The Most Serious Attacks on the Founding Come From the Right
Plus, thoughts on the evolution of language.
Dear Reader (including those of you who had a vision of the Terminator when Sen. Tammy Duckworth wrote, “These titanium legs don’t buckle” in an op-ed),
I googled the phrase “Trump defends the Founders” and got some interesting results. The first page of results was almost entirely filled with links to editorials by liberals explaining that “Trump is the president the Founding Fathers feared” as a headline to a column by Richard Cohen put it.
It should surprise no one who thinks there’s merit to that argument, but that’s not what I want to talk about.
I googled the phrase because I was looking for examples of people claiming that Trump is a grand defender of the founding and our constitutional heritage—I’ll get to all that in a moment.
But these arguments from liberals—which have been thick in the air for four years now—are a good amuse-bouche for the repast to come.
If you step back for a moment, you’ll plummet to your death if you’re standing on the edge of a roof. But if you do it figuratively, the fact that so many liberals like to invoke the Founders to condemn Trump is a bit odd, given that we’re in the middle of an insane panic about the moral degeneracy of the Founders because some were slaveholders.
But even before the current spectacle of St. Vitus’s Dance, liberals had an annoying schizophrenia about the wisdom of the Founders. I’ve probably written a dozen columns about the habit of liberals to talk about the “living Constitution” when on offense, but whenever conservatives suggest amending the Constitution, the same liberals suddenly retreat to extolling the genius and wisdom of the Founders and their sacred text. When they want to do something the Constitution doesn’t allow, the Founders were naïfs who couldn’t imagine the needs of a complex modern society. It’s a living document that takes new meaning in every generation, you fools! But when a conservative wants to amend it—the only legitimate way to change its meaning—suddenly it’s an outrage:
“I respect the wisdom of the Founders to uphold the Constitution, which has served this nation so well for the last 223 years,” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) proclaimed from the saddle of his very high horse in 2011, in opposition to a balanced-budget-amendment proposal. “Let us not be so vain to think we know better than the Founders what the Constitution should prescribe.”
It’s weird how no one is trying to cancel Leahy for his unconstrained admiration for a bunch of slaveholders.
Conservative cancel culture.
Anyway, as I said, I was googling for examples of conservatives celebrating Trump as the Great Protector of our Constitution and the principles of the founding. This has always been a refrain of Trump’s defenders, sometimes for defensible reasons given the importance of judicial appointments.
But it’s gone into overdrive since his Mt. Rushmore speech, in which he denounced “cancel culture” as an “attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty.” He vowed to “expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.” “Make no mistake,” he added, “this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”
Never mind that Donald Trump has no problem with cancelling people he dislikes—including yours truly. This is bigger than that, this is about preserving and defending the glorious principles of the founding! And there has been no shortage of over-the-top praise for Trump’s alleged tour de force. To take a couple examples among dozens, Newt Gingrich proclaimed it a masterstroke for repudiating “the anti-American worldview.” In this moment, “President Trump understood that the greatest threat was the rise of the anti-American left—and its desire to destroy American history, symbols, and culture.”
Conrad Black (who was pardoned by the president last year, and who in 2010 wrote that “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes) announced that, “Trump delivered the greatest speech of his career on Friday evening at Mount Rushmore, devoted altogether to celebrating the idealism of the American Revolution.” It takes a subtler mind than mine to see how Donald Trump can turn the grubbiness of the American Revolution into idealism.
But here’s the thing: As terrible as the idiot mobs tearing down statues are, the more serious—at least more intellectually serious—attack on the founding and its principles isn’t actually coming from the left. It’s coming from the right.
I just finished a “debate” of sorts with Patrick Deneen for Newsweek in which Deneen echoes his book-length denunciation of the culture of liberty ratified by the American founding. Patrick, a brilliant and decent guy, is one of the leaders of an intellectual movement very popular on the right that says the Founders blew it. Trump extols our “magnificent liberty.” Deneen argues that we must “transcend liberalism’s cramped idea of liberty.” Just to be very clear: The “liberalism” he refers to here is the liberalism of the Founders. For Deneen, the effort by George Will and others to frame the American tradition as one dedicated to liberty is “comparable to Pravda’s efforts to color the Russian tradition as exclusively communist.” Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari, Yoram Hazony and numerous others heap scorn on the “Lockean”—by which they mean liberty-obsessed—understandings of the founding.
I may have missed it, but I don’t think any of these dedicated opponents of the “magnificent liberty” Trump was extolling have offered much criticism of his speech. To be sure, one reason for that might be tactical. Trump is also an avatar for the nationalist and integralist crowd’s culture war agenda. Sohrab even thinks that Trump is a force for “social cohesion”—though in fairness he wrote that before the president was impeached, one of Trump’s Supreme Court appointees recognized that being trans or gay is a protected status, face masks became a flashpoint in the culture war, and mass protests and riots shutdown cities. If the claim that Trump was a force for social cohesion seemed weak and fragile back then, now it looks like what remains after you take a sledgehammer to a bowl of overcooked pasta.
Another possible reason for remaining silent on Trump’s ode to “magnificent liberty” might be that these conservative opponents of magnificent liberty understand that Trump didn’t actually mean it, but his homage to it is a useful counterweight to the opponents of magnificent liberty on the left. Embedded deep in this idea is a recognition that talking about freedom is a winning issue with Americans because Americans actually value freedom a great deal. This goes to the heart of one of my main disagreements with Deneen and Hazony, who seem convinced that John Locke is the author of all the woes of the West.
I think Locke made valuable and important contributions to the West and to the American Founders, but I think his enemies today exaggerate his influence more than his fans do. John Locke no more created liberalism than Adam Smith created capitalism. Oscar and Lilian Handlin make a powerful case that Locke is more of a stand-in or shorthand for a whole bundle of ideas in wide currency at the time. Locke isn’t mentioned in the Federalist Papers. Locke wrote extensively about slavery, but as the Handlins note, there’s no record of any Founder invoking him during the debates over slavery at the time. When writing my book, I searched the National Archives database for references to Locke during the founding era. I was shocked by how paltry the results were. There’s ample evidence that his work in epistemology and psychology—then called “natural philosophy”—impressed the Founders greatly. But the Second Treatise on Government—basically the Necronomicon of evil libertarian thought among his detractors—simply wasn’t the Book That Changed Everything.
I don’t say any of this to disparage Locke, but simply to note that Locke reflected ideas and principles that were already thick on the ground at the time, in England and, later, America. American culture is still a liberty-loving culture—not as much as I’d like, of course. But just as 99 percent of the socialists out there screaming about the evils of capitalism have read little to no Marx, most of the Americans who cherish liberty know next to nothing about Locke, and they still cherish liberty just the same. Certainly Donald Trump is not deeply versed in his writings.
Anyway, I don’t have a grand takeaway from this very weird disconnect between these very serious opponents of the magnificent liberty Trump extolled nor their lack of opposition to Trump for extolling it. You can make of it what you will. But I do think it is very strange that many of the same conservatives who sound like the cast of Team America—“America F*** Yeah!”—when Trump talks about the founding, and who sound like Woodrow Wilson in their give-no-quarter to the “leftwing fascists” Trump denounced, are so accommodating of an intellectual movement that agrees with the left-wing fascists on some very big ideas. Sure, they disagree about who should be in power—and what should be done with that power—once the great error of liberalism is corrected, but both sides agree that the liberalism of the Funders was, indeed, a terrible mistake and should be replaced by one faction’s definition of the Highest Good.
I don’t want to see any of these illiberals canceled. They are conducting themselves far better than the Jacobins in the streets. They’re behaving lawfully, politely, and decently; they’re making arguments, criticizing the regime (in the proper sense of the word), and trying to persuade people to change the role of government. I think they’re a threat to the system of magnificent liberty the Founders bequeathed to us (arguably more of a threat than Drag Queen Story Hour). But one of the features—not bugs—of that system is that we tolerate such speech and, when warranted, we engage with it. That’s one of the bedrock guarantees that defines our system. Ironically, it doesn’t necessarily define the system they seek to replace it with.
I could care fewer.
I’m writing this by the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. I’m sitting on a bench in a little park, surrounded by ravens and cigarette butts. The butts are normal sized, which sounds like something one of the first proctologists to set up shop in the Alaskan frontier might report home in a letter. But the ravens are huge. They look like crows, but about three times the size. They make very strange sounds as they walk around me. Given how smart they are, I’m really hoping the one closest to me isn’t saying, “We take on the newcomer on my command. Go for the eyes first.”
At the center of the park is a statue of two natives and their sled dog. In years past, a typical tourist might refer to them as Eskimos, but that term is now widely considered pejorative. “Inuit” or “native” is preferred.
A lot of people don’t know this. I didn’t until I started coming up here regularly. It reminds me of a conversation I had with John McWhorter earlier this week on my podcast. McWhorter is a brilliant linguist and I’m a huge fan of his, figuratively and literally (I gotta get back on the no-carb diet). But as I explained in our conversation, I sometimes consider him something of an intellectual frenemy, because he’s such an eloquent defender of linguistic legerdemain, neologistic innovation and the repurposing of words. If legitimizing the use of double negatives, defending the figurative use of “literally,” and celebrating the mainstreaming of slang terms were the primary tools Communists he’d be Henry Wallace, Noam Chomksy, Oliver Stone, and Jane Fonda rolled into one.
I’m joking, of course. Because the evolution of language isn’t a threat to our way of life, even if it sometimes feels like it. And because, unlike those apologists for totalitarianism, McWhorter is right (and a good dude). Moreover, a lot of my complaints about grammar and usage are hypocritical. I may gripe about the misuse of “literally” and I may occasionally sound like Sam Kinison screaming at Thornton Melon when people incorrectly say “less” instead of “fewer,” but if infinitives were made of wood, I’d be a professional lumberjack because I split them so often. And if having fun with language were a crime, I’d be showering with my soap-on-a-rope in the Big House.
Language is a vast storehouse of meaning that as often as not defies reason and logic. It is more art than science. We all understand that a painting or sculpture can have meaning beyond the literal. Symbols don’t have to be rational, and neither do phrases. “I could care less” read literally means, well, that you care to some degree. But that’s the opposite of what the phrase means.
I asked McWhorter about the word “Jew,” which has some tricky linguistic connotations. If I say “Jewish lawyer,” I’m describing a lawyer who is Jewish. But if I say “Jew lawyer” it sounds pejorative. “Jew boy” is an epithet. “Jewish boy” is descriptive. There’s no logical reason why this should be the case, save by the “logic” of history and culture. McWhorter noted this kind of thing is common, even if the Jew/Jewish thing has some specific weirdness to it. For instance, “Chinaman” was once a descriptor. Now it’s a slur. Why? Because that’s how it worked out.
It’s silly to quarrel with this general phenomenon, but I do think there are some abuses that should be fought. Policing language is one of the most powerful tools for policing thought. Some stuff that passes for political correctness is really just the effort to create good manners in a diverse society. But much of it is just thought-policing. A lot of people don’t know that “Eskimo” is considered offensive. It’s one thing to politely point it out. It’s another to use it as an excuse to unperson someone by calling them a bigot.
Anyway, I bring this up in part to plug my conversation with McWhorter because I enjoyed it so much. But also because I think it highlights my main disagreement with McWhorter. I agreed with his basic argument that language is always changing and it’s folly to get too worked up about it. But as a small-c conservative, I think there’s a benefit to pushing back on the pace of change at times. There’s even more benefit to pushing back against those who seek to use language as a trap to delegitimize people unfairly. Language can work as a kind of gnosis, and one of the chief weapons the cultural left uses is their monopolistic claims on language. They invent a new meaning on their own, and then use that new meaning to out, shame or cancel those who didn’t get the memo. I don’t think for a moment McWhorter disagrees with that, but I didn’t get a chance to discuss that aspect of the culture wars with him.
Anyway, I’ll talk about that more on the solo Remnant I’m about to record.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The girls are with their “aunt” Kirsten again and loving it. My assistant Nick—the new Jack Butler—is tending to the cats and reports they’re fine. I wish I could have the dogs up here with us because they’d love it and because I’d love to see if Pippa remembers any of her Alaskan youth. Fortunately, my wife’s family has many dogs, including this spectacular puppy Bruno. Expect more pictures in my Twitter feed.
And now, the weird stuff.
Circa 1790: U.S. president George Washington in consultation with his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. A painting by Constantino Brumidi. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images.)