Since the Civil War, American conservative and liberal national officeholders have been, in an important sense, all liberals. Conservatives and liberals both defend the Founders’ liberal ideology drawn from John Locke, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment philosophers. Conservatives and liberals, of course, emphasize different aspects of the Founders’ liberalism. Today’s conservatives, generally speaking, want to conserve liberalism’s emphasis on free-market capitalism, which hitched up with liberalism around the time of our nation’s founding, and on individual rights. Today’s liberals want to expand the reach of liberalism’s equality and its removal of barriers from social and economic opportunity.
Donald Trump represents a break from this implied agreement on the goal – that is, on Lockean liberalism – between America’s two major political parties and the modern conservativism and liberalism they have represented. Trump is more like a conservative in the eighteenth-century English sense of the word. He may be the first monarchical American presidential nominee.
One can find similarities between Trump’s illiberal positions and the actions that King George III and, by implication, his Parliament are accused of in that most liberal of American state papers, the Declaration of Independence. (Most of the Declaration amounts to a bill of particulars supporting its indictment of a monarchy, at least as monarchism was practiced by King George. The Declaration’s more famous and soaring rhetoric is chiefly in its preamble, of course, to which I will return.)
Here are a few of the Declaration of Independence’s particulars against Trump.
Trump’s incitements to violence against protesters at his rallies (e.g., “Knock the crap out of them”) and his traffic with white supremacists recall a particular: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” His bullying of Judge Gonzalo Curiel for what lawyers call “a civil advantage” by calling the judge “a hater” and “a Mexican” brings to mind the accusation that George “has made judges dependent on his will alone.”
His promise to loosen libel laws against the press for negative reporting against him is, of course, an attack on the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. To abridge the First Amendment to this extent is right up there with “taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our governments.” His justification for limiting the press’s freedom – “I’m not like other people” – is the justification monarchs have used for such actions for centuries.
Even his stands on particular issues seem extreme enough to warrant a particular from the Declaration’s indictment. His penchant for tearing up trade deals, according to most economists who have studied his proposals, will have the effect of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.” His harsh immigration proposals, including the construction of a Mexican-funded wall along our Mexican border and his temporary ban of Muslim immigration, remind me of this item from the Declaration’s indictment: “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither . . .” And his refusal to rule out the tactical use of nuclear weapons as well as his refusal to support measures aimed at halting nuclear proliferation threaten the use of “Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
But, more than anything else, Trump’s overall disdain for democratic and republican forms of government, from his failure to master the basics of seventh-grade civics (e.g., his belief that judges sign bills into law) to his assertion of a kingly prerogative to contradict himself without accountability, to his lack of any proposed republican means of carrying out his promises – instead, he asks us repeatedly only that we trust him – makes him seem like an eighteenth-century British monarch. To give King George credit, he was a constitutional monarch on his side of the Atlantic, but if our Declaration is to be believed, he acted as an absolute monarch over here. It is this brand of conservativism – this cynical, Patriarchalist, and Hobbesian view of mankind’s need for an autocratic ruler at the potential cost of individual and collective liberty – that Trump espouses.
The Equality Clause
Trump faces indictment not only by the Declaration’s bill of particulars against King George. Trump stands indicted also – and more significantly – by the Declaration’s preamble, particularly by its most precious member, the Equality Clause: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Equality is the political term for the true self. As political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa has established, the Declaration’s expression of mankind’s essential equality presupposes a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. Or as Jesus put it:
But you must not be called “rabbi,” for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. (Matthew 23:8 – 9, REB)
Because we have a common Father and Rabbi, we “are all brothers.” To say that we are equal, then, is to say that God is our Father. It is to say that we are children of God and that each of us is a child of God. It is the foundation for individual identity. Many, of course, express their essential selves in less religious terms or in different religious terms. No matter how it’s expressed, it signifies an individual yet universal identity that challenges sometimes-externally advanced identities based on ethnicity, religion, race, or social class.
By contrast, Trump offers us a tribal identity. He regularly re-tweets material from white supremacist sources. His campaign’s chief executive’s infamous web site denigrates both blacks and Jews qua blacks and Jews. He traffics in racial conspiracy theories, such as the false claim that President Obama is not a United States citizen. Trump gets many of his talking points from Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who champions and quotes approvingly a formerly disgraced white fascist.
Trump’s actions are consistent with the words of the Confederacy’s chief philosopher, John Calhoun. Calhoun in a famous Senate speech stated that “there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition” that all men are created equal – the very proposition to which the Gettysburg Address claims that our nation was dedicated. Individuals have no rights, Calhoun believed; rights attach to individuals only as members of a race, and then only when that race earns those rights over the course of generations.
Lincoln and the Declaration on Trump
Taken alone, according to Lincoln, the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, which take up over half of the Declaration’s words, would amount to a “merely revolutionary” document. The more important section is what Lincoln called the Declaration’s “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times”; that is, the Declaration’s Equality Clause. According to Lincoln, it is the Equality Clause, even more than the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, “that to-day, and in all coming days . . . shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
Trump’s campaign is certainly a harbinger of reappearing tyranny. The entire Declaration of Independence rebukes it.