The election’s similarity to the Asch experience was no accident. It stemmed from a deep philosophical divide. This election presented Americans with a clear choice: someone who agrees with the political philosophy of the nation’s founders, or someone who utterly rejects it. The United States was founded on the political philosophy of John Locke, adapted by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other founders. According to that “bottom-up” political theory, people have natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Government gets its power from the people; it is legitimate only with the consent of the governed. Its mission is to promote the general welfare by providing a framework for ordered liberty, a framework within which people can exercise their freedoms and pursue happiness. That is Donald Trump’s vision of government. There is considerable flexibility, of course, in the concept of a framework for ordered liberty. Trump’s enthusiasm for building an infrastructure for liberty places him on the Henry Clay–Dwight Eisenhower end of a continuum the other side of which is Robert Nozick’s minimal state....
Trump stands on the other side of all these issues. He favors freedom of speech; his flouting of political correctness and, sometimes, outright incivility underscores that. He respects freedom of religion. He believes in the right to self-defense. He rejects the culture of perpetual offense that makes life on campus and, increasingly, off campus a minefield of arbitrary and often ridiculous rules. His positions on these issues are in accordance with common sense. They also accord with the Lockean vision that constituted the common ground of American political life until Woodrow Wilson.
Perhaps the central issue of Trump’s campaign was something also found in the campaign for Brexit, to return decision-making authority to the people and their elected representatives. He described the administrative state and the regulatory burden it imposes as “the anchor dragging us down,” pointing out that its growth since 1980 has cost us as much as one-fourth of our Gross National Product. He pledged to issue a moratorium on new regulations and, in the longer term, to insist that any proposed regulation accompany a proposal to eliminate two existing regulations....
I voted for Donald Trump partly because I share his political philosophy (which I view as akin to that of the British Whigs); partly because I share his view of the current state of American society and the international order; and partly because I see the American political system as teetering on the edge of a cliff. A Clinton victory, I believe, would have ended the American republic. Obama set out to transform the United States of America. He has done so by transferring power away from the people, and away from Congress, to the courts and to the executive branch. He won a few legislative victories, but has mostly ruled by decree, by executive order and especially by the rule-making of executive branch agencies. Clinton promised to continue the trend. She would have ruled more or less as a monarch with little Congressional limit to her power. The Constitution would have been a dead letter. She would have been able to impose her own moral vision on the entire country. That vision, moreover, rests on a narrative with limited correspondence to reality. And she would have removed the checks and balances of the American system designed to keep narratives and reality in line with each other.---Professor Daniel Bonevac "Why As A Philosopher I Voted For Trump: Trumpism And The Future Of The American Republic." The Critique. [HT Dailynous]
Bonevac writes "as a philosopher," and explains that he "voted for Donald Trump partly because I share his political philosophy (which I view as akin to that of the British Whigs)." Above I quoted the main passages in which Bonevac talks about philosophy. And I write in response, not as a partisan or even a citizen, but as a philosopher.* (Recall that I responded to an earlier piece when he wrote as a 'conservative.')
Before I get to that, I want to stress a point of agreement. For, the invocation of philosophy is not what is distinctive about the piece, which is organized around an extended interpretation of the Asch experiment(s). Bonevac's key insight is that "[in the Asch expeirment] Having a partner who sees things as you do, right or wrong, despite the opinion of the majority is what generates the attachment." According to him something like this is the "source of the enthusiasm Trump’s supporters showed for his candidacy;" they see him as a truth teller who, against the claims of the majority, says it as it is. Bonevac does not pause to note that rather than being part of a silent, moral majority (a la Nixon), the Trump voter does not on this view belief himself to be in the majority (and judging by the raw numbers, they are not). They feel themselves to be an embattled minority in a rigged environment slanted against them. (This was also a central characteristic of the Tea Party (recall).) From such a perspective, attachment to President Trump is to be expected, even rational (recall here, and, more polemically, here).
Bonevac notes (correctly) that "If he sometimes says extreme things, that only increases his supporters’ resolve." Yet, he does not pause to note that feeling oneself an embattled minority makes for a tricky governing philosophy. It is, in fact, hard to see how in a democratic order one can defend the embattled minority and at the same time insist on "the consent of the governed" rather than, say, doubling down on the protection of constitutional rights.
Now, I happen to think (but have never argued) that attachment to party and candidate corrupts one's philosophy. This is not to embrace (i) a Weberian neutrality model as the only legitimate one or to deny that (ii) philosophers can be legitimate activists in the service of causes or principles with philosophical integrity; that (iii) politicians can be applied philosophers in Burke's sense (recall); (iv) that as citizens, professional philosophers, can be active politically (including serving party and politician). I think we see some such corruption at work in Bonevac's editorials (and undoubtedly we saw some such corruption also in the partisan writings in support of candidate Clinton or candidate Libertarian). Here is an example: in passing, he offers an interpretation of the state of play in climate science ("Nor is there any consensus about the proportion of warming due to human activity, the effect that even drastic cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions might have on climate, or the viability of geoengineered solutions") that seem to echo familiar pro-polluting-business talking points [viability of geoengineered solutions], but can hardly be said to be the result of a dispassionate analysis of the technical evidence.*
Bonevac is best known for his logic textbook, but in scanning his writings I was pleased to see he has ranged widely. Yet, he has a peculiar interpretation of Trump's relationship to philosophy (a topic not of notable interest to Trump) or the Lockean principles of the American founding. As a real estate developer, Trump has (unsurprisingly) shown an excessive fondness for the aggressive use of eminent domain--this was been well noted by (conservative and libertarian) critics of Trump (see here and here). Such critics of eminent domain, who see it as exemplary of the abuses generated by crony/rent-seeking capitalism, have a fondness of quoting Locke (although Locke did not rule out the use of eminent domain) (or writing on behalf of the John Locke foundation). This is not the place to explore Locke's exact relationship to Madison and the Fifth Amendment and Nozick's (historically probably anachronistic) reinterpretation of Locke in terms of his more absolutist, Libertarian "Lockean proviso." The point, rather, is that Bonevac gives no hint of the existence of these complications in his invocation of Locke.
This is connected to the most peculiar and even distressing aspect of Bonevac's analysis. Throughout his piece, he criticizes the growth of the "administrative state" and the use of "executive action." It is a bit peculiar that he exclusively blames former President Obama for this (although at one point he indirectly and tacitly acknowledges that this growth has occurred for over a century under many Administrations, since "the common ground of American political life until Woodrow Wilson.") Yet, whatever one can say about the future of President Trump -- and notably, in passing Bonevac grants that Trump may well be a "bully" -- the first few days of his administration can be characterized by a fondness for the deployment of the executive order (here's a partial list supplied by Fox news; here's a more complete list). Bonevac's piece was published on January 20, so perhaps this will have surprised him. But he may well be the only one person to be surprised. Trump has so far shown no interest in any deliberative process.
The most striking claim in Bonevac's article is his insistence that Trump respects (and campaigned on) freedom of religion given that Trump actively campaigned on a (temporary?) ban on Muslims entering the United States. (This may well be constitutional but not because it respects freedom of religion.) Currently, it seems that Trump will propose an executive order that bans refugees from certain countries (with majority Islamic populations) and so create a de facto ban of Muslims in need. Trump also hinted that he would close down Mosques. What Bonevac really means by 'freedom of religion' seems to be the freedom of (generally but not only) Christian conservatives to discriminate based on their beliefs and to resist attempts to provide insurance coverage for abortion and contraception. This is a very partial understanding of religious freedom.
Finally, I suggested that partisanship corrupts. Here's one more instance of this in a peculiar bit of logic: Bonevac writes "He [Trump] favors freedom of speech; his flouting of political correctness and, sometimes, outright incivility underscores that."+ The underscoring evidence that Bonevac provides, only shows that Trump defends a wide latitude for Trump's freedom of speech (and the like-minded). The evidence Bonevac appeals to offers no evidence that in power, Trump would respect the freedom of speech of his opponents or that he recognizes their right, say, to protest. (That he seems to lack such respect can be seen from a very modest search on (ahh) Tweeter (see here and here)).++
If Bonevac had argued that a vote for Trump was a vote for a lesser evil or a means toward resisting Liberal secularism (or Liberal technocracy), I could have respected his argument--this is, essentially, a version of the sober-minded Christian Conservative defense of Trump (recall): God sometimes uses the imperfect and wicked for Holy purposes, after all. I have also written with considerable respect for Trump's intellectual defenders (here, here, here, here, etc.).
But I find Bonevac's portrayal of Trump as a Lockean constitutionalist hard to fathom. For, while it's pretty clear that Trump's presidency will be characterized by various forms of graft (something that also characterized the British Whigs), I honestly think nobody really knows, least of all President Trump, what kind of president Trump will be and what kind of constitutional constraints he will turn out to respect.** I say this not because I underestimate his intelligence or political instincts (or the significance of his rise). But rather because Trump says (as Bonevac acknowledges) "extreme things" and regularly flirts with profoundly illiberal ideas, and because -- as Trump's most insightful defenders recognize -- his fundamental unpredictability (recall), one must be oddly optimistic to see in Trump a defender of ordered liberty.+++ That kind of optimism is not a vice, but it turns into one if one becomes incapable of acknowledging the fears of those that do not share in one's hopes.
*Regular readers of this blog will know that (i) I am no fan of arguments from scientific consensus (or lack thereof), and (ii) that I have a considerable suspicion of exaggerated claims to exactitude (and belittling of uncertainty) in various complex sciences.
+It is a bit unfortunate that Bonavec does not recognize the significance of a distinction between blunt-speaking and truth-telling.
++Bonavec also denies that Trump has a fondness for conspiracies. This after a campaign in which Trump linked Senator Cruz's father to the JFK assassination!
+++Some other time, perhaps, I'll discuss Bonevac's original comparison of Trump with Clay. But it is worth noting that Clay was (in addition to his classical oratorical skills) ultimately a true win-win sum parliamentarian (as exhibited by the morally flawed and ultimately futile but politically skilled compromise of 1850) not a business-man (zero sum) deal-maker.