Politics & Policy

A Firing Line Conversation with Angelo Codevilla

Trump supporters at a rally in Everett, Wash., August 30, 2016. (Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
The well known professor of international relations discuses Trump, his supporters, America’s political elites, and more.

I have been following the Trump camp in recent days, picking my way through rowdy campaign events and empty campaign offices, trying to sharpen my understanding not so much of the candidate, who has defeated understanding, but of his supporters who, having taken a summer-long blast from media water cannon, are standing with him still.

On the basis of several dozen conversations with Trump supporters, these are my summary notes, served neat:

‐In every group of 1,000 Trump voters, there is one made-for-TV skinhead. With remarkable efficiency, the designated nut-job is identified and packaged for tele-journalists who in other circumstances might be expected to deplore the conflation of anecdote with datum.

‐Trump voters consider themselves to be the party of common sense. Honest.

‐They think it’s “wrong” for an anatomically correct man to be in the girls’ bathroom. They think it’s even more wrong for the government to enforce his right to be there.

‐They think it’s “stupid” to give more weight to a Muslim refugee’s right to practice his religion than to an American citizen’s right to protect his family.

‐They think it’s “immoral” to suggest any moral equivalence between police officers and street protesters.

‐They think it’s not just stupid but “insane” to tear down the inherited culture that has fortified the country for more than two centuries. They regard Obama as the principal malefactor in this assault, but of Paul Ryan–types, they ask this question, albeit in formulations more colloquial than this one: Is Ryanism a genuine alternative to Obamaism, or merely a stylistic mutation?

‐They consider Donald Trump to be undisciplined at best and cretinous at worst.

‐While they have no illusions about the quality of his candidacy, they revere Trump as one of the few national figures who in matters of cultural import is not willfully wrong, stupid, immoral, or insane.

‐They are contemptuous of NeverTrumpers and wonder when they will stop beating the dead horse of the flawed Trump candidacy and start supporting the values of the party of common sense.

To check these findings, and to project what they might mean for our political future, I engaged Angelo Codevilla, the longtime professor of international relations at Boston University and, before that, a powerful voice in Washington deliberations on national security. The author of 13 books, he is perhaps best known for an essay later turned into a book, The Ruling Class, which called out the coastal elites that have dominated, and in Codevilla’s view misdirected, our political culture for several decades past.

Freeman: Do any of these findings surprise you, or offend your sense of the current situation?

Codevilla: Your findings comport with mine.

Caricaturing Trump’s supporters as skinheads is yet another instance of the ruling class’s longstanding attitude toward America. To wit: America was born tainted by racism, sexism, greed, genocide against natives — a critique that is wrapped in both religious obscurantism and hypocritical promises of equality. This refrain from government, its clients in the media, the educational establishment, and major corporations has convinced millions to support whomever and whatever might disempower that class. Even Donald Trump.

Rejection of these caricatures is a unifying sentiment among his supporters. The accused’s natural tendency is to think, “That’s not who I am.” And then, “Who the Hell do they think they are to say that of me?” Humans live by the sense of who they are and of what the world around them is. In short, by common sense. They rebel reflexively when confronted by assertions that run counter to it.

Freeman: And this reflexive rebellion carries the battle all the way into the bathroom?

Codevilla: What is the natural reaction to the assertion that someone with a penis can be a woman while someone else with a vagina can be a man? Is it not the same as that of Orwell’s Winston Smith when first confronted with four fingers and the demand that he see five? In 1984, it took all of society’s pressure to force a prisoner to turn against his senses. It is unremarkable that Americans accustomed to freedom should resent the pressure that the ruling class is exerting.

Freeman: Tie in, if you would, the attitudes toward Muslims and street protesters.

Codevilla: Common sense recoils, as well, at the ruling class’s peculiar protection of Muslims and Islam coupled with restrictions on, and denigrations of, Christians and Christianity, all in the name of morality. The question imposes itself: Which morality? Whose morality? For most Americans, the answer is: not mine.

The same goes for the ruling class’s tolerance if not promotion of mobs who ravage cities, loot, and attack police. Common sense says: Such people would do me harm if they could. Why are our rulers on the side of those who would harm us?

Freeman: And this is how, as implausible as it might have seemed, Donald Trump emerged as the candidate of common sense?

Codevilla: Nothing can so addle a good cause as a bad champion. One can wish for a better champion, as no doubt do most who will vote for him. But today — Trump himself and everything about him notwithstanding — his candidacy is the only alternative to the intensification of everything that the ruling class has done to the rest of us over the past half-century. His candidacy is the only shield, available now, against the ruling class’s unconstrained expansion.

In short, the disdain that Trump’s supporters feel for the ruling class has come to mirror that which the ruling class feels for them. This matters far beyond the coming election.

Freeman: How so?

Codevilla: The fact that the most politically active sectors of the population want unconstrained power over each other means that the very basis for sharing citizenship in a republic no longer exists. The culture of restraint, the sense of common citizenship so essential to republican life, is gone.

Freeman: That’s a grim diagnosis and I want to get back to it. But let me ask you, first, about the correlation of forces. You wrote in The Ruling Class that “some two-thirds of Americans lack a vehicle for electoral politics . . . Sooner or later, well or badly, that majority’s demand for representation will be filled.” You wrote that, by the way, in 2010, not in the Spring of 2016. Good call! How did you arrive at the rough calculation that two-thirds of Americans are, or feel they are, unrepresented?

Codevilla: Even back then, polls showed that three-fourths of Republican voters felt unrepresented by those whom they elected, as did a fourth of Democratic voters. Independents, by definition, are not represented by either party. That added up to at least two-thirds of the electorate. Since then, dissatisfaction has grown, meaning that the major parties now represent few voters outside their own apparatus and immediate clients.

Freeman: Let’s cast you in the role of America’s family metaphysician. Your dour view is shared by many people, millions of people. I ask you — patient to Doctor of Philosophy — what would you prescribe for the national condition? Among the more apocalyptic members of my own circle, the following options have been advanced and in some cases exercised: (1) we should build out the infrastructure of movement conservatism; (2) we should hug our books and sacred documents against the day when the culture revives; (3) we should prep as we’ve never prepped before; (4) we should ride the decline; (5) we should lay low for now but conspire to revolt against the ruling class. What have you prescribed for your own circle?

Codevilla: I answer with an educator’s prejudice. Our troubles are rooted in the progressive monopoly of the graduate schools, where the teachers of the teachers are taught. Breaking it from the top is the work of Politics in the grand sense of the word. Breaking it from below is happening whenever a family opts for home schooling or a community either downsizes school districts or institutes charter schools. The infrastructure of movement conservatism is also important, especially if built around the “sacred books.”

But such faith as I have rests on America’s fundamental diversity. Ever since Roger Williams led his flock out of Massachusetts to found Rhode Island, Americans have dealt with cultural differences by sorting themselves out into congenial groups. Of course there is an element of secession in this. The good news is that if the good guys get up the guts to go their way, today’s bad guys don’t have the guts to stop them.

Freeman: Thanks, Angelo.

Neal B. Freeman — Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review.

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