanding of—our form of government. Those actively thinking about alternative options, however, should consider: the only way to re-form is through the existing form.

Perhaps we should be thankful that much of the idiocy on display during patriotic holidays is simply ignorance of the past and the positing of fantastical alternatives. You can’t blame them for what they do not know  and have never been taught to consider. It is easier to paint politics in black and white, and speak of intrinsically evil and intrinsically good regimes. It is easier to write it all off and throw it all out due to the growing cancers rather than perform difficult surgeries, especially when you don’t have the right tools or training.

Does anyone? Hell if I know. But we all must do what we can regardless. Sadly, the institutions that ought to provide us those willing to try and lead us forward have failed us. This is why the Publius Fellowship exists. It shouldn’t have to.

Neither should the American people constantly have to defend their own patriotism against arrogant friendly fire.

Don’t give in to the wry arrogance accompanying education and wealth that disdains patriotism. After all, it was your country which gave you that wealth and education. Don’t give in to the quiet whispers or the tortured qualifications that eat away at any real acknowledgment of the genuine good of this stunning land—qualifications based on abstract or romantic and childish assumptions about other times and places. If you want as bad or worse, look closer at history.

If you want better, look closely at our principles (start by reading the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech) and consider how we can better live up to them. If you love this country and your fellow citizens, persuade others, and thank the universe for the opportunity afforded you by your birth or your circumstance: a regime that still yet allows for the possibility that the force of persuasion rather than the force of arms can guide our communal human life.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

America • Book Reviews • Donald Trump • Europe • Germany • History • Post • self-government • statesmanship • Trump White House

The Great Junker: Bismarck’s Lessons for Today

We Germans fear God but otherwise nothing else in the world and that fear of God causes us to love peace and cultivate it.” — Otto von Bismarck, 1888

A review of Bismarck: A Life,  by Jonathan Steinberg (Oxford University Press, 592 pages, $21.95 [paper])

Bismarck: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg’s best-selling biography of the great 19th century statesman, is more than a full birth-to-death story. It delivers on a manageable scale the key events in the life of the unmanageably scaled Otto von Bismarck. Steinberg supports his narrative extensively with firsthand quotes, allowing the reader to judge for himself, even where Steinberg lays it on thick. Reading Bismarck, A Life one cannot miss the magnitude of the man’s genius at the “art of the possible.”

Steinberg strings his Bismarck on an unusual thread of the “sovereign self,” a concept Steinberg has invented. But this tends to conceal rather than reveal Bismarck. Steinberg’s “sovereign self” deemphasizes Bismarck the benefactor of a king, an emperor, and a people, and presents Bismarck as a flawed, selfish, megalomaniacal force of will.

Steinberg seems not to grasp what Bismarck did for Prussia and then Germany, and why it was such a high act of statesmanship. One suspects Steinberg cannot fully evaluate Germany of the 19th century because of what happened in Germany during the 20th.

Yet if the life of Bismarck is to be instructive in the 21st century, we ought to try to understand it for what it was.

A Tyrannical Personality?
No European statesman, other than perhaps the Tudor giant, Queen Elizabeth I, has so successfully unified his country and built its prosperity. Elizabeth’s Britain was in a near constant condition of aggression with Catholic Spain. And scholars do not blame Elizabeth for the English Civil War. Why then is Bismarck uniquely responsible for events occurring after his dismissal and death?

Steinberg’s approach uses Bismarck’s combative behavior to suggest Bismarck is best understood as a tyrannical personality. The reader cannot escape Steinberg’s suggestion—a rather conventional one—that Bismarck represents an anticipation of the German will-to-power madness of the 20th century. The charge, however, appears itself more like an act of will than a serious accusation, as the facts in Bismarck make their own case, res ipsa loquitor.

Rather than arrogating all power to himself, Bismarck answered to a sovereign king and emperor, as an American president answers to the sovereign American people. Bismarck ensured the subordination of the ministers and civil service, including himself, to the Hohenzollern monarchy, as he defended it against Napoleonic revolutionaries and later radical socialists. As he did so, Bismarck continually contended with parliamentary maneuvers in the Bundesrat and Reichstag and with the vicissitudes of public opinion (important even in an absolute Hohenzollern monarchy).

Bismarck did such a thorough job of loyally defending the rights of his sovereign that in 1890 a childish Wilhelm II could simply dismiss—without ceremony—the immensely popular Bismarck. Bismarck immediately and quietly accepted the Hohenzollern authority, though he continued to poke at Wilhelm II until his death.

Attributing to Bismarck German failures that came after 1890, in a particularly stinging chapter, Steinberg ties Bismarck to the rise of German anti-Semitism. But here again the facts Steinberg presents make another case. Bismarck appears to have treated his political enemies with equal aggression, regardless of whether they were Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, and he treated his friends, while they lasted, equally solicitously.

Bismarck’s Jewish Problem
One reads with regret that Bismarck did on a variety of occasions disparage political enemies using anti-Semitic obloquies. And early in his career, Bismarck argued against Jewish participation in Junker dominated politics, blocking the sale of landed titles on the ground that the ruling structure of Prussia would become commoditized—and therefore disloyal—if it could be bought and sold.

This early political act reflected Bismarck’s dedication to the ancient Prussian system of little princes whose rights were microcosms of the monarch’s absolute power. The monarch rights were in turn a microcosm of Pietist notions of the divine. God’s authority over man was absolute, and direct, on account of the “priesthood of all believers,” derived from Luther’s Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520).

Yet Bismarck’s enormous intellect craved Jewish talent, alliance, and friendship. Bismarck’s Jewish personal banker, Gerson von Bleichroeder, was Bismarck’s political ally and personal intimate who aided Bismarck in digging Prussia out of the debts the impoverished state had amassed in the wars that precipitated German unification. It is clear that Bismarck, in addition to his friendship, understood Bleichroeder’s contribution as a Prussian and German citizen to the creation and success of the German Empire. Bleichroeder was ennobled in 1872.

Steinberg also acknowledges an event which he says “calls into question the depths of Bismarck’s anti-Semitism.” In response to the death of Ferdinand LaSalle, a Jewish socialist politician and the indirect founder of the German social democrats (SDP), Bismarck spontaneously remarked:

What he had was something that attracted me extraordinarily as a private person. He was one of the cleverest and most charming men whom I have known. He was ambitious in grand style … Lassalle was an energetic and witty man with whom it was very instructive to talk. Our conversations lasted for hours and I always regretted when they were over.

Steinberg relies on quotes from Richard Wagner (a ward of Bavaria’s intensely Catholic and possibly insane king, Ludwig II) to press his charge that Bismarck fostered rising German antisemitism in the late 19th century. But then later Steinberg casually observes that Bismarck did not care for or even listen to Wagner. An un-evolving Junker, Bismarck preferred Beethoven. Why smear Bismarck with Wagner’s hatred of Jews?

German antisemitism is revolting.

Steinberg strains too hard to lay this evil at Bismarck’s feet. The ennobling of Bleichroeder and a private remark may not be Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation but the thesis of Bismarck’s responsibility for German antisemitism is weak up to, if not past, the point of being unfair.

Patriotism vs. Vanity

But not all indictments of Bismarck are unfair. Bismarck lived as a mighty oak of German politics, and fault can be found there. Bismarck’s hyper-potent practical intellect cast a shadow over the new growth of other statesmen who might have succeeded him. Bismarck failed to anticipate an accumulating succession problem. Wilhelm I’s longevity taxed the monarchical structure and caused it to skip a beat at a critical moment. Frederick III, well prepared for the job, was on the throne for only a few months before succumbing to cancer, and the young and unteachable Wilhelm II ascended.

Steinberg makes too little of the pathological, deformed, and genuinely antisemitic runt, Wilhelm II, as the cause of the unravelling of the German Empire. The Hohenzollern stock had run dry and the super-state that Bismarck had assembled fell victim to the defect of hereditary monarchy: the arrival on the throne of “an ass for a lion.”

Wilhelm II’s vanity would not brook Bismarck’s towering character, and Bismarck admitted privately the certainty—given the new kaiser’s conceits—of his dismissal in 1890. What distinguished Bismarck as a statesman, however, is that he towered loyally—thinking always of the rights of his sovereign and his country. Bismarck offered the same loyalty to Wilhelm II he had offered Wilhelm I, and Wilhelm II viciously spurned it.

The virtue of Steinberg’s biography is, despite its theme of selfishness, in its fidelity to events it cannot help but show how Bismarck worked toward, and achieved, a singular political goal: A unified, Lutheran-dominated, Hohenzollern Germany, economically powerful, militarily secure, and most importantly, at peace.

Bismarck found Prussia, poor, weak, and threatened and made it rich, strong, and secure. His vision far exceeded that of any other single statesman of his age. Even the great Queen Victoria had both Gladstone and Disraeli. Two heads are better than one.

Bismarck characteristically saw events around corners. In a meeting in 1862, Bismarck foretold in detail to a shocked Disraeli how he intended to unify Germany. Bismarck had recognized the necessity of eliminating Austria from a German imperium, and of conflict with France as the unifying event. Bismarck played in the permutations of politics like no one else. Over eight years, three short wars, and great uncertainty, what Bismarck had foretold to Disraeli came to pass.

Following the birth of the German Empire, Bismarck turned his attention to a complex series of treaties with Russia and Austria. Bismarck forged domestic solidarity through legislative maneuvering that zigged and zagged from Kulturkampf to universal pension insurance. The tranquility Bismarck constructed lasted 44 years, including 24 years under Wilhelm II. This peace lasted arguably longer than any peace the United States has seen in its 242-year history. Yet Steinberg reflexively paints Bismarck a warmonger.

Perhaps this reflex can be traced to Disraeli. The English instinct—really policy—is to deem the top continental power, whether France or Germany, a threat. Disraeli remarked sourly on unification, saying the German “revolution” is war with France. For Disraeli, just as conservation and renewal of the French republic meant the violent export of revolution, the German “revolution” would be conserved and renewed with war.

Maybe so, maybe not. The “mystic chords of memory” of the German Empire would indeed include three wars that led to its founding. But it would also include Bismarck’s Pietist love of peace. And there was a practical matter to consider. Germany as the land in the middle could not afford war. Bismarck’s genius, aggressive as it was, worked sedulously to avoid it.

Juxtaposing Bismarck and Churchill
Wilhelm II threw away the fruit of Bismarck’s statesmanship, and blame for this should fall on the runt and not the great man. If Bismarck failed beyond neglecting to groom a successor, it was in that he bore responsibility for the German Empire’s written constitution. It had no default mode—no ambition to counter ambition—through which it could function without an enlightened statesman.

In fairness, however, German precision would not easily tolerate a constitution which muddled the origin of its sovereignty in the manner that English polysemy allows the English constitution to be a monarchy when seen from one side and a democracy when seen from the other. The characteristic exactness of Germans inclined against such duality, and the check on absolute monarchy of the Hohenzollerns was left to the character of the Hohenzollerns.

If Bismarck had built in checks and balances, such political mechanics would have had rely on the Junker class. But there lies a difficulty. The Junker ethos of absolute loyalty—which had served tiny Prussia so well in war—limited Junker taste for asserting rights against monarchical power. A statesman has to work with the matter he is given, and rigid loyalty is at once the virtue and vice of the German stuff.

America’s (and my own) favorite foreign statesman is Winston Churchill. Juxtaposing Churchill and Bismarck makes for an interesting contrast. Churchill is similar to Bismarck in political longevity, and in reputation for unusual and bellicose behavior. Churchill saved his country from perverted Prussian militarism that had fallen into the wrong hands, this time not through the defect of monarchy but through the defect of democracy: its tendency to collapse into demagogic tyranny.

Churchill saved Britain from the moral annihilation of capitulation to Hitler because Churchill, like Bismarck, saw around corners. Churchill spied the dimly lit path of chances leading away from physical annihilation, a path that would be well lit once Russia and the United States were in the war. Nonetheless, Churchill entered office in a Britain that was wealthy and powerful; when he left office Britain was poor and spiraling downward, a liquidating socialist state.

Bismarck, on the other hand, found Prussia weak and left it strong. In the 31 uninterrupted years during which Bismarck was in high office, Prussia grew into the greatest European power, maintaining peace, while other nations warred and took on the burdens of foreign imperialism. When Bismarck left office, the German Empire abroad—in contrast to the empires of England, France, and Russia—was immaterially small, having fewer than 6,000 colonists in East Africa.

The half-American Churchill themed his statesmanship on “great democracies” and Bismarck was devoted to a different—an unAmerican—sort of regime. That’s why Churchill is much easier for an American to appreciate. Still, is it intrinsically wrong to support the principle of a regime if it presents the best way forward to the safety and happiness of a people? “Prudence, indeed, will dictate . . .” reads the Declaration of Independence; there are conservative claims to preserve an imperfect and long-established form of government. Democracy is, as Churchill pointed out, the worst form of government, until you consider all the others.

Losing Sight of Peaceable Aims—And Learning Lessons
Bismarck worked within one of the others, which suited the inordinately loyal and conservative Junker class. Whether this was the right thing to do is a complex question that goes well beyond a “Tastes great! Less filling!” debate over democracy or monarchy, a discussion bound and gagged by filial devotion to the regime in which the discussion takes place, i.e., serious discussion in a particular regime type of another regime type is never fully permitted. Thus the answer to the question “Was Bismarck right in his support of an absolute Hohenzollern monarchy?” is, like for so many things, “It depends.”

Bismarck opposed revolutionaries and socialists and supported the monarchy because of the advantages of the latter for Prussia and for Germany, including an ability to respond to threats from East and West and the character of the Prussian and German people. With that peace, domestic and foreign, secured Germany became the best educated and in arts, science, and technology the most sophisticated country in the world. Germany from 1870 until World War I lived well, to use the Aristotelian description of the object of statesmanship.

But the monarchy failed. It lost sight of Bismarck’s peaceable aims, instigated a pointless naval rivalry with Britain, ventured abroad, went to war and collapsed thoroughly, despite having fought the entire war on foreign soil and almost never suffering greater losses in battle than did its enemies.

With an American form of government things might have been different. But that would have required flexible, practically minded Americans and the favorable American geopolitical situation. Perhaps this is why the following quote is often attributed to Bismarck: “There is a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”

Bismarck’s manipulations of the sovereign Hohenzollern household and Reichstag politics, and the piratical way he sometimes did it, remind one of our current politics, substituting for a vacillating sovereign monarch the many minds of a sovereign people, including a mind to abdicate their sovereignty. The tweets, the feints with the public and legislature, the contests of wills with individuals and the press, and the political inconsistencies remind one vaguely of Bismarck’s incessant maneuvering, his insistence in a rule-oriented, Kantian society of playing chess as if all sixty-four squares were unoccupied.

Bismarck had a way of at once hating and loving and being hated and loved. One thing the loyal Bismarck hated most was any rebuke from the throne. It cut him to the core of his faithfully monarchical character. And as a practical matter, Bismarck knew if he could not control the kaiser, he could not implement coherent policy for his country. The kaiser half-hated Bismarck because his better half, Empress Augusta, fully hated Bismarck. Crown Prince Frederick William did not like Bismarck because bien pensant attitudes increasingly demanded gradual accommodation of liberalism as the right side of History.

So Bismarck maneuvered intrusively within the Hohenzollern family to get what he needed for the German Empire. The family despised the divisiveness until they loved the results. The American public—which stands in the position of sovereign in revolutionary America—may well end up feeling the same way about Donald Trump.

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Anthony Kennedy Got Tired of All the Winning

For the longest time, NeverTrump “conservatives” have insisted that the only good thing Donald Trump has done as president is to appoint Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court; and even then, they often claimed this was not enough to save his presidency in their minds, thus giving rise their oft-repeated mocking mantra for Trump supporters: “But Gorsuch!” Well, you’re damn right, “But Gorsuch!” Now, those eternal skeptics and pessimists are eating their own words faster than Kim Jong-un could eat his first-ever McDonald’s Happy Meal.

There has not been a Supreme Court decision season stacked with more victories for the Right than this one. Eight different rulings  this term pushed back against the onward march of the Left and proved just how strong a bulwark for freedom the Supreme Court can be.

The first and most high-profile decision, of course, was the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where it was ruled that Colorado baker Jack Phillips had the right to refuse baking a wedding cake for a gay wedding due to his religious beliefs. This decision was reached by the court’s four conservative justices along with swing vote, Anthony Kennedy.

Then came a handful of cases that all dealt serious electoral blows to Democrats in three different states. In two different gerrymandering cases, the court ultimately ruled that Democrats in Wisconsin had no standing to sue for what they claimed were districts unfairly drawn in favor of the state GOP. They similarly ruled in another, later case that Democrats in Texas could not sufficiently prove that most of the state’s districts were drawn in a way that deliberately undermined minority voters and gave more power to the GOP. In addition, the court ruled that Ohio was legally allowed to continue its practice of purging inactive voters from the state’s voter rolls if they have not voted in two years, thus further reducing the possibility of voter fraud from fake, illegal, or deceased voters.

In another significant case, a victory was handed down by a much more unusual majority: The court’s four liberal justices, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, ultimately ruled that police must obtain a warrant in order to acquire an individual’s location information from their cell phones. Although the court’s three other conservative justices and Kennedy dissented, this case nevertheless was a win for Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

Then came a case with several different implications beyond the initial ruling, when the court’s four conservative justices and Justice Kennedy ultimately ruled that pro-life “crisis pregnancy centers” in California could continue operating without being forced explicitly to promote abortion as an option for its clients.

Not only was this a significant victory for the pro-life movement, it also overturned both a state law in California requiring such centers to promote abortion as an alternative, as well as a Ninth Circuit ruling upholding it. Such a ruling could potentially mark the first of many instances where the Supreme Court begins directly to take on, and defeat, the far-left government of California on its own turf, overturning such laws that violate Constitutional rights, and are sometimes passed just for the sake of spiting President Trump and his supporters. The shadow of this ruling, undoubtedly, will loom long over the highly-anticipated federal lawsuit concerning California’s “sanctuary state” law.

Then, in the most personal victory for President Trump thus far, the court upheld his executive order implementing a travel ban on several unstable Middle Eastern nations, as well as the Communist nations of Venezuela and North Korea. Not only was this a bucket of ice water over the Left’s narrative that this ban was an example of “Islamophobia,” but the majority opinion by Chief Justice Roberts directly reaffirmed that the president has “considerable authority over immigration,” as well as a “responsibility for keeping the nation safe.” This potentially could set a precedent for more sweeping executive action on the broader immigration front going forward, especially as Congress continues to drag its feet on the issue.

Perhaps the biggest ruling, in terms of overturning the long-standing status quo, was when the majority ruled that public-sector employees can no longer be coerced into paying union membership dues when they are not a member of said union. Although this does not encompass private-sector unions, it nevertheless sets a tone. Moreover, employees of such occupations as the federal government or public education no longer have to pay fees to organizations that overwhelmingly espouse left-wing talking points.

With all of these monumental cases and repeated setbacks for the Left, the only other possible victory in relation to the Supreme Court would be the announcement of a justice retiring and opening up a seat to potentially be filled with a right-wing judge . . . which is exactly what happened.

Kennedy, who has been the swing vote in many crucial decisions since he was first appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1988, announced his intention to retire on July 31. In response, President Trump declared that the process to replace him would begin “immediately,” and that his successor would come from the same list from which he chose Gorsuch, which was compiled by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation.

As the battle for Congress in November rapidly approaches, this development instantly has become the top priority for the Trump Administration, coming off the failure of Congress’s latest efforts to reform the American immigration system. It will undoubtedly be an issue that rallies both party bases, and the eventual end result ultimately could determine the fate of the Senate.

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