By the final years of Edmund Burke’s life, nearly the whole of British government had become sympathetic to his perspectives concerning the French Revolution. As Burke predicted, the leftist Jacobins grew in power and proceeded to unleash terror upon French society. Having overthrown the existing French government in 1792, the Jacobins began conducting Revolutionary Tribunals and mass deaths by guillotine the following year. By 1794 the number of Tribunal executions reached over 16,000. In many cases the victims included anyone who did not profess support for the Revolution.
For the British as well as greater Western civilization, the French Jacobins posed a direct threat to their livelihood. The Jacobins declared war on Great Britain shortly after their ascendancy, and under the leadership of William Pitt the Younger the British Parliament committed huge amounts of resources to counter the Jacobin threat. After several years of combat, however, Parliament began to experience financial drain. Pitt searched for a means of pulling back from the conflict.
It was in this context that Edmund Burke summoned his rhetorical skills to urge Pitt to continue the fight. Having won acclaim for his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke committed his pen to the writing of four Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795). In these letters Burke argued that Britain must stay the course to completely annihilate French Jacobinism from the globe. Despite Britain’s progress in containing the threat, he argued, Parliament must make sure it finishes the fight. As Russell Kirk observed in his biography on Burke, the theme of the Regicide letters was “the necessity of making an end of Jacobinism, root and branch (p. 201).”
Unlike the diplomat who was loathe to commit British forces to the Revolutionary War, Edmund Burke in this context was committed to military response. The reason, Burke explained, was the nature of the enemy. French Jacobinism represented an intolerant force that was “resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion.” The Jacobins, in his mind, amounted to a “sect aiming at universal empire.” Therefore, while the ideology of Jacobinism might have originated in France, Burke warned that it was universalistic in nature. If given the opportunity, the Jacobins would violently extend to the whole of Europe and beyond. Such a dangerous evil put the world in peril, Burke said, and any British politicians who aimed to appease the Jacobins were risking the livelihood of Western civilization.
In his article “Why Conservatives Hate War” for The American Conservative, author William Lind writes that “conservatism seeks above all social and cultural continuity” and that “nothing endangers that more than war.” Ignoring Burke’s nuanced disposition on the subject, Lind argues as if the famous conservative would support anti-war position on principle. “Real conservatives,” Lind argues, “hate war.”
Such a position as Lind’s sounds far more like the Jacobin appeasers and faltering 18th century British statesmen that Burke argued against in his Regicide letters. War may indeed be an unpredictable and dreadful state of affairs, and at times even a threat to social and cultural continuity. But Edmund Burke knew that against certain foes it was an absolute necessary. To not confront the evil, or to pacify it rather than extinguish it, could easily amount to a much greater threat.
When I was a young boy I very early on expressed an interest in politics.
This wasn’t exactly a popular choice in my community. I grew up in the church, and I was taught early on that spirituality was what mattered most. Politics didn’t matter much compared to that. The altar was the place where real change happened in the world.
But nonetheless I still felt a natural inclination to the political world. A major reason for this was because I saw a conversation taking place there between not only Christians but the rest of the world. Few of my atheist friends ever ventured inside the walls of our church, but almost all of them had opinions about politics.
Of course, whenever I mentioned this among evangelical circles, there was always some level of pushback.
“Politics?” they would say. “Why would you want to be in that? It’s such a rough, nasty business.”
That statement, more than any other, speaks to the Evangelical mind concerning politics.
Evangelicals don’t behave like politicians, especially ones like Donald Trump. They try not to lie, they frown on the use of vulgarities. They don’t try to bully, or curse out, or purposefully intimidate people. They try to remain faithful to their families and they don’t sleep with porn stars. In their lives they try to do what is kind and Christ-like, not necessarily what is ruthless or effective.
So why, even after his crassness and lack of ethics is on full display, do evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump?
This is a point the media continues to miss. CNN and other sources are constantly reporting Trump’s iniquity in an effort to undermine his support. The Daily Show and others are constantly reporting chaos in the White House. But they don’t realize that most Christians couldn’t care less about Trump’s character. And chaos is exactly what they expect from him.
The entire political worldview of Evangelical Christians is different than democrats. They didn’t choose Trump because he represents Christian values or exemplifies their character. Few Evangelicals will say he is the best among us. He may not even believe what they believe.
The reason is because Evangelicals chose Trump they way one chooses a hitman. Politics being a rough and nasty business, one where Christian ethics can’t survive, you’ve got to turn to what works. And what works is someone brutal, unapologetic, prideful, and vicious. Even the left would agree that Trump is all of those things.
And so, if you listen closely, you’ll see this thinking in evangelical circles. There are memes going around saying “Trump is doing exactly what I hired him to do.” Not that Trump speaks in a Christian voice, or that he even accurately represents us. A gold star mother recently remarked, that she wouldn’t care how many “f-bombs” a fight fighter uses as long as he gets the job done. She said Trump’s behavior is excused for the same reason.
This all assumes, of course, that Trump is actually rebuilding America. It assumes the destruction of dignity and the chaos he is unleashing can somehow be good for our country. It assumes the day of enlightened and moral Christian statesmen – like our founders – is truly over. It assumes God will bless us for trusting our politics to a wild man, rather than doing it ourselves. And like any existentialist affair, it puts hope and trust in both parties honoring the agreement. Ultimately, it assumes that, like the mob of The Dark Knight, we won’t end up regretting the side effects of what we’ve done.
Progressivism as a political philosophy almost always entails some concept of utopia – a vision of a perfect world. This perfect world, as imagined by progressives, features the triumph of those values held most dear. In the United States, we see this in progressives arguing on behalf of equality, diversity, and individual choice as the characteristics of what America can be.
The triumph of these virtues, according to progressives, emerges by virtue of the removal of the harmful or evil-inducing elements of society. What constitutes evil differentiates many progressives from one another – some may claim its capitalism, others religion, and still others tradition itself – but all progressives are quick to identify their view of a culprit holding society back.
The process of purifying society, also known as the Idea of Progress, is considered by many progressives to be an ultimately inevitable outcome. Evolution, they believe, is steering humanity towards a place in which we shall all be free. In this view conservatives are standing in the way and needlessly slowing progress down.
Few conservative Christians may identify with such beliefs. But the question remains as to what extent does Jesus Christ fit this mold? Recognized as a radical and an outcast, it is no secret that Jesus was often opposed to the Pharisees and rulers of his time. Jesus’ frequent breaking of the Ten Commandments and other social and religious norms have led some to claim he was in fact a liberal in the progressive sense.
Let us consider such a statement. If Jesus was indeed a liberal, then what was his progressive vision of utopia?
In the Biblical book of Revelation we may find a clear depiction – a vision of the future in which Jesus returns to eliminate sin and suffering. Chapter 21 illustrates this outcome:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” –Revelation 21:1-5
In this passage we find an elegant description of Biblical utopia. The Bible presents the end of the world and the coming of a new one in which God dwells with his people in perfect relationship. And Jesus Christ is at the center, taking his place alongside God as the lamb slain for our sins.
Jesus Christ, then, could be considered a progressive’s progressive --- someone who not only believed in utopia and progress but also engineered it himself. In this view Jesus epitomizes progressivism’s hope for the future and fulfills its dream. His heaven -- our future -- is justification for the hope we have.
And yet, it is also Jesus Christ who also offers progressivism’s boldest critique. For in Revelation 22, the very next chapter in Revelation and the final chapter in the Bible, we see a further description of utopia:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.” – Revelations 22:1-5
With this description we understand that the Biblical utopia described is in fact a restoration project. It isn’t merely an invention. Clear references to the tree of life and removal of the curse are signals that Jesus is bringing redemption from humanity’s fall. Eden, the garden God created in Genesis for the first humans, returns anew.
Biblical utopia, therefore, isn’t merely the arrival of a new element only. It is just as much the correction and fulfillment of the old.
While on earth, Jesus himself told his disciples in the book of Matthew: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus knew his mission was to set in motion events that would bring harmonious perfection –perfection that would be both new and redemptive of the old.
The fulfillment of progress, therefore, is a task upon the shoulders of Christ. It is one that he will accomplish in such a way that conserves and restores the best of the past. Simultaneously his utopia will also fulfill the deepest longing and imagination of progressives.
It is simply our job as Christians, however we may identify politically, to follow him there.
In the United States it is nearly an assumption that if a person is a Christian then he or she must be a conservative. According to the Pew Research center, a sizeable 92% of surveyed American conservatives are either “absolutely certain” or “fairly certain” that God exists, and at least 70% would rate religion as very important to their lives. Over 80% of American conservatives attend religious services no less than once a month.
Such a strong correlation between conservatism and Christianity should not stop us from asking fundamental questions, however. We may even go to the heart of the matter and attempt to identify the perspective at the center of our faith -- Jesus Christ.
Would Jesus, for example, join with the 76% of white evangelicals who closely identify with the Republican Party? Would he celebrate the 80% of evangelical voters who cast their ballot for Donald Trump in the most recent presidential election? Would he have anything to say about politics or conservative philosophy at all?
The likely response of many Christians may be that Jesus had nothing to say on the matter. Often quoted is the passage from Matthew 22 in which Jesus offered the principle “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Many Christians even take this to be the whole of Jesus’ message and teaching regarding government and politics. If the political and spiritual worlds are separate, then aren’t we as Christians on our own to answer questions concerning politics?
Jesus, we must admit, had far more pressing and urgent matters to attend to beyond American politics. Besides this he of course lived in a very different time when “right wing” and “left wing” did not mean what they do today. Moreover, the culture that Jesus lived in was not subjected to the modern challenges of 24/7 media coverage, information overload, and constant political spin.
Nevertheless, we have a rich and expansive dialogue from Jesus throughout the Biblical gospels (including but not limited to Matthew 22). Within this we may, surprisingly, find Jesus at times addressing issues and even philosophical beliefs often associated with conservatism. Take, for example, the following passage from the 7th chapter of the book of Mark:
“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?’
He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’
And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or more is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.’” – Mark 7:1-13
In this passage we find Jesus making a clear distinction between the “commands of God” and “human traditions.” He attacks the Pharisees for ignoring the intent and purposes of God’s commands as they blindly follow cultural customs and norms. The traditions that Jesus mentions, though originally stemming from divine wisdom, had become polluted and were serving the opposite of their intended purposes. The result is that Jesus identified the traditions as obstacles to sincere faith. The people following them remained far from God.
What does this mean for Christians now, thousands of years removed from the Pharisaic culture that Jesus indicted? To answer this question we must first recognize that in making the arguments in Mark 7, Jesus was not necessarily attacking conservatism. He was, however, indicting pure traditionalism, blind rule following, and nostalgia.
This is good news for true conservatives. Conservatism, as I have argued throughout this blog, is not the same as defending the past. When practiced correctly, it requires a prudent sorting out of the bad and the good from our inheritance. Edmund Burke shows us this principle at work as he methodically made arguments to defend the noble aspects of the status quo while purposefully discarding others that were harmful.
Making the distinction between “good tradition” and “bad tradition” is they key point, and it requires the type of wisdom and sound judgment that Jesus offers us. He recognized that the hearts of the rule followers were far from God and that they were destroying their own community and family life by blindly following corrupted rules.
To avoid a similar fate, we must be careful to avoid following tradition for its own sake. We must especially watch out for tradition that takes us away from God. In such cases we should reexamine its original intents and purposes to determine its moral value. Are we doing something without understanding the why behind it? Are we enforcing rules that don’t serve higher purposes? Are we voting a certain way just because we always have or our parents have?
Jesus, of course, never used the words America, conservatism, or Republican. He had nuanced views on important social and political topics ranging from poverty, to family life, to what it means to love others. And he was always careful to consider his audience and challenge them on their own terms.
But properly understood, Jesus’ teaching can actually embolden our conservatism. He offers us a value set – the commands of God – to use in examining our politics, principles, philosophy, and tradition. And, as Jesus himself said, the sum of God's commands is epitomized in the act of love.
We may therefore look to God’s commands as embodied in the life, teachings, and love of Jesus to infuse our perspective with wisdom. Having such wisdom allows us to apply it to all issues of life, including our politics. Doing so rescues conservatism from simple nostalgia or protecting the entire status quo for its own sake.
And that is the type of conservatism our world needs.
To those unfamiliar with the train of thought known as postmodernism, I often describe it as the philosophical equivalent of a raging wildfire. It is a destructive flame, I explain, that threatens to burn the whole forest down. And perhaps us along with it.
Postmodernism begins with a critique of reason, the notion that we can each think independently and objectively. The question – can we trust our thought? – is basic and simple, yet undeniably far-reaching in terms of its implication. Postmodernism questions the notion of objective thinking and, in doing so, calls our whole process of rationalization out for a fight.
Postmodernism levies its critique primarily by invoking a particular level of self-awareness – namely the recognition that each and every thought that enters our brain must rely on the subjective process of our senses. Postmodernism begs the question as to whether or not we can truly (or objectively) trust those senses and any information that passes through them.
This critique represents a direct and dire assault on the fundamentals of modern philosophy. The French philosopher René Descartes, for example, built his work largely upon the phrase “I think therefore I am.” Descartes proposed this quote as the “first principle of philosophy” and explained it further by claiming “we cannot doubt our existence while we doubt.”
Well, postmodernism does precisely that. Namely, postmodernism brings to the mind a series of doubts concerning its own objective existence. Postmodernism asks the question as to whether our minds – and everything that passes through to them -- can stand the test of the scientific method that we use to justify everything else.
The scientific method, as any high school science student knows, requires an objective observer to work. This observer must consider a question impartially, then formulate a hypothesis, and finally proceed through various steps to test that hypothesis and analyze the results in hopes of reaching a conclusion.
Postmodernism asks a simple but bold question: can the hypothesis “my mind is a reliable filter of reality” be scientifically proven? Can this statement be anything other than an assumption, a matter of faith to which we each must submit? And if the mind is indeed an assumption or an act of faith, isn’t everything that it perceives fundamentally subject to the same critique?
Such a problem immediately presents one with the limits of science itself. Who is the objective observer to take on such a hypothesis? Certainly not someone within the experiment -- ourselves, our friend, our family member, a fellow philosopher, or even our deepest love (all of whom we perceive through the very senses and mind we are trying to test). And even in the case of spiritual experiences, aren’t those perceived as well? If the entire experience of reality depends upon our mind, and we cannot prove this is valid, how do we know that the mind is accurately viewing reality (if there is one) at all?
Cue The Matrix Movies, Inception, and any other solipsistic film you’ve ever seen. “What is real?” Morpheus asked Neo in The Matrix as he transformed his perception. A panicked Neo, if you recall, had to come to grasp with the “truth” that everything his past senses had told him was a lie. And it was only by accustoming himself to a new reality – through his true senses – that Neo could cope with such a challenge.
With all due respect to Morpheus, perhaps no philosopher understood the gravity of postmodernism’s critique better than Friedrich Nietzsche. In his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche proclaimed through his main character (Zarathustra) a mission of restoring all things through a deliverance “from their bondage under Purpose (p. 166).” Zarathustra did not hold back in his postmodern war against rationality, claiming that “In everything one thing is impossible: rationality (p. 166).” Nietzsche went on to have Zarathustra combat pious Christianity and summon readers to abandon notions of equality, truth, and meaning in search for his new ethic -- what he called a will to power.
‘Face the void like a man!’ was this will to power, Nietzsche’s call through his Zarathustra character. ‘Give up on any pre-modern or modern notions of virtue, justice, or equality and embrace meaninglessness!’ Much like Morpheus challenging Neo, Zarathustra summoned the reader to cast aside one form of reality for another. Yet what I have always found particularly interesting about Nietzsche’s postmodern diagnosis (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and many of his other works) is that it sounds eerily similar to someone else’s.
Namely, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sounds quite like the main character found in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
Within the Old Testament scripture Ecclesiastes, the reader encounters a man known as “the Teacher” who considers various pleasures and philosophies of the world. The Teacher finds that regardless of behavior or belief, “all share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not (Ch. 9 ,v. 2). “ With each destined to die, and death the greater silencer of our minds, the Teacher describes reality in words that could have just as easily been spoken by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless (Ch. 12, v. 8)!’”
Yet there is a stark difference that follows. After reaching this same point in his prescription as Zarathustra, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reaches a different conclusion. Instead of a will to power, Solomon’s Teacher proclaims the following words as the “conclusion of the matter”: “’Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ch. 12, v. 13-14).’”
How can this be? Two philosophers reaching the same point of facing a meaningless or unjustified reality, and yet they each immediately diverge to opposite paths? For Nietzsche the answer is for humans to face the void with pride and become conquering ‘overmen,’ but for Solomon it is to find oneself in submission to God and hold fast to faith in divine judgment.
How then can the Christian person look upon the void of postmodernism, as Solomon’s Teacher does, and not fall into chaotic despair or a senseless will to power? Perhaps it is the very notion of the thing we call faith.
As Saint Augustine once claimed, “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of which is to see what you believe.” Similarly, the author of the Biblical book of Hebrews defined faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Ch. 11 v.1).” While the scientific method requires testing and analysis to reach a conclusion, faith instead accepts the conclusion first and is rewarded with evidence afterwards. Christian faith, therefore, is not fundamentally tied to personal senses for its justification.
This isn’t to say that faith is entirely opposed to science. Christian faith presumes, and has presumed since the first book of the Bible, an external pre-existent observer who has been there to validate existence. In God we find the author of existence who alone can ordain it and proclaim it as “good.” Precisely what our scientific method would call for to reach a conclusion about existence.
Additionally, Christian faith does not wholly disparage our senses; it instead puts them in their proper place. Our mind and senses function, as Augustine wrote, as rewards of our faith. Time after time we see God validating faith through his power and majesty. In the Old Testament this took the form of massive displays of God’s power, the New Testament features miracles performed by Christ and his disciples, and today we are led to see it in the body and work of the church. The ultimate validation of faith, according to the Bible, comes in the form of Christ who proves the love and redemption God promises us.
Peter, a close follower of Jesus, spoke of faith as a shield protecting us “by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” He claimed such faith is proven genuine by suffering and perseverance, and that it is “of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire (1 Peter Ch1. V. 7).
If we are to take Peter’s words seriously, then he is offering us a promise that Christian faith – regardless of what our senses may initially tell us -- can stand the test of fire. In fact it is through suffering and persevering through the fire that our faith becomes clearer.
And so, I tell my friends, the postmodern wildfire may indeed burn the whole forest down. I find nothing in modernism that stands in rebuke -- no way in which our intellect, rationality, mind, or senses may justify themselves according to scientific principle alone. Modernists may fight the heat, and postmodern “overmen” may welcome it, but as Christians we should not fear it. For amidst the ashes I see standing tall and firm a symbol: that old and familiar wooden cross.
Bright it may be, but burning it is not.
For years much fanfare has been made by the media against Congress on account of dismal approval ratings. Realclearpolitics.com and other major news outlets track various polling data, and what they have observed is widespread and continued disgust with the performance of elected officials. In 2014, for example, an all-time low was reached as approval for Congress sunk to single digits. Despite changes in Congressional leadership and a new president, current levels aren’t much better. In a recent video Arnold Schwarzenegger chastised Congress by claiming that hemorrhoids, the much maligned band Nickleback, cockroaches, and even herpes were more popular than they were.
What Realclearpolitics.com and top media outlets rarely report, however, is their own lack of popularity with the American people. As one of the few sources that engages in this assessment, Gallup reported in 2016 that American’s trust in mass media had hit its lowest point ever. According to Gallup the mass media’s 32% approval mark was the lowest since 1972, the first year such data was recorded. Similarly, a study commissioned by the Media Insight Project found that only 7% of Americans displayed a “great deal of trust” in mass media, a figure that stands only slightly above their opinion of Congress.
Despite such glaring signs of failure, you won’t hear major news networks pondering these figures often. Instead, many of the top media personalities assume an unquestioned role as the supreme arbiter of political debate. And yet this is exactly the role that President Trump has taken it upon himself to relentlessly question. In a recent press conference, for example, the president repeatedly took the media to task, called them dishonest and shameful, and afterwards named them “the opposition party” and “enemies of the American people.” Major news hosts from Fox’s Shepard Smith to CNN’s Jake Tapper balked at the suggestion, puzzling amongst themselves how anyone could believe this to be true.
But Gallup’s polling seems to support a popular justification for Trump's tone towards the press. The report demonstrating a sharp decline in Americans’ trust of the media notably spans age groups or political party. And Gallup admits that at least some of the more recent decline may be attributed to bias and the 2016 election in which the media was “hyper-focused on every controversial statement or policy proposal by Donald Trump” and “less focused on the controversies surrounding the Clinton campaign.”
While bias is an obvious concern, in actuality what many Americans resent is the media’s perceived self-importance and obvious sensitivity towards pushback. These attitudes have been on clear and particular display in the wake of Trump’s press conference. Guests on numerous media shows, for example, have claimed that “it is the responsibility of journalists is to report the truth” and have called it “wild” and “crazy” that Trump would dare not show respect for certain reporters. Joe Scarborough of MSNC even warned Trump, "don’t fight the press, the press always wins.”
Yet it is precisely this notion -- that an institution of American society is beyond reproach and cannot be argued with -- that Americans find distasteful. Republicans in particular have watched leaders such as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney try to appease the media and then get skewered at the media’s hands. Trump’s strategy represents a marked departure from this appeasement, more in line with Ronald Reagan’s “I’m paying for this microphone!” toughness or Newt Gingrich’s 2012 lecture of John King. Trump’s particularly vicious approach has drawn blood from this vein, exposing an arrogance and self-righteousness now on full display.
This shouldn’t be cast as overlooking the real and important role of a free press, and most Americans citizens agree. Studies confirm that the very same Americans who disapprove of today’s media also value sound and reliable reporting. They judge the media based on very reasonable factors such as accuracy, completeness, presentation, and transparency. What they abhor, however, is a press corps that assumes exclusive rights to the truth rather than allowing Americans to determine it for themselves. They cannot stand, for example, major news networks who were so completely certain of Hillary Clinton’s presidential victory that they experienced shock when actual democracy occurred.
Rather than a press that “always wins,” Americans want to see a robust debate and interplay between the government and press. They do want to hear the media’s fact-checking and accusations of dishonesty against President Trump, but they also want to hear from Trump himself. That the president argues publicly and meets his challengers openly, albeit sloppily at times, is a major source of his appeal. While there are very serious repercussions if the press were to surrender, there is also a middle ground or “sweet spot” borne out of continued tension between the two.
That place is the one in which we regain our role as judges of the truth rather than having a media personality do it for us.
Writing on behalf of the Ancien Régime, French writer and politician François-René de Chateaubriand was the first to identify himself as a “conservative” in a political context. His journal, Le Conservateur, was first published in 1818 and through it he expressed both nostalgia for pre-Revolutionary France and opposition to King Louis XVIII. Despite his counter-revolutionary influence and coinage of the term “conservative,” however, it is not to François-René de Chateaubriand that modern scholars look for an intellectual foundation of conservatism. Rather that distinction is bestowed to the Irish-born scholar, writer, and politician Edmund Burke.
Though he personally never invoked the term conservative, Burke provided a systematic analysis of the French Revolution in 1790 that would become the intellectual basis for the disposition now commonly invoked as conservatism. Burke’s pronouncements concerning the revolution and his eloquent defense of the preservative impulse are largely contained in his best-known work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, which Burke wrote near the end of his life. Prior to this book’s publication, Burke had been largely ostracized from English politics due to his principled vindication of unpopular causes including his speech urging reconciliation with the American colonies. Nevertheless, Burke’s work served to reverse his political standing and Reflections on the Revolutions in France is now widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of political prose ever written.
Burke’s arguments against the French Revolution, as well as his intellectual theories concerning conservatism, stem from his appreciation of the complexity of human nature. Burke believed that man’s understanding of his own nature must at all time times be fallible and incomplete; he argued that philosophical concepts of man which endeavor to fully explain his nature would forever break down when brought to bear upon reality. Moreover, Burke considered the problem of man’s limited self-knowledge to grow exponentially when man entered civil society and expanded his relationships. Since a human being could only partially understand himself and other human beings even less, Burke rejected any theory of government that presumed to fully adhere to man’s nature or satisfy all of his wants. “The nature of man is intricate,” Burke wrote, “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or the quality of his affairs.”
Thus Burke rejected utopianism at its root, disparaging not a particular system of government but the manner of thinking which presumes that any system of government (be it monarchial, communist, democratic, etc.) is capable of fully satisfying humanity. Political governance being an imperfect science with sustainability rather than perfection as its end, Burke argued on behalf of experience as a necessary guide for achieving peace and a reasonable standard of living.
Burke’s defense of tradition, then, rested upon grounds of practicality and usefulness rather than upon theories of divine right. He strongly believed that truth could be ascertained through the perception of reality over time, and he argued that the nature of historical causality afforded men with far greater knowledge of themselves than they could ever ascertain through reason alone. The past, according to Burke, was therefore to be respected and studied not because it was perfect but because it is a source of inherited wisdom for the present. To ignore this inheritance and the painstaking work of one’s ancestors serves only to limit, stupefy, and destroy. Burke’s primary defense of England’s constitutional monarchy over the egalitarian democracy of France rested not in one system of government being objectively preferable to the other, but in the danger in France’s violent rate of change threatening to bring down the whole groundwork of European civilization.
Whereas in England Burke perceived a monarchial system slowly and prudently becoming more representative through practical measures, he foresaw across the English Channel the possibility of mass murder and terror that would accompany France’s uncompromising rate of change. Rather than a ferocious democratic frenzy, Burke proposed that “it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice, which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.” History taught Burke to proceed with caution and temperance rather than passion, particularly in the realm of political affairs in which human lives are at stake.
The implications of Burke’s prescriptions regarding society and change, often called “prudence” by his intellectual defenders, are enormous in relation to modern conservatism. Burke does not offer a succinct guide to governance and in fact casts doubt on anything of the kind being valid in itself; instead, he argues that the government a society has is likely to be better than what any one person or group could spontaneously invent. Burkean conservatism would thus likely find the U.S. Constitution as worthy of defense not because of the manner in which it was established but because of the validity of its practical use over two centuries. Burke might agree with “Constitutional conservatives” and American libertarians who decry deviations from originalism, but his justification would be notably different. Rather than arguing upon the inherent moral superiority of the founding generation, he would look to the durability and success of the U.S. Constitution over time as indicative of its truthfulness. The past as both an inheritance for the present, and a guide for the future.
Simultaneously, Burke offers guidance that is capable of rescuing modern conservatism from a theory of “the radiant past” or philosophical nostalgia that presumes that everything in the past must be preferable to the present or future. Burkean conservatism rejects the possibility of a perfect system of governance; thus the founding period of America was no utopia despite the presence of great men such as George Washington, James Madison, and John Adams. Recognizing this, American conservatives must proceed pragmatically when attempting to reauthorize original aspects of the framer’s vision, for if they proceed too hastily the civil discord and disarray they are likely to arouse will negate any real benefit.
Burkean conservatives therefore labor to improve and reform what they have, using interactions with reality and human nature to test the validity of moral beliefs. Rather than an ideology sending us spiraling towards a history-based or future-based utopianism, Burke imparts conservatism to us as a sophisticated, intellectually defensible instrument for continuity and peace. This at precisely a time in which such a perspective is sorely needed in American politics, and more.
It feels as though decades have passed since Donald Trump’s reputation rose from that of an eccentric game show host on entertainment television. In truth it wasn’t all that long ago that Trump was viewed by many as nothing more than a conspiracy theorist with too much time and money. More of a political punch line than a legitimate player, Trump seemed to be making a living off of extremist claims and wild theories that no serious person believed to be true. Even as he rose to challenge Democrats in the general election, the appearance of Trump’s growing and resilient support seemed to do little to nudge liberals out of their Clinton comfort zone.
Then 2016 happened. And now the man that Obama once smeared for his seeming irrelevance is heir to the most powerful political office in the world. And what makes Trump’s victory particularly ironic is that the American left has been trying to explain their defeat with the same type of fringe conspiracy theories they once associated with Trump himself.
Today, just a few days prior to the inauguration, Democrats and left leaning independents are still engaging in the same kind of biased, unfounded conspiracy claims that Trump pioneered years ago. Many of Clinton’s supporters have tried to console themselves, for example, with the notion that FBI Director Comey is to blame for their loss. The director’s “strategically-timed” memo reminded the public of Clinton’s inability to handle classified information, and that must have swayed last minute voters away. Russian hacking is another popular theory for the left, with resident Obama today levying ultimatums and sanctions against Russian intelligence officials and diplomats. And if either of those theories fail, progressives can always default to tired complaints against the Electoral College and the rules of American politics that preclude simple majority rule.
None of those theories hold any real potential to change the verdict of the election, however, nor do they do much to actually explain why Trump won. The reason for this is that the 2016 election wasn’t all that close, and such theories cannot begin to explain the sound defeat Clinton experienced in swing states like Pennyslvannia and Ohio. The fact that progressives are still clinging to them shows that they remain ignorant of the strong pulse of the American public that Trump tapped into during the campaign. Trump’s massive movement grew from his promise to take on the status quo and corrupt establishment in Washington, D.C. He promised to “make America great again,” and to return the country to a time when the United States had a bright economic future and a system that rewarded traditional values and hard work over elitism and political cronyism.
But as much as he talked about “the good ol’ days” and America’s radiant past, Trump’s campaign was far more about America’s future. It was this aspect of his campaign that truly captured the country’s imagination and its vote. Trump’s crowning achievement was that he and his supporters seized America’s political future from the pre-written narrative that progressives liked to believe was inevitable.
The very concept of progressivism as an ideology is built on an assumed notion that society is moving unswervingly towards the future – and not just any future but a very particular one. Progressives believe that the change they welcome into the world is of an egalitarian, humanistic variety that prizes secularism and abstract reason over the supposed simplicity of tradition, family values, and religion. Progressives assume their imagined future to be undeniably and obviously superior to the status quo as well as the past. They believe the triumph of such an agenda is ultimately a forgone conclusion merely requiring the process of time.
Donald Trump, for all his faults, threw a much-needed wrench into this false narrative. Trump reminded progressives that America’s political future has not yet been conclusively written, and he articulated the very real possibility that the America of tomorrow could look very much like the one from the past. His impassioned, unorthodox, and at times messy campaign served to breathe life into America’s stiff political process. His rise shocked the educated elite, sent college progressive students running to safe spaces, and dethroned the media’s narrative of a queen walking into the White House. Instead of the teleprompted narrative they expected to receive, progressives discovered a wide open election and an unanticipated victor. Trump reminded them what it feels like to lose, and he taught them that a progressive future is just one of many possibilities for our country.
What will Trump’s presidency be like? It’s certainly hard for anyone to predict. No doubt progressives are already predetermining his failure for not ascribing to the same values they hold. The ascension of an unscripted right wringer doesn’t fit neatly into their narrative, and so elites will soon seek to explain Trump away as a short detour on the otherwise steady path to victory. But many attentive progressives might actually be pleasantly surprised by a President Trump who personally seems to share more in common with them than the traditionalists and religious right who helped Trump rise. Those conservatives may eventually get the Supreme Court nominees they were promised, but much to their frustration they could discover an entirely different and even liberal Donald Trump if Democrats regain Congress. Even more so, the establishment should prepare themselves for a volatile love-hate relationship with a president as likely to enrich them as levy an export tax without warning. With so many groups, and so many different opinions of the soon-to-be President of the United States, only one thing can be known for certain.
We are in for one wild ride.
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