Charles Kesler’s essay, “Trump and the Conservative Cause,” (Spring 2016 CRB) is a model of conservative analysis. His moderate criticism of Donald Trump is surpassed only by his even more moderate defense of Trump. Kesler, of course, had little difficulty in deflating the most outlandish claims of Trump’s critics. But he found it much harder to praise Trump. Like most contemporary political analysts, Kesler is well aware of the difficulty—if not the danger in some circles—of even defending Trump. Kesler is right to be wary. Trump has aroused more raw political passion than any candidate in recent memory.
Since the end of the Cold War, American leaders have understood their offices in terms of global and administrative rule, rather than political rule on behalf of the American people and the sovereignty of the American nation. Yet those offices were established on the foundation of the moral authority of the people and their Constitution. Once elected or appointed, politicians and bureaucrats have utilized their will, in both domestic and foreign policy, in an unrestrained manner on behalf of bureaucratic rule. They govern on the implicit premise of elections as plebiscites, but it is no longer clear who confers the legitimacy of an electoral mandate. Bureaucratic rule has become so pervasive that it is no longer clear that government is legitimized by the consent of the governed. Rather it is the consent of the various national—and often international—social, economic, political, and cultural interest groups that determine the outcome of elections. True political rule requires, at a minimum, the participation of citizens in their own rule, even if not in government itself. But this is possible only when people understand themselves as citizens and when the regime recognizes them as citizens. This requires distinguishing American citizens from all others and identifying them as one people.
American elections have increasingly been framed by Washington professionals. Social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals may tilt liberal or conservative and may differ in their party preferences, but they are united in their dependence upon intellectual authority, derived from empirical science and its methodology, in their understanding of politics and economics. At the same time, historicism or (critical theory) has established itself as the closest thing to a public philosophy when it comes to understanding history, society, and culture. Applied to elections, the empirical method required that politics be understood in terms of measurable and quantifiable aggregates. This proved compatible with the positivist understanding of law and interest group liberalism. Critical post-modern theory established personal autonomy and group diversity as central to what is morally defensible in terms of public policy. As a result, political partisanship and analysis has focused on race, class, gender, and other such demographics, to provide the kind of information that has become central to the shaping and predicting of elections and to legitimize dividing the electorate into categories that came to be understood in moral terms. Consequently, political campaigns have made a science of dividing the electorate into groups and reassembling them as voting blocs committed to specific policies and issues denominated by the demographic categories themselves. This strategy requires the systematic mobilization of animosity to ensure participation by identifying and magnifying what it is that must be opposed. Appeals to the electorate are strategically controlled by the experts. Which issues are allowed to be raised seems to be more important than the manner in which they are packaged and sold to the electorate.
Understood in this way, what is central to politics and elections is the elevation of the status of personal and group identity to something approaching a new kind of civil religion. Individual social behavior, once dependent on traditional morality and understood in terms of traditional virtues and vices, has become almost indefensible when judged in light of the authority established by positivism and historicism. Public figures have come to be judged not as morally culpable individuals, but by the moral standing established by their group identity. Character is almost unrecognizable and no longer serves as the means by which the people can determine the qualifications for public office of those they do not know personally. As a result, it is difficult to establish the kind of public trust that made it possible to connect public and private behavior, or civil society and government. When coupled with the politicization of civil society and its institutions, the distinction between the public and the private or the personal and the political has almost disappeared. Anything and everything can become politicized, but things can only be understood and made intelligible—or made politically meaningful—when viewed through the lens of social science and post-modern cultural theory. In short, the public and private character of American politics has been placed in the hands of the academic intellectuals.
Kesler focuses his defense of Trump on the observation that Trump alone has succeeded in making political correctness a political issue. Kesler knows that political correctness poses a problem not only for politics, but for intellectual life as well—that it is a problem for the university as well as for civil society. Regardless of his motives, therefore, Trump has gone to the heart of the matter and made a political issue of these intellectual and social crises. Trump has not attempted a theoretical justification for doing so. That remains to be made by the thinkers. Such a justification begins by recognizing that when progressivism was confident of itself, it understood the past as rational and as providing light for the way to a glorious future. When progressive intellectuals lost confidence in the idea of progress and Enlightenment reason, they abandoned the hope of a future good and began to revise the meaning of the past. When Nietzsche analyzed the malady posed by historicism’s abandonment of its rationality, he came to realize that “the excess of history has attacked the plastic powers of life; it no longer understands how to avail itself of the past as hearty nourishment.” The politics of our time is dependent upon how we avail ourselves of the past—whether as “hearty nourishment” or as a life-threatening poison.
Post-modern intellectuals have pronounced their historical judgment on America’s past, finding it to be morally indefensible. Every great human achievement of the past—whether in philosophy, religion, literature, or the humanities—came to be understood as a kind of exploitation of the powerless. Rather than allowing the past to be viewed in terms of its aspirations and accomplishments, it has been judged by its failures. The living part of the past is understood in terms slavery, racism, and identity politics. Political correctness arose as the practical and necessary means of enforcing this historical judgment. No public defense of past greatness could be allowed to live in the present. Public morality and public policy would come to be understood in terms of the formerly oppressed.
In this light, it is not surprising that Trump is seen not only as the enemy of political correctness, but as the enemy of those whose intellectual lives have been shaped by positivism and historicism. Trump is not an academic or an intellectual. He seems to understand politics in an old-fashioned way. He appeals to the people as citizens and Americans, on the assumption that the people establish the legitimacy of parties and elections. He rejects the authority of the professionals and insists that he is interested in unifying the country. He claims to do so by appealing to a common good. Of course, it is not easy to appeal to a common good when so much of the country has come to understand itself in terms of its diversity. In such a time, an appeal to American citizenship is itself almost a revolutionary act, because it requires making a distinction between citizens and all others. Along the same lines, Trump has appealed to the rule of law and has attacked bureaucratic rule as the rule of privilege and patronage on behalf of social, economic, foreign policy, and political elites. This appeal is made difficult by the fact that the administrative state has fragmented, isolated, and infantilized the people by undermining or destroying the institutions of civil society. In these terms, the success of Trump’s campaign will depend upon the American people’s ability to still recognize the existence of a common or public good.
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Since local politics and administration came to be centralized within the administrative state, elections have provided the people their only possibility of participation in public life. Politics at the state and local level, along with the private institutions of civil society, took on a new face after administration was centralized. It wasn’t long before the brightest and most ambitious college faculty and graduates began gravitating to Washington, D.C.—the new center of economic, social, and political decision making. In turn, the federal government and bureaucratic apparatus became dependent upon the intellectual elites to provide expertise. But what to do with the people who participate in politics only as citizens? In terms of elections, the old partisans of both parties—the party pros who had devoted their life to trying to understand politics in terms of mobilizing the people—were no longer needed once partisan appeals could be marketed like any other commodity. Both political parties have benefitted from the kind of predictability made possible by the incorporation of scientific professionalism in the organizing and shaping of campaigns and elections.
In addition, both parties have participated in recognizing the legitimacy of the cultural narrative established by post-modern theory—and enforced by political correctness—as the ground of understanding civil society, public policy, law, and bureaucracy itself. Before the end of the 20th century, contemporary politics had created an equilibrium agreed on by both parties and underwritten by the intellectual authority of positivism and historicism. This equilibrium has functioned as a new kind of iron law of politics: there are Red States and there are Blue States and there are a handful of Purple (or battleground) States. Political conflict could be contained by focusing on the latter. Elections were understood in terms of division rather than unification, and it became almost impossible for any candidate to appeal to the electorate on behalf of a common good. That is not surprising, because positivism and historicism had rejected any understanding of the meaning of a common good. Modern American politics had become intelligible only from the perspective of positivist social science and post-modern historicism or progressivism, both of which begin and end with interest-group diversity and individual autonomy.
Trump appears to have understood that the political parties no longer establish a meaningful link between the people and the government. Party patronage has been replaced by bureaucratic patronage, and a professional elite has established itself as the vital center between the people and the government. The authority of that elite cannot be understood simply in terms of social, economic, or even political power. What unites the vital center—what establishes its prominence and legitimizes its public authority—is knowledge. Members of the vital center understand the world through their attachment to their professions: academia, science, economics, business, media, entertainment, and even religion. They often lack political consciousness of themselves as a class. Many of them do not even think of themselves as political. Their interest and loyalty is to what it is they profess to study and what they think they know, and what establishes their intellectual and political authority is their production of what is seen as useful knowledge in the administrative state. Indeed, it could be said that without the policy sciences, the administrative state would be almost impossible to operate. It is the technical requirements of the modern administrative state that have made it possible to politicize the elites in a manner that disguises their political role. When nearly every social, economic, scientific, religious, and political problem is decided in a bureaucratic or legal way—and always from a central authority, usually Washington, but sometimes New York or one or two other places—the professional elites are given a stake in the political and bureaucratic world. Trump has apparently refused to acknowledge the authority of this policymaking establishment and in doing so has perplexed nearly all of the public intellectuals, both liberal and conservative. In refusing to allow the established vital center to mediate the political debate, he has gone directly to the people. And so doing, he has made it nearly impossible for the vital center to condone or even attempt to understand—let alone praise—his candidacy.
In a popular election, a rousing rhetorical defense of a political candidate is nearly impossible when those who have held political offices and attained social respectability are unable to praise the candidate. In the attempt to evaluate Trump, liberals have judged him from the perspective of post-modern culture, labeling him a reactionary racist, a nationalist, and a xenophobe. Conservatives have not objected to this post-modern characterization of Trump; they have simply tried to add a conservative twist by seeking to revive the old language of character, virtues and vices—as though this language still has a public or political meaning! Unable to politicize a language that no longer resonates even with the libertarian or economic conservatives, their moral judgments could only be interpreted in terms of self-interest—a concept still relevant in contemporary discourse.
This was not always the case in American politics. A political discourse once existed that understood itself in terms of principles of public right, and the stewards of public office were once judged by non-partisan standards that presupposed virtues such as honesty, integrity, character, and honor. It was an agreement on the need for such virtues that made it possible to entrust those offices to political partisans and to distinguish theoretical and practical reason or prudence. While it was possible to agree on abstract principles, it was also possible to disagree on the practical way those principles were to be accommodated with respect to contemporary circumstances. Policymaking was not understood in terms of expertise, nor had technical knowledge replaced the prudential judgement of the politician. Moreover, a public language still existed that made it possible to agree on what kind of public and private behavior was praiseworthy or blameworthy. But that old language was dependent upon a reasonable and objective understanding of virtue and vice. Such language eludes us in an age when subjective values have replaced public and private virtue, and when principles are merely subjective policy preferences that are defined and defended simply by being non-negotiable.
Although it is easy to blame Trump for politicizing the personal—by ridiculing those who seek and hold public office—this was his way of connecting with people who had become mere spectators, not citizens, when it comes to Washington politics. Perhaps he did so because there had been no honest evaluation of Washington that originated in Washington: no policy ever really fails, private corruption never arises to the level of public corruption (let alone is punished), no officeholder of significance has been held personally responsible for their behavior since Watergate. Ironically, it has taken a reality television star—one who knows the difference between the real and the imagined—to make reality a political issue with respect to Washington. Indeed, in recent years, Washington has presented itself as a kind of reality show. It is difficult to distinguish what is real from the way it is spun. Benghazi was just one example of the unwillingness of the Washington establishment to denounce deception in a political matter. Trump was willing to denounce the deception by passing personal judgment on those policies, personalities, and issues, and he was willing to judge them as personally accountable. Moreover, Trump is understood personally and not politically, because he has never held political office. He is primarily vulnerable to criticism on the ground of his personal behavior, one leading aspect of which is a lack of respect for office seekers and office holders and their policies. As a result, it has become difficult to judge Trump politically or in terms of the past. In short, Trump cannot be properly evaluated in political terms.
It is not surprising, therefore, that few are willing or able to praise Trump in an unqualified manner. Insofar, as Trump has refused, to “walk on paths beaten by others,” as Machiavelli would say, “he has all those who benefit from the old orders as enemies, and he has lukewarm defenders in all those who might benefit from the new orders.” But it is not “fear of adversaries” alone that makes it difficult to bring about change, Machiavelli writes, but “the incredulity of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they come to have a firm experience of them.” In our post-Machiavellian age, which is open to every kind of novelty, we are faced with a new kind of incredulity—one that prevents men from believing in the old things of which they no longer have any experience. It has become far easier for modern man to accept change as something normal, almost natural. What has become difficult to understand, let alone preserve, are things that are unchanging or eternal. History, understood in terms of the idea of progress in politics, economics, science, and technology, has made change, or the new, seem almost inevitable. As a result, the desire for the newest has become almost irresistible.
When Lincoln was faced with the dilemma of understanding what must be preserved and what can be changed, he had to come to grips with the meaning of conservatism. He did so at a time when not only the understanding of the unchangeable—that is to say, self-evident truth—but also its political meaning had been denied. And Lincoln, who was charged by his enemies with being a revolutionary, did not defend himself as a conservative. As he noted in his Cooper Union speech: “You say you are conservative—eminently conservative—while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by our fathers who framed the Government under which we live; while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.” Lincoln noted that his opponents were unanimous in their defense of the new, despite their disagreement concerning what the new policies should be. “True, you disagree among yourselves as to what that substitute shall be,” he said. “You are divided on new propositions and plans, but you are unanimous in rejecting and denouncing the old policy of the fathers.” Is not the contemporary understanding of politics, as made intelligible only in terms of historicism, the modern confirmation of the fact that there is general agreement between liberals and conservatives because both have rejected “the old policy of the fathers”—that is, natural right itself?
In contemporary politics, both liberals and conservatives are necessarily open to the new. But in many of the most important ways, they have rejected the old policy of the fathers. True, conservatives have not yet seen fit to denounce the fathers. But how much of the legacy of the fathers do they still find defensible? Lincoln was aware that the only proper defense of the tried and the true—of tradition—was a defense of the unchanging principles of political right understood in terms of an unchanging human nature. This presupposed a distinction between theoretical and practical reason, which made it possible to distinguish unchanging principles from policies that must change according to circumstances. This understanding assumed the benevolence of nature and nature’s God, as well as the capacity of human reason to comprehend and impose those rational limits on human freedom that are necessary to ensure human happiness. It is only if the old can also be defended as the good that conservatism, or the tried and the true, can remain a living thing. The historicist understanding of freedom purports to reveal that nature itself is tyrannical, and has attempted the self-destruction of philosophic reason by liberating the creative individual from the chains imposed by nature and reason. Identity is something that must be freely chosen and self-created by the individual alone, and it must be defended by government and law in civil society. Social institutions dependent upon the old morality have become intellectually indefensible. In terms of contemporary social and political thought, it is the good understood as the old that is no longer defensible, and its political defense has therefore become untenable. This alone makes the defense of reasonable conservatism—and constitutionalism itself—something akin to the defense of a dream that masquerades itself as reality in the minds of its votaries.
The public good, once thought to be a legacy of the best that had been inherited from the past—including the American founding, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution—is not easily defended politically because it has been undermined intellectually. The most controversial aspect of Trump’s campaign, his slogan to “Make America Great Again,” goes to the heart of the problem. Trump’s view presupposes that the old America was good and established the conditions for its greatness. Is this true? Or is America something to be ashamed of, as the protestors against Trump have insisted, having accepted the teaching of post-modern cultural intellectuals? Trump’s defense of the old America goes unrecognized by conservatives, either because they have succumbed to the post-modern narrative or because Trump is unable to make the intellectual case for the old America. Thus the intellectuals stand almost to a man against him.
It is possible that the Trump phenomenon cannot be understood merely by trying to make sense of Trump himself. Rather it is the seriousness of the need for Trump that must be understood in order to make sense of his candidacy. Those most likely to be receptive of Trump are those who believe America is in the midst of a great crisis in terms of its economy, its chaotic civil society, its political corruption, and the inability to defend any kind of tradition—or way of life derived from that tradition—because of the transformation of its culture by the intellectual elites. This sweeping cultural transformation occurred almost completely outside the political process of mobilizing public opinion and political majorities. The American people themselves did not participate or consent to the wholesale undermining of their way of life, which government and the bureaucracy helped to facilitate by undermining those institutions of civil society that were dependent upon a public defense of the old morality. This great crisis has created the need for a Trump, or someone like Trump, and only those who recognize it as a crisis can be receptive to his candidacy. To be clear, the seriousness of the need does not mean that the need can be satisfied, perhaps even by a Lincoln, let alone a Trump. Nonetheless, Trump has established his candidacy on the basis of an implicit understanding that America is the midst of a crisis. Those who oppose him deny the seriousness of the crisis and see Trump himself as the greatest danger. And here again, Trump’s success will likely depend upon his ability to articulate the ground of a common good that is still rooted in the past—a common good established by a government that protects the rights of its citizens in a constitutional manner and establishes limits on the authority of government by demanding that the rule of law replace that of bureaucratic privilege and status.
Trump may or may not succeed in becoming president of the United States. All of those who have a stake in preserving Washington as it now exists are his enemies, and the public that is drawn to him is fickle. Much will depend upon the ability of the established order, which has authority and respectability on its side, to erode the trust that Trump has built with the constituency he has created. In any case, the need that brought Trump to the fore will not disappear with Trump’s demise. Few serious policy analysts took Trump seriously. Like the Soviet experts who did not foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union, policy experts have failed to anticipate, or even detect, the crisis of America. Trump’s success has revealed that one of our fundamental tasks—a task he has addressed when no else would—is the need for political rule to be reanimated in a way that allows public opinion, understood to arise in the creation of constitutional majorities, to establish the legitimacy of politics, policy, and law, in a manner compatible with the rule of law and the common good. That requires revitalizing the meaning of citizenship and reaffirming the sovereignty of the people and the nation. It also requires the restoration of the link between the people and the political branches of the government, so that both can become the defenders of the Constitution and the country.