Trump v. Madison

I recently tried to identify six groups of supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Afterwards, I got a lot of complaints that I left off a seventh group that a lot of his supporters say they belong to.

My categories weren’t entirely meant to be disparaging, by the way. “Outright racists”? Yeah, that’s disparaging, but I had to include it, because the most unfortunate thing about Trump’s campaign is the way it has drawn White Power types out of the woodwork on social media, so anyone who criticizes him gets an earful from people who want the United States to be a special preserve, not just for white Europeans, but for people of “Anglo” descent.

No mention on whether Saxons and Jutes should be included as well, though I presume Normans are definitely not welcome.

But back to the seventh group. I’ve been convinced that there is such a group, though I am not sure how big it really is. Judging from the reaction on social media and in the comments section of my articles, the seventh group consists of people who want to burn down the Republican Party for not giving them enough of their agenda. They don’t love Trump so much as they hate the GOP leadership and want to use the coiffed avenger as a wrecking ball to tear it apart.

There is a kind of political nihilism at work here, a desire to see the whole system destroyed if you don’t get everything you want right now. If you look at the American political situation and you see that it consists of one party run by people who want outright socialism and another party run by people who don’t want socialism but are fairly ineffective at resisting it, and your answer is: let’s get rid of the ineffective resistance—then you’re not trying to accomplish anything positive. You’re just venting your anger. If this is the case, please go find a hobby to channel your excess energy into, and leave politics alone. Politics is not about venting your emotions. It’s about accomplishing results, which takes planning, persistence, and patience.

I understand why much of the conservative “base” feels jilted by the Republican congressional leadership. We’ve been demanding some big, dramatic changes that the leadership hasn’t delivered, and often they don’t seem interested in even trying. But if we want to get rid of Mitch McConnell, we can try to unseat him, either by challenging him in the Republican primaries or by electing enough senators who will vote him out of his position. That has been tried and has not yet succeeded. So what people are really complaining about is the rejection of their priorities, not by the party leadership, but by the wider voting public. Well, that’s life under representative government.

Politically speaking, the conservative “base” is a minority faction. Our views—and I certainly include myself among the most radical small-government advocates—are shared by somewhere between 10% and 40% of the public, depending on the issue. But a lot of the base is bitter that we haven’t been able to dictate policy as if we command upwards of 60% of the vote.

Their beef isn’t with the Republican Party, it’s with the whole American system of government. Their enemy isn’t Mitch McConnell. It’s James Madison. If you’re the sort of person who uses “cuckservative” as an epithet for anyone who settles for less than what you imagine the right kind of strongman could deliver, then I’ve found your ultimate nemesis. James Madison is the original “cuckservative.”

The Father of the Constitution wrote the rulebook for the American political system, and he specifically wrote the rulebook for what’s supposed to happen to political factions. He explained this in The Federalist No. 10. Everyone should read this essay and thoroughly understand it, and almost no one does. But you can’t understand politics and can’t do politics until you do.

The basic idea is that the system is designed to prevent any minority faction from pushing its agenda, and it’s designed that way for our own protection, to prevent narrow interests and wild-eyed fanatics from taking over. The Federalist No. 10, is a rundown of all the ways the Constitution is designed to divide power and balance factions against one another in order to prevent any one faction from getting its way.

Now, we can take for granted that you don’t think your cause is a narrow interest or that you are a wild-eyed fanatic. But if that’s really true—and let’s face it, it probably isn’t—then the system is designed to prevent other minority factions from taking over. After all, if the system were designed so your group could set the rules with only 20% of the vote, then what’s to prevent a different 20% faction from shoving their agenda down your throat? So the system is rigged to prevent or slow down action unless it is backed by a broad, enduring consensus forged through a whole string of boring political compromises. That’s not a bug in the system. It’s a feature.

Trumpism is an appeal to the fantasy that we can just get around all that. The fantasy is: here’s this celebrity billionaire with a flamboyant personality who’s very famous and who seems to be the kind of guy who “gets things done.” And he is, for the moment, repeating some of the things that are high on your political wish list. So maybe he will be able to overcome everything in the system that is designed to prevent you from getting that wish list. Maybe he will magically allow your political faction to govern as if it were a majority.

There is, thank goodness, no real track record for this. We’ve had a few tries at electing celebrities with dynamic personalities and a reputation as political outsiders who are not beholden to the establishment. I’m thinking of people like Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, who were swept into power on a very Trump-like wave of resentment against establishment insiders, and once they got into office, they achieved…nothing. They left the political environment of their states exactly as they found them, as if they had never existed. In Ventura’s case, he gave up on big reforms pretty early and ended up focusing most of his effort on an airport rail-line boondoggle. In Schwarzenegger’s case, when his initial attempt to push real reforms of California’s corrupt system were blocked, he decided that his goal was simply to stay in office for the sake of being in office. Given Trump’s history of changing political positions and his abiding conviction that everything is really all about him, I would not expect any different results.

Someone on my Twitter feed came up with a great analogy.

Aaron Sorkin has specialized in creating a televised alternative fantasy presidency (“The West Wing”) or an alternative fantasy news media (“The Newsroom”), in which his fashionable lefty faction would totally triumph if it were just led by someone who was idealistic enough, compassionate enough, smart enough, and articulate enough in that fast-talking Aaron Sorkin kind of way.

This kind of fantasy is natural enough for the left, which has faith in the power of government to solve all problems, if only the right people are in charge. You can see how this fueled President Obama’s campaign and—since they never learn—is propelling Bernie Sanders to the top of the Democratic field. But you would think the first commandment on the right would be: place not thy faith in politicians. And place even less faith in the kind of politician who pretends not to be a politician, because he’s starting out by lying to you.

Why do the supposedly tough, charismatic outsiders fail? Because the system reflects the will of the people, not the will of a charismatic governor or president. And the will of the people is not for the kind of radical, fundamental reversal of direction that many of us on the right would like to see. That doesn’t mean we’re wrong (though Trump’s supporters are definitely wrong on some issues). But it does mean that we have to have more reasonable expectations—and less trust that a single charismatic leader is going to save us.

For all our complaints, we still actually live in a representative republic, and the current state of things more or less reflects the actual will of the American people—not what we would like their will to be, but what it actually is. To paraphrase Mencken, the common people know what they want, and they’re getting it good and hard.

The American system was designed to keep a strong leader from marching us over a cliff.

This is not a counsel of defeatism. If you understand how the system works and why it works that way, then you know what you can actually do if you are part of a minority political faction. In the short term, focus on partial reforms that can win majority support and will move you incrementally closer to your goals. Over the long term, focus on advocacy and education—on moving your views out of a minority faction and into the mainstream. It’s your job to make a political majority, which our “leaders” can then follow. But both of those goals require convincing people and reaching out to appeal to their values—neither of which is the strong suit of the loud-mouthed strongman. The kind of leader required to rally a majority around a partial, incremental agenda is the kind of leader who is careful not to unnecessarily alienate any group of voters and who is willing to broker compromises. Which is to say: exactly the kind of politician we usually get. And our best option is to choose from among this lot the one who is mostly likely to try for and actually achieve some part of your agenda.

Is that annoying? Yes, it is. But it’s the American system, and it was designed by the Father of the Constitution for our protection, precisely to keep a strong-willed, charismatic leader from marching the nation over a cliff. We might want to try conserving that system.

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