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

The National Debt: A Guide for the Perplexed (and Alarmed)

Since coming back to the US, I have been surprised how often the national debt comes up in conversations about most any political topic.  In discussions about inequality, for instance, I hear that we can hardly trust the government to address inequality given its own financial incompetence, and that if there is financial injustice about, surely the greatest injustice is the government’s systematic stealing from our children and grandchildren, whom we are saddling with an intolerable burden of debt.  The theme of the travesty and looming catastrophe of US government debt has fueled the rise of the Tea Party, and played a role in the ridiculous fiscal standoffs in Congress over the past couple years.  Of course, it is an important fiscal concern that both parties should be attentive to, but this is not usually how one hears it discussed—i.e., in the context of particular policies for fiscal responsibility.  Rather, it is used as a universal putdown—a way of claiming, no matter what the particular point is under discussion, that the government cannot be trusted because its debt is both irresponsible and immoral, and that only a radical overhaul (one might almost say “overthrow” from some of the rhetoric) of our government can save us from imminent disaster.

As someone who used to be something of a national debt alarmist myself, I thought it might be helpful to put the issue in the proper context.  The following is an expanded form of a little explanation I gave to a friend on the question after a political discussion last week.

1) Use real numbers
For one thing, inflation is generally ignored.  All you have to do is yell out $16 trillion—an obviously immense sum—and point proven, right?  “Over the last forty years, the debt has risen from $500 billion to $16 trillion—our debt is spiraling out of control.”  Adjust for inflation, though, and it’s only risen from $2.4 trillion to $16.8 trillion.  Obviously, however, that’s still a pretty substantial increase.  That’s why it’s important to: Read More

Obamacare and the Task of Responsible Opposition, Pt. 3: How Bad is it?

 (See Pt. 1 here, Pt. 2 here)

Now, all of the preceding has one huge asterisk attached to it; everything I have argued holds if and only if Obamacare falls within the normal spectrum of good, mediocre, and bad law.  Now don’t get me wrong; my own view is that it falls very decidedly on the “bad law” end of the spectrum, in a whole host of ways.  But America has seen a lot of very bad laws—Patriot Act, anyone?—that have not warranted, or have certainly not evoked, this kind of response.  If the Right is not going to be hypocritical, they have to show why this is different and unique.  If in fact it is an abomination before God or against man, an attack on the body politic, a form of tyranny or gross injustice, or sure to do incalculable harm to the common good, well then, we may be in a state of justified exception to the principles I articulated above. Hooker after all says, “Not that I judge it a thing allowable for men to observe those laws which in their hearts they are steadfastly persuaded to be against the law of God”; obviously there comes a point at which “it’s the law of the land” should not be sufficient in itself to compel obedience.  If, for instance, to pick an issue of particular concern to conservatives, Congress were to pass a law requiring that all doctors without exception must perform abortions on demand, civil disobedience on the part of doctors would be the only acceptable option, and ferocious opposition by legislators might be in order.  In cases such as this, we would celebrate the many checks and balances in our constitutional system, and seek to use whichever ones we could to obstruct the implementation of such an unjust law.  But is the Affordable Care Act, as such, of this nature?

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Obamacare and the Task of Responsible Opposition, Pt. 2: Democracy at Work?

(See Pt. 1 here and Pt. 3 here.)

The biggest objection I received to my invocation of Hooker on Obamacare and the government shutdown, unsurprisingly, was that these statements of his could not take into account the particular Constitutional structures of the United States.  He wrote in an age and in a constitutional setting where there really was very little recourse if you didn’t like the law—it was the Queen’s way or the highway, so to speak.  Sure, there was a Parliament through whom elected representatives made decisions on behalf of the body politic, but its power was limited, and its claim to meaningfully represent the people was fairly tenuous by our modern standards.  The right and wrong current debate in the United States Congress could not, of course, be adjudicated by standards from 16th-century England, but only by standards applicable in 21st-century America—including, above all, the Constitution.  So the objection went.

Of course, I was well aware of the anachronism of the post, which I sought to humorously highlight in its title.  I do not think, however, that the appeal to the American constitutional system affects my core point in invoking Hooker; for, as I have sought to highlight in the previous installment, this concerned the rhetoric and attitude behind current Republican obstructionism, rather than its mechanism per se.  It is quite possible to stay within the letter of the law in the means of political opposition used, without in any way maintaining an attitude of respectful obedience toward the law.  Indeed, it is my contention that the forms in which this objection has been voiced simply reinforces the fundamental problem of political and societal breakdown that I wanted to highlight in my post.

I have been told that using such measures as a government shutdown or potential debt default as bargaining chips to pass legislation is simply “democracy at work,” and that the “power of the purse” is a “political weapon” that the Constitution “granted to the House to be employed as it was found to be necessary.”  Of course, debates over to what extent the current crisis is unprecedented or routine have become a prominent part of the partisan back-and-forth over the past week.  I do not feel historically-qualified to resolve them entirely, although I have become reasonably convinced of the following conclusions:

(1) there is considerable precedent for using government shutdowns as leverage for resolving policy disputes, even if the current situation is uncharacteristic by virtue of the sheer boldness of the Republican demands, which, requiring as they did the overturn of such a signature and significant piece of legislation, could not really be considered as a good-faith negotiating position

(2) there has been considerable precedent of negotiating against the backdrop of an impending debt-ceiling, in which the possibility of default loomed as an implicit threat above the heads of both parties, but the current situation is largely distinctive inasmuch as Republicans have turned this implicit threat into an explicit ultimatum, inasmuch as their core demand (the repeal of Obamacare) is essentially extraneous to the budget debate itself, and inasmuch as their demands were so exorbitant that they could never conceivably be attained by ordinary political means.  (For more on this, see the interaction between Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat here, here, here, and here).

So commentators on the left are unfair to treat all of this as wholly unprecedented political terrorism.  However, that does not mean that it is reasonable to describe all of this simply as business as usual, or “democracy at work.” Read More

Obamacare and the Task of Responsible Opposition, Pt. 1: The Law of the Land

 Last week, flush with the successful defense of my Ph.D, disgusted with the news I heard trickling out of my country, and tickled to re-discover the perennial relevance of Richard Hooker’s political wisdom, I lobbed a 2,500-word grenade 3,500 miles across the pond, exposing the stubborn self-indulgence of the GOP’s stance vis-a-vis the government shutdown.  Hooker’s message struck a chord with many readers, but also elicited some predictable protests.  Since returning to my homeland a few days ago, I have immersed myself in the resulting discussions, and in reading whatever would shed light on the current fiscal crisis.  The situation, of course, is too complex, too rapidly-evolving, and too obscured with duplicity and half-truths, to offer anything like a full statement on the debate here.  Indeed, in a salutary development, the posture at which my post last week was aimed—demanding the overthrow of Obamacare—seems to be being rapidly abandoned by Republican leadership, to the outrage of the hard-right agitators who were dictating terms until recently.  It remains to be seen whether the new direction will hold momentum, and if so, whether it will mark the final abandonment of the Obamacare fight by conservatives—though I am doubtful they are ready to throw in the towel just yet.  Inasmuch, however, as the Obamacare question continued to dominate discourse up through early this week, and remains an extremely live issue in many conservatives, I want to use the following trilogy of posts today to expand upon my “Open Letter from Richard Hooker,” clarifying the object of my critique and to answer some common rejoinders I have received.  (Some of the same principles, incidentally, apply to the broader budget-deficit concerns which now dominate debate, but I will leave it to readers to draw those applications). Read More