The Flight of Fancy Election

According to Livy’s History, the Roman consul Publius Decius Mus sacrificed himself to the gods by “leap[ing] upon his horse and dash[ing] into the middle of the enemy” in a ritual that secured victory for his embattled army. One hopes the polemicist using Decius as a pseudonym in a much discussed broadside against Never Trumpers, having anonymously expressed an opinion with which somewhere north of 40 percent of Americans agree, is safe. The republic almost certainly will be.

That it will not—that all historical roads have converged on this one, not on the Civil War or the Second World War or the Cold War, but this road, right now, which is, in turn, “head[ed] off a cliff”—is Decius’ thesis. He consequently invokes the vivid image of “the Flight 93 election” in which the choices are to storm the cockpit and risk death (Trump) or to sit pat (Clinton) and perish for certain.

Those are stark choices indeed, and one of two possibilities is available. Either they are wholly detached from reality, in which case Decius has rejected prudence as the conservative virtue par excellence, or they are true, in which case Decius accepts the anticonstitutional and thus anticonservative proposition that the President straddles the Constitution like the Colossus stood astride the harbor at Rhodes.

In either case, the Flight 93 image indicates a regime diseased, one whose fate hinges on a single presidential election. That is never healthy and almost never reality. 1860 and 1864? Yes. But 2016?

Decius insists that it is only to “ordinary conservative” ears that the barreling-toward-the-cliff narrative sounds “histrionic.” Actually, conservatives have traditionally shied from the rhetoric of crisis because it almost always feeds what Bertrand de Jouvenel called “the Minotaur”: Power. Jouvenel explains: “And so it is that times of danger, when Power takes action for the general safety, are worth much to it in accretions to its armory; and these, when the crisis has passed, it keeps.”

The “general safety” is probably not much endangered now, what with the oceans and all, but Decius’ concerns run deeper: If conservatives, he says, are right about virtue, education, social norms, personal enterprise, Big Government, and national security, “then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.” (emphasis in original of course)

It may be worth observing that Decius’ regime is what Michael Oakeshott would call telocratic—directed toward substantive ends—rather than classically liberal, which is nomocratic, providing boundaries and rules that allow individuals to choose ends of their own.

Perhaps because of the urgency of these imperiled teloi, Decius says Burkean solutions are inadequate to the catastrophic gravity of the moment. (Might Robespierre suffice?) Decius consequently wonders at the “Pollyanna-ish declinism” of the Never Trumpers. “The obvious answer,” he concludes, “is that they don’t really believe” that things are really bad. There is a tautology in there somewhere. They are Pollyannas because they don’t think things are that bad, which is actually the definition of a Pollyanna and thus inhibits its own refutation.

In any event, if they believe such, “they should stick a sock in it.” Wait—is Publius Decius Mus actually Donald J. Trump or just channeling his manner of speech? No matter: Forbearing, for a moment, said sock, it may be worth asking whether the nation is actually headed imminently for a cliff and, if not, what purpose is served by suggesting it is.

The answer to the first question is that as long as conservatives persist in apocalyptic rhetoric that does not match the everyday experience of most Americans, they should not be surprised when disconnection results. The fact is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do not have world-historical importance, and it is entirely possible, perish the thought, that ours are not world-historical times. The trends that rightly concern Decius are extensions of a path on which, especially with respect to cultural indicators, the bulk of the industrialized world has been gliding for more than half a century.

To Decius, the idea that this path might be rerouted only slowly and prudently, as Matthew Continetti sensibly suggests, is—figure this one out—“utopian and unrealizable.” What is apparently grounded and real, by contrast, is electing a President to do it for us. That brings us to the answer to the second question, Cui bono? Who benefits from exaggerating the sense of catastrophe?

Consider: Decius warns that “the tsunami of leftism that still engulfs our every—literal and figurative—shore has receded not a bit but indeed has grown.” This is absurd. The Speaker of the House is a thoughtful conservative with an operating majority. The Senate is in Republican hands. Several major countries have governments somewhere right of center.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton—she who is under attack from the Bernie Sanders crowd as insufficiently Progressive, she who stands accused of residing in the pocket of financial interests who fund her family foundation, who is widely thought to be running too cautious a campaign—is probably not, could we please face this, spending her nights concocting a “Progressive-left agenda” that includes “items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments.”

The motive of such inflationary rhetoric is often the accumulation of power. Its result always is. Note well the monomaniacal formulation of Trump: “I am your voice . . . I alone can fix it.” There is a bizarre detachment of conservatism from conservation here. All is change, oriented toward future ends. This requires power above all else: The power of He Alone Who Can Fix It.

Consequently, even granting arguendo that the cliff awaits, the essential question Trump presents is whether injecting an already inflamed presidency with political growth hormone is the answer. If that is the answer, the Constitution of the United States is not. It divides authority among three branches of government, led by a deliberative Congress whose will the President executes. Decius, apparently, would deepen the corruption of that regime by handing it to a strongman whose devotion to the Constitution stops at its phantom Article XII.  Decius’ Constitution is thus far more Wilsonian and Progressive than the original. Woodrow Wilson might have anticipated Trump when he wrote of the President:

For he is also the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. His position takes the imagination of the country. He is the representative of no constituency, but of the whole people . . . [The country’s] instinct is for unified action, and it craves a single leader. . . . A President whom it trusts can not only lead it, but form it to his own views.

There are, of course, thoughtful people who find Trump distasteful but Clinton unacceptable. But all of them should beware the rhetoric of crisis. “The election 2016 is a test—in my view, the final test,” Decius warns by way of conclusion, “of whether there is any virtù left in what used to be the core of the American nation.” Yes, it is a test. The test is whether we have the constitutional virtue—not the Machiavellian kind—remaining to resist the apocalyptic rhetoric of those who want us to believe it is the last one.

Greg Weiner

Greg Weiner is a contributing editor of Law and Liberty.

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  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Greg–

    I am watching the unfolding train wreck with a mixture of awe and horror. It seems to me that we confront a reality in which there is a meaningful possibility that we will elect Il Duce, with sufficient popular support that The Leader will feel emboldened to do to the US Constitution what Mussolini did to the Italian in 1925-1927.

    I do not know for certain that Donald Trump is a modern Mussolini. I do know, however, that the parallels and continuities between his rhetoric and that of the Italian dictator’s are sufficiently present that the possibility concerns me. So I honestly do think a Trump presidency projects a meaningful probability for the end of constitutional government in the United States. Nothing is certain in life, but I have never in all the years I have thought about and taught our civic tradition that I would write a post like this one.

    I absolutely agree that a Hilary Clinton presidency represents continuity with deeply worrisome trends dating back in the US at least to the early 20th century. But the worst case I perceive in her presidency is continuity. We have been eroding the Madisonian framework for a very long time, and it is hard to see in Clinton much awareness or concern for that. But it is also hard to discern in her any reactionary or revolutionary preference for radical breaks with the past.

    So in Clinton I see more of the same; in Trump I see the possibility for the Machiavellian moment–the moment when we break decisively with our past, to create a totalitarian and anti-constitutional present. More of the same is distressing; the totalitarian potential I think I perceive in Trump is infinitely worse. Count me in with David Boaz, who writes in the National Review of the kind of America Trump seems to promise that “it’s a vision to make the last 16 years of executive abuse of power seem modest.”

      • Paul137 says

        Greg Weiner’s piece is notable for its pomposity, e.g.

        “No matter: Forbearing, for a moment, said sock, …”

        “It divides authority among three branches of government, led by a deliberative Congress whose will the President executes.”

        “The ‘general safety’ is probably not much endangered now, what with the oceans and all, …”

        “ … they should not be surprised when disconnection results.”

        “ … could we please face this, …”

        Weiner also missed Decius’s central point, as is evident from this passage: “The Speaker of the House is a thoughtful conservative with an operating majority. The Senate is in Republican hands.”

        To which one rational reaction by someone who understood what Decius was getting at is: Whoooo!

        (Whether Paul Ryan is actually thoughtful in any arena isn’t clear to me, but he is surely an open-borders loon.)

  2. nobody.really says

    “And so it is that times of danger, when Power takes action for the general safety, are worth much to it in accretions to its armory; and these, when the crisis has passed, it keeps.

    In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. … War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. … It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

    James Madison

  3. Scott Amorian says

    “The answer to the first question is that as long as conservatives persist in apocalyptic rhetoric that does not match the everyday experience of most Americans, they should not be surprised when disconnection results. The fact is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do not have world-historical importance, and it is entirely possible, perish the thought, that ours are not world-historical times.”

    This is almost funny. A few days ago my wife was talking about how her brother was helping take care of his ex-wife’s horses. I asked her “You mean the ex-wife, the welfare queen.” She said “That’s the one.” “You mean the welfare queen is boarding two horses while she is living off the rest of us?!” “Yes” she said. Hello!!!????

    We had just finished a vacation on the southern Oregon coast. It’s lovely and scenic this time of year. Probably the most scenic coasts in the US actually. We tried stopping in some pullouts for lunch along the drive. A lot of them were controlled by the federal government and they were charging $5 for the privelege of stopping and having lunch and enjoying the view and fresh air of the Oregon beaches. We ate lunch late.

    Like most of my coworkers, I haven’t had a raise in about three years, and my wife and many of her coworkers have been luck to even get a cost of living raise in as long, while our cost of living continues to increase (despite the government claims that the cost of living is staying the same). It’s the economy, stupid, I’m sure.

    We suffer from a litany of federal intrusions into our lives, most of which cost money, time, or both.

    Based on my everyday experience I’m inclined to believe that the apocalyptic rhetoric is more correct than not. Those with government jobs and those living on government bennies probably don’t see it as clearly those of us scrabbling for a living in the private sector.

    Democracy in general doesn’t work. It results in political cupidists and money cupidists controlling the government. The more democratic a government is, the more messed up it is. The problem is as it has always been: How do you have liberal government, but not government controlled by democracy?

    The Framers had the correct idea. Have democratic representation, but institute the primary controllers–the Senate, the President, and the Court–as predominantly appointed offices as a way to keep them out of the hands of the true believers in democracy.

    I rather liked the Flight 93 essay, except that it called for a reliance on greater public virtue instead of addressing the structural design of government which is where the core problem lies. We are overly democratic. We depend too heavily on general public virtue for government to work correctly. The question of good government is really the question of how to appoint people of good character to the controlling offices, despite the will of the often naive, confused and easily misled public majority.

    • Conor Friedersdorf says

      So to review, there are some people in a nation of 300 million who abuse the welfare system, Oregon’s state government sells lunches on scenic highways, which you noticed while vacationing, you haven’t had a raise in three years… and your conclusion, supported by those examples, is “the apocalyptic rhetoric is more correct than not”?

      Easiest apocalypse ever!

  4. krzys says

    So, wait, we have a limited presidency because, in our collective wisdom, we always avoid choosing potential tyrants? Or is it the system of government? If the latter, then, what does it matter what Trump ambitions are?

  5. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Greg Weiner’s sense that there is no “crisis” of the type that the essay he critiques describes is probably quite correct.

    Nevertheless, there is the “chronic” problem of the increasing awareness of the electorate of their disconnect from the “power” he refers to. That is further aggravated by *how* that “power” is to be used in the management of the Federal Government as conducted from the executive office.

    It is in the “how,” and in the “causative” factors which are omitted from consideration that might be examined, particularly in light of the reference to Oakeshott (do read the 9/2/2012 links to Elizabeth Corey and Tim Fuller) :

    It would be difficult to deny that we now have a full-throated “purposive” (Oakeshott) government. Our government now functions as a means to ends.

    The “how” of power use, particularly at the executive office level, needs to be considered as the uses of power to determine means as distinct from those uses in determining ends. Of course there is the interplay of each exercise of power. Determining ends can set parameters of means. Determining means can limit, confine, or define ends.

    We have just experienced 7 years in which “how” power over means has effectively determined ends.

    It is possible that a sufficiency of the electorate (without knowledge of Oakeshott) will form a sense of whether uses of powers to determine means or ends will be the factor in deciding who should be given which kind of power; and who is least ill-fitted to be given **that** power.

  6. Michael Schwenk says

    Professor Weiner, by identifying the real Publius Decius Mus, you show your familiarity with classical history. Therefore, let me present an analogy to counter your argument that this crisis is not “the Civil War or the Second World War or the Cold War” and therefore cannot mean that the republic is lost. The Roman faced many more formidable enemies in their history than the Visigoths. Hannibal marched up and down the Italian peninsula for months destroying Latin armies. The Western Empire fell not to Hannibal but to Odoacer not because of Visigoth strength but because of the accumulated weakness of centuries eating away Roman institutions and ways of life.
    Please do not argue that America also has centuries. I would point you to an article on the greater speed with which America is collapsing as compared with Rome, but the original “Journal of American Greatness” where that article would be found is defunct.

    You have tackled Decius at the strong point of his argument, rather than the more debatable propositions about whether the Greatness Agenda will actual help. I cannot help but wonder if this is because of your discomfort at one of the main arguments of the original “Journal of American Greatness” that Conservatism Inc. has become part of the problem, rather than part of any solution.

    This blog is an organ of the Liberty Fund, originally endowed by Pierre Goodrich, and, according to Wikipedia, “conduct[ing] about 200 all-expenses-paid conferences each year.” Decius writes: “Conservatism Inc.’s “sole recent and ongoing success is its own self-preservation.” If the shoe fits . . .

    You may call this argumentum ad hominem: very well. But ad hominem, tu quoque and ipse dixet arguments are used all of the time in public discourse because they are so compelling. It is generally impossible for anyone to have enough of the facts about any situation to conduct a true classical syllogism. We are forced to weigh who is speaking as well as what is being said. Can we finally have an argument about whether the agenda of the donor class is actually good for “conservatism,” the Republican Party, or America?

    Too any of these comments charge that advocates of the Greatness Agenda are looking to give Trump dictatorial powers. Again I would point to the original “Journal of American Greatness” on Ceasarism, which is not Trumpism. But again, defunct.

    At least this post provides some sort of responses, unlike National Review or The Weekly Standard. But I am sure that Decius is disappointed with the shallowness of the response. I sure am.

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      M S states:

      “This blog is an organ of the Liberty Fund, originally endowed by Pierre Goodrich . . .”

      While they may at times conform to the philosophy and objectives of Liberty Fund, the essays and opinions expressed on this site are those of the individual participants and do not represent the philosophy and objectives of the Fund.

      “. . . Use this fund to the end that some hopeful contribution may be made to the preservation, restoration, and development of INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY through investigation, research and educational activity.” [emphasis supplied]

      It is true that there may be individual “drifting” away on this site from the focus on individual liberty, but “conservatism,” by whatever its delineations may be, however it may be expressed here or elsewhere, does not delineate INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY.

    • gabe says

      You are correct: We have more to fear, and it is far more likely to cause the death of the Republic, from “death by a thousand cuts.”

      And one grows weary of hearing about the dictatorial tendencies of The Trumpster. where is the evidence other than in the fetid imaginations of those conservative (and progressive) *purists* who in fact do have something to protect – their status within the governing or intellectual / pedagogical circles.

      Yet I am not so sure that Pulliam’s argument that we are safe because “The Speaker of the House is a thoughtful conservative with an operating majority. The Senate is in Republican hands. Several major countries have governments somewhere right of center” is either of any value or correct.
      The GOP has HAD control for a number of years and we still have *happily* advanced on the Road to Serfdom.

      It is a rather shallow response to the charge that we are facing, at minimum, a *critical* juncture in our electoral / constitutional politics – one in which it may be demonstrated that the American People are prepared to elect a corrupt and vacuous candidate to lead a now corrupt Legislative (and Judicial/) Branch. I refer, of course, to the Democrat candidate. And unlike The Trumpster, these charges are not *speculation* but are based upon a “long train of abuses” evidenced by the Clinton Machine. Coupled with the last 7+ years of Democrat rule, in which *novel* meanings have been wrung from the now sodden cloth of the Constitution by clever lawyers AND jurists, we can reasonably expect that a) it will continue on this path given a Democrat Administration, b) that the Republican controlled Legislative will once again go along or fail to effectively counter the trend and c) that the citizenry will continue to grow ever more frustrated and disillusioned with its government.

      And yet, many commentators wish to place these dire outcomes upon The Trumpster IN THE FACE of abundant evidence that Madame Hillary has already taken this path. If an argument is to be made for a “historical” election it can only be applied to the execrable Madame Hillary – not The Trumpster who has no record to speak to support such accusations.

      So confronted with a choice between a “sleazy, leisure suit wearing hustler” and a pantsuit-wearing corrupt, reckless and incompetent former Senator / Secretary of State – I’ll choose the disco dude – the music wasn’t all that bad!

  7. Pelvo White, Jr. says

    Let’s get clear on author’s intent when he references the ancient suicidal plebeian Publius Decius Mus! The author couched his rebellious, anti-Christian message in roman metaphors. We should consider the supposed origins of ancient Rome which was the most decadent government known to mankind. Decadent in this that their armies, and their society were homosexual, and bisexual, their dining rooms had adjacent vomitoriums where they regurgitated what they had just eaten to make room to eat more, and they ate their meals lying down. The classical Latin language itself is a command language lacking in words like” please” and” thank you.” They devalued their women not thinking them worthy of separate, individual names thereby naming numerous women in the same family names like Cynthia I, Cynthia II, and Cynthia III. Rome was founded by two young men who were supposedly raised by a wolf. Again, if we pay particular attention to the human ethics inferred by alluding to the ethics of a pagan nation founded by wolf-raised feral children (i.e. Romulus and Remus), we gain insights into the desired ethical foundation of a man like Donald Trump. The author howls for mankind to return to these ethics. He wants us to take off our regalia of puny Christian ethics so that we may be more untamed. Virtu’ or” behavior showing high moral standards allude to the virtues or moral standards of an ancient roman citizen, not an American citizen, the virtues or high moral standards of a wolf, not a contemporary human being.

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