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George-Will-HATES-TrumpIf every cloud has a silver lining, we can say that the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has—whatever his detractors may say—serves some useful purposes. Those most critical of Trump speak of his followers as delirious, as if they were in the grip of some dreadful political fever. Nevertheless, a fever can be useful to the extent that it warns us of the underlying disease.

What political diseases has Trump fever brought to light?

First, it has revealed the political errors of those who rule the Republican Party. Here, we may usefully turn to the great political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, famed author of The Prince. Machiavelli was, of course, a frank amoralist (in politics, at least) and therefore an imperfect guide for American conservatives. Still, he was also a very astute observer of human nature. If conservatives cannot embrace Machiavelli’s principles, they still must attend to his all-too accurate account of the facts of political life.

According to Machiavelli, a prince who faces a popular rebellion has proven himself to be an incompetent prince. If he had known his business, he would have been able to keep his people contented. The people, Machiavelli observed, are generally passive and therefore decent. They are not inclined to make trouble unless they have been provoked. The “great”—the wealthy and powerful—are troublemakers, because they tend to be ambitious and have the means to advance their ambitions. In contrast, the people do not want to oppress anyone; they only want not to be oppressed. If they are agitated and disobedient, it is a sign of misrule.

America is now facing a kind of rebellion. It is not a rebellion of the whole country, but of Republican voters, and it is not a violent rebellion, but a political one revealed by polls. Donald Trump—a first-time candidate for any public office—is, for the time being at least, decisively ascendant over men who have served for years in positions of high political responsibility.

As bad as that sounds, the reality is actually worse. Those Republican candidates who are clearly rebels against the Republican Party—Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz—are currently winning, according to the national surveys, almost half of the support of polled Republican voters. Thus have the rank and file members of a great political party decided to fly off from their natural leaders—governors and senators. This could not occur unless these voters believed that their own leaders were indifferent or hostile to their interests and convictions. Republican leaders should ask themselves candidly how their own voters could come to believe this.

Conservatives’ Moral Bankruptcy

Trump’s candidacy is also useful to the extent that is has brought to light another very important phenomenon, one perhaps related to the first: the moral bankrupcty of a certain kind of contemporary intellectual conservatism. His electoral star might burn out, as his rivals hope, but for the time being, it sheds light on the inadequacies of not only conservatism’s men of action but also its men of reflection.

George Will

George Will

We encounter such a morally vacuous conservatism in the recent remarks of George Will, one of America’s most celebrated conservative commentators and one of Trump’s most vigorous critics. Reacting to Trump’s economic nationalism, Will declares that Republicans must be “the party of growth, or they are superfluous.” Democrats, he suggests, exist to redistribute wealth—“allocating scarcities” through the “administrative state.” In contrast, Republicans should avoid such thinking and instead simply focus on growing the nation’s economy.

In Will’s view, apparently, the Republican Party should have no domestic policy agenda beyond an economic one, and that agenda should involve nothing beyond promoting economic growth. This, surely, is the import of his use of the word “superfluous,” which implies that in the absence of an economic growth platform there would be no important difference between the Republicans and Democrats. This in turn is as much as to say that the only real political issues are economic issues.

Will’s vision is utterly unworthy of a great political party and wholly inadequate to the politics of America or any other nation. It is a vision on the basis of which no party could successfully govern or even win elections in order to get the chance to govern. The basic purposes of a political party are to win power and then use that power with a view to the common good. A party that followed Will’s advice would be able to do neither.

Appealing to Principles

Democrats’ calls for redistribution of wealth may be misguided. They may, in some cases, even be cynical—mere means of appealing to the self-interest of voters under a moralistic guise. Such calls do, however, require the Democrats to make appeals to essential public principles such as justice, and the obligations of the citizen to the community and the community to the citizen. Will’s approach, on the other hand, eschews such principles entirely. This is a strange approach for a conservative, since questions about these principles—and the moral vision of politics on the basis of which such questions can arise—have been characteristic of the politics of all civilized communities.

A party single-mindedly committed to Will’s politics of growth would not even be adequate in the realm of economic policy. Anyone can see that economic growth, which is certainly to be desired, may not benefit the whole community. A nation may enjoy even very robust economic growth while some regions or classes of people continue in a state of economic backwardness, stagnation, or decline. No decent or competent ruling political party would ignore such phenomena and boast that its economic policy was a pure success merely because the economy of the whole had grown. In general, economic growth, while important, is a rather lowest-common-denominator way of measuring a country’s well-being. Communist China, for instance, has enjoyed impressive economic growth over the last thirty years.

A political party concerned only with economic growth would have nothing to say about the great moral questions that have agitated American politics for years. What is marriage? What lives should be protected by law? No country can ignore these questions, nor can it answer them with reference only to their impact on economic growth.

Supreme Court_AP_660internalPressed on the deficiencies of a shallowly materialistic politics of economic growth, Will might respond that his public philosophy’s moral content is supplied by the principle of personal autonomy or individual liberty. Thus Will denounces the Supreme Court’s rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act, but embraces the Court’s decision to redefine marriage for all fifty states. More recently, Will has come out in favor of a “right” to physician-assisted suicide. Will, once the most traditionalist of all conservative commentators, is now simply a libertarian ideologue. This is a remarkable transformation for the popularizer of Burke who once wrote a book to instruct conservatives that “statecraft” is and must be “soulcraft.”

Nevertheless, Will’s focus on individual autonomy provides no more adequate guidance to a serious political party than does his fixation on economic growth. A commitment to individual autonomy, once again, cannot adequately answer the important moral questions that we will continue to face. Individual autonomy cannot tell us how to define marriage, because the definition of marriage determines what sorts of unions society chooses to recognize, a decision that leaves everyone uninterested in that recognition to live as he or she pleases. Individual autonomy cannot safely settle the question of physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, because individual autonomy, unguided by any other principle, would justify an unlimited right to suicide for anyone and for any reason.

As these issues remind us, politics is about governing—deciding what the community will honor, what it will permit, and what it will forbid. Those questions cannot be answered adequately by appeals to economic growth or individual liberty. Because of its inability to address such questions, a Republican Party organized as Will advocates would be unworthy to manage our nation’s affairs. In addition, it would probably not get a chance to do so, since it probably would not be able to win any elections.

The Electoral Impotence of Amorality

To understand the electoral impotence of an amoral party focused only on economic growth and individual autonomy, we return to Machiavelli. Machiavelli does teach that the prince cannot afford to be moral: He must be willing to be good or not good as the necessities of political life require. Nevertheless, Machiavelli insists that the prince must always appear moral. This appearance is necessary, Machiavelli suggests, because while “the great” may be amoral power seekers, “the people” really do believe in morality. Hence, Machiavelli’s advice that the prince must take care always to appear always just, pious, humane, and faithful.

Translated into modern electoral politics, Machiavelli’s teaching reminds us that the people—voters—will not be moved to support a candidate or party by nothing but a raw appeal to self-interest. They also expect, even demand, an appeal to their sense of justice and righteousness. This is not to romanticize the people. They have no very precise notions about how to secure the common good, and they are certainly self-interested, as are all human beings. But the people are generally too decent to vote on the basis of nothing but self-interest. That is surely as true of the American people as it was of any people that Machiavelli had the opportunity to observe.

Such an appeal to something higher than self-interest is especially necessary in presidential elections, when the fate of the whole country appears to be at stake. Few voters are so small-minded and self-absorbed as to fail to have some sense that the country is something greater than their own personal interests. The strength of Democrats in such elections arises from their appeal to a moral vision of political life. That vision may be simplistic, misleading, or even wrong. Nevertheless, you can’t beat a flawed moral vision with no moral vision. This is not idealism but hard political reality.

donald trump make america great.pngThis brings us back to Donald Trump. His campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”—is obviously lacking in specific content. Yet it clearly carries a certain moral weight, appealing to a patriotic love for the country that cannot be reduced to an interest in economic growth.

The success of this slogan tells us something about the aspirations of the campaign’s supporters. The disappointment that has led large numbers of Republican voters to embrace Donald Trump is no mere personal disappointment. It is based on the sense that Republican elites have not just failed to secure their constituents’ interests but that they have failed, even betrayed, the country itself by failing to defend the principles—such as the rule of law and the right of self-government—that have made the country worthy of our admiration. Such voters will not be lured back but insulted by an appeal to their interest in economic growth. A party that counters such a shallow appeal to voters’ sense that the country is in decline will fail—and it will deserve to.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Crisis Magazine (October 2015), this essay first appeared on Public Discourse (September 2015). 

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20 replies to this post
  1. The Trump appeal ultimately is pretty simple. He loves America, and will fight for it.

    The democrats hate America, and are willing to fight against it. The GOP is terrified of the democrats so it let’s them.

  2. Yes, a political party should be about more than “growth.”

    But when considering whose judgment is more reliable, Trump or Will, is like considering the merits between a circus clown and Charlie Chaplin.

    How this narcissistic, egotistic, unprincipled windbag has sucked in so many … it makes me want to weep for my country.

  3. “Translated into modern electoral politics, Machiavelli’s teaching reminds us that the people—voters—will not be moved to support a candidate or party by nothing but a raw appeal to self-interest. ”

    Unfortunately, self interest is exactly what the Democrats appeal to, and they’ve become very good at it. What’s good for the country as a whole is not important, only that is important to specific interest groups. A classic case of this was Sandra Fluck getting in front of the TV cameras and demanding that her health insurance cover her birth control. What could be more selfish than that, and yet the Democrats turned her into a star, even putting her on their convention in prime time! It’s the same with every other Democrat interest group, they’ve all got their hands out saying “Gimme, gimme, gimme!”, and the Democrat leadership says “Okay”,

  4. “How this narcissistic, egotistic, unprincipled windbag has sucked in so many … it makes me want to weep for my country.”

    Is that Trump, or Will?

  5. But what are the alternatives? The momentum for a collectivist State has been afoot now for at least eight decades, collectivism is its own narcotic and depressing as it is I cannot see a way out, only temporary flashes of hope, temporary.
    And I missed the “moral vision” of the Democrats.

  6. It is easier when we recall the root of Conservatism is “conserve”.

    The Radical Right Nihilists (looking at You, Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly/Ann Coulter) espouse a program no less destructive than that of the Radical Left Nihilists (Looking at You, Piers Morgan/Keith Olberman/MSNBC Host).

    Conserve the best, reform the worst, leave all in the care of God.

  7. I could be misreading everything because I am not and have not been back to the World in a decade but :

    1) Trump’s popularity reflects how desperate people are and how out of touch elites are .

    2) I find it very hard to believe Mr. Trump is as eratic as his public persona. He is a successful business leader and that requires patience and calm. He will show us these virtues later when he narrows the field perhaps ? For now he has used bombastic rhetoric to take command of a very large field and he gets away with it because deep down everyone thinks “ok, but he’s not really crazy, because crazy people who shout and scream and say bizarre things don’t get things done in business . ” That Mr. Trump’s business is modern entertainment – he plays crazy very well.

    We’ll see .

    • I don’t, for one, call him “bombastic”. I do not find he is trying to stir up some act to rouse the masses. He says what he really thinks, media be damned, and I cannot but admire him for it.

      I will always admire him for refusing PAC money and dissolving the Super-Pac some group tried to form in his name.

      He is the best candidate on the Right. But the Repubs would sooner see Lenin in power than to have Trump, because he is anti-Establishment.

      Hillary, as I have predicted on these pages, will win, and by default. She will have an awful presidency and the (intelligent) public will be foaming at the mouth, after blood. Then, may God save the United States.

  8. “1) Trump’s popularity reflects how desperate people are and how out of touch elites are .”

    Bingo! The GOP elites gave us Mitt Romney as well as the two spineless bozos who have been running the House and Senate. Karl Rove thinks it’s still about how big your SuperPAC is. And the Dems are even worse! Compared to these packs of jackals, why NOT Trump?

  9. I don’t understand why so many conservatives (especially moral ones like me) have a beef with the “establishment’ of the Republican Party. The Tea party or “grassroots” Republicans are in my view the most irrational narcissistic people (like Trump) who so called “conservatives” idolize like gods. An establishment candidate like Chris Christie is just as rational to vote for as a conservative for moral reasons (if not more) than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

  10. Reality check:
    If Trump is the GOP candidate, he will lose by the biggest landslide in our history. I, and many other independents who usually vote Republican, will either vote for the Democratic candidate, yes, even HC, or we’ll sit out the election.

    Then you’ll have four years to wail about your “principles.”

    When I read things like “…Mitt Romney as well as the two spineless bozos who have been running the House and Senate,” I’m sure they were written, or believed, by people who’ve never held any leadership positions in their lives. In fact, who’ve led pristine, perfect lives, with never a compromise between husband and wife or parent and child, who’ve never been divorced, never received anything less than an A in any class, who’ve …. Basically, who demand a perfection that mere humans cannot provide.

    Sign me “Anybody but Trump.” Or “Disgusted with Wackos.” Or “Earth Calling Conservatives.”

    Ah, never mind. I’m signing out of this forum. We’ll never convince each other. We’ve arrived at our opinions and nothing’s going to change them – yours and mine – no matter what we hear. Good day.

    • “Then you’ll have four years to wail about your “principles.”

      Sorry, but principles DO matter. And the present GOP leadership isn’t fighting for any of them. When the Republicans have majorities in both House and Senate (provided by loyal, but increasingly exasperated GOP voters) and can’t do something as basic to their principles as defund planned parenthood or pass Kate’s Law, then it’s time to conclude they are spineless cowards and new leadership is needed.

      You may not like Trump, but his consistently high poll numbers since he entered the race are a fact of life that the GOP “Elites” can only ignore at their peril. And the fact that the 2nd most popular candidate, Ben Carson, is another outsider, says even more. It says that the Republican “Leadership’s” way of doing things isn’t working, and hasn’t for a long while.

  11. “You state you would pick (the atrocious) Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Why?”

    Where to begin?

    1. Better to have a Machiavelli lead us than a Lou Costello.

    2. So America is not the laughingstock of the world. I don’t care that much what the world thinks, as long as we’re in the right, but odds are we wouldn’t be when Trump opens his mouth. The danger of us being a laughingstock is that other nations might think we’re weak and leaderless and we won’t retaliate, or will retaliate comically, when provoked.

    3. Because he panders to the worst instincts among us. Yes, illegal aliens flooding the country is a problem, one of our most serious as it may determine our future culture, but Trump’s “solutions” make it only worse.

    4. Because even though he’s rich and I’m not, I have to think he’s not very bright. (How he got so rich is a mystery I haven’t investigated. Only in America.) He certainly isn’t very articulate, and running for a job where this skill is imperative.

    5. Because the presidency is the most powerful position in the world, and should be entrusted only to the most qualified. Even a cursory reading of history demonstrates that truth.

    Coming back to Clinton, I couldn’t vote for her unless it looked like Trump might win. But that’s impossible. That’s not giving the American people enough credit.

    • “1. Better to have a Machiavelli lead us than a Lou Costello.

      2. So America is not the laughingstock of the world. ”

      Better Lou Costello than Jabba the Hutt, in terms of both appearance and morals. Hillary Clinton isn’t just corrupt in the usual sense of the word, she is completely amoral and self-serving. 4 of her employees died at Benghazi, and her only concern is “I hope this doesn’t affect my political ambitions.”

    • Never say “It can’t happen here.”

      1. OF (Old Fart) reference. “Moderns” never heard of Bud and Lou. They don’t know Trumpeter is a Baaad Boy.

      2. Too late. And, it is one of the fallacies of the Right that the rest of the world is as obsessed with “resolve” as the Repubs. Besides, Hillarie’s bellicosity is pure posturing, and inconsistent at best.

      3. “Pander” is Trump’s middle mane. As noted, he is an entertainer, but his act won’t play outside a street or two in Peoria. He is a channel for anger, from people on Left as well as Right, and therein lies the danger.

      4. He is “bright”, but that intelligence is a slave to his chaotic emotional condition (IMHO). Which makes him doubly dangerous. Partisans attribute genius, and detractors dive off the cliff in disapprobation, but the reality is he has survived and thrived.

      5. I am skeptical of the mantra uttered by folks on both sides regarding “qualifications”. The Left constantly touted BHO’s “qualifications”, and we see where that led us. The only qualifications of which I am aware are being native born, over the age of 35, and securing a majority in the Electoral College. Beyond that, we can pray for a minimum of smarts, some experience, and (Bless God) a whopping amount of personal integrity. To venture down the path of “qualifications” is to enter into the world of “Philip Dru, Administrator”.

      I am concerned with the perception of Trump as a clown. Bringing in the obligatory Godwin’s Law reference, I recall from my history books the establishment in Germany thought Adolf was a clown also. (He was.)

      For the rest, I do not think for a second he believes anything he says. He is as much on “the Right” as Bernie Saunders. He is as much on “the Left” as Hillary (not much, in reality. ) Like Hillary, he is less concerned with philosophical underpinnings than in accumulating personal power and adulation.

      Really, we — the American people — brought this on ourselves. We, collectively, have plunged enthusiastically into the morass of narcissistic commercial hedonism, and have replaced a love of principle with a love of things. We have allowed ourselves to buy into the religion of Mammon, and now have the spectacle of Right-wing Mammonism wrestling with Left-wing Mammonism for control. Shame on us. Woe is us.

      Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna is right. We will not “reset” until after a massive trauma.

      God Save the United States.

  12. 1. Hillary Clinton is not Machiavelli.

    2. The world is a big place. Someone will always feel upset, the issue is whether the policy is correct or not.

    3. The idea of respecting the law is not our “worst instinct”.

    4. People who repeat what PR advisors hired by corporate doners tell them to say are neither bright nor articulate.

    5. The definition of “most qualified” is open to debate. That’s why we have elections.

    I could vote Trump or Sanders, but not Clinton. I don’t think Romney was bad, nor that all moderates are bad, but I do think Clinton is a bad choice.

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