Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue


(Michelle McCarron/Getty Images)

What Is a Classical Liberal to Do, Cont’d

Charles C. W. Cooke responds to a letter in our last issue: Richard Mason asks how defenders of America’s classically liberal order should proceed if “one of the participants” does not consent to the system’s elementary rule: that all involved “agree not to try to abolish it or to permanently take it over.” He concludes by asking whether this renders support for President Trump advisable for those who wish to avoid such permanent change. 

These are two separate questions, and they have separate answers.

I should make it clear that the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French into which I and many others saw fit to wade was not a debate over whether one should support or vote for the incumbent president, but a debate over whether our existing order was the best means by which traditionalists and the religious might get a fair shake. My contention is that it is — indeed, my contention is that it is the only means by which conscience rights might be protected and meaningful change might be achieved. 

Suppose that we grant the premise that Hillary Clinton would have tried to abolish our classically liberal order. The obvious question then is “What would have happened next?” And the obvious answer is “Because previous generations did not succumb to the temptation to abolish the classically liberal order, her opponents would have been extremely well placed to fight back.” Had we undermined our order in previous years — perhaps in response to another perceived threat — that would not have been the case. Now, as always, the best course for those of us who want to maintain the American Constitution is to maintain the American Constitution. Exceptions granted in a crisis are invariably inherited by the next guy.

The second question — how should we regard Donald Trump? — is an interesting one, but it is also one that fits neatly within my framework, given that Trump was duly elected and enjoys powers that have been legitimately conferred upon him by the U.S. Constitution. My objection to Ahmari and co. did not revolve around the question of Trump’s necessity, but around the implication — there throughout Ahmari’s work — that the American system of government is not fit for its own purpose and that pluralism itself is a bad idea. We can argue all day as to whether Trump’s victory was a good or a bad thing; as to whether he is, on balance, a good or a bad thing for conservatives; and as to whether the alternative, which is a Democratic president, is sufficiently alarming to force right-leaning types to put an “X” by his name in 2020. We should not, however, start muttering darkly about the need to destroy the village in order to save it — not least because, if we do that, we will be behaving in exactly the same manner as those we imagine to be our enemies. 

Correction“A Well-Lettered Friendship” (Michael Dirda, August 12) stated that Hugh Kenner had five children by two wives. In fact, Kenner had seven children, five with his first wife and two with his second.

NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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