The call for America to be purified by blood echoes back to the Founding Fathers. Trump is a chapter in that enduring story.

8 Jan

Has the American Constitution survived? Yes. It is intact after four years of Donald Trump, and can surely endure a few days more of this sleazy, shameless, self-obsessed fantasist.

Trump himself has belatedly changed his tune, declaring on Thursday evening:

“My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”

His new message is so at variance with his normal aggressive and provocative tone that it can only be understood as an admission of defeat.

The President has been forced to concede that his outrageous attempts to defy the election result in the courts have failed. So has the invasion by his supporters of Capitol Hill.

He now reproves those rioters for having “defiled the seat of our democracy”. His position has become so hopeless that he plays the statesman.

This tardy repentance should not obscure his record as a campaigner who got to the top by defying every rule of decent behaviour.

Trump is in some respects unique. He is the first President who never served either in the armed forces, or in some other federal office, before entering the White House.

He is also the first President to be a reality TV star, a genre in which the worse one behaves, the better one does in the ratings.

And he is the first President to master the art of using Twitter to set the agenda, communicate direct with his supporters, enthuse them in his cause and smear anyone who opposes him.

As he himself told Fox News in March 2017: “I think that maybe I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Twitter.”

This vulgarian from the suburbs, with his horrible buildings, his use of the law to sue anyone unwise enough to enter into any business dealings with him, his utter lack of concern with the truth, his merciless contempt for upholders of civilised conduct, was for several decades an embarrassment to decent New Yorkers, before becoming an embarrassment to decent Americans everywhere.

The pictures which went round the world of the Capitol being invaded by his supporters were a monstrous embarrassment, and Trump was to blame for inciting this outrage.

It appears he will be the chief loser from this final attempt to prosper by behaving worse than anyone else. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes, the Trump spell has been broken.

But as Trump leaves the stage, it would be foolish to seek comfort in the idea that he was a mere barbarian, who for a short time managed by some fluke to capture the Republican Party.

Trump was more cunning than that. As a political opponent, he was persistently underestimated by naive Democrats, and indeed by naive journalists on America’s most famous newspapers, who supposed that simply by demonstrating he was a liar they could destroy him.

He defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by becoming the chosen instrument of revenge of scorned provincial America against the rich, condescending liberals on the East and West coasts who believe in abortion and same-sex marriage and racial equality.

The more distressing Trump’s behaviour became to those liberals, the better he pleased his supporters. The more uncouth he was, and the more racist in his references to Moslems, Mexicans and Barack Obama, the louder his angry and excluded voters cheered.

The Washington demonstrations this week are, one hopes, a final, pitiful gesture by those supporters, rounding off his presidency in an entirely fitting manner.

But it would be foolish to regard the invasion of Capitol Hill as the end of the problem. For Trump appealed to emotions and to a constituency which have existed since the foundation of the Republic.

Consider this passage, from a letter written in 1787:

“What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

That was Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and from 1801-09 served as the third President.

This Founding Father, one of the greatest intellects ever to apply his mind to the problem of creating and maintaining the United States, was an admirer of the French Revolution, and his defence of revolutionary violence has been interpreted with disastrous literalness by terrorists such as the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 murdered 168 people by blowing up a federal building.

The generally elevated language and conduct of the Founding Fathers was not, unfortunately, maintained by their successors. The seventh President, Andrew Jackson, in office from 1829-37, was a vindictive brute with a genius for appealing to angry frontiersmen who felt looked down upon by the folks in Washington.

The promise to purify Washington is one of the oldest in American politics. Trump plugged himself into the anti-federal tradition, the deep-seated belief that the Federal Government wants to take people’s freedom away, seize their guns and trample on their cherished beliefs.

During the 2008 presidential election, I reported on a rally by Sarah Palin, the Republicans’ vice-presidential candidate, in Chillicothe, Ohio, a charming old town which from 1803-10 served as the first capital of that state:

Mrs Palin attacked the Los Angeles Times for refusing to release a video tape of Mr Obama on which he may or may not have made some pro-Palestinian remarks: “If there’s a Pulitzer Prize category for excellence in kowtowing, the Los Angeles Times is probably going to win it.”

As Mrs Palin beamed her “would you believe it” smile and the crowd cheered her on, an angry man turned towards the press enclosure and shouted, “Do some investigation, media.”

Mrs Palin had touched on a grave matter, for as she told her fans, on the tape in question “some very derogatory things were said about Israel.”

To get some faint idea of the significance of the word “Israel” in American politics, and especially in Christian evangelical circles, it is worth quoting a conversation I had with one of Mrs Palin’s supporters. I asked this friendly and sincere woman if she thought Mr Obama was a Christian, to which she replied: “I don’t believe he is. Just the things I’ve been hearing about him, he’s a Muslim.”

Me: “But he’s not a Muslim.”

Friendly woman: “But the church that he was in, they were slamming Israel, and if you’re not for Israel that’s God’s chosen nation. If you’re against Israel you’re against God.”

I was reminded of the words I had heard earlier that morning while driving through the beautiful Ohio countryside, from a preacher on a Christian radio station who urged his flock to vote Republican and condemned Mr Obama as a Marxist, an apostate, a hypocrite and a viper.

On the subject of abortion, the preacher said in a voice of doom: “You can suck their brains out but it’s not murder because the Government has sanctioned it. It’s just butchery…mutilation…sin.”

Trump was a more skilful version of Palin, and has taken longer than she did to blow up. He will not be the last huckster who sets out to make himself the champion of angry, disregarded, unfashionable America.

Conservatives can rejoice that Trump is leaving the stage, but had better not forget his followers will be looking for a new leader.

Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Presidents.

From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.