As we move through the latter stages of this presidential primary campaign, with all its disgusting rhetoric and lack of substance, I have sought respite from the depressing news the campaign brings every day, so I have receded into history in my studies. I am poring through the work of some of our greatest leaders to see how their examples compare to the prospective leaders we are seeing in this campaign. This has led me to be a bit unfocused as I simultaneously listen to an audiobook on Lincoln while reading through the Federalist Papers and Jon Meecham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. However, the exercise definitely has me thinking about today’s campaign in a different light.
What would Lincoln have thought of Rubio’s conduct in those fateful last days of his campaign? What would Jefferson say about Donald Trump’s complete lack of civility and substance? What would James Madison think about how this campaign reflects upon the American people?
The Republican primary electorate has completely lost touch with some very basic American principles and institutions. If this hysteria continues into the future, it may have some serious implications for the American experiment. Keep in mind that our 240 year-old republic is, in the grand scheme of history, very young. We are still standing athwart history to prove that our uniquely American way of doing things is the best way to affect liberty and human happiness.
This becomes all the more obvious as I have read through the Federalist Papers. In The Federalist No. 39, Madison extols the virtues of a republican government. It is clear, says Madison, that
…no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”
But with this form of government, the onus is on the people to be level-headed, to avoid resorting to hysterics, to vote with the best interests of the nation as a whole rather than for short-sighted self-interest. This requires that the people and their leaders acknowledge that by and large, we all agree on the ends of government. Disagreements nearly always arise purely on means.
One threat to choosing leaders and policies based on the interests of the whole is that of a “pertinacious minority,” as Hamilton warned against in The Federalist No. 22:
“If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.”
Hamilton foresaw the damage that a refusal to compromise can bring, that a tyrannical minority can cause “contemptible compromises of the public good.” This applies to legislative bodies as well as bodies of voters. Republican primary voters still haven’t coalesced around Trump in the same way other candidates have in the past: he has utterly failed to unite the party, and will nearly certainly fail to unite the country.
As time has passed, our government has become more democratic than the founders originally crafted it to be, through direct primary, senatorial, and presidential elections, etc. This certainly doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But it puts even more of the onus on the people to refrain from pettiness, xenophobia, and short-sightedness. Madison warns us of “The danger of disturbing the public tranquillity by interesting too strongly the public passions,” a danger which becomes all the more real when democratic elections are the mode of selecting nearly every leader in our national and local governments.
I fear that this primary campaign has fallen victim to these passions. We Republicans are on the brink of choosing someone as our nominee who is very much the opposite of Lincoln, with his humility and basic respect even for his most ardent foes. Reagan, with his sunny optimism took conservatism into the light, helped America rediscover the efficacy of conservative principles. It was as if he asked America, “let me show you how we can make things better.” And he did exactly that.
Jefferson, for his part, dreamed of a nation where people of all religions could worship as they pleased, including the “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” He hardly could be imagined to endorse excluding people from entering this country based on their religion, regardless of the peculiarities of our current security outlook. His friend Benjamin Franklin sums it up:
Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.”
Thus, by choosing Trump, we are completely and utterly surrendering the moral high ground to Clinton and the Democrats. Conservatives cannot hope to win the White House with vitriol, violence, and hatred. The megalomaniacal populism of Trump is a dangerous manifestation of the problems Hamilton and Madison warned us about: that with so much democracy, the onus is on the people to select leaders based on the content of their character and the strength of their principles. It is my hope that sometime on the future, we Republicans might be able to recapture these “small-r” republican ideals, but it is looking like 2016 will not be that time.