Conservatives, Donald Trump, and the Unseen
It is fast becoming a favorite pastime of political writers: trying to explain what could have possibly caused the rise of Donald Trump. Among many other possibilities, writers have suggested working class economic frustrations; reality television; a growing authoritarian undercurrent in American society; Trump’s peculiar persona; racism; political correctness; and Trump’s rhetorical skills as a master-persuader. (Twitter’s @AmateurPolSc wrote a worthwhile piece discussing many of these hypotheses.)
Surely, the emergence of Trump was brought about by a confluence of factors; no single element could have caused such a political earthquake. Below, I would like to suggest a factor worth adding to the growing list of potential causes: our society’s increasing neglect for the invisible.
One way to think about conservative argumentation is that it prioritizes the unseen. When conservatives oppose a progressive policy plan, it is not out of pique or unthinking resistance to change; it is often because, at some level, we believe that the progressive plan is neglecting some invisible—but all too real—danger. For example, conservatives generally reject minimum wage hikes because they make it more difficult for people to break into the labor market. We loathe the Affordable Care Act, among other reasons, because it risks locking the American health care system into a sclerotic, stagnant third-party payment model that will strangle disruptive innovation and ultimately result in lives lost. We reject burdensome economic regulation because it makes it more difficult for small businesses to compete. We oppose bailouts because they create moral hazard that promotes future imprudent risk-taking. We seek to transform endless welfare programs because they risk creating cycles of dependence that deprive a person of the dignity of work and accomplishment.
These unintended consequences, or invisible risks, are best mitigated by acknowledging the importance of limits: limited human knowledge and limited human capacity suggest that we should limit our exercises of political power in these complex domains, choosing instead to work with and improve existing structures that have proven their effectiveness over time.
Sadly, an emphasis on limits doesn’t make for a great campaign platform. Rejecting pleasant-sounding solutions because of “invisible evils” presents a rhetorical disadvantage for principled conservatives seeking to persuade undecided or casual voters. It is easy to promise a government benefit; it is harder to explain why the benefit will leave us collectively worse. When Republicans try to address this disparity, they are often clumsy. Remember Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comments? Romney got this wrong; there are lots of potential Republican voters who have received government benefits. The issue is not that individual voters are bought off; the issue is that benefits sound like a great idea to most voters, and it is difficult for mediocre communicators to challenge the narrative by convincing people that the unseen consequences and costs of those benefits are substantial. Republicans have not done well here, often preferring full-throated moral arguments in favor of the small government position.
Fortunately, in the American system, change is difficult. The staggering of elections and the division of power means that any substantial modification to public policy requires that a political program win back-to-back popular mandates. (The Democrats succeeded at this in 2006 and 2008. The Republicans failed by winning only in 2010.)
These difficulties exist because the constitution’s drafters shared the conservative skepticism of humans. The constitutional system is old, but its conception of human nature remains as valid today as it was in the eighteenth century. The Founders were focused intensely on man as flawed and fallen, writing repeatedly against the dangers of the “passions” of man. James Madison writes of the risks of tyranny and mob rule constantly in the Federalist Papers. He noted that “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” (Fed. 51). He believed that rulers can be decent and public-spirited, but that positive qualities “may all be insufficient to control the caprice and wickedness of man” (Fed. 57). The design of the government must “take the most effectual precautions” to keep rulers “virtuous.” (Fed. 57). To Madison, tyranny was when all powers of government–legislative, executive, and judiciary–fall into “the same hands.” (Fed. 47).
But it is Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 68, which offers a strong defense of the Electoral College, that is most explicit in terms of addressing the threat of demagoguery. He argued that the existence of an “intermediate body of electors” was “much less apt to convulse the community with any extraordinary or violent movements,” because they could be much less “expose[d]….” to popular “heats and ferments.” Hamilton drops the rhetorical hammer:
The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity [emphasis added], may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States.
To Hamilton, while a demagogue could win a single state, the Electoral College would serve to prevent a sort of local populist from taking over the government by running up the score in a given region.
“Passions” encourage humans to act rashly, to vote for strongmen, opportunists, and demagogues, and to think narrowly, rather than broadly. Slowing down processes and requiring broad consensus for major change is how to prevent abuses by enraged narrow and temporary majorities.
One can argue, then, that the frustrations that we experience with the glacial pace of change in the American system are the cost of preventing the much graver evil: that of the strongman coming to power and hijacking the government. Sometimes, the strongman will seem like the best course of action. The unseen consequences are what the constitutional system exists to prevent.
Thus the political system is designed to prevent irresponsible leaders from coming to power, and, if and when they do, to limit their power to do harm. Unfortunately, both elements of the system are under challenge right now.
Certainly, the power of the presidency has expanded over the past century, but the drift towards executive consolidation has accelerated in the past fifteen years. President George W. Bush emphasized the theory of the unitary executive, choosing to claim vast power on issues of national security. Justifiable though this may have been, Bush used executive power in ways that were nearly unprecedented.
His successor, meanwhile, has opted to dramatically expand the use of executive power in domestic affairs. This has included, among other gambits, the haphazard rewriting of the Affordable Care Act, a massive expansion of deferred action for childhood arrivals, substantial regulation of power plants, and an attempted end-run around Senate approval of executive branch appointments. A reliance on a simple count of executive orders–where Obama has issued fewer than his predecessors–is facile; Obama’s executive actions have been deeply consequential and directly contrary to the will of the Congress.
At the same time, the public view of the president–with the aid of the mass media–has taken to viewing presidents as saviors. This sort of view has now infected both parties; instead of being a clerk and a steward of the laws, the president is now seen as closer to a monarch.
Enter Donald Trump
Combine a situation where the power of the presidency has been greatly aggrandized, and the fact that a broad segment of the public seeks a political messiah, and we have a recipe for disaster. Donald Trump, of course, is the disaster. If Trump were a Democrat, his nativist and racist message would be equally sinister, but it would be consistent with the progressive distrust of the constitutional settlement. It is fair to say that the Democratic Party is largely invested in consequentialism at this stage. President Obama has adopted light Caesarism as a way to achieve his preferred policy aims, and his presumptive successor seeks only to continue down that path.
In attempting to hijack the Republican Party, however, Trump presents a greater risk to the republic: the Republicans are the only party that is even rhetorically committed to limited government and constitutionalism. And a successful Trumpist takeover of the party would mean that many of the party’s less courageous officials would completely abandon the rhetoric of limited government. (Once lost, the rhetoric of limited government is hard to regain in the face of well-deserved cries of hypocrisy.) Trump’s policy preferences are all over the place, but a cursory examination of his rhetoric is revealing. When asked about military officials potentially rejecting illegal orders, Trump dismissed the possibility of anyone disobeying his orders, because he is a “leader.” He argues that we should “open up libel laws” to go after dissident journalists who “lie.” He insists that we can “get Apple to build their damn computers and things in this country instead of in other countries.” He has also spoken with at least some admiration about the Tiananmen Square massacre, Muammar Gaddafi, and Vladimir Putin, all because they excelled in the exercise of coercive power.
Even if we agreed on whatever Trump’s policy platform were–even if we knew that Trump would govern as a Buchananite conservative with a pragmatic streak, and we thought that those policy outcomes were the best course for the nation moving forward–Trump’s utter disdain for constitutional government would be enough to reject him out of hand. The future ramifications of said changes to the American political system–the further erosion of our constitutional norms and our system of limited government–would not be worth the putative policy wins.
But what is critical is that it is difficult to see those potential negative outcomes, especially when the master persuader Donald Trump is offering a better future through his grand and glorious self. His “dealmaking” argument is actually asserting that Trump will be a better negotiator on your behalf. He has not used the term explicitly, but the subtext of the Trump argument is that a bunch of angry Americans have gotten a raw deal, and “we’re gonna make great deals” to make up for it. But the executive branch isn’t really in the business of “making deals”–it’s in the business of administering the laws uniformly and fairly. What is lost in an emphasis on executive action and dealmaking is hard to see, but it is inevitable: impartiality, predictability, justice, and accountability. Unfortunately, these are much less tangible than what can literally be seen from outer space: Trump’s famous Mexican-funded wall on the American southern border.
Thus the threat from a President Trump is more substantial now than it would be otherwise. As a candidate, he has no conception of limits, and many of the limits that were built into the system have been eroded. His inconsistent, incoherent proposals–such as they exist–are probably bad policy decisions, but the more serious danger lies in the unseen implications of the implied destruction of the constitutional system.
Persuasion on the Unseen
How did we get here? How did we get from a system designed to prevent the dangers of the unseen to one where the broader population appears oblivious to the unseen?
This is a rhetorical disadvantage for conservatives, and one they have struggled with, deeply, over the past couple of decades: how can you fight the visible with the invisible? In previous eras, however, this may have been a simpler task, because most people engaged with the invisible all the time in their daily lives: they were religious.
For a religious person, there is an innate acceptance of the unseen. Elements prioritizing the unseen exist in most older cultural and religious traditions. Indeed, any religious tradition that accepts a higher power–or intercession by ancestors–accepts the notion of the power of the invisible. For example, many Christians put it front and center in the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God
The Father, the almighty
Maker of heaven and Earth
Of all things visible and invisible.
Different sects of Christianity have had long debates over the distinction between the visible and the invisible church, where the invisible church could be described as the “true church” but one that could never be seen because of the difficulties of reading someone’s heart. Different sects of Christianity, of course, believe in the reality of demons and possession, where a person is controlled by a force that they cannot see. Many Christians also believe in guardian angels acting as unseen protectors and guides in our daily lives.
Perhaps the best analogy for the hidden consequences in seemingly good ideas is in the devil himself. The devil is the master of deceit, an enemy so devious that he has convinced us that he does not exist. It is the perfect metaphor: the unseen force that ruins our best-laid plans, the empty promises of future happiness. Bad decisions are often portrayed in attractive packages; it takes mental clarity to identify the risks.
Religious belief has declined marginally in America, according to surveys. But many of these studies may well understate the level of the decline; over the last decade, there has been a huge increase in the share of adults who have not attended a church service in the previous six months; the number approached 50 percent in 2013. A popular decline in religion suggests that people are less open to the idea of the impact of the invisible.
(Worth noting, too, is that one of the few groups that have avoided supporting Trump are consistent churchgoers. Even if self-declared Evangelicals go for Trump, churchgoers–those who live out their faith–are less likely to support him.)
This secularization and neglect of the invisible seems to affect all strata of society. A permissive ethos of instant gratification and “live in the moment” colors much of our popular culture. But it also affects scholarship and study. Enthusiasts for science, for example, may well argue that only the scientific method can get at the unseen: by controlling for variables and running experiments, we can get at causation and start to make the invisible visible. For its part, social science may well be able to determine some of the direct effects of various public policy positions; it may, for instance, estimate effectively the increase in the unemployment rate caused by an increase in the minimum wage. But it cannot, say, estimate the increased collective social despair caused by difficulties breaking into the job market, or evaluate the importance of being active in a community for one’s spiritual health. Those are questions that can only be answered with intuition and deference to received wisdom.
And yet these deeper questions–the ones beyond the reach of our best analytical tools–are often ignored because they cannot be measured. The measurement challenge leads to a logical error–the belief that things that cannot be detected in our studies and experiments are unimportant, irrelevant, or nonexistent. This is, of course, in contrast to the religious worldview, which holds that the invisible things are the most important.
We should not overextend this argument. There are other ways to learn to appreciate the importance of the invisible: reading history or particular philosophers or economists at the right time; or hearing a public figure make the case persuasively. To religious people, though, the idea that bad consequences can arise from hidden factors–the things that we cannot see, that we must take on faith–requires no leap at all. One does not need religion to believe in the power of the invisible and the unseen, though it seems likely to help on a societal level to have the basis for the belief in place.
On balance, then, one can argue that society has moved from a belief in the numinous towards a belief in only the tangible. This has consequences for our conception of governance: again, the gravest dangers are the invisible ones. If our eyes are focused solely on the tangible in our daily lives, we are less likely to recognize the true dangers in our politics. In essence, then, our metaphorical vaccine against “invisibility blindness” has gone away.
Replacing the Vaccine
Perhaps the most pessimistic Founding Father, John Adams, noted that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” and was “wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We must hope that he was wrong. An increase in religiosity is not something we can count on to redirect people’s attentions to the dangers they cannot see, but to its great credit, the constitution is designed with human fallibility in mind. That leaves us grasping for secular solutions. Where do we go from here?
First, conservatives should deemphasize the rhetoric of constitutional principle. Many Republicans, for example, insisted that the Affordable Care Act was an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause and a massive intrusion on personal liberty. These things may be true, but they are preaching to the converted; no one who sees a potential benefit from the act will oppose it for reasons that are purely philosophical. It is better to focus on potential harm: disruption of insurance plans, rising prices, etc. Republicans should get comfortable with the phrase, “Sure, it sounds like a good idea…” Because it often does, and it usually isn’t.
Second, conservatives must distinguish between small government and limited government. They are easy to confuse, and conservatives often do in their rhetoric. Small government is essentially an economic idea: that the economy is strongest when government keeps out of the way, except for setting some basic rules. Limited government is related but somewhat different: it argues that the powers of government should be enumerated and specific, so that the government can protect ordered liberty in a predictable, fair way. The small government case for minimal economic regulation is that business thrives when it is able to work without overbearing government interference. The limited government case for minimal economic regulation is that government that can act without limits inevitably drifts toward legislative and executive prerogative, which breeds corruption and unequal treatment. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska showed the way on this distinction in his excellent speech at CPAC; other conservatives should follow suit.
Third, conservatives must start to devise policy programs that cater more towards their non-voters. The problem remains that only one party takes the notion of limited government seriously; the Democrats have been for viewing government as “an instrument of unimagined power” since FDR. If Republicans fail to present candidates and policy proposals that can appeal to non-Republican voters, we will lose elections, and limited government will erode further. A Republican Party that effectively brings working-class voters and minority voters into the fold can work to strengthen notions of limited government. Effective governance can breed additional election wins. These are impossible to do from opposition; the media and the Democrats are fully invested in painting the do-nothing Republicans as “nihilists.” Small government and limited government are both important, but facing a choice between the two, we must choose limited government. If we do not, we lose both.
Lastly, Republicans must reject Trumpism, completely and fully. One can accept that Trump has tapped into a set of voters that Republicans need to target–disaffected working class voters, not his white supremacist ones–without accepting anything that Trumpism represents. Republican officials and commentators that collaborate with Trump should be rejected and ignored going forward; anyone in politics that supports Trump has no conception of limited government, and no willingness to consider the dangers of the unseen. Supporting Trump costs us the entirety of our moral legitimacy on these issues.
Our herd immunity to invisibility blindness has been dramatically weakened, to the point that Donald Trump–a man who has no conception of limited anything, much less limited government–has a substantial chance of being the Party of Lincoln’s standard-bearer in 2016. A conservatism that loses its sight of the unseen and what it tells us about the need for limited government deserves no political power. Without that perspective, it veers into ressentiment and anger.
Image by Gage Skidmore