No man enters the presidency prepared for the office, yet few chief magistrates have managed a stage entry as startlingly rife with incompetence and impropriety as Donald Trump. The reason is that the inherent, inertial conservatism of the office disciplines most of its occupants.
Tomorrow will make it official that Donald J. Trump is the 45th President of the United States of America. His inauguration will likely be full of the Americana that many of us love, one that will provide telling points of patriotism and gratitude without any of the postmodern irony that lurked in Obama’s second inaugural where he said the truths of the Declaration of Independence “may” be self evident, and, without pausing, concluded that we should still be willing to work eagerly on their behalf. Trump’s election tells us that Americans are not rushing to enter the age of post-national and…
If there is any doubt remaining that the slogan “change” had no content when it was proffered as a reason for electing a President, consider this: Barack Obama bid farewell to the nation without calibrating his calls for change to his assertions of having already achieved it. President Obama’s farewell last night—delivered not in the traditional sedateness of the Oval Office but rather at the site and in the manner of a campaign rally—thus served as a primer on the shift from the liberal politics of amelioration to the Progressive politics of historical teleology. It should be said that despite the setting, he…
The great historian of American conservatism, George Nash, returns to Liberty Law Talk to discuss the current state of conservatism after the improbable victory of Donald Trump.
One way of understanding American history is as a struggle between consequential Presidents who expand liberty and consequential Presidents who expand the state. On this view, most Presidents are frankly not all that important: their decisions are marginal and many are reversed or substantially modified.
If so, Donald Trump’s victory had an important benefit for liberty, even if he himself is no classical liberal, because it prevented Barack Obama from being a consequential President on the statist side of the ledger.
The Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges was once invited to deliver a lecture at Peru’s most respected university. It was 1965. By then he was elderly and blind, and Peru was under a military dictatorship that was considered “Progressive.” Borges, a classical liberal, was outspoken against the regime’s military authoritarianism.
He was accosted on the campus by student supporters of the regime harshly protesting his presence. When the students’ militant chants finally died down, Borges was asked by one of them: “Mr. Borges, how is it possible for an intelligent person like you to hold unpopular positions that go against the course of history?”
He calmly replied: “Listen, young man, don’t you know that gentlemen only defend causes that are lost?”
In his state of the union and again in his recent interview with Politico, President Obama expressed sorrow that he has not been able to end political animosities. As he put it in the interview, “a singular regret for me is the fact that our body politic has become more polarized, the language, the spirit has become meaner than when I came in.”
Obama blames different factors from the media to gerrymandering for our angry divisions. But Obama himself is in no small measure responsible for polarization. His reliance on executive action, most egregiously his order on immigration, is a primary cause. Unsupported by any express delegation from Congress, this extraordinary act is enormously controversial. It seeks to permit five million people who have come to this country illegally not only to stay but to work.
Legislation on divisive issues is much less likely to lead to polarization than executive fiat.
One of the most revealing cinematic moments of recent memory was at the beginning of the first Austin Powers film.
As those who saw this 1997 comedy recall, Powers, a British secret agent, had been cryogenically frozen in 1967 in case his nemesis, Dr. Evil, should ever return. Fast forward 20 years and Dr. Evil again threatens to take over the world, prompting the British secret service to reanimate our hero. Powers opens his eyes and is introduced to an American officer and also to General Borschevsky. The latter’s presence startles him. “Russian intelligence, are you mad?” he asks. When he’s informed that the Cold War between Russia and the West has ended, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Well! Finally those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh comrades?” Then he’s told who won. His sheepish comeback, with a weak thumbs up: “Groovy, smashing. Yay capitalism.”
It was parody, but this scene was nonetheless full of meaning.
After seeing so many utilitarian and, to be honest, philistine political comments about higher education and culture—the most recent came from Jeb Bush—it was in a sense refreshing to read President Obama’s exchange with novelist Marilynne Robinson, presented in two parts in the New York Review of Books. (Readers of this site should not neglect Paul Seaton’s very fine reflection on Robinson’s collection of essays that provides the context for her conversation with the President.)
One of the most striking things the President said was this:
Though American politics at the grassroots is polarized and divided, sharp commentators have written thoughtfully about the similarities between the parties as a practical matter. I would add that the similarities extend to their leaders.
While George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not be further apart ideologically, their attitudes toward governing suffer from the same flaw. Bush said he was “the Decider,” to which Obama rejoined: “I won.” Both ran roughshod over public opinion.