One of the details of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that would bother any viewer that even slightly suspended his disbelief at the world on the screen is the staggering amount of destruction wrought in every movie. It’s so blatant that the writers, via the characters, now make fun of it in passing. Acknowledging it is the only viable way forward, even if its true cost to people inhabiting the universe isn’t anywhere close to considered. Millions upon millions of lives would be destroyed at least indirectly due to the destruction of infrastructure, technology, utilities, food and logistical networks, and more. Of course, it’s a movie, and we only care about the characters who have been developed for us and the toll it takes on them specifically. In real life, collateral damages matters to a whole lot of people.
When it comes to the institutions and norms of national American government, President Trump is like the Hulk. An out of control, green (er, orange?) rage machine who indiscriminately smashes anything near him that provokes him, even inanimate objects. Recent exposés from Bob Woodward’s latest book and the anonymous NYTimes op-ed from inside the White House give us a picture that extends only throughout 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but his threats and flip-flopping from the bully pulpit rip up the invisible fences that have defined the limits on executive power where the Constitution has been silent.
- He has pardoned Joe Arpaio, a man who should not have been pardoned, and has threatened to pardon himself. The Constitution prescribes no limits on this power, excepting someone be impeached. All that stands in the way of its abuse is the president following the expectation that pardons be reasonable.
- He has exacerbated division among American by interjecting himself into apolitical events. No, he was not the first to do so, but he has exponentially stretched the limits of presidential engagement into such issues as kneeling during the National Anthem to the point that it is doubtful that they will return to their proper shape in the foreseeable future.
- He has threatened to censure news outlets for his own definition of fake news, threatened to correct the alleged bias of private organizations, threatened to get involved in the investigation that involves his own presidential campaign. Even if he never follows through on a threat, coming from an office unparalleled in power, it casts a totalitarian chill.
- He has threatened to end or significantly alter agreements and organization that, though imperfect, have been successful in maintaining peace and the balance of power following the most violent half decade in world history, at least in absolute terms; agreements and organizations that have hugely benefited the United States, our allies and the world’s poor and oppressed economically for decades. He does a lot of threatening.
- He has been nasty with everyone from average Americans who dared to ask tough questions to members of the independent judiciary based on their ethnic heritage.
One could go on, but in summary, the most powerful man in the world has behaved in ways that, at a minimum, endanger the ordered liberty that has made America great. And just as all norms are not the same, all institutions are not the same. Trump is not only smashing government institutions indiscriminately, but social institutions as well. It matters how a president behaves, because it influences what is considered acceptable behavior among everyday Americans. Trump has taken a stick of dynamite to the concept of civility, to take just one example.
To Trump’s most intellectual conservative water carrier, this is nothing to be concerned about. Charles Kesler, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, published an astounding defense of the president’s Hulk Smash of innumerable norms and institutions in The New York Times a couple weeks ago. It is a masterclass in logical fallacies and moral equivalency -- a disturbing example of what happens when a smart conservative takes it as his responsibility to redefine conservativism to fit this Trumpian moment.
It is problematic on at least three counts. First, its argumentation is shoddy. Second, it sets forth a false conception of conservatism. Third, it is hypocritical when compared with his earlier writings and speeches.
Unequivocally, conservatism is not about smashing norms or institutions. There may not be anything more unconservative. Kesler, however, seeks, anti-conservatively, to toss out everything conservative in favor of specious logic. He argument largely revolves around three premises -- one, that norms can be good or bad; two, that other presidents have violated norms; and three, that norms really don’t matter that much anyway.
His first argument is poor for two reasons. The first is that good norm analysis is like good economic analysis -- at least the good economic analysis taught by Frederic Bastiat and Henry Hazlitt; it looks beyond the immediate, direct effects to the dominos that eventually fall following the pushing over of the first. For example, simply changing the State of the Union from its 112 year norm as a written address to an address to Congress in person is one factor in the increase in its political power (this was the intention), as well as in the corresponding decrease in the meaningful information it conveyed about the actual state of our union. Breaking a norm may seem harmless -- much like when buildings are crushed when a giant, green, out-of-control Bruce Banner throws objects weighing several tons -- but there are real costs and consequences.
The second reason Kesler’s argument doesn’t hold water is that he considers only the ends, rather than the means. He is correct that norms are either good or bad, but does not consider what one should do about them if they are bad. Norms and institutions, good or bad, almost always carry embedded knowledge about how to behave that people are not familiar with. Sometimes, they simply prevent chaos. A study could show conclusively that it is better to drive on the left side of the road than the right, but it would not follow either that drivers should just switch when they find out or that a change should be dictated from on high with preparation. An orderly transition must be made to prevent extraordinary damage. The innumerable norms and institutions of American government, much like its often less-than-optimal public policies, are stacked like Jenga blocks on top of each other, and only careful reform will prevent them from collapsing on themselves.
Kesler’s second argument contradicts his first. He argues that it is normal behavior for presidents to break or change norms. “Normal behavior” is the definition of a norm. He is arguing that Trump’s breaking of norms is good because breaking norms is a norm. But if breaking a norm is only as good or bad as the norm, Kesler must establish that the norm of breaking norms is inherently good. He doesn’t, which means he is begging the question. Furthermore, the previous paragraph casts that assumption in a dubious light.
So much for the lack of internal logic in Kesler’s argument. What is more disturbing is that he is throwing out the meat of conservatism while attempting to redefine the word, all the while speaking as though he is reiterating timeless conservative truths. The genealogy of conservative morals, however, will not support his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to presiding.
The great conservative statesman Edmund Burke once wrote that “prudence is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.” Anticipating the complex way that institutions transmit knowledge, he elsewhere said “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 purposes of society.” Rather than smash and replace, the conservative statesman looks to reform what exists. It is difficult and requires experience and patience; the right combination of virtues required in a good legislator is hard to find, but they are “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together…” Merely changing things because they are bad does not necessarily lead to improvement. (“To innovate is not to reform.”) By contrast, rash innovations and deconstructions are bound to be “perilous in the execution.”
Suppose that Kesler cares unusually little for Burkean conservatism and, in that West Coast Straussian manner, a lot for Jeffersonian emphases on the Declaration. Even that eloquent document reminds us that “prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” Far from endorsing radical action in the face of harmful government, the Declaration too appeals to that most conservative of virtues: prudence.
The examples of this same idea in the wisdom handed down from the experience of mankind -- the sort of wisdom conservatives claim (increasingly falsely) to want to preserve -- are innumerable. But Kesler knows that. What is confounding is the rush to throw all of it out. If he does not believe in prudent reform, he should explain that he has outgrown conservatism.
I’m not holding my breath. In attempting simultaneously defend Trump and call himself conservative, his only option has been to redefine conservatism. His older speeches and writing have flat contradicted support for Trump. Lectures of his published in Hillsdale’s Imprimus are an easy-to-Google example. In 2010, Kesler found a $1.4 trillion federal deficit and “$10-12 trillion in total debt over the coming decade” to bear “very real costs to American freedom and to the American character.” How about the increasing growth of that debt under Trump? In 2012, Kesler (rightly) mocked the Hope and Change rhetoric of the Obama administration. But though an inexperienced, policy ignoramus with the self-control of giant, green comic book character could hardly offer anything better, it seems not to put him off of defending Trump at every turn. Perhaps most laughably, in 2000, Kesler said that
To be “civil,” in ordinary usage, means to be polite, respectful, decent. It is a quality implying, in particular, the restraint of anger directed toward others. In this sense, civility is not the same thing as warmth and indeed implies a certain coolness: civility helps to cool the too hot passions of citizenship.
Can you think of anything more antithetical to breaking the institutions and norms like a cranky toddler does to his toys? To ask is to answer.
Trump neither holds to a conservative philosophy, nor are his disposition or his instincts conservative. At least, not unless we change the meanings of words, as Kesler seems intent on doing. But wasn’t that also something conservatives always accused the left of doing to America’s cost?