The 9th post on the Journal of American Greatness originally published in February, 2016.
EDITORS’ NOTE: We are honored to present, in nearly unedited form, the musings of one of our great teachers. This was prepared in haste to calm the nerves of a genuinely conservative mutual friend who finds much to admire in Trumpism but has reservations about Trump. Not drafted for publication, the essay perhaps falls short of the focus and precision of which its author is more than capable given sufficient leisure (in the sense of σχολή, not “pool time”). However, it is so rich with necessary insight that we present it here for the edification of those with sufficient λόγος to understand it.
During the pre-South Carolina debate, Donald Trump notoriously said that Bush (43) should have been impeached. This naturally caused all sorts of outrage among “conservatives.”
But what did Trump mean? That Bush should have been impeached for abuse of power? That would have required a Congress jealous of its own powers. Not such a bad thing. Perhaps it also means if Trump wins but then abuses his own powers, Congress should impeach him as well. I see no reason not to welcome that sentiment, either.
Yet if conservatives think they can conserve anything meaningful from the past (including Constitutionalism) after the wholesale destruction of a regime of civil and religious liberty that was built upon a moral tradition established by a two-thousand-year old civilization, they are deluding themselves. The traditional moral and political defense of civil and religious liberty has been undermined. American citizens, who want to live by the virtues established by that old moral tradition, have no real public means of defending their way of life, because the Washington elites have succeeded in transforming the moral foundations of contemporary political and social life behind the backs of the American people, and without their consent. The old regime of civil and religious liberty has been cut from under the people who long for it. “Morality” today is established, confirmed, and legitimized by contemporary intellectual elites. It seems that the best conservatives can hope for is to defend policies that appear to protect ”conservative” opinions on abortion, health care, limited government, and constitutionalism, seemingly unaware of the fact that those opinions are tolerated among contemporary elites because they have nothing to do with political reality in terms of reversing those policies, or re-establishing the limitations required by a constitutional government.
Frankly, I don’t think any of this matters. The real question is whether Trump is trying to re-establish the ground of politics as central to re-establishing the authority of the people. Policies can be changed, but now they are changed—or kept the same—without the consent of the governed. In fact, policy today is changed only by an administrative elite that is responsive to the interests of the various economic, social, cultural, religious, scientific, media, and entertainment elites. It remains a fact that, in the administrative state, the only thing NOT needed to change policies—or even the entire way of life of a people—is the authority of the people themselves. Does Trump understand that the first political necessity is to take the power out of the hands of the elites? He must, because all of the interested elites, including “conservatives,” fear that he threatens to take precisely that power out of their hands.
In truth, leftist policies cannot be reversed without a political revolution, one that would undermine the established authority of both contemporary liberalism and conservativism. It would also require re-animating the role of the people as a political force in Washington, which has become the heart of the administrative state and the source of the authority of the national intellectual and social elites, or the cognoscenti.
Conservatives such as Victor Hanson and Charles Murray, who are now taking Trump seriously, do so by separating Trump from Trumpism. They want to understand the importance of the political movement created by Trump; and they attempt to do so by separating Trump from the people, from the political constituency he created. But like any political movement, this one is unintelligible without Trump. He mobilized that political movement on behalf of a political reality that was in opposition to the socially constructed public world that had been created by the political, social, and media elites. That elite had dictated what constituted the morally defensible in the political and social world. It had determined what constituted allowable outrage against public decency.
Yet, since the end of the cold War, a whole way of life established by a venerable tradition was under attack by social, economic, intellectual, and religious elites, with little possibility of outrage against those who brought it about, precisely because conservative and liberals alike had accepted the inevitability of what they knew was only a “narrative.” In fact, despite the abuses of authority, and various scandals generated in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, no moral outrage could be directed against the Washington establishment, from without or within. Watergate had established the ground of permissible moral outrage against the political, but it was not on behalf of the people, it was on behalf of the Washington establishment.
Reagan’s questioning of the legitimacy of centralized administrative government, and his defense of civil society, resonated with the electorate. It put the Washington establishment on the defensive for a decade. But by the end of the 1990s, the line between government and civil society had almost vanished, as the administrative state came to be centered on the presidency, with its vast ability to influence public opinion. Public opinion was both vulgarized and politicized during that decade. The coarsening of the culture was accelerated and the politicization of the private sphere had encompassed nearly everything including the movies, television, sports, music, and popular entertainment. Indeed, much of civil society was transformed in such a way as to become merely a reflection of the moral and political opinions established by elite intellectual opinion.
Consequently, it had become increasingly difficult to defend the autonomy of those private institutions in civil society that had depended upon a public, and political, defense of traditional morality. Government itself participated in undermining public support for those civil society institutions, such as the family and the churches, which had been dependent upon the authority of the old morality. This transformation occurred without organized political debate, and without the participation of the people in terms of legitimizing such a radical transformation of public opinion and public authority.
On the contrary, the political and enlightened elite—alone—had determined what constituted acceptable moral standards in the public sphere. As for the people themselves, no outrage at sexual scandal in the highest places, political corruption, or political correctness could resonate politically without the blessing of the Washington establishment. Rather, any kind of moral or political misbehavior on the part of the political establishment was defended on the ground that it was merely private behavior, unrelated to public performance.
But during the Clinton administration, the line between public and private behavior had nearly vanished because of the politicization of the culture and the coarsening of society as a whole. The public moral character of the regime would, subsequently, come to be shaped almost exclusively by the private interests and personal predilections of the cognoscenti. As a result, nearly any kind of private behavior that had an influential intellectual constituency (not necessarily large ones) could demand and receive public recognition in the form of government protection of private behavior as a public right.
It was not long before the only justifiable moral outrage was in opposition to those who still attempted to defend traditional morality. That morality came to be viewed as nothing more than the private, or personal, values of the ignorant and the vulgar, or the bigoted; and therefore unworthy of a public defense. In other words, the only public, or political, outrage that was socially and intellectual acceptable was moral outrage against the old morality. In short, the political and social elites had created an intellectual and political environment that made it nearly impossible to mobilize any public, or political support, for those traditional virtues that had made the defense of civil and religious liberty possible and necessary.
Trump has re-animated the political meaning of moral outrage, by being outrageous on behalf of what had come to be understood as the vulgar and unsophisticated, the hoi polloi. In doing so, he showed that it was the people, themselves, who could and should be outraged—by exposing the agenda and the hypocrisy of the Washington elites.
But that required using outrage on behalf of the political sphere once again. It also required an appeal to the people, against the establishment. Although in the past quarter century, nearly every aspect of the culture had become vulgarized, manners had been coarsened in both public and private life without complaint, it had become nearly impossible to mount a political opposition to the transformation of the culture. On the other hand, the establishment had erected a wall around public political behavior, in which coarseness or vulgarity, which so permeated the rest of society, was off limits in terms of political competition and debate. It appeared that only in politics are there rules of civility that still had to be observed. But the arbiters of good taste depended upon an agreement among themselves that required control of the public conversation, or the narrative. As a result, the people must only be able to understand their government through the lens provided by the national political, social, and media elites.
Trump’s unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of elite opinion concerning what is allowable in terms of the conversation, shattered political correctness and threatened the social and political control that was dependent upon the agreement of all of the intellectual elites. He could not do this in any civil, or politically acceptable, manner. Perhaps he thought that the political world ought to be treated in the same way as the rest of society. He coarsened and vulgarized politics in the same manner that the elites had coarsened and vulgarized the popular culture and the whole of civil society. That was too much for all of those who had come to understand themselves as the arbiters of manners: the sophisticated or the cognoscenti.
Not surprisingly, a liberal and conservative establishment—which had not been able to summon up any moral indignation against the outrageous behavior of the elites in the past quarter century—are outraged by the outrageous behavior of Trump. By making outrage political again, and placing that outrage in the hands of the people rather than the elites, even the behavior of the Clintons in the 1990s—which had not resonated at the time because none of the elites would or could make an issue of it—has re-emerged in a political manner that was almost inconceivable before Trump.
And this is not because Trump has said anything new or radical. It is because he did what no educated intellectual, or academic, would do: he took the side of what had come to be seen as the simple, if not ignorant, common man, against the enlightened and sophisticated elites of the social and intellectual world. He seems to understand that the coming political battle is a battle for control of public opinion, as Lincoln understood that term. Public opinion is, and has been for decades, treated as the private preserve of specialists, post-modern intellectuals, social scientists, lawyers, bureaucrats. Or, to put it in Hegelian terms, public opinion has been formulated, authorized, and legitimized by what has come to be understood as ‘the rule of organized intelligence.” There is no respectable opinion that has been able to emerge without the authority and the consent of the intellectual elites. In fact, there seems to be nothing quite like the political challenge to the authority of the cognoscenti, such as that posed by Trump in his appeal to the political authority of the people.
Again, what Trump seems to have understood is the necessity of revitalizing the political by reestablishing the authority of the people, rather than upholding the intellectual authority of the cognoscenti. Given his flamboyance and his unorthodox methods, many question whether he seeks power on behalf of the people, or on his own behalf. That will depend upon whether he is ambitious enough to understand that his self-interest, and his glory, will be assured by his success in pursuing the public good. Whether he will know how to harness and mobilize that political movement on behalf of restoring a constitutional order remains an open question.
Nonetheless, in the case of those who might learn from Trump, they need to understand that the fundamental problem of our time is to determine how to re-animate political rule in a way that allows public opinion, understood to arise in the creation of constitutional majorities, to establish the legitimacy of politics and policies, so that the resulting policies are compatible with the rule of law and the common good. If the people are to understand themselves as a sovereign people, they must reestablish the authority of the Constitution in a manner that makes it possible to restore the theoretical and moral ground of civil and religious liberty. That requires revitalizing the meaning of citizenship and reaffirming the sovereignty of the people and the nation.
Since the end of the Cold War, our leaders have understood their offices in terms of global and administrative rule, rather than political rule on behalf of the people and the nation. We have become so accustomed to administrative rule that we have forgotten that political rule requires the consent of the governed (not the consent of self-interested minorities of whatever kind) to establish its legitimacy. But such consent is possible only when a people understand themselves as a people, in a country where the regime supports the people by recognizing the political rule of its citizens. That requires distinguishing our citizens from all others.
It seems that Trump, at least, recognizes the necessity of re-establishing the sovereignty of the people as the first step in reaffirming political rule. In a certain way, this is an American form of the problem at the center of the Strauss-Kojeve debate: on the one hand a universal bureaucracy and a global elite that caters to human pleasure (sports, entertainment, erotica), which Strauss considered a tyranny; on the other, the question of whether there is sufficient pride in human beings for them to fight to retain their freedom and dignity, and hence reestablish a particular political order which is their own. (And not in Kant’s meaning of “freedom” and “dignity,” but the meaning established by the earlier philosophical and theological tradition).
Recreating the political authority of one people is the first step on the road to re-establishing the political conditions of civil and religious liberty, provided there is sufficient civic spiritedness, if not yet virtue, in the citizenry. But that requires political leadership that is capable of animating the civic spiritedness necessary for the revival of the political virtues required for self-rule. The administrative state has fragmented, isolated, and infantilized the people. Constitutionalism is at its core a political defense of the sovereignty of the people. Consequently, the fundamental problem is how to reestablish the sovereignty of one people, and restore the political authority of a Constitution that protects the natural rights of its citizens. Is Donald Trump up to the task?
—CATO THE ELDER