“However sudden and momentous be events that have just taken place so swiftly, the author can claim that they have not taken him by surprise.” So wrote Tocqueville in the Author’s Preface to the Twelfth Edition of Democracy in America, on the occasion, in 1848, of the final political repudiation of the effort to restore monarchy in France. America, of course, has had no monarchy. The Trump ascendancy, nevertheless, was the repudiation of the Bush and Clinton family dynasties—no small accomplishment, and something that would have been inconceivable two long years ago. Most did not see this coming. The few who did were either ignored or excoriated. France found itself in new political territory after 1848; America finds itself in new political territory after 2016.
What happened? By what light should the election of Donald Trump and our abrupt national reorientation be understood? Those loyal to the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party see Trump’s election as a reversion to the racism that was only partially masked by the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In short, they continue, after the election, to double down on the identity politics trope that lost them the 2016 election in the first place, by 74 electoral votes—306 to 232. The election results by county show an even starker margin of victory for Trump. Is this racism? Perhaps populism? Perhaps something else? My remarks here will be concerned with how we should think about what happened—not just in the abstract, but with a view to how the Republican Party should go forward from here.
National Sovereignty, Not Populism
For several generations conservatives have thought that the domestic enemy was progressivism. Now they imagine they face a new problem: populism. True, what has happened in America in the last few years looks like a populist uprising against bicoastal global elites. Populism in America, however, historically has been a domestic matter, inscribed from the founding of our country in the alternative visions of Jefferson and Hamilton. When Hamilton gets the upper hand for a few decades, Jefferson protests. The recent uprising, while leveled against bicoastal elites, is not a protest in the name of a faction of America, but in the name of American sovereignty itself. The Washington and New York elites are not proxies for a faction of America, but proxies for globalism. To call what has happened “populism” is to miss the real issue.
What we are witnessing is less Jefferson versus Hamilton than Tocqueville versus the cosmopolitan idea that the French Revolution set in motion.
The proof, I think, is the description we are hearing of this so-called populism. If you listen to the consensus among the global elites, you would have to believe that America (and indeed, Britain and Europe) has been beset by irrationalism. The only available alternative, purportedly, is the rationalism that is globalism. We have been here before—during the French Revolution. Then, any parochial attachment, any interest that was not universal, had no place in the new cosmic order the revolutionaries were creating. The fate of these attachments and interests was the terror of the guillotine. To be rational was to be universal; to be universal was to be rational. That is the cosmopolitan, globalist frame of mind. Those who do not have this mindset—those who cling to their guns and their religion—are, by definition, irrational.
Tocqueville, as I indicated, was among the first to see this cosmopolitan mindset emerge. The whole of his Democracy in America can be seen as an attempt to show that, once the links that hold us fast in the aristocratic age have been broken, democratic man must be relinked, or he will hover over the world, without connection, and become cosmopolitan man. Tocqueville’s ideas about voluntary associations, about family, about religion, and about federalism, point to the need to bring the soul down to earth, to connect it to others. The embodied soul formed through these institutions is hardly irrational, as the cosmopolitan would insist; the embodied soul, on the contrary, is the healthy soul, whose interests are formed in and through relations with others.
It is the globalist, the cosmopolitan, then, who sees in the opposing party—the Party of Trump, it turns out—the irrationality of populism. Tocqueville saw this cosmopolitan—yes, diseased—way of thinking, and sought a cure: a liberal polity in which citizens love their towns, cities, states, and nation, because they have a hand in making them. That is what American citizens want back: their towns, counties, cities, states, and country. There is a big difference between irrationalism and “well-considered patriotism” (as Tocqueville called it). American citizens know the difference; the Left does not. That is why the Left so virulently opposes everything that stands against cosmopolitanism.
What term, then, should Republicans use to name the repudiation of globalism during the recent historic election? There will be a division, I suspect, along the lines we saw during the painful run-up to the 2016 election itself. On the one hand, Republicans who sided with globalists on the issue of commerce or who had a low estimation of American culture will indeed call what has happened a populist revolt. On the other hand, Republicans who think that globalism has not only been a disaster for the whole of the America but also that it is theoretically untenable will—or should—call what has happened a revolt in the name of national sovereignty, not populism.
Globalism and Identity Politics
Globalism, as we know, has benefitted a narrow swath of America, as the electoral map of 2016 indicates. Counties that voted for Clinton are the jurisdictional overlayment of the cities and regional zones in which a preponderance of citizens are involved in the global “management” (the buzzword of the globalist epoch) of materials or, more importantly, information. These voters were generally inattentive to their fellow citizens who were not in on the globalist game plan. For them, political justice involved material growth made possible by global management and the identity debt-points that global elites dispensed to this or that oppressed “identity” group as a consequence of past infractions or of the irredeemable fault of others—typically (the imaginary category of) White People. These two together were the theoretical centerpieces of 2016 Clinton campaign.
That globalism and identity politics went together in the minds of so many Democrats is no mere quirk or accident. What binds globalism and identity politics together is the judgment that national sovereignty is not the final word on how to order collective life. This judgment against national sovereignty—let us state the matter boldly—was the animating principle of the post-1989 world order, an order that is now collapsing before our eyes. Citizens who came of age after 1989 scarcely know how daring this project has been and, thanks to the American university, can scarcely conceive of any alternative to it. The post-1989 world order, however, is not fixed and immutable. It is, moreover, a rather bold historical experiment. A brief digression into the history of Western political thought confirms that this is so. Republicans must understand the long-standing viable alternative that predates the post-1989 experiment; and they must understand it in their very bones. For unless they grasp the real reason for the recent collapse, they will be tempted to see the repudiation of the political classes of both parties as a mere populist uprising, which will, they hope, dissipate as citizens either accept their fate in a globalized world or cease to be irrational. The larger issue, now that the post-1989 world is collapsing, is not populism, but rather national sovereignty. Let us see why.
The Peace of Westphalia, which formally inaugurated the modern European system of nation-states, came into effect in 1648. Shortly thereafter, in 1651, Hobbes wrote one of the great works in the history of political philosophy, Leviathan. In a now-common reading of that work, and correct so far as it goes, Hobbes’s Leviathan provides us with the individuated self, oriented by self-interest and the fear of death. These ideas are in Leviathan, but they only scratch the surface of that great work. Hobbes’s deeper concern in Leviathan was the English Civil War, which in no small part was a religious war involving the claims of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians. The doctrinal difference between the Roman Catholics and the Presbyterians need not concern us; what matters is where each of these Christian sects located sovereignty. Hobbes thought that Roman Catholics were guilty of what we might call “false universalism,” because they vested sovereignty at the supra-state level, in Rome. Hobbes thought that the Presbyterians were guilty of what we might call “radical particularism,” because they vested sovereignty at the sub-state level, in private conscience. The English Civil War occurred, on Hobbes’s reading, because of these religious wagers that peace and justice were possible without national sovereignty. In his estimation, these supra- and sub-state alternatives are perennial temptations of the human heart. Their defenders may promise much, but neither “commodious living” nor justice are possible through them. Only by vesting sovereignty in the state can there be improvement for citizens and workable understandings of justice.
The post-1989 experiment with globalism and identity politics demonstrates that Hobbes was correct, so long ago, that supra- and sub-state sovereignty are perennial temptations of the human heart. The post-1989 version of that temptation saw global elites use the apparatus of the state to bolster so-called free trade, international law, global norms, and international accords about “climate change,” the advances towards which purported to demonstrate the impotence of the state itself. In such a world managed from above, the only task left for the Little People was to feel good—or feel permanent shame—about their identities, and perhaps to get involved in a little “political activism” now and again, to show their commitment (on Facebook, of course) to “social justice.” The Little People in such a world were not citizens, they were idle “folks,” incapable of working together, because what really mattered was not rational deliberation with their neighbors, but what they owed, or were owed, by virtue of their identities. Determining the calculus of their debt, in turn, were Very White Progressives in the Democratic Party who cared not a jot about the real outstanding debt of $19 trillion owed by the U.S. treasury. These Very White Progressives sought to adjudicate justice from above, by legal carve-outs or, if necessary, by executive actions pertaining, for example, to transsexual bathrooms, so that all “identities” could have their due. Fortunately, 2016 was year the American electorate decided this ghastly fate was not to be theirs.
The American University
These observations about the post-1989 wager that is globalization and identity politics would not be complete without comment about the complicity of our American universities in this bold but deeply destructive experiment. Our universities, rather than standing above globalization and identity politics, have been the engine of it. At Georgetown, where I have taught for over two decades, students who are fearful that one small misstep will cause them to join the swelling ranks of the Little People quickly learn that to succeed, their studies must focus on “politics and culture” (an actual major, in the School of Foreign Service). What this really amounts to is the following: my students endure semester after semester of mind-numbing economics and international business classes, the very language of globalization; then they are titillated in their Prefix-Studies courses about the debt points others owe them, or they owe others, by virtue of their identity. Keynesian economics and Foucault: the global forces that we can manage, and the subterranean forces of the Id that have no right to be managed. What more could you need in an undergraduate education? Certainly not the study of state constitutions, the rule of law, municipal government, and all the boring stuff you would need to know to become thoughtful citizens who actually build a world together. Above all, you would not need the history of political thought—for now we finally know what the answer to 2,500-year-old question of justice is, namely, “social justice.”
The post-1989 experiment in globalization and identity politics, however, is not sustainable, no matter how forcefully our American universities defend it. That that experiment might need a defense has not yet occurred to those in charge. So far, we have seen only mourning, as the scores of letters sent out across the country by university presidents to their faculty and students attest. The anger is on the way, though. The promulgation of the language of globalization and identity politics is—dare I say it—the sole purpose of the modern, exorbitantly priced American university. That is why the anger will come. Hobbes recognized a long time ago that the post-1989 configuration of ideas and commitments could not work in the end. The year 2016 has proved Hobbes right, though the universities cannot yet bring themselves to admit it. State sovereignty matters. The alternative of globalization and identity politics had to collapse, because sovereignty cannot be located in those two places if life is to go well.
The Permutations of Sovereignty
The task before us now is not to resurrect the configuration of globalism and identity politics, but to recognize that national sovereignty matters, and that several versions of sovereignty are immediately available—each with distinct domestic and foreign policy implications. These are, first, liberal sovereignty; second, sovereignty based on ethnic nationalism; and third, sovereignty based on covenantal nationalism. A fourth version, heir to a grand tradition of constitutionalism that is unthinkable without the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, will not concern me here.
I raise the three versions of sovereignty both because they are prominent and living options in the “West” today, by which I mean Israel, Europe, and the Anglo-American World, and because these three are the ones most likely to be involved in the reconstruction after the now-imploding post-1989 era. Why is Israel in the mix? Generally, of course, we think of Israel as a political entity formed in 1948. As a theoretical resource for thinking about sovereignty, however, the Hebrew Bible is perhaps the most important source of all. Hobbes himself relied on it to think through his famous formulation in Leviathan, just after the Peace of Westphalia. Beyond Hobbes lies a vast Anglo-American political and legal tradition that is incomprehensible without the Hebrew Bible. In America herself, the Hebrew Bible is one of the cornerstones, which would have provided less of a foundation only if the Puritans had never arrived on Plymouth Rock.
About liberal sovereignty, there are many good things to say. On the liberal view, different kinds of peoples are able to live together in relative peace, if in their public persons they see themselves as citizens who accede to the rule of law that applies to all. America has been successful in part because of liberal sovereignty. Since her inception, and especially since the Immigration and Nationalization Act of 1965, waves of immigrants from around the world have entered America and, after a few generations, integrated into American society. No country can completely throw open its doors to immigrants; but no country will successfully incorporate multiple ethnic groups, with differing cultures, without the liberal idea of sovereignty playing a large part.
Sovereignty based on ethnicity is generally the strongest sort; but states built around it are not usually very good at integrating other ethnic groups. As we move away from globalism and back towards the state, our biggest concern should be the re-emergence of ethnic nationalism in Europe, where this sort of sovereignty has been strongest and most pernicious. What makes the problem of Europe so incendiary today is the profound postcolonial guilt felt by so many Europeans, which has caused the nations of Europe to open up their borders as if to prove that no vestige of the pre–World War II world of Europe remains. The past, however, never completely recedes. Absent a middle ground between ethnic nationalism and the false universalism of a borderless Europe, I fear Europe will return to the earlier understanding it purports to have renounced, once the false universalism of the postwar experiment is shown to be unworkable. I hope I am wrong, but I fear I will not be.
Covenantal nationalism is the gift of the Jewish people to the West, especially to the Anglo-American world. If you read the early Puritans, if you read the opening chapters of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, you will quickly discover that the parsimonious account of America as a regime of liberal sovereignty is only half of the picture. The other half of the American experiment is covenantal nationalism. America is “both/and,” both liberal and covenantal. From the liberal half, we have built a strong state with the rule of law. From the covenantal part, the Founders built a federal republic, a new experiment that gave local communities bounded and responsible freedom (along with a sense of national mission), because of which, in a few short centuries, America developed a strength unseen in the nations of Europe.
In the aftermath of the implosion of the post-1989 experiment with globalization and identity politics, some will argue that there is no room in America for covenantal nationalism. We live, after all, in a post-religious age. This view would be naïve. The question for America will always be not whether America is religious, but rather the way religion appears. Is it really a stretch of the imagination to see the 2016 election as a rejection of a Democratic Party that had become a deeply corrupted Puritan Church, through whose invocation of identity politics Hillary Clinton and her vestry were to declare who was pure and who was stained, who were among the sanctified and who were among the “deplorables”? If you seek further proof that the 2016 election was religious and not political, look to the weepy and still incredulous parishioners of the Democratic Puritan Church, who are incapable of accepting the outcome of the election. In national politics, you get another chance every four years; in religion, you have to fight evil every day. There is no election cycle in religion. This explains why the parishioners of the Democratic Puritan Church will continue to fight President Trump and everything that he does. For them, politics is religion.
I will come to Trump’s victorious version of covenantal nationalism in a moment. Before that, it is important to remember the two moments in American history in which covenantal nationalism was overt rather than merely veiled: the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement a century later, and now a half-century behind. Covenantal nationalism is often thought of as outward looking, as a declaration of the special place of this nation among all the others. There is an inward looking aspect as well; and in the American case, the great internal wound is slavery and its aftermath.
That great wound has not been healed; the nation has not been bound together. Listen to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, and to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, and you will hear the language of covenantal nationalism. I dare say that no other language than that of covenantal nationalism will allow us to understand and address our great wound. Lincoln and King, among our greatest orators, understood that. Republicans, heirs to the Party of Lincoln, must now turn their attention to the inward calling of covenantal nationalism. Identity politics, that decades-long experiment from the Left, has betrayed African Americans and undermined the covenantal tropes that have given the African American churches (still the best hope within the African American community) the strength to perdure. If racism is, among other things, the ability of one group to determine the linguistic terms by which another group addresses and engages with it, then identity politics is Democratic Party racism. The only way African Americans (and indeed any other ethnic groups) can gain acceptance in the Democratic Party is to abjure or mask their religious sentiments and learn the language of identity politics. That is racism by another name. That is why African Americans and members of any other ethnic groups burn at the symbolic stake if they renounce the language of identity politics. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692–93, it seems, are still with us—though today, of course, our universities offer a catechesis to Democratic Party parishioners-still-in-training, to keep them safe from the witchcraft of any alternative to identity politics.
It will not be through our universities, however, but through the churches and synagogues of America that the great wound of slavery and its aftermath can begin to heal. The state can help, to be sure—by supplementing the on-the-ground work that American citizens themselves must do. The state, however, cannot become a substitute for that difficult on-the-ground work. Millions of American citizens already know where the real work needs to be undertaken. They are doing that every day, without fanfare, with their neighbors. Republicans can contribute to this work in their own lives; the Republican Party, in endorsing the language of covenantal nationalism, must remain attentive to the inward national task of thinking constructively about how the state can supplement the efforts of the communities within which the reconciliation work of the churches and synagogues is occurring.
What, then, of the outward dimension of covenantal nationalism? The election of Donald Trump points us in a new direction, mercifully away from the covenantal nationalism of the Democratic Party, based—even after its 2016 defeat!—on the purity and stain of identity politics. Donald Trump’s covenantal nationalism is, as he has said, about “making America great again.” Domestically, this must mean focusing on the success of the middle class. Doing so pays a double dividend: a vibrant middle class means a disciplined and ambitious citizenry, attentive to its future and to the future prospects of its children. It also means a growing economy, which provides the poor with the incentive and the means to enter the middle class. The state can assist the poor in one of two ways: it can help the middle class; or it can hollow out the middle class, tax the rich, and use the proceeds to secure the votes—but not the future—of the poor. That the Democratic Party lost the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin is proof enough that middle-class voters in those states saw which way Hillary Clinton planned to “help” the poor if she had won the 2016 election.
Does helping the middle class require returning to protectionist policies, of the sort that led to the global economic collapse of the early twentieth century? Trump’s critics argue that that is what will happen if he intervenes in the so-called global economy. In his magisterial 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith worried about protectionism. Yet in that work, Smith also asks who, exactly, will look after the interests of the state. According to Smith, corporations care not a jot for the state. Yes, “free trade” can increase the extensiveness of markets, and make a global division of labor possible; but the corporations involved in it increasingly have interests that do not coincide with those of the state at all. The state initially protects them—and if they then flourish, their interests, not surprisingly, shift away from the state that protected them.
Trump’s critics have informed us that there is no way to avoid this inevitable consequence of globalization if there is to be “improvement”—Adam Smith’s favorite word in The Wealth of Nations—and a global increase in the standards of living. Protectionism will not solve this problem; it will make things worse. In our own day, however, the seemingly simple opposition between protectionism and “free trade” has become blurry. NAFTA is hundreds of pages long; the TPP is ten times that large. The remarkable thing that has happened in our own day is that these “free trade” agreements are in fact a new form of protectionism. That is, they involve endless stipulations, enforced by the state and often promulgated by self-interested global corporations themselves, which protect those very corporations because smaller enterprises seldom have the compliance staff necessary to adhere to, let alone understand, those stipulations. For us today, so-called free trade is not opposed to protectionism; it is a species of it. Globalization, to put the matter otherwise, involves not the supersession and growing irrelevance of the state, but the close alliance between growing state bureaucracies and large corporations—the name for which is crony capitalism. Trump has called out this pernicious arrangement on any number of occasions. To help the middle class, he will need to make clear that he is not a protectionist; rather, he opposes the current form protectionism is taking, namely, global crony capitalism. The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI)—a global brokering venture that gathered together government officials and corporate interests—was Exhibit A, and could only thrive in the post-1989 world. Hillary Clinton just lost the 2016 election. It should come as no surprise that the CGI closed in January 2017.
The foreign policy dimensions of Trump’s covenantal nationalism are likely to be a refreshing change from the last two administrations. President Bush and President Obama both made “democracy” the litmus test for the legitimacy of regimes abroad. Bush thought he could help matters along by military intervention; Obama thought he could help matters along by military nonintervention and a great deal of sermonizing about so-called global norms. Both presidents, despite their huge differences, saw foreign policy in religious terms: Bush thought that because God had made man free, democracy was the universal political form; Obama thought that because America had been prideful, he needed to repent publicly on her behalf before the world—hence the various “Obama Apology Tours.” Trump’s religion, on the other hand, is “winning.” He grew up in New York City, attending a Presbyterian Church famous for its rector, Norman Vincent Peale, whose book, The Power of Positive Thinking, took America by storm in 1952. The dark Protestant machinations about human freedom and pride that drove President Bush and President Obama, respectively, make no appearance in the thinking of Trump. He will ask of foreign nations, simply, “are they going to be allies or not; and will America be able to win with or without them?” He will “think positively” in his dealings with foreign powers, and find ways to work with historical enemies. His highly inflammatory rhetoric has been poorly understood, not least by the mainstream media, which has made the mistake of assuming he means everything he says. Trump is from the borough of Queens. If you know your America, you know that means something. For Trump, politics is rhetoric, and governance is policy. We should not forget that these next four to eight years. Trump’s first tactical move is often highly rhetorical. He pushes beyond the pale of what is possible, and then is able to secure “a deal” that gives his opponents far more than they thought they would have received from his initial rhetorical stance. Twitter is a fitting medium for his rhetorical tactics; we are therefore unlikely to see him mothball his account while in the White House.
Beyond this rough outline of the way Trump will think about “making American great again,” it is difficult to make predictions about foreign affairs. The post-1989 world is tottering, and no one can say which piece of its edifice will crumble next. There is one area of ongoing conflict, however, which I fear may escalate badly if not handled carefully. I mentioned earlier that ethnic nationalism is likely to be one of the political forms we are likely to see more of as the post-1989 world comes undone. In the aftermath of the 2003 war, Iraq remains a fragile federal republic holding together Kurds and Arabs, Sunni and Shia, and any number of other small minorities. There were rumblings in both the Bush and Obama administrations for an independent Kurdistan. Seen through the lens of ethnic nationalism, the Kurds are obvious candidates for having their own state. Thirty million strong, they do not have a state of their own. There will be pressures in the Trump administration to help the Kurds secure their own state. This would be a terrible mistake. Kurds are located not only in federal Iraq; they are in Syria, Turkey, and Iran as well. Whatever your views of the 2003 war in Iraq may be, nearly everyone can agree that things are worse now in the region because of that war. If that war, or the way the aftermath was handled, was America’s first sin against Iraq, setting up a Kurdish state with American assistance will be the second sin. What is true about Iraq, moreover, is true elsewhere: however fragile many of the states set up in Africa and the Middle East during the colonial period may be, it should be the first goal of American foreign policy to recognize the borders of those states, to avoid the never-ending escalation of conflict that ethnic nationalism seems to foment. The great foreign policy challenge of the twenty-first century, I fear, will be the fate of those states. Either they will be ripped apart by the centrifugal forces of ethnic nationalism, or they will hold together through federalism. It would be unwise for America to encourage ethnic nationalism. The Kurdish case will, I suspect, be one of many that test the Trump administration.
The Undoing of the Pre-2016 Republican Party
Let us turn from foreign policy in the Trump administration to a consideration of the implosion of the Republican Party that allowed him to ascend to the presidency. It is no secret that after 1989, the Republican Party lost the center of gravity that had held its several parts together just enough to win elections and for internal disagreements to be glossed over or ignored. Before 1989, the twin perils of Progressivism at home and Communism abroad drew attention away from the serious intellectual cleavages that had existed. In polite company—at Liberty Fund colloquia and at other similarly minded gatherings—party members held their tongue. Yet, the troublesome questions always lurked right around the corner. What, really, do conservatives who follow Burke have to say to economic liberals who follow Hayek? And of the Reagan-era late-comers—Evangelical Protestants who follow Calvin and Roman Catholics who follow Aquinas/Aristotle—the question no one really wanted to consider was always in the background: aside from the political issues of abortion and religious liberty, weren’t deeper theological disagreements eventually going to appear? Then the grandest theoretical question of all: how is it possible, really, for followers of Burke, Hayek, Calvin, and Aquinas/Aristotle to find a basis for agreement after their common enemies disappear? Political scientists will tell you that interests, not ideas, hold political parties together. Political theorists know otherwise: interests fluctuate, and are unreliable guides. Ideas, on the other hand, have internal logics. Moreover, each one of them can only complement and dovetail with a certain number of other ideas with internal logics of their own. When too many ideas come together in the mix, it is only a question of time before a political party that has relied on their collective force for its strength is weakened and undone. A common enemy can delay the inevitable, but it cannot stop the internal contradictions from playing out. Progressives had won the culture wars in the 1990s. The Soviet threat ended in 1989. The one enemy of the Republican Party emerged victorious; the other enemy it had defeated. With no two-front battle left to wage, it was only a question of time before a candidate emerged who revealed just how weakened the Republican Party really was. Donald Trump was that candidate.
If one of the curious facts about the authors of the ideas of the pre-Trump Republican Party was that they were often at odds with each other, the other curious fact was that all of them—Burke, Hayek, Calvin, and Aquinas/Aristotle—are European or, in Aristotle’s case, had a hand in the intellectual formation of Europe. How is it that the Republican Party, which touts “American exceptionalism” as one of its distinguishing ideas, is so beholden to European thinkers? Making the problem even more apparent, the very idea of “American exceptionalism” can be traced to Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French Anglophile who, in Democracy in America, perhaps saw further than all the rest. Burke, Hayek, Calvin, and Aquinas/Aristotle are formidable thinkers, and no serious student of politics should be unaccustomed to their ideas. Each one of these authors helps us think about America, but they help more as critics than as defenders of the American experiment. Political parties will have no more than occasional successes if they are constantly trying to modify and attenuate the existing state of things. To achieve enduring results, they must work with the material at hand, not as if it is alien, but as if it is familiar.
Burke, the root of American conservatism, had deep antipathies to the spirit of equality, as his Reflections on the Revolution in France well attests. Yet as Tocqueville remarked, America is the place where “the conditions of social equality,” as he called them, had played out most. How can a political party that makes Burke the cornerstone of its self-understanding hope to win elections in America, in the democratic age?
What of Hayek? His most important work, The Road to Serfdom (1944), is a dark premonition of Europe’s possible fate. Yet America seems to be driven by other forces that cannot quite be comprehended by Hayek’s categories—for better and for worse, the transmutation of the theological understanding of America as a chosen nation by Progressives of the early twentieth century into a political project. “Serfdom” is a European category; a national covenant based on the promise of a better future (wonderfully, if mistakenly, laid out in Croly’s The Promise of American Life, in 1909) is an American category.
What of Calvin? The covenantal theology found in The Institutes of Christian Religion (1559) is certainly important if we wish to understand Puritan New England. But who reads Calvin’s great American heir, Jonathan Edwards, today, except perhaps to frighten undergraduates? When original sin no longer captivates the American imagination, what use can Calvin be for us today? Protestant Evangelicals of the Reagan coalition did have an unforgiving view of sin; but like all austere religious movements in America, their ideas have softened with time. It is quite a leap from Calvin to the “compassionate conservatism” that many Protestant Evangelicals hold today.
What of Aquinas (and, by extension, Aristotle)? Few figures in the history of Western thought can be brought forth to provide more powerful arguments about why the American republic rests on faulty foundations, as any number of serious Roman Catholic scholars argue today. Notably, there is the question of virtue, and whether a republic founded on checks and balances between competing interests fundamentally misunderstands man. More vexing still is the failure, in the American regime, to understand that the analogical ordering of creation means that religion lies atop politics, not separate from it as a distinct modality of human experience, independent of politics. These are two very serious matters, which allow critics to wonder aloud, when the lights occasionally go dim in America, whether the wiring itself is faulty.
If it seems a bit of a stretch to read America in light of the pre-1989 Republican pantheon of these great European authors, we might ask how such an enterprise got started in the first place. The answer is the crisis of twentieth-century Europe, the questions that crisis raised about “modernity,” and the influx of European émigré intellectuals who posed those questions to star-struck college students at the American universities at which they found themselves teaching after World War II. The formative experience of their American students was Progressivism at home and the National Socialism and Communism abroad. The European émigrés brought with them an understanding of the history of Western political thought seen through the lens of the “crisis” of modernity. American students found in the émigrés’ formulations answers to their own foreign and domestic concerns. The match worked well.
At the University of Chicago, to illuminate the point, Leo Strauss offered students a way to comprehend the crisis of modernity in terms of the antinomy of nature vs. history—the latter being the modern turn that culminated in the philosophy of Nietzsche and the social science of Weber. Both were disasters. Natural Right and History (1953) remains perhaps Strauss’s most important work. To this day, it provides conservatives a purchase to criticize progressivism—which is one of the American flowerings of the wager, rooted in German thought, that man is an historical being, known to himself with the unfolding of history and not according to a static “nature” which can be known with an equally static faculty of reason. An earlier book, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (1936), offered American students a purchase on the second antinomy that pervaded Strauss’s thinking: ancient virtue vs. modern self-interest. The third antinomy—reason vs. revelation—provided American students a way to think through the respective wagers made by philosophy and Revelation. It is not too much of a stretch to conclude from reading Strauss that he sided with philosophy. Perhaps I read too much of Allan Bloom, his most influential student, into that assessment. I cannot say.
I raise Strauss not to criticize him. My estimation is that his hermeneutic method—a close, deferential, and often esoteric reading of great texts—is something for which American students who follow in his wake owe an immense debt. The difficulty comes when his three antinomies are brought to bear on America.
(1) In siding with nature over history, Strauss provided a bulwark against both historicism and progressivism. In rejecting history, however, he rejected the whole of Reformation thought, which substituted history (the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible by the New Testament) for nature. The modern move from nature to history may issue in Nietzsche and Weber (in Europe, anyway); but in America, it did not—perhaps even could not. Instead, in America, there were the Puritans and, subsequently, the mainline churches, without a consideration of which the history of America would be inconceivable.
(2) Because of his rejection of history, Strauss remained inattentive to the Reformation wager about the historical fulfillment that is the New Testament. As a consequence, the application of his second antinomy—ancient virtue vs. modern self-interest—to the thinking of Hobbes and Locke led his readers to conclude that these early (Protestant) liberals did not really mean what they wrote about religion, but instead were the progenitors of the view that man is a disembodied, isolated individual. That would be true if Hobbes and Locke were merely using religious language to protect themselves from persecution. If they actually were operating comfortably within Reformation categories of thought, it would mean that citizens about whom they wrote were caught up—bound, in fact—by a providential plan according to which human liberty had to be ordered in the manner each author proposed. For Hobbes, this meant a Moses-like sovereign; for Locke, this meant property, toleration, and government of the sort he recommends in his Second Treatise (1689), by virtue of God’s original grant to Adam. Man, in both of their estimations, was not a self-making individual. Strauss’s non-Reformation reading of Hobbes and Locke provides, instead, a low estimation of liberal thought. Indeed, for Strauss, there is a fatal flaw within liberal thought that points to the crisis of the twentieth century and to the question: might we need to return to ancient authors, Plato and Aristotle, in order to correct our course?
(3) Regarding Strauss’s third antinomy—philosophy vs. Revelation—we can safely say that he thought through this matter philosophically, which is to say that he was never prepared to say, definitely, whether philosophy or Revelation had the final word. Nevertheless, what I have said with respect to Strauss’s first two antinomies also pertains to the third. Americans, as Tocqueville and others have pointed out, are not a philosophical people; they use their reason for the purpose of building a world, not contemplating it. And Revelation is less a lonely question in a post-Nietzschean world than a reminder of a national covenantal mission yet to be fulfilled. Even twentieth-century Progressives, who have sought to do away with God entirely, think in terms of an unfolding historical mission, complete with an arc of history that bends in their direction. The supposed antinomy between philosophy and Revelation just doesn’t comfortably fit here.
I have not brought Strauss into our discussion with a view to providing a final word about his thought. My intention here has been to indicate the scope, power, and influence of his thinking on several generations of American conservative thinkers. I will leave it to others to elaborate or refute. My larger concern is the cultural consequences of the sort of thinking I have described, because it bears on the matter before us: why were conservatives in the Republican Party caught so off guard by Trump the victorious candidate and, now, Trump the forty-fifth president of the United States? In their attentiveness to European thinkers and European categories, could they not see what was happening before their very own eyes in America?
The Culture Wars and Their Aftermath
Few things were more certain for conservatives, as the culture wars began, than that the war would be lost, and that conservatives were nevertheless right in their assessment of the unfolding catastrophe. Nowhere is this clearer than in one of the more important works of the late twentieth century, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Thirty years later, Bloom’s book is as prescient as ever. American universities—elite and otherwise—continue to rot, now less from “value relativism” than from “identity politics.” Little matter: both are traceable to Nietzsche, whom Bloom had firmly in his sights. With the culture wars lost and elite universities succumbing to the twin perils of a left-leaning (anti-)culture and bourgeois careerism, where were conservatives to turn?
The answer came in the form of conservative foundations—Liberty Fund, ISI, the Earhart Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, the Jack Miller Center more recently, and a host of others. As American universities became more inhospitable to conservatives in the 1990s and 2000s, these foundations offered a place for conservatives to gather for sustained conversations. At their best, I venture to say, these foundations were the university, carried on by other means. What should have occurred in the classroom and in the faculty meeting happened in foundation colloquia: the serious consideration of the thoughts and practices necessary to live well.
There were, however, consequences for being associated fully with the Great Books and great ideas, yet dissociated from the daily task of citizen-formation—that most important task of the American university. The breathing room, so to speak, that was afforded conservatives by these foundation gatherings reinforced the sentiment that thoughtful men and women can do no more than stand back from the growing chaos in America. They either had to make preparation for the distant day when the world could begin anew, or hunker down darkly satisfied that an intellectual Benedict Option is the historical norm, that the post–World War II grand expansion of liberal education in America was a one-off. The conservative world, in either case, was contracting; both American culture and the American university had aligned against it. Conservative foundations sought to fight this contraction, of course. Foundations, however, are not universities; their budgets can underwrite some projects, but not others. Constrained by limited resources, the focus had to become narrower—on the “principles” of free government, on “the idea of liberty,” on the “principles” of the free market, etc. This shift, too, reinforced the problem I have already identified: conservatives increasingly hovered over America as well-meaning critics, but did not much understand America as everyday Americans did.
However noble the foundation efforts were, it was only going to be a question of time before their effort to save America, through the conservative professoriate ensconced with tenure at American universities, began to falter. The retirement of the G.I. Bill generation, the tyrannical advance of the social sciences, the generally caustic hermeneutics of critique, the cancerous growth of identity politics—these and other causes have all but decimated the ranks of conservatives in the American university. Conservative foundations can really do nothing about this state of affairs, short of starting new universities, which they cannot currently afford to do. They watch as year after year the average age of their colloquia attendees gets older and their hair grows greyer. That is because today, fewer and fewer Ph.D. programs around the country have the requisite faculty members to form a three-person Ph.D. committee on behalf of up-and-coming conservative thinkers. When up-and-coming conservatives have no intellectual career alternatives in the American university, these sometimes undisciplined and irreverent souls will look elsewhere to say what they have to say.
There is yet no sustained analysis of the origins of the Alt-Right. I suspect that one of the reasons the Alt-Right has emerged is that there are now enough intelligent conservative men and women who have been effectively driven out of left-leaning universities to gather together and form effective alternative media outlets. Having nothing to lose, they care not what the PC Left thinks of them—nor even what more traditional conservatives think of them. For decades, the Left has been at war with “authority.” The Alt-Right, knowing that behind the veil of moral outrage of the Left lies the desire to consolidate its power, now attacks their authority, and the supposedly neutral media that represents them—CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, Bloomberg, etc. The post-election cry over “fake news” from these media sources is really quite remarkable. Any university professor who has battled the Left these past several decades knows that postmodernism and identity politics find the idea of “truth” laughable. Every position is a “perspective,” nothing more. And thanks to Sesame Street and Barney, every “perspective” is equally valid—indeed, “special.” For the Left to declare otherwise, now, is quite hilarious. The culture war ended with the Left emerging victorious. But wait! The Alt-Right is amassing its own troops on the border, and will use the weapons invented by the Left against the Left.
This campaign will end at a place no one can currently foresee. Those who are old enough to remember the look of indignity in the eyes of our professors during the 1960s and ’70s, when left-leaning students declared that they were mere cogs in the machinery of oppression, now see that same look in the eyes of our left-leaning university colleagues. As a reminder to the Left that its motives are not pure, this campaign is, I confess, sometimes darkly amusing to watch. But as a long-term strategy, it cannot fortify the Republic. The deficiency of “activism” on the Left is that it often presumes the absence of, or denies others access to, normal channels for political involvement. The Alt-Right, too, makes the same errors. Let us hope that in the coming years the normal channels are available to all citizens.
Through Trump, the Republican Party now has an opportunity to remake itself. The post-1989 world of globalization and identity politics is withering. Looking back, the Republican Party should not be particularly proud of the way it either participated in that world or opposed it. That is behind us now, however. To cite Tocqueville again, “new realities are impending.” If there is to be American greatness, it will emerge around the two sorts of sovereignty that hold her together: liberal sovereignty and sovereignty based on covenantal nationalism.
The liberal aspiration to greatness involves the recognition of just how precious the idea of equal citizenship under the rule of law really is. Having spent the no small portion of the last eleven years in the Middle East—in Qatar and in Iraq—I offer the assurance that the melding together of all sorts of different peoples under the banner of liberal citizenship is an unparalleled historical achievement. The natural disposition of peoples is to huddle around “their own.” In America, what is remarkable is that enough of this impulse has been broken down so that we can live together without immediately looking to “our own.” Liberal greatness means that we look at others as neighbors and as fellow citizens. That we need to have strong borders, that we need to slow down immigration so that 95 million workforce-age fellow citizens can find jobs, and that we only admit foreigners who aspire to become American citizens, is not inconsistent with liberal sovereignty. We are a nation of immigrants, held together by liberal ideals, which call on us to gather together as neighbors and as citizens.
The national covenantal aspiration to greatness must take both inward and outward forms. The inward form, as I have already indicated, involves healing the still-festering wound of slavery and its aftereffects, through our churches and synagogues and through our face-to-face dealings in everyday life. The state can supplement those efforts, but it cannot substitute for them. There is no path to the Promised Land except through the agony of the desert. Any political party or politician that tells you otherwise is lying, and wants your vote.
Greatness in its outward form will require orienting domestic policy toward the middle class. America is a middle-class commercial republic. Let is keep that in mind in all that we do, and see what happens. I suspect we will see the revitalization of our country.
Beyond our borders, greatness will require the reconfiguration of our country among the world of nations. Like it or not, our national covenantal understanding is that we are “a shining city on a hill, and a beacon in the darkness,” to paraphrase John Winthrop’s 1630 encomium to his fellow passengers aboard the Arabella. We cannot renounce that charge; we can only understand and apply it well or ill. President Bush understood that national calling to mean the promotion of democracy abroad. President Obama took it to mean guiding the world to a post-historical order, wherein global norms self-evidently point to democratic governance and to the obsolescence of war. Neither one of these understandings has served our country well, nor have they brought peace to the world. Despite their immense differences, both President Bush and President Obama exhibited that brash American impatience that foreigners are quick to identify in us. President Bush thought that with one final push towards democracy, peace would be at hand; President Obama thought that the wolf would lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6) if they would each just listen to him. I will say it again: American impatience.
The New Testament verse on which Winthrop relied (Matt. 5:14) situates his fellow passengers in a darkened world, in which the brokenness of man is omnipresent—but in which that brokenness is also not the final word about the mortal condition. Until the end of time, however, the broken world will be composed of nations, in one or another state of preparedness for battle against other nations. There will be no “postwar” world, made possible by a “democratic peace,” or by any other machination of man. God brings the End Times, not man—and the corollary: God “saves” the world, not man. America, the shining city on the hill, for Winthrop and for us, must grasp the permanence of this broken condition. Until it does, there will be more folly and foolishness, which will only deplete our national treasury and needlessly spill the blood of our sons and daughters.
At the beginning of his term in office, President Trump looks well positioned to understand this—not because he has a deep theological grasp of the world, but because of the absence, in his thinking, of the deeply flawed theological understandings of his two predecessors. “Winning” does not suffer the fate that false hope does. “Winning” begins with a realistic appraisal of what is possible and what is not. That is its great advantage over flawed theology. I suspect that this approach will relieve both our friends and enemies abroad as well. Nothing baffles foreigners more about America than the strange ways that theology makes an appearance in places that it claims not to. Being a shining city on the hill in a Trump administration, I suspect, will mean assuming the continuing leadership role thrust upon America in earnest after the Second World War, more by sea than by land. By this, I mean a return to a navy-centric military, concern with keeping sea lanes open for trade, rather than an army-centric military concerned with land battles within the sovereign territories of other nations. The light of the American city on a hill shines brighter across oceans made safe by our navy than in it does in the capitals of sovereign nations abroad, conquered by our army.
One more thought and we are done. I have written that under President Trump and a renewed Republican Party, American greatness should consist in addressing our still-unhealed domestic wound, in recovering the strength and wisdom of a middle-class commercial republic, and in attaining a sober view of the meaning of the shining city on a hill in our foreign policy. The three together suggest the need for a mix, increasingly lost in our conversations about what has gone wrong in America, involving individual responsibility, neighborly involvement in our local communities, and ennobling national projects that only presidential initiative can facilitate. No one can help but observe that the world is changing before our eyes. Donald Trump has played a larger-than-life part in this. Yet amidst all of the changes—and amidst the hopes that he can make our country “great again”—the burden nevertheless rests on citizens, who must either build a world together or withdraw into themselves and wish in vain that the state will carry the load. Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that a nation can have the fact of democracy, but if it does not have the spirit of democracy, all will soon be lost. National leaders can perhaps inspire that spirit, but they alone cannot sustain it. Citizens must create that spirit, together. As we look to a renewed Republican Party, let us be mindful that national politics alone cannot sustain us.