Following Trump's lead—and Lincoln's.
Many conservatives did not see that Trump had framed the 2016 election as a choice between two mutually exclusive regimes: multiculturalism and America. What I call “multiculturalism” includes “identity politics” and “political correctness.” If multiculturalism continues to worm its way into the public mind, it will ultimately destroy America. Consequently, the election should have been seen as a contest between a woman who, perhaps without quite intending it, was leading a movement to destroy America and a man who wanted to save America. The same contest is being played out in the upcoming midterm elections.
I realize the term “multiculturalism” is somewhat dated, but I mean to freshen it up by using it in its most comprehensive sense: a political philosophy. Multiculturalism conceives of society as a collection of cultural identity groups, each with its own worldview, all oppressed by white males, collectively existing within permeable national boundaries. Multiculturalism replaces American citizens with so-called “global citizens.” It carves “tribes” out of a society whose most extraordinary success has been their assimilation into one people. It makes education a political exercise in the liberation of an increasing number of “others,” and makes American history a collection of stories of white oppression, thereby dismantling a unifying, self-affirming narrative without which no nation can long survive.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump exposed multiculturalism as the revolutionary movement it is. He showed us that multiculturalism, like slavery in the 1850’s, is an existential threat. Trump exposed this threat by standing up to it and its enforcement arm, political correctness. Indeed, he made it his business to kick political correctness in the groin on a regular basis. In countless variations of crassness, he said over and over exactly what political correctness prohibits one from saying: “America does not want cultural diversity; we have our culture, it’s exceptional, and we want to keep it that way.” He also said, implicitly but distinctly: the plight of various “oppressed groups” is not the fault of white males. This too violates a sacred tenet of multiculturalism. Trump said these things at a time when they were the most needful things to say, and he said them as only he could, with enough New York “attitude” to jolt the entire country. Then, to add spicy mustard to the pretzel, he identified the media as not just anti-truth, but anti-American.
Trump is a walking, talking rejection of multiculturalism and the post-modern ideas that support it. Trump believes there are such things as truth and history and his belief in these things is much more important than whether he always tells the truth himself or knows his history—which admittedly is sometimes doubtful.
His pungent assertion that there are “shithole” countries was an example of Trump asserting that there is truth. He was saying that some countries are better than others and America is one of the better ones, perhaps even the best. Multiculturalism says it is wrong to say this (as it was “wrong” for Reagan to call the Soviet Union “evil”). Trump is the only national political figure who does not care what multiculturalism thinks is wrong. He, and he alone, categorically and brazenly rejects the morality of multiculturalism. He is virtually the only one on our national political stage defending America’s understanding of right and wrong, and thus nearly alone in truly defending America. This why he is so valuable—so much depends on him.
His shortcomings are many and some matter, but under present circumstances what matters more is that Trump understands we are at war and he is willing to fight. In conventional times, Trump might have been one of the worst presidents we ever had; but in these most unconventional times, he may be the best president we could have had.
2016 and the Meaning of America
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
Most conservatives did not see Trump in 2016 as a man defending America. This was in large part because they did not see that America was in need of defending. What conservatives did see was Trump’s policies (which didn’t line up with conservative ones) and his character (which didn’t line up, period), and they concluded the country was nowhere near in bad enough shape, and Hillary Clinton not enough of a danger, to justify enthusiasm for a man so manifestly unfit for the role.
In what might be a case of everybody’s-out-of-step-but-me, many conservatives have concluded that if the electorate voted into office a man so obviously unfit to be president, there must be something wrong with the electorate.
I think the explanation for Trump’s victory is actually quite straightforward and literal: Americans, plenty of whom still have common sense and are patriotic, voted for Trump for the very reason he said they should vote for him, to put America first or, as his campaign slogan had it, “to make America great again”—where “America” was not, as many conservatives imagine, code for “white people.” In other words, the impulse for electing Trump was patriotic, the defense of one’s own culture, rather than racist.
In a thoughtful essay in the Spring of 2017 on the future of the conservative movement, Yuval Levin expressed the view, common among conservatives, that the country was in decent shape. He was puzzled therefore why a number of thinkers associated with the Claremont school held “that things almost could not be worse” and that it was therefore necessary “to mount a total revolution.”
Levin and like-minded conservatives have matters backwards. Multiculturalism, not Trumpism, is the revolution. Trump’s campaign, and its defense by his intellectual supporters, was not a call for a revolution but a call to stop a revolution. Trump’s intellectual supporters did not say things could not get worse; they said without a sharp change in course there was a good chance we shall never get back home again.
Trump’s entire campaign was a defense of America. The election was fought not so much over policies, character, email servers, or James Comey, as it was over the meaning of America. Trump’s wall was not so much about keeping foreigners out as it was a commitment to a distinctive country; immigration, free trade, and foreign policy were about protecting our own. In all these policies, Trump was raising the question, “Who are we as a nation?” He answered by being Trump, a man made in America, unmistakably and unapologetically American, and like most of his fellow citizens, one who does not give a hoot what Europeans or intellectuals think.
Clinton, in the other corner, was the great disdainer, a citizen not of America but of the world: a postmodern, entitled elitist who was just more of Obama, the man who contemptuously dismissed America’s claim to being exceptional. What she called the “deplorables” were the “anti-multiculturalists.” She was saying, in effect, that she did not recognize the “deplorables” as fellow citizens, and they were, as far as she was concerned, not part of the regime she proposed to lead.
Perhaps Trump’s most effective answer to Clinton’s and the Democrats’ multiculturalism was his attacks on political correctness, both before and after the election. Trump scolded Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. He pointed out that on 9/11 some Muslims cheered the collapse of the twin towers. He said Mexico was sending us its dregs, suggested a boycott of Starbucks after employees were told to stop saying “Merry Xmas,” told NFL owners they should fire players who did not respect the flag, expressed the view that people from what he called “shitholes” (Haiti and African countries being his examples) should not be allowed to immigrate, exposed the danger of selecting judges based on ethnicity, and said Black Lives Matter should stop blaming others.
The core idea of each of these anti-P.C. blasts, when taken in aggregate, represent a commitment to America’s bourgeois culture, which is culturally “Judeo-Christian,” insists on having but one language and one set of laws, and values: among other things, loyalty, practical experience, self-reliance, and hard work. Trump was affirming the goodness of our culture. Odd as it may sound, he was telling us how to live a worthy life. Trump is hardly the ideal preacher, but in a society where people are thirsting for public confirmation of the values they hold dear, they do not require pure spring water. Even Trump’s crass statements objectifying women did not seem to rattle Trump women voters, perhaps because it did not come as news to them that men objectify women. In other words, Trump was being a man, albeit not the model man, but what mattered was that he was not the multicultural sexless man. A similar rejection of androgyny may have been at work in the Kavanaugh hearings.
It was only a generation or so ago that our elite, liberals as well as conservatives, were willing to defend America’s bourgeois culture, American exceptionalism, and full assimilation for immigrants. Arthur Schlesinger expressed his view of assimilation this way: the “American Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition … provides the standard to which other immigrant nationalities are expected to conform, the matrix into which they are to be assimilated.” That meant giving up one’s home culture, not necessarily every feature and not right away, but ultimately giving up its essential features in favor of American culture. In other words, there are no hyphenated Americans.
Trump understands that “diversity is our greatest strength,” which is multiculturalism boiled down to an aphorism, is exactly backwards. America’s greatest strength is having transcended race, and the one major exception was very nearly our undoing. In light of this history, the history of the world (one “tribal” war after another), and the multicultural car wreck that is Europe today, to manufacture cultural diversity is nothing less than self-immolating idiocy. Trump might not put it in these words, but he gets it. The average American gets it too, because it is not very difficult to get: it is common sense.
Conservatives and Republicans are Complicit
Trump’s strengths are his courage, his common sense, and his rhetoric. He gets to the essential thing, the thing that no one else will say for fear of being called a “racist” or “fascist” or one of the other slurs that incite the virtue-signaling lynch mob.
His “shithole” remark was one example. Another occurred in 2015 when Trump, after a terrorist attack, proposed a ban on all Muslims until “we figure out what the hell is going on.” Virtually everyone, the Right included, screamed “racism” and “Islamophobia.” Of course, to have defended Trump would have violated the multicultural diktat that Islam be spoken of as a religion of peace. But like Trump, the average American does not care whether Islam is or is not a religion of peace; he can see with his own eyes that it is being used as an instrument of war. When Muslim terrorists say they are doing the will of Allah, Americans take them at their word. This is nothing but common sense.
Trump’s attempt to remove District Judge Gonzalo Curiel from a lawsuit in which Trump University was the defendant, in part because of the judge’s Mexican ancestry, was another instance where cries of “racism,” from the Right every bit as loud as from the Left, substituted for common sense. It was thought absurd for Trump to claim the judge was biased because of his ethnicity, yet it was the elite’s very insistence in making ethnicity a factor in the appointment of judges that invited Trump to respond in kind. We make ethnicity an essential consideration and then claim ethnicity should not matter. That is not common sense.
Getting to the essential, commonsensical heart of the matter is the most important element of Trump’s rhetoric, but even his often cringeworthy choice of words sometimes advances the conservative cause. This is a sad reflection of the times, but these are the times we live in, and we must judge political things accordingly. When, for example, Trump mocked Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser, he was doing something else that only he can: taking multiculturalism, and its “believe all women” narrative, head on. We should continue to cringe at Trump’s puerility, but we should appreciate when it has value.
In each of these instances, when conservatives joined liberals in excoriating Trump, conservatives were beating up our most important truth teller. Conservatives and Republicans should be using these instances to explain America and what is required for its perpetuation. In the examples listed above, they should have explained the importance of having one set of laws, full assimilation, and color blindness; the incompatibility of theocracy with the American way of life; that under certain circumstances we might rightly exclude some foreign immigrants, not because of their skin color but because they come from countries unfamiliar with republican government. Instead conservatives are doing the work of the multiculturalists for them: insinuating multiculturalism further into the public mind. Conservatives have, without quite realizing it, agreed to play by the multiculturalist’s rules and in so doing they have disarmed themselves; they have laid down on the ground their most powerful weapon: arguments that defend America.
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Multiculturalism at Work
In exposing the dangers of multiculturalism, Trump exposed its source: radical liberal intellectuals, most of whom hang about the humanities departments (and their modern day equivalents) at our best colleges and universities, where they teach the multicultural arts and set multicultural rules. And from the academy these ideas and rules are drained into the mostly liberal, mostly unthinking opinion-forming elite who then push for open borders, diversity requirements, racism (which somehow they get us to call its opposite), and other aspects of multiculturalism.
Multicultural rules were in full force in the Kavanaugh hearings. Armed with the chapter of the multicultural creed that covers “male oppression of women,” Democrats could attack Kavanaugh with accusations conjured out of nothing. At the same time, multicultural rules required Republicans to fight with one hand behind their backs: they were forced to allow a case with no basis to go forward, could not attack the accuser, and had to use a woman to question her. Republicans reflexively accepted their assigned role as misogynists (and would have been accepting the role of racists had the accuser been black). True, Republicans had no choice; still when one is being played one needs to notice.
Had Trump tweeted, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the sex or color of the questioner,” I suspect the majority of Americans would have applauded. After all, that is the American view of the matter. It’s not the average American who requires a woman questioner or a black one. We know that because Trumpsters have told us. It’s not typically the parents in our inner-city schools who demand teachers and administrators with skin color that matches that of their children. It’s not ordinary Mexican immigrants who are agitating to preserve their native culture. It’s the multiculturalists.
Multicultural rules flow from multiculturalism’s understanding of justice, which is based not on the equality of individuals (the American understanding) but on the equality of identity groups oppressed by white males. In the Kavanaugh hearings, the multiculturalists did not see a contest between two individuals but rather between all women who are all oppressed and all white men who are all oppressors. Americans claimed the multiculturalists violated due process and conventional rules of evidence, but from the multiculturalists’ perspective what Americans saw as violations were actually multiculturalism’s understanding of due process and rules of evidence. Americans were seeing a revolution in action.
We now find ourselves in a situation not unlike that which existed before the Civil War, where one side had an understanding of justice that rested on the principle of human equality, while the other side rested on the principle that all men are equal except black men. One side implied a contraction and ultimate extinction of slavery; the other, its expansion. It was a case of a ship being asked to go in two directions at once. Or to use Lincoln’s Biblical metaphor, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln did not mean that the country could not stand part free and part slave. It could, as long as there was agreement that slavery was bad and on the road to extinction. But once half the country thought slavery a good thing and the other thought it a bad thing the country could no longer stand. It was the different understandings of justice that were decisive because when there are two understandings of justice, as in the Civil War and now, law-abidingness breaks down. In the Civil War, this resulted in secession. Today, this results in sanctuary cities and the “resistance.” To get a sense of how close we are to a complete breakdown, imagine that the 2016 election, like the Bush-Gore election, had been decided by the Supreme Court. One shudders to think.
“What to do, and How to do it.”
Conservatives have been dazed by Trumpism. Even those conservatives who now acknowledge that Trump has accomplished some good things are not certain what is to be learned from Trumpism that might inform the future of the conservative movement.
The lesson is this: get right with Lincoln. He made slavery the non-negotiable center of the Republican party, and he was prepared to compromise on all else. Conservatives should do likewise with multiculturalism. We should make our opposition to it the center of our movement. Multiculturalism should guide our rhetorical strategy, provide a conceptual frame for interpreting events, and tie together the domestic dangers we face. We must understand all these dangers as part of one overarching thing.
This approach, however, will not work unless conservatives begin to think about politics like Lincoln did. That they do not may explain why so many of them missed the meaning of the 2016 election. This topic is complex but I think it comes down to this: As compared to Lincoln’s thinking about politics, conservative thinking tends to be too narrow (i.e., excludes too much) and too rigid.
What for Lincoln was the single most important political thing—the public’s understanding of justice—many of today’s conservatives think not important at all. It should not then be surprising why they missed, or underappreciated, the political dangers of multiculturalism with its assault on the American understanding of justice. Having missed or underappreciated multiculturalism, conservatives could not see that those attributes of Trump that in conventional times would have been disqualifying were in these times just the ones needed to take on multiculturalism. Trump was not a conventional conservative, yet his entire campaign was about saving America. This is where conservatism begins.
Education is another area that conservatives believe is less politically important than Lincoln did. Conservatives must relearn what Lincoln knew, and what, until the mid-twentieth century, our universities and colleges also knew: the purpose of higher education, in particular elite higher education, is to train future citizens on behalf of the common good. If the elite universities are promoting multiculturalism, and if multiculturalism is undermining America, then the universities are violating their obligation to the common good no less than were they giving comfort to the enemy in time of war. In such a case, the government, the federal government if need be, can rightfully impose any remedy as long as it is commensurate with the risk posed to the country and is the least intrusive option available.
Reorienting the conservative movement is a formidable undertaking, but we have a few big things in our favor: for starters, most of the country, including many who are not Trumpsters, appear to object to multiculturalism and its accompanying speech codes. In addition, multiculturalism, as with abolition, has the potential to energize the conservative movement. Conservatives, who are in the business of conserving things, come to life when there is something important to conserve because this allows them to stake out a very distinctive and morally powerful position with enough room to accommodate a broad coalition. In this case, that really important “something” is our country.
This essay may be reposted in full with, at top, proper attribution to The American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute, and a direct link to this page.
Thomas D. Klingenstein is a principal in the investment firm of Cohen, Klingenstein, LLC and the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute.