There is a line from John Adams of which conservatives, particularly those of a moralistic bent, are fond: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” The surrounding prose is quoted much less frequently, and it is stern stuff dealing with one of Adams’s great fears — one that is particularly relevant to this moment in our history.
John Adams hated democracy and he feared what was known in the language of the time as “passion.” Adams’s famous assessment: “I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either.” Democracy, he wrote, “never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.”
Trumpkin democracy is the democracy that John Adams warned us about.
At some point within the past few decades (it is difficult to identify the exact genesis) the rhetorical affectation of politicians’ presuming to speak for “We the People” became fashionable. Three words from the preamble to the Constitution came to stand in for a particular point of view and a particular set of assumptions present in both of our major national political tendencies. Molly Ivins, the shallow progressive polemicist, liked to thunder that “We the People don’t have a lobbyist!” She liked to call lobbyists “lobsters,” too, a half-joke that she, at least, never tired of. Dr. Ben Carson likes to draft “We the People” into his service. Sean Hannity is very fond of the phrase, and so-called conservative talk radio currently relies heavily on the assumption that the phrase is intended to communicate: that there exists on one side of a line a group of people called “Americans” and on the other side a group called “the Establishment,” and that “We the People” are getting screwed by “Them.”
I write “so-called” conservative talk radio because the radio mob dropped conservatism with something like military parade-ground precision the moment it looked like the ratings — and hence the juice — were on the other side. Donald Trump, talked up endlessly by the likes of Hannity and Laura Ingraham, apologized for by Rush Limbaugh, and indulged far too deeply for far too long by far too many others, rejects conservatism. He rejects free trade. He rejects property rights. He rejects the rule of law. He rejects limited government. He advocates a presidency a thousand times more imperial than the one that sprung Athena-like from the brow of Barack Obama and his lawyers. He meditates merrily upon the uses of political violence and riots, and dreams of shutting down newspapers critical of him. He isn’t a conservative of any stripe, and it is an outright lie to present him as anything other than what he is.
What he is is the embodiment of the democratic passions that kept John Adams up at night. Trumpkin democracy is the democracy that John Adams warned us about.
These ideas are on the rise in many places, notably among adherents of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France and the Golden Dawn in beleaguered Greece, which latter group, despite reports of its demise, remains very much with us. In our time as in Adams’s time, the worst of human nature is a threat amplified in the United States by the openness of our society and the liberality of our institutions. Adams again:
While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.
As difficult as it is to imagine Donald Trump taking the presidential oath of office, it is much more difficult to imagine him taking it seriously, or indeed to imagine that there exists anything that is to him a “sacred obligation.”The federal character of the United States, and the fractured nature of the federal government — its three coequal branches and its further subdivided bicameral legislature — are designed to frustrate “We the People” when the people fall into dangerous and violent error of the sort with which they are now flirting. Yes, there are people in power maneuvering to frustrate the will of “We the People” on a dozen different things, ranging from economic and national-defense policy to the specific matter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That is prudence and patriotism, and the constitutional architecture of these United States is designed to prevent democratic passion from prevailing. Have your talk-radio temper tantrum. Have your riots. Our form of government, even in its current distorted state, was designed to handle and absorb your passions. You may dream of a dictator, but you will not have one.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.