Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Debate Over the Claremont Institute's Supporting Trump

I have written a series of posts on the history of the Claremont Institute's support for Donald Trump.  The most recent issue of the Claremont Review of Books has three essays repudiating Trump, which prompted my question: What took them so long?

A few weeks ago, the Liberty Fund's Law & Liberty website published an essay by Shep Melnick reviewing Charles Kesler's new book--Crisis of the Two Constitutions: The Rise, Decline, and Recovery of American Greatness.  Melnick argued that Kesler's book shows the "political worldview" that motivated the apocalyptic rhetoric of Michael Anton's essay in 2016 urging conservatives to vote for Trump: "2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. . . . a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.  With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances."  Writing for the American Greatness website, Glenn Ellmers has defended Kesler against Melnick's criticisms.

According to Kesler, America is deeply divided by the "crisis of the two constitutions," in which conservative Republicans want to recover the original Constitution of the American Founders that is based on Nature, while liberal Democrats reject that Constitution in favor of the "living Constitution" of the American Progressives that is based on History.  Melnick says that this Manichean view of America divided into two warring camps is both mistaken in its account of American history and dangerous in its incendiary rhetoric.  Ellmers says that this dark view of American moral and political polarization is correct, because the American Left really does hate the America defined by the principles of the Founding, and they will destroy it if they are not stopped by political leaders like Trump, who want to recover American greatness.

Melnick's critique of Kesler rests on three claims about Kesler's position:  "he ignores serious flaws in the American regime, exaggerates the influence of progressive historicism, and constructs a narrative that encourages anti-constitutional extremism."  It would be instructive if Ellmers were to refute these three claims; but as far as I can see, he has not.

Melnick's first claim is that by identifying the America of the Founders as "nothing less than 'the best regime of Western civilization,'" Kesler deflects attention from those defects in the original American regime that needed to be corrected.  So, for example, the Civil War amendments--the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments--were necessary to affirm those original principles of natural equality and liberty that had been denied by the practices of slavery and racial discrimination.

Presumably, Kesler would say that this shows that America has always been the "best regime" in its natural principles, although its historical practices have only gradually and imperfectly approximated those principles.  But if that's so, doesn't that mean that rather than choosing between Nature and History as foundational, we can see History as a progressive realization of Nature's standards?

That points to Melnick's second claim--that Kesler's simple story of the Founder's appeal to Nature being displaced by the Progressives appeal to History is false, because American political thought has always shown appeals to both Nature and History.  Kesler relies on James Ceaser's argument in his Nature and History in American Political Development (2006).  But as Melnick points out, Ceaser recognizes that American political thinkers have grounded their arguments in both Nature and History since colonial times.  The Puritans invoked the Sacred History of the Bible.  By the middle of the 18th century, many Americans invoked the Customary History of England, which showed how the colonists' rights as Englishmen derived from the ancestral history of the British Constitution.  Or they invoked a Whig Customary History that reached beyond the British Constitution to the older constitution that was thought to have governed the Saxons before the Norman invasion.

Beginning with the Declaration of Independence and the Founding, Ceaser observes, there was a turn toward Nature--the natural rights of man.  But then in the period of the second party system (1830-1850), there was a shift towards a synthesis of History and Nature, in which "the Whig Party relied on the Historical School while the Democratic Party adopted a version of Philosophy of History" (Ceaser, p. 33).

According to Ceaser, Abraham Lincoln went through three phases of thinking in which he appealed to both nature and history.  "He began as a Whig, affirming a general Whig synthesis of nature and tradition while speaking infrequently of the concept of nature.  In his second phase, as a Republican in the 1850s, the center of his thinking flowed from restating the concept of nature.  In a third and final phase, evident only in the last year of his life, he added the dimension of a new version of Sacred History that became the framework for his Second Inaugural Address" (p. 50).

Kesler's simple story of how the Founders' Nature was replaced by the Progressives' History ignores Ceaser's complex story of the synthesis of Nature and History in American political development.

Finally, Melnick's third claim is that Kesler's simple story promotes Anton's dangerous extremism in which it's a battle between good and evil, and since the evil ones are going to crash the plane and kill us all, our only choice is to put Donald Trump in the cockpit, even though he is unfit to fly the plane, because at least he is the enemy of our enemy.

Remarkably, in their recent articles for the Claremont Review, Kesler along with Andrew Busch and William Voegeli now admit that Trump was a bad president because he is a bad man, and thus they disagree with Anton who continues to defend Trump.  In his response to Melnick, Ellmers says nothing about this.


rrh said...

Somewhat ironically, I think Melnick's book on Title IX provides some support for Anton's position. What do you do when your choice is between an irresponsible demagogue and a party that rejects constitutionalism and the rule of law? I suspect that you would respond that the Democrats do not reject constitutionalism and the rule of law...or perhaps the GOP is just as guilty on this count. Is there any evidence that could convince you otherwise?

Larry Arnhart said...

To convince me about this, you would first have to show me that the Trumpian conservatives have a clear and coherent understanding of what they mean by "constitutionalism." Right now, they are in total confusion about this. For a long time, they have identified constitutionalism as the originalist textualism of Scalia and Gorsuch. But now some of them--including those at the Claremont Institute--are saying that textualism is wrong, and what we need is a "common good originalism" that gives judges the freedom to act as moral arbiters beyond the text of the law. These folks scorn the textualism of Scalia, Gorsuch, and the Federalist Society, which guided Trump's judicial appointments. Others--such as Adrian Vermeule--say that we must reject originalism completely and allow judges to act as moral philosophers to determine what is required for the common good. I will write a post about this.

Roger Sweeny said...

Sort of related to this is a very interesting essay by Tanner Greer, The Problem of the New Right.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, that is a good essay.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad to learn of Melnick's essay. The claim that liberals are entirely historicist and have no concept of natural right is one of a number of false claims the Straussians make.

--Les Brunswick