The 20th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in March, 2016.
“Since the republic necessarily had to perish, it was only a question of how, and by whom, it was to be overthrown”
~Montesquieu, Considerations XI 1 ¶9.
There is much “conservative” loose talk these days of Trump as some sort of Caesar, or “fascist” or “authoritarian”—any way of conjuring Hitler’s ghost without the embarrassment of being called out for offering yet another dreary example of Godwin’s Law. Ross Douthat’s recent, rather weak, entry in the genre is garnering him extravagant praise. Some of that can be attributed to the typical conservative back-scratching. The rest is owing to the #NeverTrump mania currently gripping the American “right.” Once again, the “conservatives” demonstrate a weak grasp of history and theory. And once again, JAG is here to help.
Douthat prefers “authoritarian” over the various alternatives presumably because it sounds to him the least charged and the most “scientific.” He ought to know, but apparently does not, that by using this term against Trump he is playing into the hands of those whom he should like even less. But maybe he prefers the anti-American, anti-Western left to Trump after all?
I speak of course of the Frankfurt School. For it was Theodore Adorno (along with colleagues from that School) who popularized the term with their mendacious 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality. In those just-post-Hitler years, the right was terrified of being associated with anything that might—even for a nanosecond, from the tinted window of a fast-passing car—look vaguely like Nazism. The left naturally intuited that here was the perfect moment to forever tar the right with exactly that smear.
Hence this term and this book. The ostensible purpose was to “prove,” using “scientific methodology,”* that conservatism is merely a point on the “F-scale” (for “fascist,” of course). The traits which identify one as being somewhere on that scale includeconventionalism, aggression, submission (hard to see how these go together, but bear with me), superstition, predilection for stereotypes, worship of power and “toughness,” destructiveness, cynicism, a propensity for projection and (channeling Freud while anticipating the ’60s) sexual hang-ups. And, finally, these are all mental disorders. Therefore conservatives are not only all proto-fascists, but also insane.
Despite being roundly attacked at the time and thoroughly debunked since, this “study” has had an amazing success in the world. It is after all exactly what the left wants to believe about its enemies. “Simplistic thinking, intolerance of ambiguity, and racial prejudice” clucks one liberal wag about Trump, summarizing (so he claims) Adorno et al. He would no doubt say exactly the same about Douthat.
Who would no doubt object that he is not merely not authoritarian, but more important, Nothing Like Trump! Such are the perils of resorting to the language and categories of the left.
Presumably what Douthat means is that Trump is a proto- or would-be tyrant. Here at least is an intellectual concept not made up in the last century to score partisan points. We may say with tolerable certainty what a tyrant, as opposed to an “authoritarian,” actuallyis. The strict, and original, definition is one who usurps a legitimate regime. Since such usurpation is always unjust, tyranny as such is always unjust. Plus, tyrants—lacking the historic affection that peoples have for legitimate kings or republics—typically must govern harshly in order to maintain power (this is especially true of the usurpers of republics). This is how “tyranny” acquired its harsh connotation: there is a built-in, though not in all cases inevitable, tendency for the tyrant to rule solely through fear.
But sticking for the moment with the strict definition: are there any signs at all that Trump intends to overthrow the U.S. government and seize absolute power? I doubt even Douthat would say so.
What he must mean, then, is that Trump intends to govern, or rule, like a tyrant after coming to power legitimately. Certainly there isprecedent for this—some even recent. But what evidence is there that Trump so intends? Douthat himself supplies none. The best that Douthat’s admirers can do is point to Trump’s 26-year-old comments on China, which we’ve already addressed, and campaign rhetoric in which Trump sometimes taunts his opponents with language along the lines of “you’ll be sorry” and the like, which they take to be threats to use government power for revenge. We may grant that Trump’s off-the-cuff utterances don’t always rise to the level long considered “presidential.” But we would also point out, as contrary to Douthat’s thesis, Trump’s many pledges to work with others, make nice with his opponents, cut deals, act presidential and even “politically correct” and so on. Isn’t singling out one set of comments and ignoring the other unfair, or at least tendentiously selective? Especially when the point is to establish Trump’s alleged tyrannical ambitions?
We might also ask which of the two likely nominees has shown more of a taste for tyranny? The one who illegally and knowinglymishandled classified information in order to circumvent government record-keeping requirements and covered up her incompetence and malfeasance, all while working for a lawless administration that has routinely flouted the Constitution and unlawfully expanded executive power, maintains an enemies list, uses the IRS to persecute political opponents, abused prosecutorial discretion, andselectively prosecuted some while exonerating its friends guilty of much more serious offenses? Or the one who sometimes says “You’ll be sorry” in the heat of a debate?
And that’s just Mrs. Clinton’s affiliation with the present administration; this hardly exhausts her tyrannical tendencies, which have a long history stretching back to intimidating her husband’s sexual assault victims into silence. And that, too, is to say nothing of her preferred policies which—in keeping with the whole tenor of the left today—are far more “authoritarian” than anything Trump has proposed.
But, we know well that tu quoque is not an argument. We stake our case not on Trump the man but on Trumpism: secure borders, economic nationalism, and interests-based foreign policy. We once again ask: if Trump-the-man is bad as Douthat and everyone else on the right (and left) insists, what does that say about his army of supporters and fans? Conservatives—at least since the twilight of right-wing elitists such as Mencken and Albert Jay Nock—have tended to rhapsodize about the superior wisdom of the common man; Buckley and the Boston phone book, etc. That pose becomes difficult to maintain when your beloved common man—or at the very least a third of the Republican primary electorate—is enthralled with an unacceptable demagogue.
Not that we’re convinced that’s what Trump is; only that the logic of conservative anti-Trumpism admits no other explanation. The proto-tyrant has but two paths to power: crime and violence or the support of the demos. Since Trump does not appear to be pursuing the former, his intended path must be the latter. And this route is possible only when the people are corrupt. Therefore—unmistakably if only implicitly—according to Douthat and all his conservative endorsers, the American people, or a sizable portion of them, are corrupt. At a minimum, they cannot tell good men from bad and perhaps not even right from wrong.
If this is true, then do we not in some sense deserve Trump? Or someone like Trump? Have we not degenerated to the point that we are ready for Caesar?
Caesarism is not tyranny. It is rather a sub-species of absolute monarchy, in which the monarch is not an unjust usurper but the savior of a country with a decayed republican order that can no longer function, and of a corrupt people no longer capable of self-government. Caesarism is therefore just, if “in the way in which deserved punishment is just.” So why blame Trump?
Douthat and his admirers would no doubt rebel at this conclusion, with no less vehemence than Polus and Callicles fumed at Socrates’ “proof” that the unhappiest man is the one who gets away with his every injustice. Therefore, there must be a logical flaw somewhere in the above. Perhaps it was imported, like a bit of buggy code, inside one of Douthat’s premises?
* We will have more to say about the so-called “scientific” study of political phenomena.