The 83rd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.
[EDITORS’ NOTE: This post began as a reply/rebuttal to Andrew Sullivan’s massive recent think-piece on the fragility of democracy. It then grew in the writing, like a Neolithic campfire tale that grows in the telling, into the present behemoth that is two-thirds the length of the piece it criticizes. We offer it without apology, but with this TL;DR summary: Sullivan is wrong in his interpretation of theory and wrong in his practical assertion that Trump aspires to tyranny; there is a non-trivial difference between Caesarism and tyranny and if Trump represents either, it is the former, though we doubt that too; the only way to bypass or at least stave off the apparent inevitability of Caesarism is to reassert the will of the people over that of the administrative state and our ruling oligarchy; and Trump is the only political figure not just in this cycle but in at least a generation even to make the attempt.]
The first thing to note (gloat) is that we were here first. We’ve warned about the possibility of tyranny—or, more precisely, of Caesarism—almost since the inception of this journal. Sullivan is just following us.
Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”
Emphasis ours. Sullivan, despite being white and male, is at least not straight. He therefore has sufficient victimization pokemon points to say baldly what any straight white man would be hung for saying. Still, kudos to him for saying it. He didn’t have to and he could easily have gotten away with denying it.
This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization. The Black Lives Matter left stoked the fires still further; so did the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes.
This passage is considerably more problematic. Sullivan accepts uncritically that the Tea Party was somehow “racist,” despite the facts that all their rhetoric was about spending and debt, and that repeated attempts to bait them into saying, doing, or endorsing “racist” things all failed. His claim that “Obama never intended this” is risible; only someone still in the throes of 2008 unrequited love could possibly be so daft. But at least Sullivan—virtually alone on the left—acknowledges the extent to which the left’s endless and merciless persecution of its enemies is provoking an entirely predictable backlash.
Now, back to our criticism. Sullivan’s main intention is to argue that Trump is a would-be tyrant. He ends with the grandiosely absurd claim that a Trump election would be “an extinction level event”—if not for America, at least for American democracy.
The evidence for Trump’s tyrannical aspirations is weak, if not exactly non-existent. But first let’s consider the two core definitions of “tyrant.” The first, as noted, is usurper. Trump is using the legitimate electoral process to gain power. That of course is also no bar to tyranny. Many tyrants do exactly this. But typically with the aim of staying in power forever. Exceptions are rare. Of the top of our head we can think of Sulla and Pinochet (the former of whom was arguably not a tyrant, and the latter of whom did not use a legitimate process to gain the tyranny) and not many others.
Does Trump intend to stay in power for life—and possibly make his tyranny hereditary? So far from indicating anything of the kind, he’s even dropped hints that he may serve only one term. He’s also said (in comments I can’t now find, but clearly remember) that maybe the times call for a leader like him right now, but the times will change and he intends not to be the stage when they do.
These are not the words of a would-be tyrant. Now, of course it’s possible he’s lying. Tyrants do tend to lie, after all. Who can know for sure? But that would be inconsistent with another anti-Trump meme: that he really doesn’t want this at all, he’s just enjoying the attention. Whatever else one may say about tyrants, they really do want it.
Moreover, what is the real difference between presidencies-for-life (to which, again, it does not appear that Trump aspires) and America’s emerging dynastic politics? It’s already semi-embarrassing that the son of a president seceded his father with only one intervening administration. Now we face the prospect of a president’s wife doing so after two? There’s talk of Michelle Obama, Chelsea Clinton, the Obama girls, George P. Bush, etc., all running for office someday. The Kennedy dynasty eventually ran out of steam but the impulse remains—and it is yet another sure sign of a corrupt people. Do we also think that a Hillary administration will not, in the decisive sense, be a Bill administration? In the same way that the Bill administration was also a Hillary administration? Her election may satisfy the letter of the 22ndAmendment, but its spirit? In this as in so many other dreary ways, modern America resembles nothing so much as the “banana republics” Americans once confidently ridiculed.
So we’re quite doubtful that Trump is a would-be tyrant in this, the more precise sense. But what about the other sense—the abuse of power? Here we’re a little more wary. Trump has said disturbing things, in particular about free speech. His critics have seized on these as “proof” that Trump is dangerous and unfit for the Presidency. That may be, but these few off-the-cuff comments are at most hints in that direction, not proof. Trump is not exactly disciplined from the stump. He shoots his mouth off a lot and probably says many things he doesn’t really mean and makes many threats for the sake of rhetorical bluster. We may be wrong about that, and we will duly apologize if President Trump begins serially persecuting his political enemies. When will Sullivan apologize for his support of Obama’s tyrannical measures?
However, let’s think this issue through for a moment. What the anti-Trumpites are really saying is that they have no faith in the effectiveness of American institutions, in the separation of powers, in the integrity of the other branches of government, or in the American people themselves to check a lawless president. And why should they, given not just the last seven-and-a-half years but the last twenty? Or thirty? Our government hasn’t functioned as is it supposed to do—as its “parchment barriers” say it must—in a generation at least. The reasons are deep and complex and we once again refer you back to Cato the Elder’s analyses of the administrative state. But the idea that Trump is some unique danger strikes us as a joke.
Shall we go through Hillary’s tyrannical instincts and abuses of power one more time? What is likely to come from a second Clinton Administration? Do we need to go into detail? Or is it sufficient to say: every Obama-era left0wing cause and more. Every fresh enthusiasm will be pressed to the max. She will govern at least as lawlessly—and probably much more so, given that Obama has paid absolutely no price for his lawlessness, and therefore she will be emboldened to press the pedal to the floor. Congress either doesn’t care or is ineffectual (both, really) and the judiciary is on their side.
Still and all, we hold no grudge against those who say they simply cannot vote for Trump. We hold conscience sacred and cherish the fact that (for now) we all still live in a polity that allows for such principled stands.
We do, however, find their reasoning beyond faulty. We’ve explained why in this post and elsewhere on this blog. Indeed, to explain why may be said to be the purpose of this blog. We now turn to a reason we’ve not yet explicitly explored, because it is depressing. But given the direction the Trump conversation is going, it can no longer be avoided.
Sullivan was far from the first to argue that Trump is (or wants to be) a tyrant. That’s been a staple of leftist rhetoric for at least six months—since it became clear that Trump’s candidacy was not a joke, that he might win the Republican nomination and even the Presidency. We’re not among those who take seriously Sullivan’s claim to be a “conservative.” But he is more honest than the actual conservatives. Their complaints about Trump’s unfitness imply the same conclusion that Sullivan states openly: they seen in Trump a potential tyrant.
We return to the non-trivial distinction between tyranny and Caesarism. We think Trump is neither. But if he is one, he is certainly a Caesar and not a tyrant. America is already post-Constitutional and has been for a long time. Obama’s signal accomplishment has been to make that abundantly clear. While we would attack many of George W. Bush’s decisions on policy grounds, we find the claim of his anti-Constitutionality to be overblown. But just to show that we are non-partisan and broadminded: the fact that the United States Congress has not declared war since 1941, despite fighting in every region of the globe, almost without a break, since that date, is the single-strongest proof that the Constitution is no longer the supreme law of our land.
Historical parallels are rarely exact and real life never unfolds exactly as even the greatest works of political philosophy predict they will. 2016 America is some respects a late-stage democracy but in others it is more decisively an oligarchy. If the American people are not thoroughly corrupt—not all of them—a big enough plurality is, and they serve as shock troops and foot soldiers for the ruling oligarchy. The Corrupt Bargain: High+Low v. Middle. And the middle is not nearly so strong—or, we must concede—so virtuous as it used to be.
To those on the “right” most appalled by Donald Trump, ask yourselves: would an incorrupt republic have elected Barack Obama? Twice? Especially after his manifestly dismal first term? Would an incorrupt republic have settled for the only-slightly-above-average son of a former president—for no greater reason than that he was the son of a former president? Would an incorrupt republic have looked past all of Bill Clinton’s manifest sordidness and elected him over a decent, if uninspiring, steward of American dignity?
The third leg in the ruling triad—replacing, you might say, Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool—is the administrative state. It was built by the ruling oligarchy and their allies in government and the intelligentsia. It is to our governing arrangements what the drive-train is to an automobile. The oligarchy drives. The lower masses and the middle and upper fringes both go along for the ride and get to influence the direction and some of the stops. The administrative state makes it all work—but also, like KITT the talking car, has a will of its own. It allows itself to be driven, but only to destinations it approves, and—crucially—resists when anyone tries to take the car off road or turn it around.
When people do not keep watch over the commons, it is destroyed. It results, then, that they fall into civil factions, compelling one another by force and not wishing to do what is just themselves (1167b13-16).
Is the magnitude of the challenge beginning to sink in?
Here’s the really depressing part. Recall the point above about Caesarism and inevitability. If Sullivan (looking past his errors) and the “conservatives” (in spite of their prissiness) are right, then not only does America deserve Caesarism, there’s not really anything we could do to stop it. Neither Sullivan nor the conservatives could possibly admit that but the internal logic of their arguments demand it. If it’s true, then we have a very difficult matter to think through.
The historical Caesar led the party of the people, i.e., in the context of that time, the lower orders or the “left.” That’s roughly analogous to what Steve Sailer calls our “Coalition of the Fringes.” Our “right” is the historic American majority, and those who self-identify with its interests and/or desire to be a part of it. This division is not nearly so neat as optimati v. populari in ancient Rome, as (for instance) the richest Americans tend to be on our “left” while our “right” tends to be significantly poorer than the blue city upper middle class and also rejects many tenets of “conservative” policy orthodoxy. No wonder conservative pundits have had such a hard time understanding what is going on. Although if they spent any time studying history, they might recognize that such patterns are rarely neat. Even in Rome, many nominal patricians were by the time of the Civil Wars dirt poor, many of the leading optimati were homines novi, and Ceasar himself was an equestrian.
At any rate, the point here is that just because the “left” “won” and claimed the curile chair for itself that time, that doesn’t mean it will always do so. Even though the cycle of regimes, on the downslope, shifts inexorably leftward, a left-wing Caesar is not inevitable. The optimate Sulla, after all, won the first round and later relinquished power in a surprising act of forbearance. Caesar defeated Pompey only because of the latter’s foolishness at Pharsalus. Like the Battle of Waterloo, that was a near-run thing and could have gone either way.
All of this is to say: if we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)? We may return to this dismal theme later. But for now, let us leave it covered with the veil by which it is justly covered.
For things may not have sunk quite so far just quite yet. Despite all of America’s wretched fractures and self-inflicted wounds, there is still—we believe, for now—an American majority broadly united by American interests. We caused immeasurable harm to our country via post-1965 mass immigration and the strip-mining of our industrial base. Those who say “we can never go back” are certainly right, but their insistence on continuing “forward” is perverse. Trump is the first major political to come along and say “Let’s stop digging!”
We doubt that America will ever be able to assimilate the current plethora of immigrants to the same admirable extent that we assimilated the giant Ellis Island cohort. But we can surely do better than we’re doing now. And even to try will require Trump’s wall and much else. So let’s get on with it.
Similarly, we’re fairly confident—for myriad reasons—that America’s manufacturing sectors will never return to their full mid-20th century glory. But the recent “insourcing” trend has proved that Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” need not always and forever suck only in an outwardly direction. So why not adopt industrial policies that further this salutary, pro-American trend?
And the two go together. Getting control of immigration and setting sound industrial policy will, together, improve the economic prospects of the lower half of our workforce to a greater extent than either would in isolation. This will in turn at least partially unify their currently disparate interests. Common economic interests can serve as the foundation for common cultural and political interests. The result—someday—may not be exactly an idealized Concordia. But it would be much better than what we have now—and much, much, much better than the future we’ll devolve to if we don’t radically change course.
Just because we can’t time travel back to 1965 doesn’t mean we must continue to hurtle toward a 2065 in which America is third-rate and Third World—and no longer meaningfully American, culturally, nationally or in its principles.
The foregoing may be the most optimistic thing I will ever write. Don’t ask me if I believe it. I do, however, know this: none of it—none—is possible unless we can get control of the administrative state. Trump is the only candidate who offers even a glimmer of hope on that score. We at JAG have received friendly criticism along the lines of “What you say about the administrative state makes sense, but there’s no way in hell Trump consciously understands himself as acting toward that goal.”
At some point we will come to see that the developed world’s massive expansion of personal sexual liberty has provided a useful cover for the shrivelling of almost every other kind. Free speech, property rights, economic liberty and the right to self-defence are under continuous assault by Big Government. But who cares when Big Government lets you shag anything that moves and every city in North America hosts a grand parade to celebrate your right to do so?