Other professors used to ask me questions about politics: “You’re smart. You’re knowledgeable. How can you support” whichever Republican was running for president that year? Far from being dismissive, that used to lead to interesting and revealing conversations. I still have extended and productive political discussions with some old friends who disagree with me. Indeed, they were Bernie Sanders supporters, and the diagnoses Trump and Sanders give are not far apart, even if their prescriptions are quite different.
Conversing across ideological lines is increasingly rare this election cycle. Two friends, seeing my name on the list just published, compared me with Martin Heidegger — and not because they think “Reduction in the Abstract Sciences” is on a par with “Being and Time.” The background assumption, which I find baffling, appears to be that occasionally uncouth language is the moral equivalent of genocide.--Daniel Bonevac "What it’s like to be a college professor who supports Donald Trump," @Washingtonpost [HT RealClearPolitics]
Before I say anything else, let me start by stating that there are many solid grounds to criticize the Administration or Hillary Clinton from Conservative, Liberal, and Progressive (and other) perspectives. What follows below will provide you no reason to endorse either or vote for candidate Clinton, although undoubtedly the timing of this post will suggest that I wish to advance her candidacy. (I will be relieved if she wins, but will find no joy in it--I wonder how many will find any joy after this campaign.) My current view is that philosophers can qua philosophers, advocate causes and principles, not candidates, but about that some other time more. [Disclosure: since this election cycle has started, I have made no public comment in support of any candidate, although I have expressed both serious misgivings about the illiberal nature of Donald Trump's candidacy and argued that we need to take his rise and supporters seriously--in short, I take the rise of Trump as an important symptom of a serious disorder in the health and even possibility of our too technocratic democracy.]
I am pretty sure I learned introductory logic from one of Bonevac's textbooks. But we have otherwise not encountered each other. I am not familiar with any of his other work on his Conservative politics. I read his Washington Post piece with interest because I was curious about his reasons for supporting Trump in a public fashion. I have friends that support Trump (many of them fans of Decius and the Journal of American Greatness), and I am familiar (recall) with how certain Straussians with a fondness for the nation-state, reservations about cosmopolitan moralized political philosophy, and a longing for strong leadership admire Trump. I have no reason to think Bonevac is a Straussian, so I was curious how he came to analyze Trump. I was also wondering how he handles what seems to me Trump's lack of respect not just for minimal democratic/liberal norms (as exemplified by his endorsement to lock up his political opponents, his insistence that the election will be rigged, his racialized attacks on a judge, his advocacy of torture, his support for war crimes, etc.), but also lack of interest in either the Conservative commitments of the Reagan-Bush era Republican party (free trade, free movement of people, hostility to dictators, embrace of democracy abroad, a moralized/Christian public discourse, the Iraw war, etc.) or even more Burkean conservative commitments, which, traditionally, has a healthy distrust of populism.
It is notable that Bonevac thinks that the reservations others may have about Trump as a candidate are primarily a matter of "occasional uncouth language." He also strongly implies that the Clinton campaign has succeeded in turning the campaign away from the issues into who "is more vulgar than whom."* While there are links to Trump's speeches on "central issues" of our day, Bonevac does not grapple with the ways in which Trump appears to violate rather minimal norms of liberal democracy. One can grant that Trump has not (yet) called for "genocide," and still note that thus far, qua candidate, Trump is departing rather wildly from ordinary democratic norms. Perhaps, it's the case that in the midst of a campaign it is too much to ask for a "supporter" to acknowledge that what sounds like bragging about sexual assault to many (including quite a few lifelong Republicans) is a bit worse than uncouth language. While Bonevac claims that "Title IX is used on campus to destroy due process and stifle speech," one would welcome hearing, and I am not being sarcastic here, how a self-described Conservative addresses and confronts, say, sexual harassment (and worse) in the academy and even the history of 'climate issues' in his own Texas philosophy department. (Recall Brian Leiter's comments here.) In my view, a Conservative approach would involve collective action at the local and disciplinary level to promote strict compliance with proper norms of behavior, but that would require some acknowledgment that there is a problem.
Bonevac's reasons for supporting Trump are also a bit awkward. They read like a bread and butter conservative critique of the Obama administration and would be Clinton administration. (It is really striking that on his account all of today's political and economic ills are due to the Obama administration; that he took office in the midst of the greatest financial melt-down in eighty years is not even acknowledged; nor Republican control of Congress for much of the administration. Again, I am no fan of the President's decisions during the crisis.) When he criticizes "the regulatory burden whose growth since 1980" he fails to note/mention that this includes quite a long period prior to Obama's presidency.
Let me give some examples of the awkwardness: he writes that "The Obama-Clinton policy requires us to push traditional allies away and seek relationships with avowed enemies." By the latter he means Iran. Let's grant this point (although it is worth noting that in some respects, the Iran deal fits a realist [who are more accepting of nuclear proliferation] and not a progressive perspective). But Bonevac is silent on Donald Trump's repeated overtures toward Putin, and a whole bunch of other dictators. Now, to be sure, American candidates and Presidents have often praised dictators in my-lifetime. But they do so not because they like dictators, but rather (to our shame) because they advance American interests. Trump's remarks repeatedly suggests that he admires dictators for, well, the violations of democratic norms and consequent results.
What about the "Obama pushes traditional allies away" line? Here Bonevac links to an article in which Obama chides "a number of American allies in the Persian Gulf — as well as in Europe — were “free riders,” eager to drag the United States into grinding sectarian conflicts that sometimes had little to do with American interests." In context Saudi Arabia is singled out (although this has not stopped huge arms sales). (It comes as no surprise that Donald Trump does not express more positive views of Saudi Arabia.) Oddly, despite the fact that Bonevac claims that the Administration wishes to "diminish the reach of American power," President Obama expresses here a traditional realist (and not a progressive) vision of the world. In addition, Bonevac suggests (without evidence) that the Obama administration "damaged friendships with Britain and Israel." Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, this is true about Israel (despite the Administration's enormous arms sales to Israel). But Britain? The special relationship has ended because post Brexit, the UK is pursuing a foreign policy that goes counter America's long-standing objectives for its client states in Europe.
So, why write this post? With most traditional Conservatives, I also have a rather gloomy picture of human nature. Even so, Liberal democracy is the best response to our venality, sin, incompetence, ignorance, and tendency toward limited sympathy. In healthy democracies, democratic leadership finds ways to encourage us to join in a (rather) minimal unity that allows us to pursue some mechanisms to cope, to cooperate modestly, and not bash each other's heads in. That is, democratic politics is a place where in the competition of elites for public support, we lay the foundations -- rule of law, fairness, equal opportunity, etc. -- such that the better parts of our natures may be expressed with each other as we pursue and experiment with our individual ends.
Bonevac strongly implies that Conservatives are a "target" in the modern academy, where they are exposed to "expressions of hostility." Bonevac's example of such hostility is a facebook update by Tim Wise, which I have been unable to find. (I am unsure if Wise is employed in a university.) But let's stipulate that some such "hostility" exists. I have known cases of Conservatives/Republicans who have felt strongly that their tenure cases were hurt by their political stances. It's always tricky to be sure when it comes to particular instances of tenure and promotion, however, because political disagreement may be a useful excuse/cover to ignore other (more personal) problems/conflicts by candidate and colleagues alike. But, oddly, Bonevac makes no mention of the attacks on non-Conservative academics in the press. (His piece was published in the week in which Jason Stanley and Rebecca Kukla were subject to brutal attacks.)
There isa complete lack of self-examination in Bonevac's piece about the sources of hostility toward Conservative (or Trump's) views. As an aside, in my view Bonevac misleadingly conflates Trump with conservative thought--after all, some of the most vocal criticism of recent Conservativism came from Trump (on the eve of the South Carolina primary) and of Trump from Conservatives (in the National Review and Weekly Standard). Either way, it's not impossible, after all, all that many have come to think that a lot of purportedly conservative political thought has, in practice, during the last three decades become implicated in white racial supremacy, hostility toward women's equality, and homophobia. The previous sentence is not designed to give liberal, technocratic internationalism (and its fans among our philosophical peers) a pass on its embrace of open-ended [drone] war in which opponents are de facto illegitimate and in which downside risks of moralized, technocratic solutions nearly always falls on others who lack resources to have their claims be heard and represented.
When I was a student (early 1990s), even a PhD student (late 1990s), all the best arguments came from the conservative critics of contemporary Liberalism. They pushed me out of a lazy Liberalism that, paradoxically, also opened my eyes toward the history of injustice within and complicity of the Liberal tradition. It would give me an odd kind of pride if the best such criticisms were to be found within the ranks of professional philosophy today; especially now that the electorate seems to be dividing on educational grounds, we need to ensure that the views and interests of those with less education are explored and analyzed with enlarged spirits.
To answer my question, in closing: a healthy liberal democracy needs (among many other political voices) a healthy and solid conservatism--one that understands its historical role of pulling us back from grandiose projects, from an overconfident belief in the reformation of human nature, from our neglect of tribal feelings, and from our belief that other societies ought to share even be imposed our values. A healthy conservatism makes us more cautious, more willing to promote other values (e.g., beauty, understanding of history, the classics, etc.) in education than mere relentless embrace of public utility; it teaches that commerce is fine, but that nobility consists in courage, magnanimity, and benevolence. It teaches a receptivity toward values that transcend our political moment; it embraces the slow cultivation of craftsmanship and true learning. Perhaps, the worst sign of our public decay is the lack of recognition of the need of such a conservativism by our self-styled conservatives.**
*Some other time I reflect more on Trump's underestimation of Clinton.
**No, not all conservatives. Go read my backlist for engagement with the better sort of conservatives.