The Road to the Trump Presidency

by Stephen Knott, author of The Lost Soul of the American Presidency; The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal / Opinions expressed here are entirely his own.

Donald Trump is everything critics of a populist presidency, particularly Alexander Hamilton, warned about—a demagogue who practices the “little arts of popularity” for purposes of firing up his base, a man lacking the attributes of a magnanimous soul, a purveyor of conspiracy theories, and a president incapable of distinguishing between himself and the office he temporarily holds.

Yet Hamilton’s fear of a demagogic, populist presidency, was realized long before the election of Donald Trump. In fact, the seeds were first planted by Thomas Jefferson in his “Revolution of 1800.” The Sage of Monticello launched the presidency on a populist course that, in the long run, undermined the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. While many members of the founding generation were worried that a demagogue manipulating public passions would destroy the republic, Jefferson argued that public opinion served as the “best criterion of what is best,” and that enlisting and engaging that opinion would “give strength to the government.” As the nation’s only nationally elected figure, Jefferson’s executive was rooted in popular support and thus uniquely situated to serve as a spokesman for and implementer of the majority’s wishes.

Jefferson turned his rival Alexander Hamilton’s arguments on their head, arguing that popular opinion conferred constitutional legitimacy. Jefferson made this abundantly clear in a letter he wrote to James Madison in 1787: “after all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail.” In essence, the majority would govern, not the Constitution.

The “Revolution of 1800” paved the way for the populist presidency of Andrew Jackson who held that the fundamental principle of the American government was majority rule. While the American framers believed in government by consent, they did not believe in government by the majority, believing instead in a system of representation and other “filtering” elements including judicial review, indirect election of Senators, and the Electoral College. Jackson believed that checks on majority rule, including the Electoral College, represented a perversion of the principle that “as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will.”

As all demagogues are inclined to do, Andrew Jackson played upon fears to mobilize his base. No one understood this better than John Quincy Adams, a target of Jackson’s wrath and a champion of the rights of other frequent targets of those resentments, including abolitionists, free Blacks, and Native Americans. Unpopular minorities bear the brunt of the populist presidency, and Adams was one of the last of a dying breed who understood the threat this presented to the American body politic. According to Adams, Jackson was “a man governed by passion rather than reason, a demagogue.”

With Jackson’s election to the presidency, and with the wider success of his movement at the state and local level, the American republic moved from a system designed to check majority tyranny to one where an unfettered majority governed, using its power at the state level to disenfranchise an unpopular minority (free blacks) and to press for the expansion of slavery, and leveraging its powers at the state and the federal levels to remove a different but equally unpopular minority from its midst, Native Americans.

The coalition Jackson assembled was, at bottom, a cauldron of boiling partisan, racial, and class resentments, and in Jackson’s case, all of those elements, plus decades of personal resentments thrown into the mix. Thirty years later, Jackson’s fellow Tennessean, Andrew Johnson, who considered Jackson his beau ideal of a president, stirred the same populist pot on his path to power, rising to prominence as the nineteenth century’s version of Donald Trump.

The refounded presidency of Jefferson and Jackson was embraced by many twentieth century progressives. While Jefferson and Jackson did not believe in an activist federal government, these progressives did. But having unmoored the presidency from the Constitution and grounded it in public opinion, it was a small step for Jefferson’s and Jackson’s heirs to claim that the president spoke for the majority and was uniquely situated to view the whole, and that the people demanded a federal government that could be as big as it wanted to be, led by a president who was as big a man as he wanted to be.

Progressive politicians, Franklin Roosevelt in particular, along with historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Henry Steele Commager, considered Andrew Jackson to be a precursor to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The age of Jackson and the age of Roosevelt may have been a century apart, but both men fought the elites of their day and considered themselves the tribune of the people. As with Jackson, FDR was a genius at firing up his base by labeling his opponents as un-American evil doers.

Sadly, Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of those who sought a more responsive, unrestrained presidency, rooted in public opinion. This refounded presidency placed the office on a dangerous and unsustainable path, a path of heightened expectations that encourages a contemptuous view of checks and balances. It also diminished the important unifying role the president was expected to play as head of state, forcing him to become a party leader and policy formulator—in short, a perpetual partisan lightning rod. All of this has contributed to an erosion of respect for the office.

The United States would be well served to return to the constitutional presidency envisioned by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They designed a presidency of “sober expectations,” one that did not pander to or manipulate the public, one that was averse to the notion that it was the president’s job to provide “visionary leadership,” and one that was less inclined to implement the majority will at the expense of political, racial, and economic minorities.

The prospects for a renewal of the office are slim, but not impossible. A recovery of the constitutional presidency, one respectful of the rule of law and appreciative of the role of the president as head of state, rather than full-time rabble rouser, is within our reach. It would require, however, a renewed appreciation for the limits of the office and the limits of politics, along with an understanding that history is littered with examples of leaders who, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “overturned the liberties of republics.” These demagogues began their careers “by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Stephen F. Knott (@publius57) is professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. His many books include Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, both from Kansas, and Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency.

Revisiting David E. Kyvig’s “The Age of Impeachment”

Some books seem to live forever, others live multiple lives.

In the summer of 2017, as President Trump was making news with pardons, Jeffrey Crouch’s 2009 book The Presidential Pardon Power began to garner a lot (like, a lot!) of attention.

No, thanks again to President Trump, David E. Kyvig’s 2008 book The Age of Impeachment; American Constitutional Culture since 1960 is roaring back to life.

In this magisterial work, Bancroft Prize-winning historian David Kyvig chronicles the rise of a culture of impeachment since 1960—one that extends far beyond the infamous scandals surrounding Presidents Richard Nixon (Watergate) and Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky) and has dramatically altered the face of American politics.

A buzz word in today’s public life, “impeachment” was anything but that before 1960. Since then it has been transformed from a historically little-known and little-used tool of last resort into a political weapon of choice. By examining the details and consequences of impeachment episodes involving three Supreme Court justices, a vice president, five federal judges, and four presidents, Kyvig explores this seismic shift in our constitutional culture and gauges its ongoing implications for American political life.

Beginning with the John Birch Society’s campaign against Chief Justice Earl Warren, impeachment efforts became far more frequent after 1960, with eight actually ending in resignation or removal. In describing these efforts, Kyvig recounts stories and subplots about key political actors and the controversies they inspired. He argues that judicial cases are as important as the better-known presidential ones and shows why those cases that did not proceed—against not only Warren, but also Abe Fortas, William O. Douglas, Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—are as illuminating as those that did.

Kyvig demonstrates that impeachment has been the bellwether of a changing—and increasingly toxic—political climate. Perhaps most important and ominous, the increasing threat of impeachment has encouraged presidents to hide potentially impeachable actions behind a thick veil of executive secrecy, while dramatically expanding executive power beyond the reach of either Congress or the courts

Combining political and legal history at their best, Kyvig also explores the cultural impact of journalist David Frost, editorial cartoonist Herblock, and filmmakers Alan Pakula, Robert Altman, and Oliver Stone. A gifted storyteller, he presents a cautionary tale that should be read by all who care about our national government and its ability to survive and thrive in perilous times.

Russian Hacking Scandal & Investigatory Options

by Katy J. Harriger, author of The Special Prosecutor in American Politics

As calls increase for independent investigation of the Russian hacking allegations, it is worth taking the time to look back at our modern American experience with such investigations. That experience tells us that it is important to think about the trade-offs involved in moving outside of the normal governmental process to gain independent investigation. In this post I’ll explore those trade-offs, based on my study of the use of special prosecutors in the 20th century.

While the use of special prosecutors is not unusual in state and local politics, until the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s they were a little used mechanism in national politics. Special prosecutors are used when there is a need for reassuring the public that allegations of wrongdoing by public officials are being investigated, and if necessary, prosecuted, without political bias. When calls for special prosecutors increase, it suggests a decline in elite and/or public confidence that regularly elected and appointed public officials can be trusted to impartially investigate allegations against high level officials, who may be either their superiors or people with whom they have close political or professional ties.

Before Watergate, special prosecutors had been used in national politics only during the infamous Tea Pot Dome Scandal of the 1920’s and during a less famous Tax Scandal during the Truman administration. After Watergate, however, because Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, there were at least 20 special prosecutor investigations between the time the act was passed and when it was allowed to expire in 1998. Arguably, only two of them were comparable to the Watergate scandal in that they implicated the president himself in the wrongdoing: the Iran-Contra scandal of Ronald Reagan’s second term and the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s second term. By the time Congress failed to renew the act both sides of the political aisle felt they had been unfairly harmed by the existence of the independent counsel provisions and decided the arrangement created more problems than it solved. Instead, the Department of Justice under Janet Reno promulgated a set of rules for determining when DOJ leadership should recuse itself from an investigation and under what circumstances they appoint an independent investigator (called special counsel). The one such appointment that we know about was for the investigation and prosecution of then V.P. Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby, for his role in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The election of 2016 brought the spotlight back to the special prosecutor. During the election Donald Trump promised that, if elected, he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate all the criminal activity he had accused Clinton of having committed. Indeed, he, his surrogates, and his supporters pre-judged the outcome of that investigation with the campaign chant “Lock her up!” Since Trump’s election, a new special prosecutor demand has arisen, this time from his critics concerned about troubling information about Russia’s attempt to use hacked material to sway the election against Clinton and Trump’s advisors’ meetings with Russian officials during this time.

The arguments for pressing for the appointment of a special prosecutor removed from direct control by politically interested officials are several and not to be easily dismissed:

  • The allegations involve multiple advisors and officials with direct connection to the President
  • The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is a close associate and seen as a partisan for the President
  • Public opinion polls show that a majority of those polled (made up of a very large majority of Democrats, a slight majority of Independents, and a quarter of Republicans) think some kind of investigation is needed either by Congress or a special prosecutor. This suggests a high level of skepticism about whether regular attorneys in the Department of Justice are sufficiently disinterested in the outcome of such an investigation.

But there are also arguments or questions that encourage caution before concluding that a special prosecutor is necessary in order to get to the bottom of the Russian hacking scandal:

  • Is there sufficient evidence that a crime was committed that justifies a criminal investigation with a prosecutor, a grand jury, and the possibility of a criminal trial? The burden of proof for criminal charges is high – responsible prosecutors always ask whether a jury is likely to convict on evidence that shows that the crime occurred “beyond a reasonable doubt”.   Refusal to prosecute doesn’t mean there is no reason to believe wrongdoing occurred. It just means we can’t meet the high standard to proof required of the prosecutor to gain conviction. The tradeoff involved in having a prosecutor in a situation like this is that inability to convict for violation of a criminal law can be interpreted as lack of evidence of wrongdoing, abuse of the public trust, or unethical conduct. These are not legal equivalents. Just because one is not a “criminal” does not mean one meets the ethical standards we desire for our public officials.
  • What is most important: public understanding of what happened during the election of 2016 or prosecution of the associates of the president who may have been complicit in the foreign attempt to influence the election? This is a judgment call but merits careful consideration. The tradeoff is between the greater public exposure to the evidence of what happened that can be generated through a congressional committee hearing or a special commission and the ability to prosecute specific criminal wrongdoing. It may well be that there is insufficient evidence to successfully prosecute anyone for violation of criminal laws against foreign attempts to influence elections, but that does not mean that there is insufficient evidence that there were inappropriate and unethical collaborations between Trump advisors and the Russians. Congressional committees and independent commissions are more likely to produce this kind of information. Then the burden is on voters to decide in the next election whether or not the evidence merits rejection or return of the incumbent implicated by the evidence.
  • Why not have both? In Watergate there was a special congressional investigation and a special prosecutor. While there was sometimes tensions between the two entities, one could argue that it was the combination of the two that led to both the president’s resignation and the prosecution of key actors in the break-in and cover-up.   But there is a counter example that must also be remembered. In the Iran-Contra scandal the decision by Congress to grant immunity in exchange for testimony to key actors in the affair made it extremely difficult for the special prosecutor to pursue his case. In the end, the convictions he gained in the Oliver North and John Poindexter cases were overturned on appeal because he was unable to prove that the prosecution had been untainted by the immunized testimony. Other special prosecutors who have been brought into a case after congressional investigations have begun, even when testimony has not been immunized, have reported that their investigation was made more difficult by the public airing of witness testimony.

All of these considerations suggest that simultaneous congressional hearings/investigations and special prosecutor investigations are difficult to accomplish without undermining the actual ability to prosecute should crimes be revealed. Watergate suggests it may be the best way to go, but Iran-Contra suggests that it should not be done unless Congress is willing to forgo use of its authority to immunize witnesses who could be key to prosecutions. But choosing one path over the other should be done only with a full consideration of the tradeoffs. One route maximizes the democratic process, using the normal checks and balances of the system, with the payoff usually being maximum information for the citizen about what happened. It works best when members of Congress find the will to cooperate in a bipartisan way.  If one party calls all the shots and it’s the party of the president, there is little likelihood that some significant swath of the public will accept the outcome. The other route tends to maximize independence (also interpreted as non-partisanship) and requires the norms of the criminal justice process be followed. Those being investigated have the protections of due process and the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” to protect them. If a prosecution happens, the public will get a full airing of the issues that relate to the criminal charges brought, but many aspects of the affair will be irrelevant in a criminal trial. If a special prosecutor decides not to indict, the public will have very little information on what happened and why because it is not the practice of prosecutors to provide detailed explanations for decisions not to prosecute.

Congress has begun its investigation and it will no doubt be watched closely by those suspicious of whether the party in power will follow the evidence that is harmful to the president and his associates. The Attorney General has recused himself and it remains to be seen how the Associate Attorney General will assess the situation and exercise his power to request a special counsel for a criminal investigation. Whether the public can be fully informed of the Russian interference with the election and there can be successful prosecution of those (if any) who broke criminal laws remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.

Katy J. Harriger is a Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University

 

The Trump Spectacle

9780700622856By Bruce Miroff, author of Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, his future course as president is as hard to predict as the man himself. One prediction, however, seems safe to make: Trump’s presidency will be a continual spectacle in the media.

I depict the presidential spectacle in the first chapter of my recently published book with the University Press of Kansas: Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face. It is through spectacles mounted in the media that presidents establish a political identity (and critics contest it with their own media efforts). The idea of the presidential spectacle contains three elements:  the presentation of the president as a larger-than-life character, the supporting role of the president’s team, and the ensemble of White House gestures whose principal aim is to dramatize the president’s virtues rather than to promote policy accomplishments. Since the coming of the television age in the administration of John F. Kennedy, every president has had to cope with the imperative of producing a winning spectacle.

During his extraordinary run for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to possess all the ingredients of a historic spectacle. Once in office, however, Obama concentrated heavily on the details of policymaking, slighting, by his own admission, the “symbols and gestures” through which a president communicates with the public. Immersed in rational deliberation, Obama lost much of his campaign luster, and the press began to complain that he was too cerebral, too cool, too aloof—in short, “professorial.” Obama regained some of his spectacle mojo in his second term, especially with African Americans and millennials, but his presidency remained committed at its core to good policy as the core of good government.

Evincing little interest in the substance of public policy, Donald Trump is likely to epitomize the opposite of Obama: the presidency as pure spectacle. Trump’s campaign for the White House was all “symbols and gestures,” with grandiose themes backed by scanty details. The signature spectacle of the Trump campaign was his rallies. These were participatory events for rally attendees, vicarious participation for his millions of followers watching on television.

Trump rallies were unlike any others in presidential campaigning. They were spectacles of fervor and fury. In some respects they resembled rock concerts: the star performer in the spotlight, the audience garbed in fan T-shirts and hats, the crowds chanting their favorite lines. “Build the wall” and “lock her up” allowed the crowds to echo Trump’s own contempt for immigrants and for his opponent, simultaneously signaling menace to the protestors and journalists in the hall who Trump pointed out in anger.

The rally attendees and the fans watching around the nation were predominantly the white working-class base that was the key to Trump’s election as president. His rallies were not the first occasions when he had found this base and made it his own. Recall Donald Trump’s stint with professional wrestling: he will be the first president who has previously been welcomed into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame. Recall Trump’s role as impresario of the Miss Universe pageant.  Trump staged profitable spectacles of beauties and beasts—of slim young women in bathing suits and huge men in trunks. These were not spectacles that appealed to the educated classes, especially to those that Trump delighted in denouncing as “politically correct.” But through these spectacles the billionaire connected to a working-class base that no other candidate in 2016 could reach. One cannot imagine a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, as the host of wrestling matches or beauty contests.

Since his election, Trump has not let go of spectacle for a minute. His auditions for cabinet positions have been a near-daily TV drama as he holds court in his iconic Manhattan tower. He has even reenacted his campaign rallies in “thank-you” appearances–a golden-oldies tour that keeps the fans aroused. His inauguration is likely to be over-the-top in gold and glitz. But the day after, he will have to govern, and then the Trump spectacle will meet its real test.

At least two major risks for the Trump spectacle can be foreseen. One is that Trump’s non-stop spectacle will grow tiresome, as an increasing share of the public audience feels that they have seen his antics too many times. Franklin D. Roosevelt is an instructive guide here. FDR’s fireside chats were an electronic marvel of simulated intimacy between a president and his people. Yet the fireside chats were broadcast on average only 2.5 times per year. When a supporter urged FDR to take to the air more often to promote his agenda, the president demurred, arguing that over-exposure would take away the freshness—and the effectiveness—of his radio appearances.

An even larger risk to the Trump spectacle is the intrusion of reality. It is far easier to make promises on the campaign trail than to deliver on them in the White House, especially when the promises, like Trump’s, are grandiose and may run contrary to long-established trends. The capacity of stark realities to subvert crowd-pleasing spectacles is illustrated by a notorious event during the presidency of George W. Bush. When Bush staged his “Mission Accomplished” spectacle on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to celebrate his apparent triumph in Iraq, the press treated it as a new peak in the production of spectacle. However, after the conflict in Iraq resumed with appalling brutality, “Mission Accomplished” became a mockery for Bush. Presidents may score points for an appealing spectacle, but they are judged in the end by how well they perform in enacting successful policies.

Donald Trump has built a remarkably successful career through his talent at spectacle. It has been his one true qualification for the office of president. But will it be enough to carry him through a successful administration? In business, and now in politics, he has lived by spectacle. In the White House, that may be a fatal flaw.

UPK Author Addresses the Mainstreaming of the Alt-Right

Michael 10.inddGeorge Michael, UPK author of The Enemy of My Enemy, recently contributed an article to The Conversation examining how the “alt-right” movement has “gone from being an obscure, largely online subculture to a player at the very center of American politics.”

Michael explains that the movement has gained traction not by promoting “principles such as the U.S. Constitution, free market economics and individual liberty” but by focusing on “concepts such as nation, race, civilization and culture.”

Head over to TheConversation.com to read the strong article.

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…

A few weeks ago we posted a new piece from Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, that dissected the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement. Because his great piece is even more timely now, we are re-running it below…

By George Hawley, PhD

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyIn American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.

The 2016 Election and the End of the Conservative Movement

photo courtesy of CNN
photo courtesy of CNN

Every Thursday from now until the election, we will feature a piece by a UPK author that deals with an aspect of American politics. Today, Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, dissects the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement.

By George Hawley, PhD

In American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.

The Rise of Anti-Establishment Populism

9780700621934UPK author Dr. George Hawley was quoted in this fantastic Toronto Star story examining Donald Trump’s “anti-establishment” presidential campaign. Hawley’s book, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism offers a complete, complex, and nuanced account of the American right in all its dissonance in history and modern day.

In the story, Hawley states that conservative intellectuals have strategically dealt in anti-establishment populism “with the understanding that they would always be able to remain in control of it…. And now they find themselves completely aghast: they see that someone else is coming along and using those exact same latent tendencies in the electorate to fuel his own rise and is completely not beholden to them, and they’re utterly horrified.”

 

Donald Trump, His Porn Pledge & the Historic Relevance

Nixon porn exploBy Douglas M. Charles

In the current presidential election cycle, we have witnessed unprecedented firsts from the nominee of the Republican Party, Donald Trump. We have seen this major-party presidential candidate say racist, misogynist, xenophobic and all manner of unorthodox or shocking things, like threatening to pull out of NATO and praising Vladimir Putin. We’ve also seen him borrow from the political past. He’s dredged up and embraced the previously discredited America First movement of the early 1940s, and he’s borrowed the Law and Order mantle of Richard Nixon in 1968. In early August Trump announced, to some excitement and drama, that he had signed the Children’s Internet Safety Presidential Pledge, a declaration crafted by an anti-pornography group claiming it seeks to protect children (they all do) and calling itself Enough Is Enough. This latest news item involving The Donald is also nothing new. Focusing on pornography or obscenity and appealing to people’s perceptions of decaying morality has been a standard GOP modus operandi since the late 1960s and Richard Nixon and ever after.

By the late 1960s, after various Supreme Court rulings liberalized federal anti-obscenity law, leading to a boom in the pornography industry, some Americans unsurprisingly became concerned. Around the same time (1970), in the realm of politics, political scientists concluded that Democrats won elections on economic issues while Republicans won by appealing to social issues. The GOP and Nixon fully embraced this idea and appealed to the great “silent majority” of Americans who worried about crime and respected decency, and Nixon squeaked out an electoral victory. Nixon continued to push social issues as president and focused on the pornography boom as something dangerous to Americans. A scientific presidential commission had even been formed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the issue, and the report was due out during Nixon’s first months in office.

The commission concluded that pornography did not contribute in any significant way to America’s various social problems of the time. Nixon would have nothing of it, and pushed the issue going so far as to arrange an all-out effort to discredit the commission’s report and advocating for the strengthening of federal anti-obscenity law. Nixon staffers even drafted an internal report on “The Pornography Explosion” and wanted to “activate all of the anti-obscenity groups” against the commission’s report. Nixon hoped to change the law (but the GOP had only minority numbers in Congress) or push for new obscenity prosecutions to develop a possible new Supreme Court ruling in its favor. Neither happened, but Nixon’s appointing of four conservative Supreme Court justices did slow, if not stop, the liberal trend in obscenity case rulings.

This trend then continued with certain GOP presidents. During the Reagan years pressure mounted again to do something about pornography, which resulted in Reagan’s attorney general, Ed Meese, releasing his own utterly un-scientific report concluding that pornography resulted in sexual violence and social problems. Even still during the 1980s fewer than 100 people were charged under federal anti-obscenity statues and only 71 convicted, a dismal record reflecting the continuing liberal evolution of Americans’ attitudes about the issue. Still, the issue was good for Republican base politics.

Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, however, was not much interested in this aspect of social politics and neither, of course, was the Democrat Bill Clinton. But when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 he resurrected it as an appeal to his right-wing evangelical base who wanted something done about obscenity and pornography. Bush won the election and even tried, but failed, to reinstate federal prosecutions of adult obscenity — unsurprisingly claiming an aim to protect children, an age-old proclamation —  which had previously faded away. When Barrack Obama assumed office in 2009 he ended the Bush effort (except for the focus on child pornography) as a drain on resources, but socially conservative Republicans tried to push back and demanded the Obama Justice Department do something about the alleged threat pornography posed to American society.

So Trump’s resurrecting the old ratty dog of pornography and its threat is really nothing new. It’s an effort to motivate the GOP’s socially conservative based in hopes to drum up votes. Could anything come of Trump’s anti-pornography pledge? Perhaps. But obscenity prosecutions have actually diminished steadily not just from the 1960s but throughout most of the 20th Century and into the next. It would be legally and socially very difficult for a President Trump to revive anti-pornography targeting and prosecutions; George W. Bush tried and failed miserably. American culture and social attitudes have just evolved too far to care much and see successful prosecutions. Then again, it would also depend on Trump winning the election, and that seems unlikely.

Douglas M. Charles is the author of UPK books, The FBI’s Obscene File: J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau’s Crusade Against Smut & Hoover’s War on Gays: Exposing the FBI’s “Sex Deviates” Program.

Trump Bashing from on High

9780700622719In a recent article in the Washington Post Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comments on the consequences of a Trump presidency are discussed by legal scholars, including Louis J. Virelli III, author of the recently published Disqualifying the High Court: Supreme Court Recusal and the Constitution. Professor Virelli discusses what might prove to be grounds for recusal if a Trump administration takes office next year.