The GOP’s Grand Bargain Fizzles

The 96th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

ESTABLISHMENT FRUSTRATION at Donald Trump’s candidacy is less frustration with Trump himself than with the fraying of the constituency that initially made possible Republican electoral success. During the twelve years of Republican presidents 1981–1993, and especially after Republicans’ seizing of the House of Representatives in 1994, a new conservative intellectual superstructurewas built upon the new base of the Republican Party. As with every superstructure, it routinized the production of its self-justification. The magazines, journals, think tanks and conferences confirmed one another in the certainty that Reagan conservatism, glossed with shiny trade deals and an Internet boom, would remain the formula of the future.

The base no longer wants the superstructure. While the superstructure may pretend that the base’s candidate is simply distasteful to them, what really galls them is that the base and the candidate reject their account of what conservatism is. In one breath, as though it were the same thing, they assert that Donald Trump is not a true conservative and that Donald Trump is not a true Republican. As Charles Krauthammer put it, “Trump has no affinity whatsoever for the central thrust of modern conservatism—a return to less and smaller government,” and yet—and yet!—his policy positions depart from the Republican Platform. (We’re not sure if Krauthammer intended to exclude the Weekly Standard‘s “Big-Government Conservatism.”) Jay Cost too views the party the same way: “The GOP was, for generations,” he says, “the vehicle for advancing conservative ideology.”

Trump was roundly mocked for saying that his party is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party. Never mind that a party called “Republican” should preserve the res publica rather than any particular policy agenda. Yet all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put the old coalition back together again. “Folks,” said Trump on April 29, “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares? We got to straighten out the country.” 😱 Straightening out the country and preserving the nation is the most conservative thing Trump could do.

The conservative para-intellectual superstructure has forgotten that it is a product of the base. Worse yet, it has forgotten that the base was assembled of disparate parts.

With breathtaking naïveté, writers for the superstructure assert that conservatism is “fusionism”—that is, the fusion of principled social conservatism with principled pro-business capitalism. That intellectual assemblage is only the temporary projection of a now-fissured base.

But even this account is wrong. The real fusion was between socially conservative voters and the pro-business interests that define the Republican Party—excuse us, defined. The Republican establishment has two choices: to remain blind to its fabrication out of an earlier social and economic condition, and so to pass into the night; or to join the new elite.

RECENT OBSERVATIONS that “in a fully-Trumpized G.O.P., Reagan’s ideological coalition would crack up” reverse cause and effect. The causes that first brought the “Moral Majority” into the Republican Party are no longer operative in the way that they were in 1979. They haven’t been operating since the subprime mortgage crisis put an end to the ownership society, that is since Republican economic policies finally ceased helping Middle Americans. And aside from promising a solid Supreme Court appointment (which they have botched before), the Republicans can do little on the social issues at the federal level.

The Culture War, declared in 1992 to domesticate Reaganism’s guardian class, ended on June 26, 2015 with an entry in the L category. (Paul Weyrich had declared it effectively over as early as 1999.) As Mark Tushnet said the other day, “The culture wars are over; they lost, we won.” Washington Republicans could not have been happier that same-sex marriage had been taken off the table of the general election campaign. “Every once in a while, we bring down the curtain on the politics of a prior era,” a relieved David Frum told the New York Times. “The stage is now cleared for the next generation of issues.” We could all move forward on the agenda of economic libertarianism which had been in tension with what were once called “values voters.” And indeed, concern over same-sex marriage had caused Left and Right to overlook the deteriorating structural and economic forms which condition family structure.

Though Tushnet’s comments have prompted consternation across the Lumpencommentariat, ordinary Americans know that he is right. The culture wars are over. The Right lost and the Left won. Bathroom arrangements for transsexuals could only become a national issue once all other important issues of social progressivism were settled. Race has returned as a cause célèbre for the same reason. When every other goal has been attained, return to the beginning.

Trump’s supposed neglect of the social issues is an instinctive awareness of the national GOP’s weakness on the social issues. Great families great with children are a sign of a great nation, he would say. I love families! Families struggle in the toxic environment of economic libertarianism on the right and social libertarianism on the left. Political correctness steals the last dignities of those ordinary Americans who have lost or who struggle to maintain everything else.

The social issues are no longer enough to keep ordinary Middle Americans on the Establishment GOP reservation. The evidence? Trump won. And the social issues are no longer enough to keep ordinary Middle Americans voting Republican at all. The evidence? They didn’t vote for Romney.

Not hating ordinary family life is just another part of not hating America. It is a part, a subordinate or entry-level part, of every Greatness Agenda. It does not entitle a Republican candidate to the support of self-described social conservatives any more than it entitles Vladimir Putin to the support of the same. Countries need families and children to be great. Even the Wall Street Journallaments that the U.S. “is experiencing a baby lull that looks set to last for years, a shift demographers say will likely ripple through the U.S. economy and have an impact on everything from maternity wards to federal social programs.”

For that reason, after the possibility of winning the Culture Wars went away, ordinary Americans’ application of a socially conservative litmus test to Republican candidates disappeared (or at least changed) as well. But ordinary Americans’ love of American greatness did not go away. The neoconservatives paid for loyalty to their military adventures through ordinary Americans’ real chants of “U-S-A!” and countless other expressions of patriotism that no one of the Washington left or right would perform. Again, the matters of life, family, marriage and so forth were never the whole concern of voters who described themselves as socially conservative. They had to be embraced as a defensive posture as the progressive agenda on those matters advanced from the 1960s to today. Flags symbolize victory, though, and the rainbow flag flies high.

WHEN MIDDLE AMERICANS INKED THEIR DEAL with the Republican Party, they were still prospering economically. Ordinary states, not even really special ones like California or New York, had modernized America and made her great: what else did the swan-song talk of the “Greatest Generation” mean? Though American industrial might already began to decline in the 1970s, Middle American had more than enough greatness to last for a while. Americans took home respectable paychecks, could earn interest even in bank savings accounts, and provided for their families. As the tides began to shift, honorable blue-collar work became harder to find and the service sector emerged, progress—though now somehow more uncertain—could at least be understood as advancing in a new way. The massive credit expansion of the 1990s and early 2000s covered over the shift away from wages to credit, and away from industry to finance.

Middle Americans did not see for a long time that their long-term interests were not being served by the Republican Establishment’s interpretation of what free-market economics meant. They voted for Republicans because while Republicans might be stupid, at least they weren’t evil (a parallelism coined by Sam Francis). Stated Republican policies on marginal tax rates, financial deregulation, voucher programs and the like seemed more reasonable than the alternative, and the Southern Strategy had bought off Middle Americans’ earlier sympathy for Democratic Party economics. Meanwhile, any challenge to the complicated legal arrangements known as free trade agreements was (and is) met with recitations of neo-Ricardian maxims. Economists cannot even figure out how to analyze the results of trade deals.

The association of the old “Moral Majority” with the classical, pro-business, pro-trade, pro-immigration GOP Establishment was an alliance of convenience made possible by the Democratic Party’s progressive separation from ordinary, Middle American Democrats. As we said above, the socially conservative mien of ordinary voters is only one expression they can show. Since the Culture Wars are lost, what reason do they have to show their socially conservative face, when their economic stagnation is making it more and more difficult to live a minimally socially conservative life?

Common explanations of why “conservative white evangelicals” would vote for Trump overlook the economic stagnation of many evangelicals, and also overlooks the end of the Culture War (since the Left, as Mark Tushnet implies, is otherwise still fighting it). The New York Times spoke more truth than it realized in calling the old alliance “a lasting deal for Republican candidates.” Merely citing “the extraordinary weakness of what establishment conservatism has stood far” is also inadequate, even though the statement holds.

The constant complaints that Trump isn’t a real Republican or a real conservative overlook the pragmatic relationship between the Republican constituency and the Republican platform over the last thirty years.

What was a platform of convenience is, in response to Trump, being canonized as Principled Conservatism™ by the Lumpencommentariat. Frank Meyer, Jonah Goldberg explained last November, “created an entire philosophical project called ‘fusionism’ to explain why conservatism and libertarianism should remain joined at the hip. In brief, he said that a virtuous society must be a free society, because acts not freely chosen are not virtuous. National Review remains an essentially fusionist enterprise.” But as George Nash explains in the pages of National Review, fusionism succeeded as a “formula for political action” rather than as a “theoretical construct.”

Henry Olsen, also writing at National Review, likened the fusionist political alliance to the Articles of Confederation. “Once the common enemy had been defeated, however, the Articles proved insufficient for the newly independent country to govern itself.” Olsen was right to note the character of fusionism as an alliance, but fusionism hasn’t defeated any common enemy. On the contrary, the Globalization First wing of the Republican Party traded its conservative-fueled electoral success for the Davoisie Agenda. It harmed the economic interests of the Middle Americans who were its own temporary constituency, while occasionally servicing their socially conservative demands. Its complaints about Trump’s “morals and character” are simply an attempt to keep morals-and-character voters on the reservation.

WHEN MARX SPOKE OF THE “BASE,” he did not mean the voters of today’s Republican Party but the totality of economic conditions, property distributions, social interests and means of production that organize and make possible ordinary life. When the socially conservative interests of ordinary Americans were primary due to the decency and thus lower priority of their economic life, they made common cause with the Republican business class. As economic stagnation has gripped large parts of the electorate and as elite indifference toward American Greatness has grown more evident, the Republican elite have seemed less stupid to their own voters—and a little more evil.

Only the superstructure would think that the Republican policy agenda must always be embraced as an agenda rather than, as it has been for ordinary Americans, as the means to realize the goal of American Greatness. That error is to be expected. It is in the nature of superstructures to think such things.

In order to rescue themselves Republican politicians, strategists, theoreticians, journalists and policy wonks will have to stop christening the party’s platform of convenience as Principled Conservatism™. All this time we thought they were more cynical. Yet off they ride, away from convenience into the arms of theory. It is a remarkable time.

As we have noted on a prior occasion, with few exceptions the managerial elite doubt the efficacy of their own solutions. Managing a nation from which one is otherwise detached is terribly inconvenient. It is sad to be a revolutionary class and not recognize what one is. How the members of this class can reorient themselves is a matter best left to them. Their efforts “to dissolve the people / and elect another” have not borne any fruit beneficial to them. The managers’ own policies have altered the base, and if they do not shift then this time they may well be replaced. Hoping that Trump is a passing problem, hoping that they can sprinkle bits of Trumpism atop Ryanism and have a nice dinner—small moves will not save them. To begin they will have to realize why the Greatness Agenda, though its parts change, will appeal to men and women so long as they love their countries. Indicting those people for being insufficiently principled mistakes secondary principles for primary ones.



Restatement on Sulla

The 95th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

Friar knocks us—we mean that in a friendly way, as he is a friend of JAG—for inappropriately comparing Trump to Sulla.  We fear that he misunderstood our point, or that we made it with insufficient clarity, or both.  So let us clarify.

The more apt comparison to Sulla—which we made in an early post—is to Reagan.  That might offend Friar even more, but we meant it in a very narrow sense.  (And I am indebted to my colleague Plautus for this brilliant, mischievous suggestion.)  Reagan was of course (leftist calumnies aside) not the bloodthirsty monster that Sulla was.  But he appears to have been, and may turn out to be, the last president who seriously tried to restore the old Constitutional order to its proper functioning.  The resemblance to Sulla on that score is unmistakable—as is their joint failure.

In the Sullivan essay to which Friar objects, we mentioned Sulla only twice: the first time, as one of the very few seizers of absolute power who has ever given it up voluntarily; the second time as the first “winner” in Rome’s conflict between the optimati and the populari.  Friar seems to think that we meant to compare Trump to Sulla—in method, intent, or something else.

Nothing could have been further from our minds.  The first reference was meant to illustrate how rare it is that tyrants ever leave power.  If Trump is a would-be tyrant—as many allege—then he is unusual in having shown no sign of wishing to remain in power for life.  The second was to show that if America is truly in its “late republican” stage, then Caesarism is inevitable, but which side Caesar will be on is not.  The actual Caesar who founded the Roman Empire was of the party of the populari, but he won on a fluke (or to say better, the imprudence of others).  And before he won, Sulla—of the opposite party—had won first and resigned, thinking (mistakenly) that he had restored the orders he sought to revive.

None of that is to say that Trump favors proscriptions (though we at JAG could accomplish a lot with George Soros’ money, ahem) or any of the rest of Sulla’s rather nasty methods.  It’s just to say: if this is really the end, it’s not inevitable that the anti-Western, anti-American left will become the monarch of the coming degraded imperial age.  A “right” whose priority is the interests of the historic American nation might also—and perhaps even more likely—end up in the curile chair.

It’s a depressing thought, to be sure, but these are depressing times.  Let’s hope things do not come to that.  The implementation of the Greatness Agenda might help to see that they don’t.


Useless Idiots

The 94th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

Someone named James Lileks doesn’t like us. Who is James Lileks, you ask? I had no idea, either, until I looked him up after being informed of his animadversions against this august Journal. For anyone who cares to know, Lileks blogs for National Review on occasion, mostly about Star Wars (the film franchise, not the Reagan-era aerospace program). He’s also a guest on a few podcasts. Overall, he seems to be an enthusiastic adherent of the Jonah Goldberg style of punditry, in which every argument is expressed through a dorky reference to GenX pop culture. But Lileks’ real claim to fame, according to Google search at least, is that he got fired from the Minneapolis local newspaper some years ago. After reading his sloppy arguments and failed attempts at humor, I can understand why. It is frankly a waste to spend time on Lileks’ rubbish, but some things need to be clarified, and correcting Lileks’ silly errors might reveal some important truths.

First off, Lileks doesn’t like our website design. We’ll give him that one, but if it makes him feel better, he can think of it as occupying the bleeding edge of the return to 1990s internet aesthetics. Consider it the online equivalent of normcore.

More substantively, he doesn’t like that we have attempted to understand “Trumpism” and the reasons for its surprising popularity beyond the utterances of Trump himself:

…the authors seem to have a remarkable amount of confidence that Trump will implement the philosophy they have named after him. The last time I saw this much projection on a blank object my ticket said IMAX. [Hahahaha! I guess conservative humor is now as lame as its policy….]

Of course, we have no such confidence that Trump himself will implement our “philosophy” (though we do think that voters could reasonably have more confidence in the blank slate of Trump than in the thoroughly discredited Bush agenda). Personally, however, I hold no stake in whether anyone votes for Trump or not. Our purpose has always been to investigate how Trump managed to defeat several talented candidates for the nomination, whether there is anything to his at times incoherent message, and why it resonated with voters. Is it all just reality TV antics and racism, as Lileks and his crowd suggest? I doubt it.

The phenomenal excitement around Trump demonstrates that he represents something to his voters–and to his opponents–much larger than his actual candidacy. We have tried–sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously–to contextualize, interpret, and even articulate whatever that might be, consciously going far beyond any campaign planks. Pardon the pretentious Straussianism, but at the heart of Socratic political philosophy is questioning whether the imperfect–often buffoonish, even Lileksian–opinions of the city might point to something higher. In living memory, there has been no better opportunity for this sort of activity than that occasioned by the rise of Trump. And we have taken to writing about it on an amateur blog only because most of the pundits who get paid to do this are too stupid to do it themselves (which itself contributed to Trump’s success). We have said this many times before and hopefully will not have to say it again. If Lileks wants to write campaign talking points, he is welcome to do it, but that is not what we’re doing.

But the most objectionable sentence in Lileks’ screed (and the reason I take such a hostile tone toward a fellow niche blogger) is this:

Trumpism, as they describe it, is National Greatness. They cite the paleos – Buchanan and Sam Francis, presumably without the latter’s fears of race-mixing and letting the blonde stock sleep with the lower dusky sorts.

Presumably, whenever Lileks encounters an argument he disagrees with, his first recourse is not to smear it as racist through misleading implications. In fact, the article in which Sam Francis is referenced explicitly denounces his “deservedly criticized statements on race” and “undeniable lapses in judgment and decency.” Our rejection of those views is not merely presumable; we repudiated them beyond all doubt. Lileks could have mentioned that but chose instead to leave it at an insinuating presumably. He could also have mentioned that we have cited the works of everyone from Plato to Tocqueville to Leo Strauss, along with Irving Kristol, David Frum, Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman (some of them in the same article). But that would spoil the cheap shot of dismissing everyone he disagrees with as racist “paleos.” To repeat a now common refrain, this sort of thing is precisely why “conservative” “intellectuals” like Lileks have been so ineffectual in opposing academic “political correctness” and in the “culture war” more broadly. I’m surprised he doesn’t demand a trigger warning and a safe space as well.

Indeed, the alacrity with which Lileks resorts to the shaming tactics of campus protesters is intellectually inexcusable. Yes, Sam Francis said some morally repugnant and just plain stupid things, but that does not necessarily mean that everything he said was repugnant or stupid.  Heidegger, for example, was a Nazi, but that does not mean everything he wrote is inherently inseparable from Nazism or that everyone who reads him is a Nazi. By Lileks’ logic, the American founding documents he claims to cherish so much must be instruments of oppression, since they were written and adopted in part by slaveholders, and in original form institutionalized slavery. Even Lincoln would have to be disavowed. Norman Podhoretz, too, and on and on. But I suspect we could purge all the authors of the western (and non-western) canon and it wouldn’t bother Lileks at all. At least there is no evidence that he has ever read any of them. As long as he gets to watch Ghostbusters, he’ll be happy.

Lileks becomes even more ridiculous when he attempts to make a real argument:

The authors harbor a general and specific animus towards the commutariat [commentariat?], the Davos crowd, the rootless internationalist, and there’s a familiar tone of the faculty-lounge envy in their work. It’s not so much rule by elites they don’t seem to like it’s rule by the wrong elites.

Strictly speaking, our animus is directed more toward the Davoisie ideology of internationalism and the doctrine that human beings are just interchangeable cogs in the global economy, rather than any specific persons. But Lileks’ latter point is more interesting insofar as it is at least factually correct. Indeed we do not pretend that any society could exist without “elites.” We are not now and have never been communards. Yet the character and beliefs of those elites are critical in determining the nature of the society, and we emphatically wish for (though do not expect) their replacement by something more salutary (again, let’s leave Trump himself out of it for now). Lileks can call that “faculty-lounge envy” if he likes (hey, it’s better than press-room envy!), but we would call it a defining element of politics. If anything, we have attempted go beyond quarrels over which politicians hold executive positions to address issues of cultural power (the regime, so to speak), which we consider more fundamental. By contrast, it is Lileks and his crowd who think that all would be well if only Paul Ryan were in a position to implement his ill-conceived ideology.

Though how he would evaluate political success is unclear. Regarding our preference for judging government action on the basis of whether it helps or harms Americans, Lileks trowels out this nonsense:

Something cannot be good for all Americans, but good in general for the majority. It would be good for the majority to confiscate the annual accumulated wealth of anyone who makes more than $50 million a year, and distribute it in the form of vouchers redeemable for fruit. Of course that is not what Trumpism proposes, but when you start to introduce utilitarian calculations, then any sort of action that troubles a minority but benefits the majority is possible – and once you admit that, then the justifications for proscriptions are easily summoned.

I’m not sure where the fruit vouchers come from–I guess that’s what our celebrated humorist considers a joke?–or exactly what this means. In response, we could construct equally slippery slopes: Is Lileks arguing that if any one person objects to any particular law, then it should automatically be repealed? Can we have a government at all?

But of course none of this is serious. At issue here is whether it is possible to posit an American national interest and act on it effectively. To this, obviously, we say yes, and we would also argue that the national interest is not equivalent to majority rule. Both, admittedly, can be complicated issues in practice, though not really in concept. In any event, only someone completely ignorant of both our work and political thought generally could conclude that our arguments are premised on Benthamite utilitarianism, which we leave to the Davoisie.

So, to interpret charitably, Lileks seems to be arguing that there is no national/political interest but only individual interests and/or that any assertion of a national interest inevitably leads to tyranny. He’s welcome to that view, and if he is capable of articulating it intelligently, we’ll be happy to debate it respectfully. In the meantime, we’ll only point out that it seems to be his side that is drawing up proscriptions.

Lileks goes on:

There’s no time frame for the “goodness” that actions might bestow, which means all sorts of things might be good. It is good for Americans to forgive all mortgages. It is good for all Americans to make college free. It is good for Americans to provide universal high-quality health care. It is good! For a while. Then it isn’t.

These straw man examples notwithstanding, we wholeheartedly embrace the general point. Although some philosophic questions may be eternal, political “actions” are not. Many things are good for awhile until they aren’t. Adopting the right policies at the right time is the essence of political prudence and perhaps even virtue. It is also common sense. Tariffs, for example, were shrewd in Hamilton’s time, while expanding free trade was sound policy after World War II. We consider it a legitimate question whether it was sound policy during the last ten years or whether it will be during the next ten. Likewise, the first Gulf War was prudent. The second one was not.

We add only that exercising such judgment requires having the ability to define a national interest. Perhaps that is why any such judgment totally eludes Lileks, who seems to think that the rote repetition of his ideology for all eternity is the highest form of politics. But perhaps it is unfair to expect prudence from someone who could not hold a job reporting on zoning committee meetings in Wayzata.

Absent from their manifesto is the idea that the something Good for Americans might necessitate the expansion of the State. Perhaps because that doesn’t seem to trouble them.

Actually, it’s not absent. We state plainly that the expansion of the state, in and of itself, does not trouble us. It is at times necessary and beneficial. Would Lileks have opposed the expansion of the state needed to fight World War II? Did he oppose the Bush era expansion of the security apparatus to prevent terrorism? Rather, such expansion is troubling when it occurs for the wrong reasons or in the wrong circumstances, or, as has happened historically, remained long after the exigency which necessitated it had passed. I am not arguing for any of Trump’s proposals specifically, or that these issues are unimportant, but only that they are as much issues of prudence as they are of abstract principle.

But there’s Greatness, and there’s Goodness….You can be good without being great – indeed America was good before it was great, maybe the first time a the nation became great because it was good. Putin’s Russia aspires to be Great as the Soviet iteration; it would not be good. China is great, and its rise has allowed some new freedoms, but it has not cohered into an instrument that fosters liberty.

Giving credit where credit is due, at least Lileks does not falsely attribute the above reasoning to de Tocqueville, and he actually raises a serious point without adolescent peevishness. His principles, however, once more appear to allow no opening for prudence. But how does one advance one’s principles without prudent deviations from them on occasion? And how principled is someone, really, who is content with hollow symbolism, who shrinks from any difficult actions needed to advance his principles? Should the U.S. have refused to cooperate with Stalin or declared war on Franco in 1941 on principle? It is certainly possible to take a principled stand for a lost cause, but is principled political action confined solely to idealistic blogging?

Although we have unequivocally affirmed our commitment to the larger principles of the American founding, we are not so historically naive. America did not become great through fine speeches alone. U.S. treatment of indigenous peoples, the Mexican Cession, the Spanish-American War, and all manner of devious maneuvers during the Cold War, among many other things, could hardly be considered entirely consistent with good principles. Yet they certainly enhanced American power.

Thus, if their argument for America’s goodness stands and falls only on abstract cliches like “fostering liberty,” it is no surprise that conservatives have failed both in government and in defending their precious principles. Their historically and philosophically illiterate dogmas of universal “democracy” ultimately cannot comprehend any real politics, i.e. politics of necessity. Their professions of goodness fail both intellectually and politically insofar as they cannot justify the greatness necessary to establish or defend any form of goodness. They have refused to confront this problem–indeed they cannot even see it–and have no answer to it. Lileks does not, either, and his brush with serious argument is fleeting, soon giving way to the more comfortable ground of petty and foolish sniping:

So. The Constitution, limited government, local governance: useless, as long as the wrong people are at the helm.

Not saying that’s the case here, but: some people don’t give a rat’s ass for the Constitution if it means more Mexicans. Others are impatient with devotion to that flimsy piece of parchment, because it impedes the steps necessary to restore Greatness. They mention Caesarism a lot, usually talking about other people’s clammy, silly fears – but as one of their writers notes here and there, a rotten republic produces Caesars, and we’re certainly a rotten republic, so a Caesar is inevitable – why not make him one of us?

And the “one of us” they choose is someone their site regards as an imperfect manifestation of the ideas he “represents,”….

First of all, as he admits, mean-spirited opposition to Mexicans is not the case here, so why even say it here? Can Lileks not resist impugning everyone who disagrees with him as racist? As for those fringe characters who do make such claims, Lileks is welcome to favor them with his profanities if he so chooses, but he should do so separately. For we are not them and have explicitly repudiated those claims. For what it’s worth, I would gladly trade the entire population of Latin America for the opportunity to deport ten or twenty “conservative” pundits.

But while we’re on the subject, in what sense can the American Constitution be construed to “mean more Mexicans” (or fewer)? The framers seem to have wisely left matters of immigration policy to the prudence of subsequent governments. In addition, there are many reasons (e.g. economics, security, etc.) that might justify more restrictive immigration policies in certain circumstances and that have nothing to do with racial animosity. But of course our exalted constitutional scholar cannot condescend to acknowledge those.

As for the rest, we did not choose Caesarism, and we did not choose Trump (though we are flattered to be thought so influential). We are neither advocating for nor predicting the cultural degradation that renders true republican government impossible. We are merely observing it–and honestly acknowledging the obvious realities before us. The Founders wrote a great deal about the reliance of republican institutions on cultural institutions. Lileks should look it up sometime when he is done blogging about his household repairs.

It’s debatable, of course, but I continue to maintain that in the present cultural environment, reciting platitudes about the Constitution, limited government, and local governance is useless. On this question, it is telling that the very people who talk most about these principles know the least about them. Any genuine restoration of republican government is not merely a question of getting new “people at the helm,” in the sense of electing a true “conservative” or whatever. In the present moment, when conservatism has been routed on all important cultural and intellectual questions, restoring true constitutional–or even merely competent–government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America. Is Trump capable of accomplishing that? Probably not. But however slight the possibility may be, it is greater than the absolutely zero chance offered by pundits like Lileks and their own increasingly incoherent version of “conservatism.”

Finally, on this point, I suspect that what motivates so many of Lileks’ and his set’s moronic and futile gestures against Trump and “Trumpism” is the dawning realization of their own insignificance. Admittedly, some of the concerns about character and even “conservative principle” are neither disingenuous nor groundless. But the fevered intensity of Trump derangement syndrome, which has risen to levels far beyond any opposition to Obama’s policies or the Clinton campaign, suggests something more.

It suggests an underlying fear that Trump’s popularity will expose the fact that most of our conservative “elites” are not elite in any respect. With few exceptions, conservative “elites” lack meaningful experience in government, the military, business, or even academic credentials. Meanwhile, those who do have government experience presided over some of the worst economic and foreign policy catastrophes in our nation’s history. As a result, these “elites” only maintain their positions by demonstrating a rigid adherence to a particular ideology. And their only claim to such status is the pretense that they speak for and influence a nontrivial “conservative” minority and that they can channel its political power. The fact that Trump has prevailed against all of them precisely by rejecting their ideology, however, reveals that they cannot even do this.

Thus, whatever their principles, unlettered and inexperienced non-entities such as Lileks have a definite class interest in opposing Trump. His victory already casts doubt upon their ability to offer themselves to donors as useful idiots in the future. Presumably, Lileks is not the total idiot that he appears to be, but as both a “thought leader” without thought and a partisan without a party, he is totally useless.



Lileks’ argument that it would be “good” to confiscate wealth is nonsense and shows a lack of understanding both of political theory and economics.  Economics 101 tells us why it would not be good: state-sanctioned—and a fortiori state-practiced—theft destroys the incentive structure necessary to make an economy work, and thereby lowers productivity, standard of living and overall wealth.
Theft, it should be needless to say, is also most of the time unjust, and injustice is ipso facto never good.  (If I have Plato right, justice is always good, but the good is not necessarily always just.)  Things that most of the time are unjust may in fact be just in certain circumstances, and hence good, but this is not one of them.  Massive tax levies in a national emergency might qualify but that’s clearly not what Lileks is talking about.  We would also say (in a departure from “conservative” orthodoxy that may further upset Lileks) that in times of rampant and rising inequality, economic and tax policies that seek to narrow that gap are just, and thus good.  It’s curious, though, to read a conservative who would presumably oppose closing tax loopholes and raising rates on the rich praise confiscation as “good.”
Moreover, in perhaps the only useful work that Arthur Brooks ever did, he demonstrated using conventional social science tools that “earned success” is good for human beings.  Unearned windfalls erode their work ethic and corrupt their virtue.  There’s something to the cliché of the lottery winner whose life is subsequently ruined in debauchery and depression.
So there is really no sense in which Lileks’ proposal is “good” for anyone.  This points again to the core reason why conservative punditry is so bad: it is based either on bad “philosophy” or else has no grounding in philosophy at all.  Hence it can speak of “the good” without any conception what that rationally means and can say absurd things like theft is “good.”  Lileks and others like him are in a cave beneath even Leo Strauss’ cave beneath the cave.


NPR: Maybe She Doesn’t Have This?

The 86th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

UPDATE—May 11: NPR gave airtime to John Feehery, the president of QGA Public Affairs, in order to explain his decision to unify behind Trump in spite of his reservations: “What Donald Trump has done is he’s shaken up a political system here in Washington that desperately needs shaking up…. He’s the change candidate in this.” A variety of mainstream publications are now sounding the alarm over Hilary’s campaign. The Atlantic reported on the close Quinnipiac Poll. A certain self-described “anti-Republican” columnistwarned her as well.

UPDATE—May 10: NPR (again!) poured cold water on the anti-Trump GOP, this morning noting that time has essentially run out to get a third-party candidate on the ballot in sufficient states to carry the general election.

“SHE’S GOT THIS” has been the constantand correct—refrain during Hillary Clinton’s march to the Democratic presidential nomination. Applying this assumption to the general election was the basis of much objection to Donald Trump earlier in the primary season. Now that Trump has effectively locked up the nomination, Establishment Republicans’ deeper (well, shallower, but let’s be charitable) objections to Trump have come out into the open, the consequences be damned.

The myth of Trump’s unelectability has become the GOP Establishment’s rally cry, and that of 90 percent of “top operatives, strategists and activists,” as well. The organs of Principled Conservatism™ have abandoned their usual “red meat” posts on Republican prospects in the general election, though last time round they perpetuated the myth of Romney’s electability right to the bitter end.

Whether NPR sensed a market opportunity in trolling the Republican media is unknown to us. What is apparent is that they are unexpectedly delighting in the decline of the Republican Establishment. They show their delight not by delighting openly but by reporting what the Republicans will not report. #NeverTrump, they said on April 29, was backfiring. Weeks before that, they noted that Pennsylvania Democrats were crossing over to vote for Trump.

Today they made the dangerous suggestion that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not assured a victory in the general election. Dangerous, because Clinton’s inevitability and Trump’s unelectability are the only narratives the media will tell. What will happen when these myths implode?

Mara Liasson exposed the first myth on NPR this evening. “A lot of Democrats say that in order to beat Trump, she needs to be developing a clearer message on the economy…. Asked what, in one sentence, Clinton wants to do, here’s what David Axelrod, President Obama’s former strategist, said: ‘I don’t think Hillary Clinton wants to do anything in one sentence,’ said Axelrod.” She needs a message on the economy … but doesn’t have one at all.

“Democratic pollster Celinda Lake,” Mara added, “says Clinton needs her own origin story. She needs to tell voters why they are struggling. ‘Why are we not competitive? Why do we not have manufacturing jobs?’ said Lake…. In Celinda Lake’s polls, Democrats are consistently behind Republicans on the issue of the economy. In recent general election polls, where Clinton beats Trump handily in the horse race, the economy is the only issue where he beats her. And the economy is THE No. 1 issue. Democrats have never won a presidential election when they’re losing on the economy.

“WHAT COULD BE CLINTON’S BIG IDEA?” Mara Liasson asked, almost thirteen months after Hillary Clinton announced her 2016 campaign. “Debt-free college? A major infrastructure program? She hasn’t decided yet.”

Good luck to Hillary’s campaign staff on writing those inspiring speeches. Nothing like an infrastructure program to reverse several generations of stagnation and decline for ordinary Americans. Priming the education pump will also deliver immediate help to families in need….

Mara Liasson’s heresies didn’t stop there. “Trump beats Clinton on the economy not just because he’s a businessman … but because she’s a woman,” she said. “Lake’s polling shows that female candidates from both parties are rated behind men on the economy and jobs.” But but but … we thought … it can’t be that, this doesn’t compute and—don’t all women hate Trump, we were told…. Well anyway it’s sexist not to prefer Clinton on the economy, so maybe if the press just browbeats America into submission, then everything will be OK?

And remember, the ones who say Trump can’t win are the same ones who say Mitt Romney’s third party ticket could go all the way to the White House.

We never thought we’d say it. But if you want to hear the story of how Hillary loses, you might need to check in with NPR.


Trump, Sullivan and Caesarism

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.]

When New York Magazine announced the return of Andrew Sullivan, we thought (hoped?)—given the date—that it might be an April Fool’s joke. No such luck.


Sullivan’s first post-hiatus effort is an enormous beast—so long that the usual blogosphere exhortation to read the whole thing must be counted as sadism. Yet we managed to do it. We started because Sullivan begins with one of our interests, Plato’s observations on political decay. We kept reading, even though Sullivan botched that part, because toward the middle he started to say sensible things. We finished it because … we’re not really sure. Must have been in the grip of thesunk-cost fallacy.


We debated whether to comment on it at all. Two factors convinced us, reluctantly, to weigh in. First, the piece has already been shared more than 150,000 times. That’s shared, not read. We doubt all of JAG has been read that many times. Clearly, Sullivan maintains a wide audience. Second, he’s influential not just with the masses but with other influentials. Rod Dreher quotes the piece uncritically; Ross Douthat suggests some correctives but not nearly enough, nor the right ones. No doubt there are others we missed. Since Sullivan gets so much wrong, and since so many people—some important—read him, someone should refute him. We’re perfectly capable of doing so, and obviously have no aversion to investing large blocks of time in quasi-futility, so it may as well be us.

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.

But badly. We (almost) hate to say this, since Sullivan’s great teacher is one of our intellectual heroes, but we’re not sure he (Sullivan) learned all that he could or quite grasped what he was supposed to learn. His interpretation of Republic VIII(begins on p. 221)—on which his whole piece hangs—is wanting.


What Plato (or his Socrates) describes in the passage Sullivan summarizes is nothing other than that old JAG warhorse, the cycle of regimes. Sullivan gets at least one thing right. Plato’s description of late democratic rot and self-indulgence does indeed fit our times to a “T.”


But from there, he goes astray. He interprets the passage as being about usurpation when really it’s about inevitability. According to classical political theory, the fundamental question inherent to every regime is: Who rules? The basic possibilities are: one, a few, or the many—each element with its own partisan bent. Better, more stable and more long-lived is the rule of a mixture of these, but that’s less common than the rule of one element alone.  Which, however well such rule starts out, inevitably degenerates, as the ruling element increasingly prefers its own partisan good to the common good.  Which preference eventually causes the ruling class’s own downfall.


Plato’s political science, as depicted in Republic VIII, while fundamentally similar to the classic (and much soberer) account in Polybius which we’ve explained before, differs in important respects. Plato posits five regime types: the best, or the rule of philosopher kings; timocracy, or rule of the lovers of honor; oligarchy, rule of the lovers of money; democracy, rule of the lovers of freedom; and finally, tyranny—rule of one who loves only himself. In this account, the trajectory is all down, all the time. There is no “cycle” strictly speaking because unlike in Polybius’ account, Plato’s cycle never starts over.


Sullivan, first, misses the inevitability of this. He presents tyranny as a danger that can be avoided whereas Plato presents it as a certainty. The downward drift is an immutable law of politics. Complaining about it is like complaining about erosion. It’s going to happen. Cope.


Thus, contra Sullivan, Plato’s tyrant is not so much a usurper as a consequence—an outcome. Not a good outcome, to be sure. Not one choice-worthy for its own sake. But in a way a deserved and even necessary outcome.


There is another distinction that Plato does not make here, for reasons Leo Strauss explains in On Tyranny (p. 180): the distinction between tyranny and Caesarism. (Yes, we know that’s anachronistic, but we mean Caesarism as a permanent possibility, not the specific historical occurrence.)


Caesar is not truly a usurper. A formal act of usurpation may—and may have to—cement his coming to power. (Although in the case of actual Caesar, it didn’t.) But the deeper point is that Caesar is a necessity whereas the tyrant is not. Caesarism is a specific type of absolute monarchy—one that succeeds a formerly republican or democratic government when all possibility of self-rule is lost. The tyrant, by contrast, actively seeks power and so subverts whatever form of government he finds in order to achieve his end.  This is what the famous tyrants of the ancient world—Agathocles, Hiero, Pisistratus, etc.—did.  It is not, at least not exactly, what Caesar did.  Tyrants don’t always, or even mostly, succeed democracies.  They can also overthrow aristocracies, oligarchies and monarchies and perhaps most often result from the degeneration of a monarchy, as in Polybius’ account.


Sullivan also does not take into account either the dialogue’s dramatic setting or the flaws in the argument that he examines.  As to the setting (broadly understood), it’s important to remember that Socrates is here speaking to Glaucon and Adeimantus, two noble and spirited youths—and thus potential tyrants.  Socrates wishes to avoid the unfortunate outcome of his earlier attempts to educate Alcibiades and Critias, which he already understood to have been a failure and which would later bear disastrous fruit.  His remarks to Glaucon and Adeimantus are thus specifically calculated to produce a specific outcome in their souls. Viz., he wants to convince them not to want to be tyrants.  So Socrates puts the worst possible gloss on tyranny and completely elides the distinction between tyranny and Caesarism.  To admit that such a thing as Caesarism exists is to lend legitimacy to, and thus to encourage, tyranny—that is, the seizure of absolute power when such is not absolutely required by the direness of the situation.


Which brings us to Sullivan’s more directly textual errors.  Something he should have learned in graduate school (and which we have no doubt his teacher tried to teach him) was that one cannot take everything Plato puts into Socrates’ mouth to be Plato’s last word.  Socrates is famous for his “irony”—that is, he says different things to different people, depending on their level of competence and the state of their souls.  He is not above using faulty arguments to further his rhetorical aims, and he does so in this passage.  We shall point out two such instances which are directly relevant to Sullivan’s own faulty (but presumably not intentionally so) argument.


First, there is an implicit contradiction between Socrates’s explicit claim that a tyrant will seize power from a “late-stage democracy” (Sullivan’s phrase) and the picture that Socrates paints of that democracy.  Does not every sordid detail he provides impel those who think them through to conclude that absolute rule was not merely inevitable but necessary?  This is how Plato sneaks n the topic of Caesarism, as distinct from tyranny, “between the lines.”  Sullivan wants to blame the tyrant, and to a lesser extent the people, but Plato blames no one, except perhaps nature itself.


Second, as noted, Socrates goes out of his way to describe the tyrant in the worst possible light, a slave to every imaginable vice.  The deck is stacked so overwhelmingly that our suspicious must be aroused.  Anyone with knowledge of history would know that some—even many—tyrants have been supremely capable men and not particularly vulgar, self-indulgent or cruel.  Athens’ own Pisistratus fits that bill (Aristotle says of him that he ruled almost constitutionally;Constitution of Athens 16) as does Caesar himself.  Again, this exaggeration is owing to Socrates’ pedagogical intention with respect to Glaucon and Adeimantus.  He doesn’t want to say a single positive thing about tyranny as a phenomenon or about any actual tyrants.  The argument is therefore “ironic,” which is to say, not wholly serious.


All of that said, we repeat that Sullivan is on to something.  And so, before we hit him again, we offer a few further words of non-ironic praise.  In the sensible middle of the piece, Sullivan accurately analyzes some of the fuel driving the Trump train:
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.

Our fondest hope for Trump is that he can take control of the car and make it once again respond to popular will.  That sounds difficult—and the reality is much more difficult than it sounds.  For there is no single popular will any more, or anything close.  The country is more divided—fractured—than it has ever been, and yes, that includes the run-up to the Civil War.  Lincoln was dead right when he wrote to Alexander Stephens that North and South were divided by only one substantial difference.
Today, our differences are myriad and vast.  Some substantial number of the people living within America’s borders do not identify as American in any meaningful sense, including most of its Davoisie, no matter their formal “citizenship,” a concept we’ve allowed to cheapen into insignificance.  And among those of us who self-identify as Americans, we are not merely divided between liberals and conservatives—indeed, that old distinction hardly matters any more, if it even still materially exists.  The real division is between the oligarchs, their armies, and the mandarins of the administrative state on the one hand—and everyone else.  Neither side is particularly united in and of itself.  The former is by nature a fractious collation of competing interests: rich and poor, elite and underclass, white and “other”, other v. other, and so in in ways too numerous to count.  But each little part knows what it wants and it knows that it can only get that, or some of it, if all stick together.
The other side mostly wants to be left alone to live as they always have.  And since they mostly live similarly, this side is more naturally united.  But, being too preponderantly white, they cannot say so or act on their common interests without arousing Nazism charges, which they’ve internalized to the point that even the possibility that someone on the left might call them “racist” causes the brain immediately to seize up and change the subject.
Mostly, both sides are united in their opposition to, and dislike—even hatred—of the other.  In ancient terms, there is in our polis no “like-mindedness” (homonoia), which Aristotle equates with “political friendship” (Nicomachean Ethics IX 6) and which the Romans called “concord.”  The plebs and patricians of ancient Rome were often at each other’s throats, too, some might point out—as a way of shrugging plus ҫa change.  But the “orders” of Rome did not disagree on the good life, on the content of goodness itself.  They each, and equally, loved their fatherland and contended with each other over the distribution of offices and honors.  They understood the necessity of concord—they made it a goddess and built her atemple—even as they so often fell short of her mandate.
Contrast that with modern America, a country in which Al Gore mistranslates e pluribus unum as “Out of one, many” and in his error is actually more accurate to the spirit of our times.  With a result Aristotle predicted:
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.”

OK.  So what?  Trump doesn’t have to have read Kojeve to see that something is very wrong in American politics.  That not only are majority interests ignored, the popular will is similarly and routinely thwarted.  The people have repeatedly said “no” to more immigration, “no” to more free trade, and—after a brief post-9/11 enthusiasm—“no” to war without end or purpose in the Middle East.  But the administrative state, as noted, will not allow itself to be driven in a direction it does not want to go.


It therefore must be broken.  Only Trump has promised even to try.  Not in those terms, to be sure.  But he knows that the will of the people is not being heeded by our ostensibly “democratic” institutions.  This is another point that Sullivan gets wrong.  2016 America is “democratic” only its late-republican cultural rot.  It is certainly not “democratic” in the precise sense of “rule of the demos,” or the people—in the sense that popular will as expressed through votes controls the government.  The government rather controls us.  And it is certainly not “democratic” in the sense of offering “maximal freedom” or “full license to do ‘whatever one wants’,” as Sullivan claims.  In an observation that should be remembered but mostly is not, Mark Steyn noted almost seven years ago that:
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?
“We,” collectively, have not quite yet reached this predicted point of recognition.  Sullivan certainly hasn’t.  He conflates one freedom—arguably the least important for human flourishing—with the whole of freedom and then blames freedom for our problems.
That’s not to say that all we need is more freedom—the go-to, knee-jerk response of every “conservative.”  Different times pose different challenges that call for different remedies.  Right now, what’s needed most is reassertion of the primacy of the political, of the people’s sovereignty, of their natural right to rule themselves over and against the wishes of the Davoisie and the dictates of the administrative state.  That will probably require, for the time being at least, more control and less freedom in certain areas.  It will certainly require more control over the borders, more control over our hiring and employment practices, and less economic freedom.
“Conservatives” may shriek.  But those whose mission and hope are to conserve the actual American nation rather than policy abstractions will see the necessity.  Similarly, we hope that those whose dearest wish is to conserve and restore the“abstract truth” at the heart of American principles will also see the necessity.  There is no saving America’s creed without saving America itself—the actual, physical America with its land and its people.  When and if that is accomplished, and the grip of the administrative state smashed or weakened, we can get back to the project of expanding and restoring our other freedoms.  But to focus on the latter now to the exclusion of the former is to fiddle while Rome burns.



Everything Was Awesome

The 82nd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

[Editorial note: If you’ve been reading the commentary since Tuesday evening, you might have noticed that Trump’s impending nomination ruined an otherwise vibrant Republican Party and has hastened the fall of the Republic itself. And that’s without even mentioning his toxic contribution to an otherwise cheerful political scene. Things were working so great, we were inspired to imagine the world as seen by the Prophets of Trumpian Doom. —MANLIUS CAPITOLINUS]

BEFORE THE TRUMP TRAIN barreled through the Northeast Corridor this year, everything was awesome. The revival of America’s economy in the late 1990s culminated in spectacular, society-wide participation in the stock market, rising steadily since 1997. Day-trading was a simple remedy for bourgeois boredom, and the very same equities mutual funds bought in 1999 are paying steady dividends today, buttressed by the solid performance of mortgage-backed securities. The low price-to-earnings ratios of the Dow Jones and NASDAQ components make them the desire of value investors throughout the world. Suggestions that the dollar could be replaced as the world’s reserve currency have steadily dwindled. Earlier efforts by oil-producing nations as well as China and Russia to settle transactions outside the dollar have lost their traction.

The American public’s interest in negotiating advantageous trade deals was evident in the broad popular push for NAFTA in 1994. The Economist was incorporated into high school reading lists as part of the Republican Party’s national curriculum standards. So great was popular interest in NAFTA that details of the negotiations were public from the beginning, setting the stage for the nationwide TPP discussion in 2015. American popular participation in hammering out otherwise complex legal instruments became an example for the possibilities of democratic government. Periodic efforts by China to undercut American industries were met with stiff resistance by the WTO, which operated under a strictly constitutional arrangement with regular reporting and collaboration requirements as well as congressional oversight. When Iraq voluntarily adopted the U.S. Constitution in 2003, emissaries from the Project for a New American Century pointed to Americans’ understanding of trade agreements as proof that democracy works.

Prior to Trump’s fascistic oratorical style, American political discourse was also awesome. The revival of Firing Line by National Review‘s editors was part of a broader shift toward civil discourse in American public life begun by Roger Ailes. Town halls across New England played host to weekly Crossfire-like public debates, where a rotating group of citizens would calmly engage in reasoned discourse about the major issues of the day—discussions that often carried over to social media, where the 140-character minimum was practically unnecessary. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign carefully avoided the bombastic style some of his backers initially expected of it. Obama opted instead for a revival of the style of the fireside chat, disowning any suggestions of the historic nature of his campaign.

The additional funding first provided by the Bush Administration to the Immigration and Nationalization Service was also part of a wider program to standardize the education of immigrants in the principles of American political practice. But the administration’s democracy-exportation business was so awesome that applications for H-1Bs, permanent residency and naturalization gradually began to fall.

Amid a solidly rising housing market and the awesome domestic computer industry, American manufacturing kept its place as an honorable profession. Though poor bets by the car industry led to a brief decline in domestic automobile manufacturing, electronics manufacturing more than picked up the slack. Layoffs among the car manufacturers simply freed up labor to be put to work by Apple, whose network of small components manufacturers in Wisconsin and Michigan became a model for widely distributed manufacturing. Everything worked exactly as the Wall Street Journal said it would.

Everything was going to be awesome. But all was not well.

THE NEW GILDED AGE had its dangers just beneath the surface. As the Agenda of American Greatness was implemented first by Clinton and then Bush, the conservative Lumpencommentariat had been left behind. They still plied their trade, dutifully sending in paeans to the Reagan Revolution and attending reformism conferences in the dilapidated offices of D.C. think tanks. The hot money had long since left the D.C. area, the Acela Express had stopped running, and newly minted graduates were returning to their home states rather than living in the coastal company towns that had drawn so many Millennials before them.

It was an awesome time for those who mattered—for the trendy, sooty-cheeked Pennsylvania coal miners with their hipster affectations, for Detroit’s computer electronics factory workers and their First World pay standards, for those who accommodated themselves to the nation-state and shamelessly disregarded Principled Conservatism™.

We should have known that the Lumpencommentariat would fall for Donald Trump. His fifth-grade rhetorical ploys were right at home in the Twittersphere—in their home. They were but blank slates to be written upon by Trump’s call for “free trade, Uber, GMOs, fracking, and … driverless cars.” “Free markets must generate material inequalities,” he would shout. “It’s how life should work.”

Trump’s constant self-contradiction was no obstacle for the Thinkpiece-Industrial Complex. Though he defended material inequalities in one breath, in the next he was all “free trade not for the sake of the few but … the many“!—beguiling crowds with his made-for-TV non-sequiturs like “the economic program of nationalism is socialism.” Only those living inside the Rust Beltway could afford the wax needed to fill their ears from such Trumpian allurements.

Trump has nothing to offer of his own. A picture-perfect example of “nationalism is socialism” cronyism, he has systematically avoided building a property empire in the United States. His preference for liquid wealth over so-called real estate solidified his appeal to the class-interests of Manhattanites and political consultants.

Nothing needs to explain the appeal of Trump other than shared class interests. His constant volleys at the complacency of the Neo-Industrial Midwest, sitting squat in the middle of the country as the edges frayed, were perfectly calibrated to take advantage of the commentariat’s bitterness.

But there is nothing to him. The GOP’s success in 2008 and 2012, capped off by its efficient reforms to the health care system and its resistance to regulatory overreach, makes the coastal Trumpist class safe to ignore. Trump’s appeal to the white writing class is a small bump in the road of America’s continuing awesomeness, assuming we don’t let him ruin the show.

Paul Ryan was right to announce the non-announcement of his non-endorsement of the not-yet-nominee, just as he had done in 2012 with a similarly imperfect GOP candidate. No need to endorse someone who will surely lose. Hillary’s sonorous rhetoric will be a safe path through the vagaries of the general election.

Everything will be just ffff—Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. We are now crossing Flyover Territory. Please return to your seats and keep your seat belts fastened.


The 81st post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues.

Were there other causes? Yes, of course. But there was an immediate and essential cause.

And this needs saying, because if you don’t know what broke the elephant you can’t put it together again. The party cannot re-find itself if it can’t trace back the moment at which it became lost. It cannot heal an illness whose origin is kept obscure.

Pretty fresh.  “Ripped from the headlines,” you might say.  And of course, accurate.

Who is this pundit with the trenchant insight?  Peggy Noonan—more than eight years ago.  Yet nearly a decade later, all the “principled conservatives” still don’t know who broke the elephant, or how they helped.  They #NeverWill.