Thursday, May 09, 2024

The Crisis of the House Divided in 2024: Trump and the Antiliberal Tradition in America

Some Americans shocked by Donald Trump's MAGA movement have insisted: "This is not who we are."  President Biden has adopted that as the main theme of his campaign against Trump--that Trump and his MAGA movement are trying to overturn those moral and political principles that have always defined the American people. 

But now some historians are saying that Trump's political movement has deep roots in an American antiliberal tradition that has always been set against the liberal tradition that originated in the American Revolution and the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence: since 1776 America has been split in two--a liberal America that embraces the ideal of equal liberty for all in the Declaration of Independence and an antiliberal America that rejects it.  

Two new books make this argument:  Robert Kagan's Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart--Again and Steven Hahn's Illiberal America: A History.  In this post, I will respond to Kagan's book.

Kagan elaborates an argument that he first set forth in some articles in the Washington Post.  He makes two claims.  The first is that the American presidential election of 2024 will be like the election of 1860 in manifesting what Abraham Lincoln called the Crisis of the House Divided, which will provoke a rebellion against America's liberal democracy comparable to the South's rebellion in the Civil War.  The second claim is that this crisis in 2024 is only the most recent expression of a struggle between liberalism and antiliberalism that has been woven into American history ever since the American Revolution and most dramatically displayed in the American Civil War.

Kagan predicts that if Trump wins, he will become a dictator in punishing his enemies and exercising unlimited power in violation of the Constitution; and his supporters will allow him to do this.  If Trump loses, he will say the election was stolen, his supporters will deny the legitimacy of the federal government, and those state governments under Republican control will refuse to accept Biden's presidency, and perhaps secede from the Union and form a pro-Trump confederacy.  Either way, American liberal democracy will be dissolved.

This is possible, Kagan argues, only because the many Americans who support Trump reject the liberal principles of the American Revolution, and consequently they will justify Trump's illiberal behavior.  Trump's supporters show that they belong to an American tradition of illiberalism that stretches back to the origins of American politics.

Kagan sees the Declaration of Independence as the statement of the radical liberalism of the American Revolution--that all men are created equal and equally endowed with unalienable natural rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that governments are instituted by consent of the people to secure these rights, and that when any government fails to secure these rights, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish that government and to institute a new government that seems to them most likely to secure their safety and happiness.  

Throughout American history, the most fundamental political debates have been about how best to extend that equality of rights to all Americans.  Kagan agrees, therefore, with Lincoln's belief that this equality of rights in the Declaration was meant to be the "standard maxim for free society" that would be "constantly looked to--constantly labored for--and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated and therefore constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere" (Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26, 1857).

But from the beginning in 1776, according to Kagan, these principles have been rejected by many Americans who have embraced a racial, religious, and ethnic antiliberalism, in which America is defined not by its commitment to human equality of rights but by its identity as a white Protestant Anglo-Saxon nation.  The American antiliberal groups have included the slaveholding South, the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow South, the Ku Klux Clan in the 1920s, the anti-immigration movement that led to the Immigration Act of 1924, the Dixiecrats of the 1940s and 1950s, the John Birch Society conservatives, the antiliberal conservatives associated with William Buckley, the supporters of George Wallace, the movement for Pat Buchanan, the New Right around Ronald Reagan, and now the antiliberal populists who have taken control of the Republican Party under the leadership of Trump.

Kagan believes that Trump's MAGA populism shows all the elements of American antiliberalism.  The racial element is white nationalism: all white groups have voted in greater numbers for Trump than for his opponents.  The religious element is Christian nationalism:  many of Trump's most fervent supporters want to restore America's identity as a Christian nation.  The ethnic element is Anglo-Saxon and European nationalism:  Trump's anti-immigration stance is predominantly opposition to immigrants of Hispanic, African, Middle-Eastern, and Asian ethnicities.  America is for Americans, and those Americans who do not support Trump's ethnic, religious, and racial vision of America are not true Americans.

Although I agree with much of what Kagan says, I disagree with him on three points.  First, he fails to make a good intellectual argument for the Lockean and Lincolnian interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.  Second, he fails to see that over the past 250 years of American history, the liberal tradition has ultimately prevailed over the antiliberal tradition--even among American conservatives. Finally, he fails to see that as a consequence of that triumph of the liberal tradition in America, Trump and his supporters have neither the guts nor the guns for fighting a civil war to overthrow that liberal tradition.


Kagan identifies the liberal principles of the Declaration of Independence (particularly in the first two paragraphs) as a concise and elegant statement of John Locke's political philosophy, and so the liberal tradition in America as based on the Declaration is a Lockean tradition of thought (13, 17, 30-31, 34, 41, 151).  Kagan says nothing, however, about Claire Rydell Arcenas's argument that the Declaration does not show Locke's influence at all.  He should have responded to her by showing the many clear echoes of Locke's language in the Declaration, as I did a few years ago.

Kagan should also have responded to Pauline Maier's claim that Lincoln's elevation of the Declaration to being America's statement of the "standard maxim for free society" was Lincoln's mythic invention.  Lincoln saw the highest moral standard for American politics stated in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence--particularly, the assertion that "all men are created equal." But Maier argued that from 1776 to 1790, almost no one thought that opening section of the Declaration was important.  It was only later, after the Jeffersonian Republicans had transformed the interpretation of the Declaration, that the "self-evident truths" of the second paragraph became the most important part of the Declaration.  

In my previous post, I answered Maier by arguing that the political philosophy of the Declaration was widely recognized beginning in 1776 as necessary for the moral justification of the Revolution, although George Mason's language in the Virginia Declaration of Rights was quoted more often than Jefferson's revision of that language, and as Maier admits, Jefferson's language had the "same content" as Mason's.  Then, beginning in the 1790s, the Jeffersonian Republicans began the tradition of quoting Jefferson's language as the most concise and eloquent statement of the founding principles of the American Revolution.  So, when Lincoln appealed to Jefferson's principles in the Declaration, he was not creating a myth but extending a tradition that had emerged early in the American founding period. 

But while Locke, Jefferson, and Lincoln all agreed that we can justify the human equality of rights as "inherent in the nature of being human"--as originally expressed in the state of nature--Kagan insists that they were wrong because liberalism is "a choice, and, at root, a faith" for which there is no rational proof or justification.  "Either one believes in its principles or one does not" (13-14).

This is not much of an argument for liberalism.  Indeed, it's not an argument at all, but rather a groundless "faith" or "choice."

Kagan simply assumes without proof that there is no empirical argument for natural rights as "inherent in the nature of being human."  He thus ignores the evolutionary historical evidence that Locke was right about the state of nature as the original condition of our human ancestors and that the American Revolutionaries were right about their being in a state of nature.  I have written about this in some previous posts.

Kagan asserts: "Since the dawn of humankind, people have been ruled by tyrannies of one form or another.  That is the norm" (10).  He offers no proof for this assertion.  And he does not respond to the evidence that I and others have presented to show that democracy is natural for human societies, because it arose in our earliest evolutionary history in Paleolithic hunter-gatherer bands, so that it is part of our genetically evolved human nature.

Contrary to Kagan, liberalism does not depend on a blind "faith."  Locke, Jefferson, and Lincoln were right in seeing that it can be supported with reasons and evidence that show how our natural rights arise from our evolved human nature.


Even if there is a good case to be made for liberalism, we have to wonder how successful it has been in persuading the American people.  If American history since 1776 has been a perpetual struggle between a liberal tradition and an antiliberal tradition, has one side emerged as stronger than the other?

Kagan's answer is unclear.  Sometimes he says that "large numbers of Americans" or "millions of Americans" are on the side of antiliberalism, and at other times he says that "half the country" is antiliberal.  But then he also says that at the founding "the great majority of Americans" were antiliberal.  And yet in the 1950s, antiliberalism "had fallen into minority status in both parties."  He also says that in recent history "the core antiliberal constituencies were declining in absolute numbers in the country at large, but as a percentage of Republicans, they were growing in both numbers and influence."  He quotes Glenn Ellmers (a scholar at the Claremont Institute) as saying that "most people living in the United States today--certainly more than half--are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term," because only "the 75 million people who voted" for Trump in 2020 are true Americans.  (Previously, I have written about how Trump has split the Claremont Institute, with people like Ellmers taking the side of Trump against Jaffa's legacy of Lincolnian liberal conservatism.)  But then Kagan says that no more than "tens of millions of Americans will follow Trump wherever he leads."  (See pages 3, 5, 8, 77, 89, 94, 124, 135, 141, 161, 182, 196.)

In the final paragraph of his book, Kagan concludes that the future of American liberalism looks good--if it can survive the 2024 election:

"Meanwhile, the overall long-term prospects for American liberalism are actually bright, if only because the demographic shift is a reality that can't be blinked away.  White supremacy is another Lost Cause.  As America becomes increasingly multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural, and as it becomes impossible for any single ethnoreligious group to dominate American politics and society, the appeal of liberalism as the only means of holding such a society together should grow.  Many white people may not change their attitudes toward other racial and ethnic groups--after all, they haven't changed in two hundred years--but their ability to fight to preserve their hierarchies will diminish because they will be too badly outnumbered.  That is why 2024 is the year when the antiliberals hope to overthrow the system.  It may be their last chance" (217-18).

I agree that the "demographic shift" towards a "multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural" America favors liberalism.  But I also believe that there has been an intellectual shift in the moral and political culture of America that favors liberalism.  If we don't see that intellectual shift, that's because most of what Kagan identifies as antiliberal conservatism is only a pretense of antiliberalism that disguises an underlying liberal conservatism.

For example, Kagan speaks of Patrick Deneen as one of the leading antiliberals in America today (176, 185).  But as I have argued, if you study Deneen's writing carefully, you will see that he is actually a liberal!  As an illustration, you will notice that while Deneen praises John Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Colony as the antiliberal founding of America--in contrast to the Lockean founding in 1776--Deneen refuses to defend the theocratic code of laws in Massachusetts--such as capital punishment for adulterers, homosexuals, witches, blasphemers, and those who refuse to worship God in the right way--because Deneen believes in the liberal principle of religious liberty, and so he's on the side of Roger Williams rather than Winthrop.

If you wanted to see a true model of antiliberalism, you would have to look beyond American history to Joseph de Maistre. In reaction against the French Revolution, Maistre initiated a Counter-Enlightenment tradition of thought based on a theocratic authoritarianism--the idea that all government comes from some unquestioned coercive authority that is divinely infallible and that all such authority is derived from the Pope as God's representative on Earth.  He proposed a restoration of the Bourbon monarchy to the throne of France, ruling under the supreme authority of the Pope in both temporal and spiritual matters.  Atheists, Jews, and heretical Christians (such as the Protestants) should be suppressed.  He claimed that the rationalist rejection of Catholic Christianity and theocratic monarchy was responsible for the disorder that followed the French Revolution of 1789.  Even the most extreme right-wing Catholic Integralists in France today who profess to be in de Maistre's tradition can't endorse his theocratic authoritarianism.

As compared with de Maistre, almost all American conservatives today--even those who pretend to be antiliberal or post-liberal--are really liberal conservatives.  You can see that in the debate that has recently emerged between the "National Conservatives" and the "Freedom Conservatives."  If you compare the "statement of principles" for National Conservatism with that for Freedom Conservatism, you can see that they agree in affirming the liberal principles of individual equality and liberty, and thus reject any ethnoreligious antiliberalism.  

For example, in the National Conservatism Statement, the section on "God and Public Religion" includes this: "Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.  At the same time, Jews and other religious minorities are to be protected in the observance of their own traditions, in the free governance of their communal institutions, and in all matters pertaining to the rearing and education of their children.  Adult individuals should be protected from religious or ideological coercion in their private lives and in their homes."  

That's a long way from the theocratic coercion of Winthrop or de Maistre.

Here's the section on "Race" in the National Conservatism Statement:  "We believe that all men are created in the image of God and that public policy should reflect that fact.  No person's worth or loyalties can be judged by the shape of his features, the color of his skin, or the results of a lab test.  The history of racialist ideology and oppression and its ongoing consequences require us to emphasize this truth.  We condemn the use of state and private institutions to discriminate and divide us against one another on the basis of race.  The cultural sympathies encouraged by a decent nationalism offer a sound basis for conciliation and unity among diverse communities.  The nationalism we espouse respects, and indeed combines, the unique needs of particular minority communities and the common good of the nation as a whole."

This "decent nationalism" is a liberal multiracial and multiethnic nationalism.

What we see here is the ultimate triumph of the liberal tradition in American history.  The critical turning point in that history was the Civil War.  That war was a test of whether a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could endure in a war with a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal.  The victory of the Union over the Confederacy was, as George Fitzhugh sadly conceded, the victory of John Locke over Robert Filmer.

Moreover, there is a good argument for saying that the military superiority of the Union over the Confederacy really was in some ways a product of the Lockean liberal culture of the North.  Consider, for instance, how the greater population of the Northern states over the Southern states arose from differences in migration.  Before the Civil War, the migration of white Southerners to the North was three times greater than the migration from the North to the South.  At the same time, seven-eighths of the immigrants from overseas settled in the North.  (This later became important for the Union army: 24 percent of all Union soldiers were born abroad [McPherson 1997: ix].)  In the 1840s alone, the population growth in the North was 20 percent higher than in the South (Kagan, 70).  Proslavery Southern leaders saw this population growth in the North as the single greatest threat to the South, which is why they fought so hard to expand slavery into the western territories, and thus increase the number of slave states.

What we see here is what evolutionary scientists call cultural group selection through migration and assimilation, in which countries with cultural traditions of freedom have higher fitness than countries that are less free.  John Locke understood this, which is why he argued that free societies benefited from having open borders, so that they could attract migrants from less free societies.  The freer societies with a growing population of productive and inventive people become the more prosperous and powerful societies.  In this way, people "vote with their feet" in favor of freedom.

And of course, not only did many white Southerners migrate to the North, many slaves ran away to the free states, forcing Southern slaveholders to demand that people in the North capture these fugitive slaves and return them to slavery.  That's why the debate over the fugitive slave laws was so intense.

Because of its larger population, the Union had a larger pool of men from whom soldiers could be recruited.  Consequently, the Confederate soldiers were badly outnumbered by their opponents: of the 3 million Civil war soldiers, over 2.1 million (70 percent) were Union soldiers.

Now, of course, once Reconstruction was ended, the Jim Crow South did preserve some of the Southern antiliberal tradition for almost a hundred years.  But even that was eventually defeated by the liberal tradition of the Civil Rights Movement, signaled in 1965 by an American President from the South, speaking before a joint session of Congress, declaring: "We shall overcome."


But then is it likely, as Kagan predicts, that after the election of 2024 Trump will lead his MAGA movement in a new rebellion against the American liberal tradition that will provoke another civil war?  After all, if the people do have the right to overthrow an unjust government, as the Declaration of Independence says, and if Trump and his supporters believe that the American liberal regime is unjustly oppressing them, then they should be willing and able to launch an antiliberal rebellion.

I don't think so.  As I said three years ago, the response of Trump and his supporters to his defeat in the 2020 election shows that they do not have the guts or the guns to rebel against the American liberal political order.

He did not have the guns because military leaders such as General Mark Milley (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) made it clear that they would not allow the military to support a presidential dictatorship.  And he did not have the guts because he lacked the courage to assert his dictatorial will in violation of the Constitution.  He displayed his unmanly weakness on January 6 when he failed to lead the march on the Capitol as he had promised earlier in the day, and instead he watched the attack on TV at the White House, as if it were an entertaining TV drama.  Later, he meekly condemned the insurrectionary violence that he had inspired, and he told the insurrectionists to "go home with love and in peace." As Nicholas Fuentes of the white nationalist "America First" internet broadcasts said, Trump on that day proved to be "very weak and flaccid."

Kagan writes:

"What we are witnessing, however, is not a political battle but a rebellion.  The events of January 6, 2021, proved that Trump and his most die-hard supporters are prepared to defy constitutional and democratic norms, just as revolutionary movements have in the past.  Though it may have been shocking to see normal, decent Americans condoning a violent assault on the Capitol, that event demonstrated that Americans as a people are not as exceptional as their founding principles and institutions" (215).

But as shocking as the January 6th insurrection was, it could have been much more shocking.  Trump could have ordered the military to support the insurrectionists and to take control of the Capitol.  And he could have ordered his MAGA supporters to rise up and follow his leadership as the American Caesar.  He didn't do that because he didn't believe that Americans would support an antiliberal revolution to overthrow the American constitutional order.

By contrast, in 1861, Southern political leaders could count on there being a sufficiently strong antiliberal tradition in the South to support a Confederacy of states in rebellion against the national government.  

I am not convinced by Kagan's suggestion that when Trump wins or loses the presidential election of 2024, there will be such a strongly antiliberal MAGA movement that it will support Trump in becoming an antiliberal dictator. 

1 comment:

Barto of the Oratory said...

If Trump loses in the election of November 2024, he will then be vulnerable to being sentenced to prison as a result of various criminal trials that are already underway. Therefore, Trump will be highly motivated to incite his voters and allies in Congress to use violence and election fraud in order to install him as president in place of the rightful winner. Kagan has pointed out in some interviews that if the Vice President had succumbed to Trump's demands and had refused to certify the election of 2020, Trump may well have ended up fraudulently obtaining a second 4-year term as president starting in 2021. Kagan says that would have been the beginning of a presidential dictatorship. All in all, I think Kagan is correct that this year's election could be the end of our constitutional republic and the rule of law, and that's because a very large portion (maybe half?) of Americans is philosophically antiliberal.