Revolt Of The Disdained: Sovereignty Or Servitude

Posted: Jan 27, 2020 10:20 AM

The deck is clearly stacked in favor of the existing power elite. Even if President Trump succeeds in establishing an effective administration on his own terms and is able to keep his commitments, another question remains.   What can the Republicans do for an encore? Charisma, like lightning, cannot be bottled, marketed, or genetically reproduced. As always, the great institutional challenge is to broaden its base of support while securing a line of succession. If one or both houses of Congress revert to control by the Democratic Party, will President Trump or his successor be able to push his agenda, given its unpopularity with the bipartisan political establishment?  

The high-energy, high-wire Trump presidency may be an impossible act to follow. Failure to pass the trapeze bar to a steady hand in a timely way risks a very different alignment of political fortunes. “Whatever happens,” as Conrad Black concludes his book,

Donald Trump will be one of the most vividly remembered presidents and characters of American history. Difficult though it may be to believe at times, the office of the presidency, in that astonishing, ineluctable, and fateful American way, may have sought the necessary man again.


The midterm elections of November 2018 have changed the electoral landscape sufficiently to indicate that both major parties face mounting challenges in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.  

Following a shift of approximately 40 seats in the House of Representatives that led to a Democratic Party takeover of the leadership positions, President Trump confronts a divided Congress. Strong resistance to his policies and investigations directed at his Administration may be expected across a broad front within the House. Sean Trende discounts talk of an electoral “wave,” however, and suggests that the Democrats’ surge in the House may be due in part to “the Democrats’ enormous fundraising advantage.” The Republican majority in the Senate was somewhat strengthened, which may better enable the president to appoint more conservative jurists.  

As for the 2020 national elections, third party or independent challenges in the presidential and perhaps a few congressional contests may contribute to a greater fragmentation—if not a realignment—of the two-party system. The president’s prospects for reelection and restoration of a Republican majority in the House will hinge considerably on enlarging his coalition while fending off rivals within the party, a strategic grasp of the opportunities to reshape the national conversation, and retaining the confidence of his original supporters.

As to the character of the Trump coalition, Frank Buckley differs from Zito and Todd in describing it as The Republican Workers Party (2018), which coalesced in 2016 by offering the electorate a conservative reiteration of an earlier tradition of liberal nationalism. Internationally, it has counteracted the longstanding bipartisan dominance of liberal internationalism by promoting a renewed emphasis on national sovereignty as opposed to global governance.” Yet it does not countenance anything less than a robust and “mutually beneficial cooperation among different nations. [...] Trump is not a globalist who denies the value in nationalism, but an internationalist whose vision of global harmony is rooted in independent nations, each pursuing its own interests.”

Domestically, this American nationalism—which Buckley compares with Benjamin Disraeli’s and Randolph and Winston Churchill’s—champions “the common good against corrupt special interests” and seeks “to promote the well-being of all fellow citizens, and not simply a favored few.” It is embodied in the loyalties that bind fellow citizens within a larger community or civil society without tyrannizing over their lives, liberty, property, or consciences. As Ernest Gellner noted in Conditions of Liberty (1995):

Nationalism is more than a duty to look after fellow citizens. It’s also one of the particularistic emotions that bind us to others, like love of family and friends, creating the sense of solidarity or community that is one of the most basic of human goods. Simone Weil called this “the need for roots,” and it’s especially needed in today’s America. [...] In our loneliness, in the animosities that divide us, there has never been a greater need for fraternity.

The public has reacted electorally to this loss of roots in often unanticipated ways as, for instance, when politicians seek to replace what politics has helped displace. Philosophically, Michael Oakeshott’s remarkable analysis of “Rationalism in Politics” (1947) attributed the uprooting of social and moral conventions to the intellectual arrogance of those who have “no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula: the past is significant for [them] only as an encumbrance.” What has come to pass for “a higher morality,” according to Oakeshott, “is merely morality reduced to a technique, to be acquired by training in an ideology rather than an education in behavior.”  

Moral ideals are a sediment: they have significance only so long as they are suspended in a religious or social tradition, so long as they belong to a religious or a social life. The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists have been at work so long on their project of drawing off the liquid in which our moral ideals were suspended (and pouring it away as worthless) that we are left only with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down. First, we do our best to destroy parental authority (because of its alleged abuse), then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of ‘good homes’, and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction.

By contrast, Samuel P. Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order focused more on the specific role played by political elites while also acknowledging the bloodless abstraction of their goals and ideals.

Significant elements of American elites are favorably disposed to America becoming a cosmopolitan society. Other elites wish it to assume an imperial role. The overwhelming bulk of the American people are committed to a national alternative and to preserving and strengthening the American identity that has existed for centuries.

In the inaugural issue of American Affairs following the 2016 election, the political philosopher Joshua Mitchell observed: “If there is to be American greatness, it will emerge around the two sorts of sovereignty that hold her together: liberal sovereignty and sovereignty based on covenantal nationalism.”

Liberal greatness means that we look at others as neighbors and fellow citizens. That we need to have strong borders, that we need to slow down immigration so that 95 million workforce-age fellow citizens can find jobs, and that we only admit foreigners who aspire to become American citizens, is not inconsistent with liberal sovereignty.[1]

Mitchell’s chief focus in “A Renewed Republican Party” is with three expressions of what he calls “[t]he national covenantal aspiration to greatness” which “must take both inward and outward forms.” The first addresses the legacy of slavery, which has been further aggravated by a form of identity politics that for half a century or more has sought to bind minorities to the hegemony of the Left while undermining traditional institutions.   

The inward form [...] involves healing the still-festering wound of slavery and its aftereffects, through our churches and synagogues and through our face-to-face dealings in everyday life. The state can supplement those efforts, but it cannot substitute for them. There is no path to the Promised Land except through the agony of the desert.

Second, greatness in its outer form requires “orienting domestic policy toward the middle-class” in order to recover “the strength and wisdom of a middle-class commercial republic.” A “cosmopolitan mindset” has emerged through the de-linking of democratic man from traditional institutions that once helped bind him into communities and families.

Tocqueville’s ideas about voluntary associations, about family, about religion, and about federalism, point to the need to bring the soul down to earth, to connect it to others. The embodied soul formed through these institutions is hardly irrational, as the cosmopolitan would insist; the embodied soul, on the contrary, is the healthy soul, whose interests are formed in and through relations with others.

The institutional breakdown resulting from what Oakeshott calls “Rationalism in Politics” has been characterized in recent years by increasingly vicious culture wars that have especially resulted from the promotion of globalism and identity politics.[2]


Beyond our borders, greatness will require the reconfiguration of our country among the world of nations. Like it or not, our national covenantal understanding is that we are “a shining city on a hill, and a beacon in the darkness,” to paraphrase John Winthrop’s 1630 encomium to his fellow passengers aboard the Arabella. We cannot renounce that charge; we can only understand and apply it well or ill.

As Mitchell notes in conclusion: 

The three together suggest the need for a mix, increasingly lost in our conversations about what has gone wrong with America, involving individual responsibility, neighborly involvement in our local communities, and ennobling national projects that only presidential initiative can facilitate. No one can help but observe that the world is changing before our eyes. Donald Trump has played a large-than-life part in this. Yet amidst all of the changes—and amidst the hopes that he can make our country “great again”—the burden nevertheless rests on citizens, who must either build a world together or withdraw into themselves and wish in vain that the state will carry the load.  

This is a worthy challenge for a country G. K. Chesterton once described as “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.”


The Progressive movement began more than a century ago as a bipartisan reaction against the abuses of machine politics. But today’s partisans of endless and ever-changing reform agendas have brought a combination of community organizing with local machine techniques to Washington and threaten to make “the long march through the institutions” go global.

The post-Civil War civil service reform once promised good government for all. Yet as the German sociologist Max Weber observed in 1907:

Everywhere the house is ready-made for a new servitude. It only waits for the tempo of technical economic 'progress' to slow down and for rent to triumph over profit. [...] (T)he increasing complexity of the economy, the partial governmentalization of economic activities, the territorial expansion of the population—these processes create ever-new work for the clerks, an ever-new specialization of functions, and expert vocational training and administration. All this means caste. Those American workers who were against the 'Civil Service Reform' knew what they were about. They wished to be governed by parvenus of doubtful morals rather than a certified caste of mandarins. But their protest was in vain." 

At the outset the Progressives and other ”heroes of insurgency” touted their ability to lead America into the future while bypassing and jettisoning constitutional limitations in the process. The courts, the federal bureaucracy, and the public education systems have together served as their chief “change agents.” So it is ironic that Max Weber, their contemporary, seems to have perfectly captured our political situation today, a hundred years hence. Have we been treading water for the past century? Or perhaps been sleepwalking? Have we come full circle?  

The Constitution was written in the name of “We the People.” But who are the people today? Are citizenship and self-government a privilege to be purchased from power brokers in return for votes? Or is it a stewardship principle to be cherished and defended as a birthright? Good stewardship requires rebuilding the infrastructure—physical, cultural, and moral—of our republic and chiseling the barnacles of special interest privileges—imposed at public expense—from the ship of state. Endless change in the pursuit of ideological utopias keeps people unsettled and dependent on the instruments of this revolution. It is a condition that, in the end, can only create an authoritarian “servile state.” The social, political, and cultural revolution began long ago. It consumes everything in its path. It cannot be stopped without being concertedly resisted. This is not a task for one man or one party only. The question for voters is to find those who can either do the job or get out of the way of those who can.

More than half a century ago Bertolt Brecht—an aging cultural revolutionary in East Germany—penned a lament that was published after his death. It is entitled “The Solution.” May it not become our epitaph:

After the uprising of the 17th June
 The Secretary of the Writers Union
 Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
 Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government
 And could win it back only
 By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
 In that case for the government
 To dissolve the people
 And elect another?

[1]Ibid. 27-28. 

[2]Ibid. 9-11.