Edmund Burke, Trumpism, and the Worst of Both Worlds

Edmund Burke, Trumpism, and the Worst of Both Worlds May 10, 2016

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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  • kierkegaard71

    I have a theory: Trumpism’s rise can be laid at the feet of modern conservatism. Based on history alone (see Reagan, Bush I, Bush II), conservative political leadership is fully committed to the welfare state, to runaway spending, to gargantuan debt, to excessive regulation, to fiat money and currency depreciation. Just as great as Trump’s ability to deceive his followers is conservatism’s ability to govern without conservative principles, and yet still claim the name “conservative”.

  • Paul Julian Gould

    Very well written and very well-said. Thank you for an astute read, without vitriol and rage (tough to do, considering the subject of Mr. Trump… just sayin’… *smile*)

  • Paul Julian Gould
  • Roy Mx

    Revolutions are reactionary, people rise up only when they think something has been taken from them. The revolutionaries look to ancient rights lost and imagined edens that they have been expelled from. The reality of these is not important it is the belief that counts.

    Out founders, not Paine so much, but almost all of the colonials complained of the violation of their natural rights as Englishmen. The Declaration is all about this.

    The same is true everywhere, this is why the Gospels can be so dangerous to the powerful, when the peasants rose behind Wat Tyler in 1381, the most radical cry of John Ball was “When Adam delved and Eve span who then was the gentleman?”

    This is why communist regimes constantly look for and assume ancient communism in the bronze age and so many modern feminists earnestly believe in Gimbutas’s matriarchal neolithic and the suppression of the earth mother goddess by the evil sky father.

    Only a true revolutionary rises because things can be better, and vanishingly few are true revolutionaries, the rest only rise when they have come to believe what they desire has been taken from them.

  • Tom Van Dyke

    No discussion of 2016 is complete without the word “Hillary” and by extension, “Obama.”

    Trump is not the French Revolution Burke opposed, he’s a counter-revolutionary.

    A lot less like Thomas Paine. More like Napoleon. 😉