Edmund Burke, Trumpism, and the Worst of Both Worlds

I recently read Yuval Levin’s engaging The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. This book is a great example of how good writers can bring high-level intellectual history to a general audience. Levin shows how Paine defended revolutions (both American and French) that he saw as aligning with natural rights, while Burke preferred incremental reforms that respected tradition and protected mediating institutions like families, churches, and towns.

Burke warned that attempts to transform a nation’s social order overnight usually descended into barbarism. No technocrat or prophet of reason could successfully remold society while ignoring the accumulated wisdom of the generations. In this debate I am more sympathetic to Burke, but Levin also presents Paine in a fair, lucid manner.

Edmund Burke, portrait by Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery. Public Domain.

Because my thinking about politics has been tainted by the specter of Donald Trump, I could not help but reflect on what Burke might have said about Trumpism. I suspect that he would have said that Trump represents the worst of both Burke and Paine’s worlds. In one sense, Trump reflects Paine’s view that gradualism doesn’t work. You blow up corrupt institutions – you don’t wait to reform them. You show contempt for established wisdom, conventional leaders, and the usual profile of qualified statesmen. You ridicule and destroy. This is straight out of the French revolutionaries’ playbook.

But Trump also reflects paralyzing nostalgia for the past, or what we might call corrupted Burkeanism. The “Make America Great Again” impulse is unfocused, bitter, and quasi-patriotic. It is the opposite of the “reformocon” desire to work within existing structures to try, for instance, to forge tax policies that encourage families to stay together. Stronger families, today’s reformocons would say, are more important to the vitality of American society than anything the government might do directly. But the government can at least get out of the way. Trump seems bored by talk of reform, and has little patience for even understanding current policy or where it goes wrong.

Worst of all, Trump represents the opposite of what Burke called “virtuous liberty.” Uninformed about American history, and contemptuous of moral, familial obligations, Trump bases his campaign on zingers, nativism, and misogyny. About such characters, Burke warned that liberty without virtue or wisdom “is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”

Trump champions radical Paineism, masked by faux Burkeanism. Trumpism dispenses with vital American traditions in the name of restoring an illusory American past. For example, Trumpism denies, in the face of all the wisdom of the ages, that republics need wise, experienced, and virtuous leaders to survive.

Like a manic Paine, Trump would cast away the rules of war, constitutional checks and balances, and conventional financial practices, such as paying national debts. He’ll keep out all the Muslims, and round up and deport tens of millions of Hispanics. Somehow by doing so, we’ll get back the America of the 1950s. We’ll know we’re there when we can all say “Merry Christmas” again. It will be the Revolution of 2016. Believe me.

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