Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both disgraceful candidates, but Trump represents something especially sinister. It’s not just that he’s neither a Republican nor a conservative. It’s not just that his political views—to the extent that he has any—are the opposite of those articulated by the Republican Party since at least 1980. It’s not the embarrassing way he seems bound to prove true every slander liberals have leveled at the GOP for a generation—embracing nativism, racism, populist prejudices and resentments. It’s not that he’s basically illiterate, cannot speak the English language, and scorns the very notion of learning. It’s not even that his whole campaign is motivated by envy, hatred, and fear. (The U.S. already has a party that rejects liberty, that sees America as a land of exploitation rather than opportunity, that opposes private property rights and free trade, and thinks government should provide us with all the things we wish and the meaning our lives lack. That party is the Democratic Party. Why the GOP would choose to become that party is beyond me.)
But no, it’s not even all those things, though they’re bad enough. Donald Trump represents something uniquely awful. I can’t put it better than the Washington Post’s recent editorial, which could very well have been written by Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater—or Orin Kerr’s outstanding post on the danger of letting Trump run our military and security forces—or Jonah Goldberg’s fine article on Trump’s terrifying politics of magical thinking.
There's a difference between those who break the law—or who, like the Clintons, do so but come up with clever arguments for why their behavior is legal—and those who openly defy the authority or normative force of law itself, and appeal solely to a politics of power and personal command. The latter is the path of barbarism, as so much horrible history shows. It’s the path of personal rule, as opposed to the rule of law. They say hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Trump’s overt contempt for the supreme law of the land represents a refusal even to pay that tribute, and therefore a decisive break with the normative bond of our Constitution. He is, with a few exceptions, just what Lincoln warned of in his Lyceum Speech.
In that address, Lincoln foretold the way that lawbreaking—in this case, the Obama Administration’s—encourages “the lawless in spirit…to become lawless in practice,” which, in turn, causes “good men, men who love tranquility, who desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits, who would gladly spill their blood in the defense of their country” to “become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection;,” and to lose their aversion to radical political change “in which they imagine they have nothing to lose.” When this happens, and the people have lost their attachment to the Constitution, “men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that [Constitution].” Those men then put forward a dictator who, “distain[ing] a beaten path” will “thirst and burn for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it.” (Lincoln thought it would be a man of “genius.” Apparently that was the part he got wrong.)
This warning wasn’t new with Lincoln. The Founders knew that democracy’s greatest weakness is its susceptibility to demagogues, or what they called Caesarism. Caesar led his rebellion against Rome in the name of the populares—the common man—but in fact for his own personal power. He overthrew the republic and created his empire in the name of making Rome great again, but through a political creed that equated that greatness with the vindication of his own name. Caesar personalized politics—made everything about him personally. “Caesar’s claim was not a programme,” writes historian Christian Meier, “but a plea for his personal right, for the honour he was owed on the basis of his achievements.” The same is true of Trump.
Sift, if you can, through his bitter and endless harangue at Cleveland, and you find only the mindless and baseless assertion that Trump alone—not we, the people, but the Leader Himself—can fix all our problems, not through some considered plan, but simply through the sheer force of his indomitable will. The principle of democracy is not supposed to be will—it’s supposed to be persuasion. For Trump, however, politics is not a matter of consensus, contract, negotiation, principle, or common cause. It is a matter of command, pride, and the charismatic domination of the Leader of the People.
This is Caesarism—or, more precisely, its cheap 20th century imitation, fascism, as created by Benito Mussolini. Trump cannot speak the language, is not wealthy, and has no record as a military hero, which is why he is not actually Caesar. (To be fair, he did avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease, which he likens to Vietnam War service, and he was not captured like McCain was.) And Trump is far too stupid—boastfully ignorant—to have an ideology, which is why he’s not Hitler or Stalin. But then, these things were also true of Mussolini, who like his pyrite 21st century facsimile was a poorly-educated boor and business failure who used media popularity and boastful demeanor to bully and con his way into power. Trump, lacking even a basic knowledge of economics or constitutionalism, simply falls back on his consummate self-absorption, and thus on the politics of Personal Rule, as did Il Duce before him.
America’s seen fascist leaders in the past—most notably Huey Long, Charles Lindbergh, and Henry Ford. But they never got this far, and few had Trump’s sheer pride in his own ignorance. He represents a politics of “Because I Say So” that has simply never before been a major player on the presidential stage, not even in the days of Andrew Jackson (like Trump, a mentally unstable tyrant) or Franklin Roosevelt (like Trump, lacking in principle, commitment, or understanding of basic principles of politics or economics). Trump is not the head of a movement—he is the movement. He has no ideological commitments—he is the commitment. He has no program or party—he is the party. This is why he does not fit within the GOP as it existed, but demands that it conform to him. We’ve seen all of this before. It is the Leader Principle of fascism.
Trump does not deny these things. As they say, this wolf comes not in sheep’s clothing, but as a wolf. This is a man, after all, who thinks the communist tyrants of the USSR and the PRC treated dissidents too gently. And his supporters, too, agree with virtually everything I’ve said. They just say Clinton’s worse. But this is not true. She is, as P.J. O'Rourke has said, awful within normal parameters. Trump represents a rejection of those parameters—of the very idea of parameters. His outsider status means that he operates outside the vocabulary of American constitutional politics. True, we’ve had terrible presidents doing unconstitutional things before. We’ve repaired some of the damage they did, but much of that damage remains unfixed. In any event, even the worst presidents in the past at least genuflected at the altar of our constitutional structure. Trump promises to smash that altar.
His outsider status, Trump claims, is his main virtue. In fact, it’s extremely dangerous. An anti-establishment candidate is a good thing only if he or she knows what he or she is doing. Otherwise, the chances of going wrong are just too great. That’s why revolutions devour their young—and that’s why we built an establishment in the first place. It should not be changed without reason to believe a better alternative is possible. This Trump does not offer. His candidacy is an open assault on the mores of our political culture, such as respecting the rights and dignity of opponents, listening to what fellow citizens have to say, honoring our legal duties and treaty obligations; and it is all done in the name of hatred, envy, and fear, with nothing but the strength of his individual will to replace our hard-won institutions. No, it’s not that he is terribly dangerous himself. He’s probably too unintelligent to do much harm personally. But he will surround himself with a volatile collection of stooges and Pashas, of Rasputins and Grand Viziers, of roaches and rats hiding under his throne, who will wreak true havoc in his name—all with the future of our nation and the world at stake.
Even this, many Trump supporters will admit. They claim, however, that Congress can impeach him if he goes too far. This is absurd. First, Trump has already gone too far, many times, and Republicans continue to support him, and even to break their own party rules to ensure he prevails at any cost. Second, these same Trump supporters also claim, and with some justification, that the Republican Congress failed to do enough to resist Obama. There is no reason at all to imagine Congress will do more to resist a member of their own party, especially if he appears to have a strong constituency willing to commit violence. America is safer with a President and a Congress of different parties—virtually always. And, as Alexander Hamilton said, “If we must have an enemy at the head of Government, let it be one whom we can oppose, and for whom we are not responsible, who will not involve our party in the disgrace of his foolish and bad measures.”
It is imperative that Americans of all parties soundly defeat Donald Trump and what he represents.
Update: In case this was not clear, I plan to vote for Gary Johnson, and I hope you will, too.
Update 2: A couple people have said that Trump will pick better Supreme Court justices. Nonsense. There's no reason whatsoever to believe this. His purported "list" is an easy and cheap lie; anyone with access to the Federalist Society website could make a better one. And nothing commits him to it. Also, Trump openly endorses the Court's awful Kelo eminent domain decision. There is no reason on earth to think he'd pick good justices. Clinton's husband picked Breyer and Ginsburg. Not my favorites, but still highly competent and good on some issues that are important to freedom; better than Scalia in many instances. So, no. This argument does not work.