Feature 04.11.2019 6 minutes

Rebuilding Our Constitutional Morality


Through dignity and subsidiarity, America can prevail with more than rough justice.

Thomas Klingenstein argues that President Trump is the leader of an American politics of citizenship against its multicultural antagonists. Trump put the “P” in Politics with his verbal vindication of America, which Klingenstein thinks was a crucial aspect of his 2016 campaign.

Klingenstein defines multiculturalism as a view that “conceives of society as a collection of cultural identity groups, each with its own worldview, all oppressed by white males, collectively existing within permeable national boundaries…. It carves ‘tribes’ out of a society whose most extraordinary success has been their assimilation into one people.” Trump, Klingenstein further contends, “showed us that multiculturalism, like slavery in the 1850’s, is an existential threat;” conservatives must make the defeat of multiculturalism the non-negotiable focus of their politics.

Klingenstein outlines central principles of constitutional justice that should serve as conservatism’s main theoretical and rhetorical thrust, one that can appeal to a broad range of Americans. I generally agree. He notes the lack of concern for due process of law amongst the multiculturalists—one of our most basic constitutional principles—when victim groups are demanding justice, spoils, recognition, and, I would add, vengeance. Yet any attempt to undermine multiculturalism must simultaneously propose a better understanding of the privileges and responsibilities of American citizenship. A case for constitutional forms and procedures must be front and center of that argument.

Is President Trump helping make the case, or making things worse? Both.

Here matters get difficult. Trump’s political success has made clear that conservatism must change in crucial ways. But we must also take into account multiple institutional failures and honestly come to terms with who we are now as a country.

I disagree with parts of Klingenstein’s essay that cite some of Trump’s more notorious episodes as indicative of how he is pushing against the multiculturalist night. I do so without intending to criticize President Trump (an approach that gains even his harshest critics little traction) but to underscore that Trump himself embodies our many contemporary flaws.

Even if we are able to find a rough justice in what he says, President Trump’s style and its appeal is a product of our own social, political, and institutional dysfunction. Moreover, Trump’s statements about certain minority groups, immigration, women, Islam, etc., produce an equal and opposite reaction in the political Left, further destabilizing our politics and institutions.

Klingenstein recalls the 2015 Muslim ban statement as evidence of Trump getting “to the essential thing, the thing that no one else will say.” Trump’s crude statement was made possible by, among other things, the infuriating response of the Obama administration to the 2015 San Bernardino, California terrorist attack. After a Muslim couple murdered 14 of the husband’s co-workers, President Obama lectured Americans on national television about exercising vigilance against anti-Muslim bigotry and violence. Really. He saw Americans as likely aggressors and implicitly accused them as such. Obama couldn’t see the thing-in-itself, i.e., Islamic terrorists claiming victims on American soil. But neither did Trump speak accurately and prudently about the reality of Islamic terrorists inside the U.S., which is the first step in providing the best response to such a threat.

Likewise, Yuval Levin, critiqued by Klingenstein for not recognizing the exceptional nature of the 2016 election, argues that federal institutional breakdown works a corrosive effect on our politics. For example, congressional representatives no longer see themselves working within an institution that guides and shapes their politics. Rather, the institution is the platform for them to aggrandize their own set of ideological, career, and personal interests. President Obama exemplified this repeatedly with his use of executive power to achieve ideological goals in ways inconsistent with basic constitutional government. It is impossible to see the rise of Trump without Obama’s capacious pen and phone.

President Trump’s insistence on building and funding a border wall, whether in accordance with Madisonian principles or not, is one of several pieces of evidence that he is not seriously attempting to rebuild our constitutional morality. Conservatives must ensure that nationalist appeals of every variety are both prudent policy measures and serve the constitutional order by strengthening it.  I certainly applaud Trump’s more conventional achievements, such as populating the federal judiciary with originalists, securing tax cuts, reviving competitive federalism by limiting federal deductions of state and local taxes, and cutting federal regulations. But note the obvious: these are ideas most conservatives have proclaimed for decades.

Conservatism and the Republican Party should make an inviting case for American citizenship as their core political appeal, both during and after Trump. As Klingenstein argues, they should vigorously highlight its superiority to progressivism’s identity-industrial complex. But there must be other parts of that appeal. We need a decentralizing political process to account for our immense diversity, with careful attempts to rebuild fraying institutions like the family, education, and other mediating institutions. These attempts, most likely, should not take the form of a naked nationalism, but a new subsidiarity grounded in our Constitution and in our relational and loving human nature.

To be sure, subsidiarity is not a stand-alone arrangement that requires, ineluctably, a radically decentralized society. Subsidiarity presupposes that the political order, as a whole, is functioning well at each level of governing power. This requires that the national government meet its constitutional responsibilities properly, especially in relation to defense and commerce.

The problem is that our national government, in attempting to do everything, increasingly can do nothing well. The revival of nationalism attends to this regime-deforming problem, but it must do so with the knowledge that much of American citizens’ lives are conducted in particular places as parents, neighbors, workers, friends, and creatures under God. This ecology of relationships should be generally immune from being managed and directed from Washington.

Americans should know that their country is governed by serious and sober leaders who put the country first in all things, but their primary points of political contact should be with the town council, the school board, and, from time to time, the state legislature. They should look upon Washington as exercising a powerful and disciplined strength that doesn’t require perpetual agitation.

Who we are as human persons is poorly comprehended by our regnant individualism, nor is it perfected by collectivist ideas, but is best observed in our need to live in a place, rooted with others, sharing and giving and receiving. Religious institutions, the family, education, and myriad forms of communities are the ways we ultimately live our freedom and our dignity. In our obligations to each other we find our freedom. If we fail to recover this anthropology and its political meaning, one that our Constitution actually corresponds quite well to, then we will continue to oscillate between abstractions of individualism and collectivism, or the combination of both in the democratic socialist claim that consolidated government power can free us to become autonomous individuals.

We might remind our ‘woke’ opponents that our Constitution—wisely—does not root our political identity in a sectarian theology nor in a civic political ideology. Why? The better part of the Founders’ political knowledge was to understand that our souls have ends that transcend the regime. We must be free to pursue that truth and to live it in our daily lives, free from prejudice and bigotry, including the prejudice and bigotry of the meddlesome secularist bureaucrat many of us now justifiably fear.

I’m not just defending the principle of religious freedom. I mean to note the very ground of liberty under law that is ours as both citizens and human creatures. That ground requires limited government and equal regard for one another as dignified persons who are treated as such under law. If we do not outright reject the Left’s insistence upon one’s identity as the justification of all manner of social, political, and legal rights and privileges, it will be virtually impossible to remain a united constitutional people. Attempts to undermine the American understanding of constitutional citizenship will not end in a hip, postmodern, and borderless multicultural America with as many genders as there are people. Rather, it will end in our equivalent of the massacre at Corcyra.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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