An existential angst has taken hold of America. It’s come in the form of a realization that our constitutional republic may be slipping through our fingers. This anxiety seems to be the one point of bipartisan agreement in our otherwise hopelessly divided body politic. But when it comes to assigning blame for the erosion of our institutions, conservatives and progressives revert right back to pointing fingers at one another.
To find out whether there is any merit to this societal angst, and if so, which side is to blame for the supposed oncoming collapse, we have to steer clear from our emotions and take a cold look at the facts at hand.
If it’s become fashionable these days among progressives to see in Trump a bearer of authoritarianism, it’s one of those modes du jour which vanish for a decade or two but always come back with a vengeance—like leggings. For the fact of the matter is there’s hardly any novelty in the language employed by the Left to describe our president. The same vitriol, paired with the same hysterical screeching, was hurled at George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan too.
Progressives now caricature the president bringing in troops to protect federal property from an outright insurrection as his “stormtroopers crush[ing] liberty on the streets of Portland.” Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court becomes “Another step toward Christian fascism.” And Medium’s in-house left-wing hysteric Umair Haque writes that our democracy is “in for the fight of its life” with Trump this election cycle. One reads diatribes such as these and gets the feeling that their authors are not emotionally well.
Absent from these prophecies of doom are any understanding of, let alone credit for, what it is that conservatives, and by extension Donald Trump, wish to achieve for our country. And because these people don’t grasp this, they assume the worst and project their own proclivities onto their opponents.
The very word “conservative” includes the verb “to conserve” (derived from the Latin conservare), which means “to keep”, “preserve”, “keep intact”, or “guard.” By definition, a conservative aims to preserve our constitutional system of government, the culture into which it is embedded, and the way of life it sustains.
Any change made to our institutions and our culture, conservatives argue, must follow careful deliberation and be implemented with a deference to what came before it—like a brick laid upon a brick wall being constructed. The change must be gradual and prudent, not rash or born from hysteria. The wall must retain its properties; to remove the bottom bricks is to make the entire thing collapse.
In the American context, this means conservatism holds a reverence for the Constitution and our Judeo-Christian values, which together encapsulate a culture of individual liberty restrained primarily by personal virtue and only secondarily by the political order. The Constitution draws the shapes, but we ourselves fill in their colors. We can be free only insofar as we are free from, by being a master of, our paltry inner desires, which means making the right choices and practicing restraint in our lives: Finish school or at least learn a good trade, stay away from drugs, get married before having children, stay married in order to provide for those children, work hard, and live by the Golden Rule. Or, to put it in Edmund Burke’s famous words: “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”
A corollary to this is that society is, in another notable phrase of Burke’s, a contract between the living, the dead and the unborn. Society ought not to be steered towards goals expedient for our instant gratification. Rather, we ought to be its stewards, preserving it for our children and theirs.
The idolizing of our Constitution on the Right didn’t emerge out of nowhere, but stems from a close reading of the Western historical and philosophical canon. Plato and Polybius come to mind here, both of whom argued that political regimes change, indeed decay, over time. Monarchy slowly transforms into tyranny, aristocracy devolves into oligarchy, and, most importantly in the American context, democracy degenerates into ochlocracy, or “mob rule”.
The Constitution’s Framers, having studied these and many other philosophers, understood that safety mechanisms would need to be built into the system in order to save it from ourselves. This is why we don’t have a pure democracy, but an Electoral College and other constitutional protections to guard the minority from a potentially tyrannical majority.
Progressives have adopted a position diametrically opposed to the above. Never content with the speed and multitude of social reforms or the socio-economic outcomes of various groups in society, they started questioning the very legitimacy of our republican system of government. This radical narrative had its breakthrough with Woodrow Wilson, and it has spread in various stages through academia. The Frankfurt School comes to mind, and later the postmodernists and “critical theory“.
At the basis of the progressive critique of liberal democracy and small-r republicanism are the Marxist (or quasi-Marxist) notions that: a) it’s impossible for anybody to hold an absolute claim to truth, including claims to have discovered the most desirable and stable form of government, because any such claims are inherently born from socio-economic and cultural circumstances; b) for this reason we can’t make any value judgements either, and it’s improper for anyone to impose a bourgeois lifestyle upon other folks; and c) those who erected our system of government did so only to assume and then maintain their dominance over other groups in society. Back in the day this was the capitalist holding the worker in his clutch; today it’s straight white males keeping women, blacks, Muslims and LGBTQs under their thumb.
Slowly but surely such ideas started percolating through society, and, crucially, through our centers of power: government bureaucracies, media, and corporate boardrooms. They transformed not only our courts of justice, but notably our schools and higher education. As those went, so went our culture.
With some change for the better came a lot of change for the worse, as our bourgeois values of self-restraint and humility were all but thrown out the door. To hear a 20-year-old with a fancy wardrobe, an iPhone in their pocket and a dorm room at an Ivy League school rail against capitalism makes one wonder what he or she thinks made all of that wealth possible. Knowing absolutely nothing of anything that happened before last Tuesday, these fools think that the life of home ownership, SUVs, video games and late-night parties is the default mode in human history.
No conservative would oppose “Black Lives Matter” or “Anti-Fascism” as slogans. Nor would they oppose the advancement of blacks or any other group in society, for that matter. But what we’re seeing on the streets these days — in Philadelphia as we speak — is not a regular protest occurring within the confines of the law. It’s a Marxist insurrection, the stated aim of which is to overthrow our system of government altogether. No liberal democracy can tolerate this level of unrest, for it will be torn apart at the seams.
Understanding that it is infinitely harder to build than to destroy, the conservative witnessed the senseless violence and destruction this summer in lamentation. He realizes that Biden as president would at best be incapable of controlling the forces behind this chaos and at worst be utterly beholden to them. Kamala Harris’ efforts to raise money in order to bail out rioters tells us as much.
The vehement objection on the Left to Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court is telling. People realize that, unless the Democrats make good on their threats to stack the court, the days of legislating from the bench are over for the foreseeable future. Instead, the court will return to its original function of judicial review.
Those who think that Justice Barrett with her anti-abortion opinions will usher in a form of theocracy such as depicted in that silly book The Handmaid’s Tale project their own questionable motives onto their political opponents. Even if Roe v. Wade will be overturned in the next couple of years, it should be up to the individual states or perhaps the federal government — these reflecting and gradually adopting the ever-shifting will of the American people — to craft laws governing the practice of abortion. This is what prudent and deliberate legislating entails.
This shift means, however, that progressives will need to bring their case to the American people from here on out. They might find a willing ear with the college-educated high rollers in Palo Alto, but the small business owner who saw his shop looted this summer and the suburban soccer mom wishing to live her life in peace present a potential threat to the progressive worldview. After this summer, not to mention four years of Russia, impeachment and Kavanaugh, who is still convinced that Democrats and their allies will patiently wait their turn?
A decisive Trump victory on Tuesday will mean more riots in the short run. But at the same time it will provide a strong incentive for the Democrats to disavow the madness in their midst. It would be a firm blow to the far Left.
If, on the other hand, Biden wins the election, there is little doubt that a reckoning will come for dissenters on the Right, emboldened as the woke mob has become to cancel those with whom it disagrees. More vindictive policies towards whites will be instated. The police will be under siege and crime will rise as a result, adding to the general breakdown of order. The filibuster may be a thing of the past and the courts may be stacked if the Democrats get their way. Both Capitol Hill and the judicial system would become mere rubber stamps in the enactment of a lengthy progressive laundry list. It would be the end of America as we know it.
You may argue that Donald Trump’s personal character and behavior are beneath the standard we ought to set for political decorum. Four years ago I might even have agreed with you. But in this clown world of street riots, critical race theory and cancel culture, Trump represents normalcy. He’s the last man standing between America and a further erosion of its Constitution and its culture.