A Primer on the Meaning of Political Opposition

As Trump’s shocking campaign promises have given way to the even more shocking realization that he actually meant them, our country’s already fevered political polarization has intensified to the boiling point. This polarization, and its occlusion of the possibility for meaningful political discourse, is in my view considerably more dangerous than anything Trump himself is likely to do. Trump is, as Alastair Roberts has recently reminded us, much more a showman than a conniving dictator, and although his autocratic leadership style is sure to undermine the rule of law (ironically, the very “law and order” he claims to re-establish), those who worry about a repeat of Hitler’s Germany are, I think, giving Trump way too much credit. The Art of the Deal is not exactly Mein Kampf.

However, an individual leader is always considerably less dangerous than the mindset he instills (or helps capitalize on, or both) among his followers and the society at large. And the greatest danger for a political society, one that does tend to prove conducive to the emergence of totalitarianism, is the illusion of the binary choice: there are either two options here, and if you are not for X, you are against it. If you are not for me, you are against me. While such a binary choice is often real in the realm of truth, it is rarely so in the realm of politics. Demagogues, however, are a master of reducing the complexities of politics to the simplicities of the binary choice, and Trump is, in this at least, the arch-demagogue.

Up through Trump’s actual inauguration, though, most thoughtful conservatives seemed to be resisting the pull of Trump’s all-or-nothing framing—after all, nothing is more antithetical to the true conservative mindset (though this has become something of an endangered species in recent decades). Nothing has been so disturbing to me about the past couple weeks as how rapidly this seems to be changing. In true progressive fashion, many “conservatives” have reflexively greeted concerns about policy by changing the subject to questions of sweeping (often caricatured) principle. This was of course the standard liberal move during the Obamacare debate: “You think this isn’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you don’t care about poor people getting healthcare?” We are in danger of witnessing the exact same drama play out in reverse: “You think Trump’s executive orders aren’t good policy? Wait a minute—are you telling me you think that unrestricted immigration is a good thing and we should have totally open borders?” Of course, progressives are making this much easier by too often playing right into it, and voicing their opposition only in the shrillest and most sweeping terms of humanitarian sentimentalism.

Amidst all this, it is important to remember what a complicated and nuanced thing political opposition is, and in the manifold debates to follow in the coming weeks and months and years, to do others (and ourselves) the favor of rigorously distinguishing exactly which form we are facing or seeking to articulate.

Of any proposed policy, we must ask the following questions: Read More


Hooker Meets Trumpism: A Diagnosis of Disgruntled Radicalism

The essay which follows is adapted from a presentation given last weekend to the Davenant Trust Toronto Regional Convivium at West Toronto Baptist Church. Thanks to Ian Clary and Justin Galotti for their hospitality.

The Anatomy of Trumpism

In this paper, I want to sketch Richard Hooker’s remarkably prescient diagnosis of Trumpism 423 years in advance. Trumpism, it should be noted, is simply the culmination of a disgruntled radicalism that has been brewing in the Republican Party since at least the election of Obama in 2008; it is the chickens coming home to roost for the Republican leadership, which has actively fomented an anti-intellectual anti-establishment anti-government message for the past seven years. What are some of the basic features of this tendency, and its dark apotheosis in Donald Trump (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and other leading Republican presidential candidates)?

Most obviously, the Movement is characterized by a profound distrust of authority—first and foremost, perhaps, governmental authorities in the positions of most centralized power (the White House, Supreme Court, Federal Reserve, and various federal bureaucracies above all, then the Senate, then the House of Representatives, and only then state governments), but then, not far behind, and closely connected, various forms of intellectual authorities—media, academic scholars and economists, and especially scientists. In place of these discredited authorities, the Movement embraces the wisdom of the common man and the neophyte. With the center clearly corrupted, one must look to the periphery for purity; experience is a liability, and inexperience an asset. The most trusted figures of all are those who, untainted by prior experience in government or credentialed expertise, can articulate in the most fearless and undiluted terms the common sense of the common man, heightening as much as possible its contrast with the voice of the Establishment. Around such trusted figures, promising to clean house and govern autocratically by their own individual vigor and insight, personality cults rapidly develop, fuelled by the invigorating language of liberty even while quietly evacutating it of much of its traditional meaning. The personal leadership of the demagogue, who speaks after all for the common man, is in many cases to replace the heavy-handed, inefficient, and compromise-ridden rule of law. Read More