Posted: November 6, 2018
Is Trump a Tyrant?
s a former Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute, I read with great dismay in the Summer 2018 Claremont Review of Books both Charles Kesler’s editorial, “Fake News,” and Michael Anton’s review essay, “Will the Real Authoritarian Please Stand Up?”
I once had great respect for Mr. Kesler, but his discussion of fake news is appalling. Why? Well, he moves from addressing the high-minded Thomas Jefferson who, in a characteristic bout of enthusiasm, preferred newspapers without government to government without newspapers, to Jefferson in power as president complaining about lies and slanders against his administration. Problem: one of the alleged lies has now been confirmed—his long-time affair with his slave, who had no choice, Sally Hemings. Small wonder Jefferson warned so often against tyrants: he was one himself! And he knew it, which perhaps explains why he thought slavery corrupts both master and slave. We should listen to Jefferson’s arch-rival, Alexander Hamilton, who—while defending in court a Federalist Party editor the president had encouraged his allies to try for libel—said, “I never can think that a free man may not speak the truth!” Allegations that our current president, contrary to George Washington’s warning against inviting or tolerating foreign meddling in American politics, has in fact done just that have been confirmed from numerous sources. The only serious question is whether such collusion amounts to criminal conspiracy—an impeachable offense—though by calling his critics “enemies of the people,” our demagogue-in-chief hopes to preserve his power.
And, to be clear, fact-checkers count the current president’s lies, misrepresentations, and slanders since he took office in the thousands. The major source of fake news in the United States today is the president himself.
As for Mr. Anton, I agree with one of his premises: many books published today on the dangers of authoritarianism are often misguided. This is not because, as he alleges, the critics of the current president are projecting their authoritarian tendencies onto him. That is a form of “gaslighting,” treating his critics as if they were somehow deranged, when in fact many are sickened by separating immigrant families, casual calls to violence against political opponents, undermining American norms and institutions, and much else. Instead, the reason authoritarianism does not capture the “crisis of our time” is because there is a better, old-fashioned term—tyranny—whether from the one, the few, or the many. Anton knows, or ought to know, that demagogues often end as tyrants. Like Thucydides’ Cleon, they begin by slandering their opponents, thus intimidating any from challenging them. These were the sorts of leaders James Madison warned us against in The Federalist, men of “factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs” adverse to the rights of the minority and the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.
The so-called Madisonian system is not perfect; Madison never claimed it was. Ultimately, as both Jefferson and Hamilton knew, it depends on vigilant citizens willing to call potential tyrants to account. In lending their significant learning to defend the current president, Messrs. Kesler and Anton have done a great disservice to their country and its founders.
Naval War College
Michael Anton fails to provide a convincing analysis of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. He substitutes a critical examination of this question with a blame game between Left and Right over the real responsibility for the weakening of American democracy—an interesting question, but ultimately an irrelevant red herring.
The cardinal sin of the Resistance has been to conflate unjustly Trump’s personal tendencies with his policies. But Anton’s cardinal sin is to convince himself that the president’s transgressions of liberal governance can be ignored because (Anton believes) he ultimately has the right policy objectives in mind. Anton would do more benefit to his own favored objectives by working to strictly dissociate them from some of Trump’s tendencies. There are significant segments of opposition among moderates and principled conservatives more likely to support Trumpian policies if they weren’t accompanied by Trumpian narcissism (another Freudian term to which the author should give some attention).
New York, NY
Michael Anton replies:
Neither Karl Walling nor Grant Kettering addresses the central contention of my article, namely, that for 125 years the Left has mounted a successful project to circumvent and undo the constitutional design of the American regime. Either correspondent could have denied that claim if he believes it false, but neither did.
Walling objects to the term “authoritarian,” preferring instead “tyranny.” I thought I made clear my own disdain for the amorphous former term in my discussion of its origins. In any case, this is a trivial point. I used “authoritarian” at times for the simple reason that the books I reviewed use it throughout. Call it what you will, the underlying phenomenon is the same: the concentration of power in unelected, unaccountable hands.
Walling accuses me of “gaslighting” but three examples of objectionable policy he cites suggest that this, too, is more projection. “Separating immigrant families”? You mean when the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations separated (illegal) immigrant children from their parents so as to stay on the right side of a Ninth Circuit ruling from 1997? No? Then you must mean the extraordinary recklessness of parents who encourage their minor children to enter the United States illegally, alone. Wait—not that either? Oh, right. It’s only bad when the Trump Administration does it—even when it does in order to comply with a foolish ruling from the country’s silliest court. Hardly “authoritarian.”
“[C]asual calls to violence against political opponents” cannot possibly be a reference to Antifa, which goes much further than merely calling for violence but commits it on a nearly weekly basis. As for “undermining American norms and institutions,” I refer Professor Walling to the excellent work on this topic by Charles Kesler, for whom he “once had great respect.” Perhaps that respect can be rekindled by paying closer attention to Kesler’s arguments.
Grant Kettering charges me with “fail[ing] to provide a convincing analysis of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies,” which is a relief, since I intended to provide no such thing. He alleges the president’s “transgressions of liberal governance” without citing any examples. The only Trump sin he can name is “narcissism,” a vice not altogether unknown among politicians and of questionable danger to republics. Even were we to grant the charge, we must immediately note that, while perhaps all tyrants are narcissists, few narcissists are (or become) tyrants.
Those who insist on continuing to assert that President Trump is some kind of actual or proto- or wannabe tyrant would be more convincing if they could cite some evidence—any at all.
Charles R. Kesler replies:
I continue to respect Mr. Walling, who is a fine scholar of Alexander Hamilton, despite this intemperate letter. Hamilton raved on like this in several letters (against John Adams, notably), so perhaps Karl is simply demonstrating his Hamiltonian bona fides. At any rate, after reducing the “high-minded” Thomas Jefferson to a tyrant, he moves on to his real subject, Donald Trump, who is conveniently also a tyrant, or a demagogue on his way to being a tyrant, according to Mr. Walling. We don’t really know the exact nature of Jefferson’s relation to Sally Hemings, though that doesn’t stop Karl from jumping to the same conclusion many liberal scholars have. His case against Trump is weaker still. He says the president is guilty of “inviting or tolerating foreign meddling in American politics,” a “fact” confirmed by “numerous sources” he doesn’t bother to name. Why spread anonymous calumnies designed to stir up fear of “criminal conspiracy” and hope of impeachment? Sounds like plain old demagogy to me. Or to be charitable, fake news.
In “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon,” Glenn Ellmers attributes some of Mr. Peterson’s persuasiveness against social construction arguments to his full-throated embrace of science (Summer 2018). I would second Ellmers’s motion that conservatives ought to cite truths from science whenever available—as Aristotle taught. When it comes to the moral sciences, however, so-called “Darwinian Conservativism” leaves much to be desired. That school of thought affirms conservative values for merely utilitarian reasons, at the same time eliminating through its reductive methodology the possibility that they are actually true. Following Alexis de Tocqueville (and the late Peter Lawler’s reading of Tocqueville), I’d argue that human beings with their special attribute of reason are capable of thoughts and longings of a different order than the evolutionarily determined instincts of animals. Human reason can channel feelings toward their proper objects. To be most persuasive, we conservatives ought to offer a picture of human flourishing based both on the bedrock truths of physical science and the more transcendent truths of a philosophy of virtue. It’s persuasive because it’s true.
Glenn Ellmers replies:
I thank C.J. Wolfe for the letter, and note that I too was an admirer of the late Peter Lawler, though I did not agree with his views on Darwin. Wolfe does not indicate whether or not he himself believes evolution to be true. The evidence however—in anatomy, molecular biology, comparative zoology, and archeology—is overwhelming. So how do we deal with this fact? I think that Larry Arnhart and the other Darwinian Straussians have done as persuasive a job as might reasonably be expected in showing that gradual changes in organisms, in response to environmental pressures over long periods of time, can be compatible with Aristotle’s approach to forms and species, or at least his claims about moral virtue. (In the non-Straussian camp I would also recommend the excellent scholarship of the Aristotelian biologist David Depew.) Mr. Wolfe refers to “the bedrock truths of physical science,” but both ancient and quantum physics are quite tentative in making any absolute claims about matter and motion. Even Newtonian mechanics are true only within a limited domain of relevance. As I mentioned in my review, I agree with Leo Strauss’s suggestion that, if anything, it is Aristotle’s biology—more than his physics—that still provides a ground for classical natural right. I think, and I believe Aristotle would have thought, that courage for a prehistoric Australopithecus was not essentially different from courage for a modern Australian.
In his skillful review of my book, Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler, Michael Rosen writes that the Allies had little enthusiasm “to field a ramshackle force of Jews cobbled together from multiple countries under siege” (“The Jewish Army that Wasn’t,” Summer 2018). When Winston Churchill assumed office in 1940, however—with Europe effectively gone, America not ready to enter the war, and Britain’s military severely depleted at Dunkirk—he considered a Jewish force not only a realistic option but an urgent one.
Two weeks after becoming prime minister, Churchill wrote to his secretary of state for the colonies, encouraging him to permit the Jews in Palestine to form a military force “as soon as possible.” He told the secretary that “[t]he cruel penalties imposed by your predecessor upon the Jews in Palestine for arming have made it necessary to tie up needless forces for their protection.” Those British forces were urgently needed elsewhere. That same week, Britain’s U.S. ambassador met with Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s representative in Washington and received a presentation on plans for a Jewish army to support the British.
Churchill faced pro-Arab personnel both within his cabinet and in the bureaucracy, and the Jewish force in Palestine did not get formed, much less the broader army. But the efforts by Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion in 1940 were neither quixotic nor impractical, and the Jewish army they envisioned would have been neither “ramshackle” nor “cobbled together.” Particularly in 1940, it could have made a difference.
Los Angeles, CA