The Definitive Take on Donald Trump

Sorry, that’s just my self-aggrandizing way of introducing this Salon column I wrote about Trump and what he means within the long arc of conservatism. My frustration with much of the discussion about Trump is that it presumes he’s a complete outlier within the conservative tradition, that he simply crashed the party. Not so: in many ways, he’s a classic conservative. But there are some elements in his campaign that are new and that make him dangerous. But those elements have less to do with Trump, the man, than with the state of play of the conservative movement.

Here are a few excerpts from my piece:

If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination and the general election in November, it will be a victory for the GOP—and a defeat for conservatism. Not because Trump isn’t a conservative but because he is.

The right has a task: against a revolutionary or reformist left’s claims of freedom and equality, it must reinforce the ramparts of privilege. From the French Revolution to the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation, conservatives have always defended social hierarchies, doling out rights to the few and obligations to the many.

What Burke learned on his way to the counterrevolution was that the greatest enemy to the established elite was…the established elite. Most elites were timid, inept, unimaginative, rule-bound. “Creatures of the desk” was how he described them. Pencil-sharpeners and paper-pushers, they lacked “the generous wildness of Quixotism.” They were weak and spineless, too cozy in their comfort to crush their enemies.

To defend the established hierarchy, the counterrevolution would have to be as energetic and immoderate, as wild and unpredictable, as the revolution it sought to overthrow.

Since the 19th century, nativism, nationalism and racism have been been ideal recruitment devices. “With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black” declared the slaveholder statesman John C. Calhoun; “and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” Men and women at the near bottom of society have little money and even less power. But no matter how low they are, they always can lord their status and standing over those even lower than they. As John Adams so brilliantly recognized in his “Discourses on Davila”: “Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay the common beggars in the streets…plume themselves on that superiority which they have, or fancy they have, over some others.”

For Nixon and Reagan, these others were blacks (sometimes coded as criminals or welfare cheats). For Trump, they’re Muslims and Mexicans.

Conservatism has one fatal flaw, however: Sometimes it wins. Once it beats back or destroys the left, the right loses its reigning purpose, its energy and élan. It is “in times of crisis,” the British conservative Roger Scruton once observed, that “conservatism does its best.” According to Friedrich von Hayek, when the defense of the free market was influential, it became “stationary.” When it was put “on the defensive,” it gained traction, depth, and force.

And here we come to the actual novelty of Donald Trump. Since Bill Clinton declared in 1996, “The era of big government is over,” the left has oscillated from retreat to defeat. Whoever the occupant of the White House, all post-Reagan presidents have beat the GOP drum of low taxes and standing tall, small government and a big military.

And this, in the end, may be why Trump is so dangerous. Without the left, no one has any idea when his animus will take flight and where it will land. While counterrevolutionaries have always made established elites nervous, those elites could be assured that the wild Quixotism of a Burke or a Pat Buchanan would serve their cause. As today’s Republicans and their allies in the media have made clear, they have no idea if Trump won’t turn on them, too. Like Joe McCarthy in his senescence, Trump might try to gut the GOP. At least McCarthy had a real left to battle; Trump doesn’t.

Trump is dangerous, then, not because he is an aberration from conservatism but because he is its emblem. He’s a threat not because the movement he aspires to lead is so strong but because the one he will lead is so weak. It’s weak not because it has failed but because it has succeeded.

21 Comments

  1. xenon2 March 13, 2016 at 1:24 pm | #

    Cruz is a nightmare candidate, Rubio and Kasich are pwned.Hillary is a hawkish Wall Street maven, knows all the wrong people.It’s either Sanders, gave money to his campaign, or Trump.

    Trump is attractive b/c he believes in negotiation, not bombing, as his first step.Obama has deported more Latin Americans than any other president.Some of these lived up North, had steady employment for 20 years, families. The Great Wall? The Iran Deal? More Torture? No Muslims?

    Would Trump let Norway (NATO) conduct exercises on the cusp of Russia(to be topical)?

    • Tom Allen March 13, 2016 at 4:48 pm | #

      A few months ago Trump opposed ground troops in Syria; a few days ago, he said he wants 20-30,000 there. I know people like to believe he’s less hawkish than Clinton or Cruz, but I don’t see much evidence of that.

  2. troy grant March 13, 2016 at 1:40 pm | #

    Stalin and Pol Pot were a left wing conservatives. The left is not always liberal.

    • Benjamin David Steele March 13, 2016 at 2:26 pm | #

      What you mean is that they were left-wing authoritarians. In the US, conservatism and authoritarianism overlap. But social science research shows that they are distinct categories. Not all conservatives and conservative countries are authoritarian.

      Still, your conclusion is right. Not all left-wingers are liberal or rather liberal-minded. A left-winger, like a right-winger or conservative, can be authoritarian or anti-authoritarian. I see liberals as a different category, though, in terms of social science. Liberalism correlates to openness which is as opposite of authoritarianism as can be found. But not all liberals are equally liberal-minded.

  3. brodix March 13, 2016 at 5:04 pm | #

    Trump is a populist billionaire. Simple as that. He was the Kardashian of the 90’s. He is riding a wave, because he happens to be at the crest of that wave.

    Why is this appealing to Americans is the question. We have been riding a wave of growth for 400 years, geographic, industrial, population and now for the last 40, much of this forward momentum is on the credit card.

    The problem is this momentum doesn’t require a lot of introspection. If we just keep growing, all will be well. Looking back and down is scary. When Carter said put on a sweater and Reagan said put it on the credit card, the possibility of a graceful return to earth was dismissed.

    While money functions as a glorified voucher system, we experience it as quantified hope and hope is good. So Trump has lots of hope and that is good. He knows how to make money, because he said so and the proof is all over television.

    The problem of such simple polarities, is the opposite of hope is fear and when the hope bubble pops, the tide turns.

    Those who try to mediate and explain and say you need a little of this and a little of that and some things are bad, but in small doses, not fatal, are simply blown away by such simple minded energy.

    Life is a bitch, but interesting, none the less.

  4. Joel in Oakland March 13, 2016 at 5:24 pm | #

    People miss the Deep Thinker side of DT – I said Thinker, not stinker (now stop that). And I have to confess that I did, too, until being enlightened by Dr Ben Carson, who’s a Real Doctor, not some PhD – and who used to cut up Brains, so he certainly ought to know about Deep Thinking – maybe even has cut into a few Deep Thoughts during his career.

    Trump doesn’t display this side in public, of course, which only goes to show how Truly Great the man is. He even admitted it himself.

  5. Judith L. Osterman March 13, 2016 at 7:17 pm | #

    Does Donald Trump wash his face with ketchup?

  6. Jason Bowden March 13, 2016 at 8:05 pm | #

    Trump’s nationalist instincts resemble those of Hamilton, Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower — the entire American right prior to 1980. Abraham Lincoln, for example, introduced transcontinental rail and the university system through a 40% tariff on the British. The first major piece of legislation Washington signed? Tariff wall. Hamilton laid out the blueprint for how any agricultural backwater can become an industrial powerhouse through mercantilist policy — east Asian economies flourish with this recipe, while economies with liberal policies enforced by the IMF and the World Bank flounder. Eisenhower also thought big, creating NASA and the national highway system. Lincoln, the most counter-revolutionary of the bunch, brutally put down a rebellion at the cost of 600K+ lives, throwing anti-war democrats and journalists in jail without trial, etc. Lincoln was also a nativist; Teddy Roosevelt was obsessed about racial degeneration. And think of the historical Tea Party, not the neoliberal morons identifying with it today. It was about reimposing tariffs after the British removed them to retaliate against American manufacturers.

    • Jason Bowden March 13, 2016 at 8:10 pm | #

      Republicans since Reagan ruthlessly deliver on four items, no matter how unpopular. 1) Tax cuts for the international elite. 2) open borders, more H1B visas, and other means of class warfare to lower the wages and salaries of American employees. 3) Free trade to encourage offshoring and outsourcing 4) wars for abstractions — Human Rights, the Common Good, Social Justice — rather than from a narrow definition of national self-interest. They’re obviously owned by the billionaire class, which thinks and feels as citizens of the world rather than as Americans.

      The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.

      Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet. The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class. A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.

      • Benjamin David Steele March 13, 2016 at 10:56 pm | #

        “The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.”

        I consider those type of people to be more in the reactionary category. That is particularly true of Locke, but even Jefferson and Godwin were never consistent and moderated their views over time. Also, as far as I know, none of these thinkers came from poverty or even the working class. The same applies to Burke with a father who was a government official and, I might add, began as a strong progressive before his reactionary side was elicited by the French Revolution.

        Consider the details of Locke’s political views, as compared to an earlier thinker like Roger Williams:

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/roger-williams-and-american-democracy/

        “Basically, Williams was articulating Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.”

        That demonstrates this difference between ‘liberal’ and reactionary. There was no liberalism as such when Williams lived, but by his example he helped set the stage for what would become liberalism. Locke came from an entirely different tradition, that which influenced the Deep South.

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/deep-south-american-hypocrisy-liberal-traditions/

        The difference between liberal and reactionary to some degree aligned with the difference between democrat and republican during the revolutionary era, and to some degree it matched up with Anti-Federalist and Federalist. Josiah Tucker, a critic of Locke, wrote:

        “Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

        The more reactionary Enlightenment thinkers and American founders were wary of democracy. Liberals like Thomas Paine, on the other hand, advocated for democracy openly. Paine saw the failure of the French Revolution as their not having created a democratic constitution when they had the chance. Also in the category of liberals, as opposed to reactionaries, I’d place people like Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc.

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/natures-god-and-american-radicalism/

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/a-truly-free-people/

        Paine, in particular, is the archetype of modern American liberalism and progressivism. Besides supporting democracy in general, he was for rights for (poor men, women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, etc), along with being for progressive taxation and strong welfare state. Paine represents what we mean by liberalism today. But even a classical liberal like Adam Smith pointed to how inequality endangered a free society and so he argued for progressive taxation and public education.

        Someone like Jefferson was more of a fence-sitter. It is hard to categorize him. But he obviously never fully committed himself to the progressive liberalism of his friend, Paine. And as he aged he became considerably more conservative. The same happened with Godwin. It must be understood that both Jefferson and Godwin came from the elite and they never betrayed their class. It was class position that distinguished strong progressive liberals and everyone else. Paine, Allen, Young, and Clark were never fully accepted into the more respectable social circles.

        “Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet.”

        I support Sanders’ campaign. I do so because I see it as a way of promoting needed debate. It is also good to challenge Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency. But in the end I might vote Green. I’m undecided. I just like how Sanders has been able to shake things up so far.

        “The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class.”

        I can’t say, though, that I feel like I’m part of a group on the ascent. I am a government employee, but my position is about as low as you can get. I have no college degree and I don’t make much money, as I’m only part time. I don’t particularly feel like I’m receiving any immense benefit from the established order, at least no more than the average American.

        “A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.”

        I see that as a separate issue. Many other realignments may form in the future, such as between various non-black minorities and whites, especially in terms of the growing Hispanic population. How that all settles out would be speculation.

        • Jason Bowden March 14, 2016 at 1:05 am | #

          Benjamin, I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism. But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft. Everyone on the left goes a great deal out of their way to portray themselves as objective, neutral, moderate, centrist, compromising, scientific, common sense, unbiased, impersonal — in short, supremely reasonable. This is impossible without Locke. He built out not only an entire politics, but an entire epistemology, to make a space for this kind of self-conception. It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable. Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification. Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit. With reactionaries though, there is no difference in principle between a gang and a government; judgment rests in prudential self-interest, not morality. This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.

          • Jason Bowden March 14, 2016 at 1:22 am | #

            While libertarians hate to hear this, free markets were imposed from the top-down, not from the bottom up, an attempt to make things standardized and uniform, against local reactionaries who wanted to preserve customs, tolls, duties and such. Once understood in this light, the career of a liberal like John Stuart Mill looks all of a piece — there isn’t a single point we can identify where he changed from classical liberal to welfare-statist. Libertarians tell this myth that liberalism started as a peaceful movement and then became authoritarian over time, which simply isn’t true. Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.

            Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors. Jefferson, when at the University of Virginia, banned Hume’s History of England — one of the greatest counter-revolutionary texts ever penned — for “undermining free principles” and spreading “Toryism over the land.” If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.

          • Benjamin David Steele March 14, 2016 at 10:07 pm | #

            @Jason – What interests me about Williams is that he held to a view similar to Lockean land rights. This was before Locke was even born. I don’t if the idea was just in the air or where it might have originated. I’m not sure why Locke gets credit for it. It is sad that this philosophical and legal justification came to be used to take Native American land away, when for Williams it was meant to protect Native American rights.

            He was an interesting guy, way before his times. I liked how he went to convert the Native Americans and came away converted to their having a superior society than their neighboring white settlers. He seemingly gave up on organized religion. He also took religious freedom much further than Locke ever did.

            “I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism.”

            That is at least partly true. I might broaden it a bit.

            I see progressivism as largely a product of dissenter religions—not just Puritans, but also Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, Huguenots, etc. These were people who were tired of religious persecution and religious wars. I’d include Samuel de Champlain in this category, similar to someone like Roger Williams.

            I’m most familiar with the Quakers. Having read about John Dickinson, I was fascinated by their separate tradition of living and evolving constitutionalism as a pact of a people with God, not a piece of paper. That is not unlike how many liberals and progressives still like to interpret the US Constitution, minus the God part.

            “But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft.”

            I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m not sure how to categorize Locke. He did formalize many ideas and made them useful for the purposes of new laws and constitutions.

            I have come to the view that Spinoza was important as well. Someone like Jefferson probably was familiar with Spinoza, but I don’t know how influential his ideas were in the English-speaking world. There were large non-English populations in the American colonies (some colonies were even a majority non-English, such as Pennsylvania). Besides dissenter religions, I couldn’t say what else non-English Europeans brought with them.

            “It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable.”

            That might be what differentiated Locke from the likes of Williams and Penn. Religious dissenters weren’t so obsessed reason in this manner. I suspect that Paine inherited some of this earlier tradition. Paine’s deism wasn’t just about being rational but about knowing God directly, a very Quaker attitude. Paine, besides having a Quaker father, spent two influential periods of his life in a dissenter Puritan town and in Quaker Pennsylvania. Paine’s common sense could relate to his Quaker style of plain speech, it’s about a directness of knowing and communicating. It’s seems different than how you describe Locke.

            “Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification.”

            In the non-Lockean traditions of dissenter religions and Spinozism, I sense another kind of attitude. It’s not clear to me all that distinguishes them.

            Williams definitely had a live-and-let-live attitude, a proto-liberal can’t we all just get along. He didn’t want war, an oppressive government, or anyone telling anyone else how to live. Instead of banning, imprisoning, or torturing Quakers like the Puritans, he invited them to public debate—for the time, a radical advocacy of free speech. He expressed so many modern liberal and progressive values before almost anyone else in the colonies.

            Along these lines, Penn later created the first tolerant multicultural colony in America. Franklin, who was a child when Penn died, complained about the German majority that refused to assimilate. This multiculturalism led to strong democratic culture.

            “Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit.”

            That moralistic attitude would definitely be a result of dissenter religions. It also would relate to the Constitution being a living document.

            “This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.”

            That is interesting. I’m not familiar with Spencer.

            “Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.”

            That fits into Locke’s influence. He wrote or co-wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony. This Southern classical liberalism is, of course, what today we call conservatism—an ideologically mixed bag. But it also shaped Clinton’s New Democrats, which partly returned the Democratic Party to its Southern roots. The early Democratic Party was weakest in New England.

            “Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors.”

            There has also always been a working class liberalism, often a mix of progressivism, populism, and moral reformism. It’s harder to identify this tradition because the people who have held it weren’t and aren’t those with much power and voice.

            The revolutionary era began as a bottom-up movement, a class-based restleness about not only distant British rule but also local ruling elite. It was the process of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas spreading across the dirty masses. Paine was so influential for the very reason he could be understood by the most uneducated person. The upper class so-called founders only joined the revolution once it became clear it wasn’t going away.

            “If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.”

            There were those like the Quakers and Baptists as well. People of this other strain of liberalism hated haughty Puritanism and aristocracy. I wouldn’t discount this aspect, as this bottom-up liberal tradition has been a powerful force in American society and politics.

          • Jason Bowden March 15, 2016 at 11:44 am | #

            @Benjamin — good stuff!

          • Benjamin David Steele March 16, 2016 at 12:40 am | #

            I’ve recently been reading about Abraham Lincoln. I was specifically curious to learn more about his having been influenced by Thomas Paine.

            Lincoln was born at the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. It was only months away from Paine’s death. Much later, Jefferson and Adams died when Lincoln was 17 years old. Lincoln read many of the writings of the founders and others from the revolutionary era, including a number of radical thinkers. He was very much a child of the Enlightenment, even embracing a rational irreligiosity with a deistic bent. His mind was preoccupied with the founding generation.

            I find interesting the contrast between Lincoln and Paine. Lincoln became a mainstream professional politician, something that Paine never would have done. Paine, even with his desire to moderate extremes, was a radical through and through. Lincoln ultimately mistrusted radicalism and had no desire for a second revolution. The government, in his mind, represented the public good. Paine, on the other hand, had a more palpable sense of he people as something distinct from particular governments.

            Another difference seems to be related to their respective religious upbringings. They both held progressive views, but their motivations came from different sources.

            Lincoln admitted to being a fatalist and that this came from his Baptist childhood with its Calvinist predetermination. This fed into his melancholy and sense of doom, oddly combined with a whiggish view of history (i.e., moral arc). The divine, portrayed in the light of Enlightenment deism, was an almost brutal force of nature that forced moral progress, decimating humans in its wake. Lincoln believed that individuals were helpless pawns, facing a dual fate of inborn character and cosmic forces. The Civil War was the perfect stage for Lincoln’s fatalistic drama of transformation through death and suffering.

            Paine had so much more to be melancholy about. He saw one of his childhood friends, convicted of a petty crime, hanged from the scaffolding that could be seen from his home. His first wife and child died. His second marriage led to divorce. He spent many years struggling financially, sometimes unemployed and homeless. He almost died from sickness on his way to the American colonies. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Paine seemed to have an optimistic bent to his nature. He was a dreamer, opposite of Lincoln’s cold pragmatism. I suspect this at least partly has to do with how much Paine was influenced by dissenter religions, most especially the positive vision of Quakerism where God is seen as a friend to humanity.

            The two represent different strains of Anglo-American progressivism, neither of which is particularly Lockean in mindset. In today’s politics, I’m not sure there is much room for either Lincoln or Paine. Their worldviews are almost alien to the contemporary mind. Politics has become so mechanistic and government so bureaucratic. There isn’t any room left for the vast visions of old school varieties of progressivism. Maybe that is why Trump is so appealing. He brings drama back into politics, no matter how superficial and petty that drama is.

          • Jason Bowden March 18, 2016 at 8:26 pm | #

            While liberalism is not progressivism, and progressivism is not liberalism, we should recognize liberal progressivism as a philosophical option. Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism. Social contract theory is a key piece of all leftwing thought, all the way through Rawls — the state as something instrumental and should serve human needs. That’s why Locke spent so much time arguing the state does not have a divine sanction. Even today, liberals make their case based on rights, not convention, original intent, or custom. Consider the arguments of a Ronald Dworkin, as if the Constitution is an imperfect attempt to grasp a timeless order of justice.

            The conservative knock on liberalism has always been that it is abstract, cold, and calculating. This brings us to the first and greatest liberal progressive: Hegel. He preached not change, but change we can believe in. It isn’t enough to defend rights — men need to both identify with and participate in their government. When Hegel writes that the goal of history consists in the self-consciousness of freedom, he is laying down a principle of evolutionary progress. Reactionaries defeated Napoleon, but supposedly only did so by embracing the liberal ideals of the revolution. In other words, “reality has a liberal bias,” as lefties like to say today. When Obama was campaigning, he was the thought of Hegel made flesh, the reconciliation of all opposites. We aren’t the red states, or the blue states, but the United States.

            Interestingly, the first liberal progressive in the United States is John Dewey, who not only had a dominating influence on our education system, and had his hand in the creation of organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP, but was one of the main influences on what is known in philosophy as pragmatism. It isn’t an accident that Dewey spent his early career as a Hegelian. Philosophical and political pragmatism just *is* the American left. Goes back to Emerson, and his embrace of German Idealism — see the first chapter of Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy. If people are turning their backs on that, perhaps they’re either no longer liberal, or no longer progressive. If Uncle Sam is really Uncle Scam, then people are a lot closer to a Germanic, Mencken-style vision of reactionary politics than they would prefer to admit.

          • Benjamin David Steele March 19, 2016 at 5:15 pm | #

            I follow much of what you say. You describe the gist of the dominant strains of American liberalism and progressivism. But I keep thinking about origins. You wrote that,

            “Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism.”

            Did Locke really invent liberalism? To be specific, did he invent what you describe above as liberalism? To Locke, who was a citizen, specifically a reasonable citizen?

            He had no problem writing or helping to write the constitution for a colony whose economy was dependent on slavery—in fact, a colony where the majority of the population was enslaved. He also didn’t support religious freedom for all, but only for certain religious groups and definitely not for heretics and atheists.

            By reasonable citizens, would he have simply meant white male adults who were propertied and adherents of particular acceptable religions? Or did he think peasants, indentured servants, slaves, and indigenous people should be considered part of the reasonable citizenry? The reasonable citizens among the ruling elite and upper classes in the British Empire, including in the colonies, didn’t mind resorting to terrorism. Lockean land rights were even used as justification for taking away the land of various indigenous people. All of colonialism was built on violence, terrorism even, and Locke didn’t seem too bothered by that.

            Was Locke genuinely praising reasonableness any more than previous thinkers? Didn’t those with wealth and power always think of themselves as reasonable? I’m sure the highly educated elite in the Roman Empire also thought of themselves as reasonable citizens maintaining order reasonably in their reasonable republic. The rhetoric of a reasonable citizenry goes back to the ancient world, e.g., classical Greece.

            What was entirely new that Locke was bringing to the table? As I pointed out, even Lockean land rights as a theory preceded Locke, such as with Roger Williams. Others had also previously argued for social contract theory and against divine sanction, such as Thomas Hobbes. Many of these kinds of ideas had been discussed for generations, centuries, or even millennia—consider Giordano Bruno’s views on science and religion or consider how some trace liberalism back to Epicurus. What made Lockean thought unique? Was it how these ideas were systematized?

            Also, what do you think about Benedict Spinoza? Some think Locke was influenced by him. Spinoza began writing long before Locke did. And Locke spent time in Spinoza’s Netherlands, during a time when Spinoza’s work was well known among the type of people Locke associated with. Locke did most of his writing in Netherlands and following that period. Some of Spinoza’s ideas would have likely resonated with and influenced Locke, specifically Spinoza’s advocacy of free speech, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, republicanism, etc.

            There is always the argument as well that Spinoza and Locke represent separate strains of the Enlightenment, one radical and the other reactionary or moderate. Do you agree with this argument? Or do you prefer the view of there being a single Enlightenment and hence a single Enlightenment basis of mainstream liberalism? Do you think Spinoza had much of any influence in early America, either directly or indirectly? If so, can a Spinozistic element be detected in American political thought?

            A number of people argue for an influence, e.g., “Nature’s God.” For example, Spinoza’s collected works were in
            Thomas Jefferson’s library. Thomas Paine likely was familiar with Spinoza’s ideas, either by reading him or through those around him who had read Spinoza. One can sense Spinozism in deism and maybe in Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Age spirituality, and New Thought Christianity. Spinoza’s panentheism has aspects of unitarianism and universalism, both of which have been influential over American history—and so maybe it was incorporated into the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. I could see even Quakerism, or more mainstream Christianity being influenced.

            Plus, there is someone like Algernon Sidney. I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t get as much attention from popular works, at least here in the US. From what I can gather, his views were partly in line with Spinoza. Some other related early Enlightenment thinkers are Conyers Middleton and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

            Your comment got me thinking about all of this. I decided to do a web search. Here are a few things that came up:

            http://jeffersonandspinoza.blogspot.com/

            http://www.thomaspaine.us/pdf/paine_spinoza_bisheff.pdf

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Reason#Paine.27s_intellectual_debts

            https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2008/11/19/spinoza-virtue-and-american-ideology/

            https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2014/07/04/questioning-america-christian-roots/XVNKjkViIzncq9Rr9T7DMM/story.html

            http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-ca-jc-matthew-stewart-20140629-story.html

            http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=philosophy_hontheses

            http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2004/09/14/americas_jewish_founding_father/

            http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/spinozas-vision-of-freedom-and-ours/

  7. David Green March 14, 2016 at 4:52 pm | #

    Liberalism and conservatism at one time meant something in terms of capitalism and aristocracy. Then they mean something in terms of genuine interest groups in capitalism: manufacturers, slave owners, the petit bourgeoisie, labor unions, farmers. In the world of Wall Street and multinational corporations, they don’t mean much; thus the Clintons and Bushes. What distinguishes the liberals (Democrats) and conservatives (Republicans) has devolved to identity politics: the Tea Party’s on one hand and the Progressive’s on the other. What makes Bernie as breath of fresh air is that he’s dealing with genuine class politics. Trump appeals to disenfranchised white males, but mainly in terms of identity.

    It seems to me that this blog should be showing terms like “liberal” and “conservative” to be the anachronisms that they are. They’ve never engaged the class struggle.

    • Benjamin David Steele March 14, 2016 at 10:11 pm | #

      “It seems to me that this blog should be showing terms like “liberal” and “conservative” to be the anachronisms that they are. They’ve never engaged the class struggle.”

      I guess it depends on who you label as “liberal” and “conservative”. Thomas Paine engaged in class struggle. It was quite overt at time. He fought plutocratic interests that he saw as corrupting, such as war profiteering among the upper class. So, I guess it depends if you consider someone like that to be a liberal. As far as I know, Paine never called himself as a liberal, as such was uncommon in his lifetime.

  8. L.M. Dorsey March 15, 2016 at 8:56 am | #

    But without the fear of the left—listening to the Republican debates, you’d never know the candidates were even concerned about their opposition, so focused is their fratricidal gaze—Trump is free to indulge the more luxurious hostilities of the right.

    “Fratricide” seems exactly right.

    Which is good because the nostalgic, retrogressive vocabulary the American right notwithstanding, there simply hasn’t been anything like a left in the US for decades, if ever (which, in fact, the very retrogressive, nostalgic vocabulary of the American right seems to acknowledge).

    No. This is beginning to look less like a species of dialectic and very ominously like some sort of malfunction of the auto-immune system. Cancer maybe?

  9. mark March 16, 2016 at 11:34 am | #

    “The crowd always want to draw themselves from abstract principles to personal attachments.”

    Edmund Burke on the followers of John Wilkes in 1763.

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