Donald Trump, the Declaration of Independence, and the GOP: A Response to Adam Seagrave

Voters will not respond favorably to a political party that offers them moral principles—especially principles rooted in the past—without also showing a real concern for their concrete interests.

In his latest Public Discourse essay, S. Adam Seagrave argues that the rise of Donald Trump shows that the Republican Party must rethink its approach to politics if it hopes to become once again capable of commanding a governing majority. The GOP, he says, should return to its roots as the party of Abraham Lincoln, emphasizing the understanding of nature presented in the Declaration of Independence and applying it to the political challenges of our day. I would like to contribute something to the rethinking for which Seagrave rightly calls. In that spirit, I offer the following argument, partly agreeing and partly disagreeing with him.

I agree wholeheartedly with Seagrave that a new approach is necessary for the Republican Party’s future. The success of Donald Trump in winning the Republican nomination for the presidency is one of the most astonishing things ever to have occurred in American politics. It happened contrary to the confident pronouncements of many of our most seasoned political observers, calling to mind the famous words attributed to Lord Melbourne: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.” If such a strange and unlooked-for occurrence does not make us think anew, what will?

More specifically, Trump’s rise requires a rethinking of Republican politics because it clearly demonstrates that Republican voters are no longer very interested in the themes and policies that Republican statesmen have been offering. To be sure, Trump does not represent a total repudiation of traditional Republicanism. He has taken care, for example, to proclaim his allegiance to the right to life, to tax cuts, and to constitutionalist judges. Trump’s success, however, seems to have been driven primarily by the populist-nationalist themes that made him unique among the candidates: his critique of our trade, immigration, and foreign policies. If a party’s traditional set of issues can no longer sufficiently motivate its own core voters, it is certainly in no position to win national elections and govern the country. Its leaders must therefore rethink the party’s program.

I differ from Seagrave, however, in that I would contend that the GOP’s rethinking must take into account the core issues on which Trump has campaigned. In contrast, Seagrave treats them as if they are practically irrelevant. “It is clear,” he says, that Trump “is not running on a platform that will be sustainable and viable beyond the reach of his own unique personality.” That’s not clear to me at all.

Taking Trump’s Stances Seriously

The core of Trump’s campaign has been the claim that our trade and immigration policies are harmful to ordinary working-class Americans, along with the assertion that our foreign policy is animated by a foolish altruism that is not in the country’s interest. The fact that Trump succeeded on this basis is clear evidence that these issues are on the minds of many Republicans. And no political party in a democracy can hope to compete by ignoring what is on the minds of its most loyal voters.

Trump has proven himself to be a very astute politician. He is not, however, a magician, capable of summoning popular passions out of thin air. Trump did not become a successful Republican candidate by creating worries about these issues any more than he became a successful real estate developer by creating a desire for high-rise buildings. In both cases, he discerned an existing and widespread appetite and placed himself at its service, to his own advantage.

To assume the opposite, that Trump’s issues are irrelevant to his success, implies that Trump’s rise has been fueled chiefly by his celebrity and his belligerence. If that is the case, then Republican voters—the foot soldiers of political conservatism in America—are so mindless and irresponsible that no amount of rethinking could do anything to help the Republican Party become a successful and useful force in our politics for the foreseeable future. This diagnosis would seem to make Seagrave’s own enterprise a fruitless one, since it is hard to see how a statesman could move such foolish voters by appealing to the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. It would seem less depressing and futile—as well as a more charitable and accurate assessment of our fellow citizens—to assume instead that they voted on the basis of what to them were genuine concerns about their own and the country’s interests.

If this is the case, again, the necessary rethinking of Republican politics must take seriously the issues Trump has made his own.

The GOP and the American Founding

This leads to my second disagreement with Seagrave, which concerns the way in which and the extent to which the Republican Party should make itself the champion of the Declaration’s teaching regarding nature. Seagrave’s approach is, I think, necessary but not sufficient to the Republican Party’s fulfilling its mission and succeeding politically.

Seagrave is right that the Republican Party should defend the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and, I would add, more generally the moral and political inheritance of the American founding. The Republican Party is the conservative party in American politics. It must be the aim of a nation’s conservative party to preserve, as much as is possible under changing circumstances, the essentials of its inherited way of life. Since America’s political way of life is rooted in its founding, the task of the Republican Party is to sustain what is sustainable in what the founders gave us, of which the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is a vital element.

Nevertheless, the Republican Party could never succeed politically only by being the party of the Declaration of Independence. Much of the time, the nation will face urgent questions, of deep concern to large numbers of voters, and on which the nation’s important interests will depend, that cannot be resolved by appealing to the philosophy of nature found in the Declaration. In order to deserve to win and to actually win elections, a political party will need a responsible and astute approach to such issues; but it will not be able to derive such a response from the Declaration of Independence and its teaching on nature, rights, and equality.

This is the situation the Republican Party now faces. Donald Trump’s political success so far shows that the issues he has raised are highly salient for voters. The Republican Party must, therefore, figure out what position to take on those issues. Unfortunately, the answers to the questions Trump raises cannot be found in the Declaration of Independence.

Trump’s critique of our trade policy raises the question whether we should pursue a course of free trade or one of government protection of domestic industry. The Declaration of Independence cannot answer that question. There is no natural right to engage in free trade with people in other countries. At least, this must have been the view of the founders, or they would not have given Congress a blanket power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” On the other side, there is no natural right on the part of American workers or manufacturers to be protected from foreign competition by government policy.

Trump contends, and many of his voters believe, that loose immigration policies—including lax enforcement of our existing immigration laws—harm the interests of working-class Americans by driving down wages. Here again, the Declaration of Independence cannot give us much guidance. Neither the natural rights of human beings—to life, liberty, and property—nor their natural equality points to any resolution to the questions raised by the immigration debate.

On the one hand, people who are not already Americans have no natural right to immigrate to the United States. Similarly, American employers who seek access to plentiful and inexpensive labor have no natural right to get it through permissive immigration policies. On the other hand, working Americans who feel economically squeezed by competition from immigrants have no natural right to be protected from that competition by strict immigration policies.

Finally, the Declaration’s philosophy of nature gives us very little guidance regarding foreign policy. It teaches us that a government’s primary function is to secure the natural rights of the people it governs. Since these rights belong to all human beings as human beings, the Declaration also reminds us that our government’s foreign policy should at least not be hostile to the natural rights of people in other nations. These elementary moral principles are vital, of course, but they leave a host of pressing questions unanswered.

Should our foreign policy seek to promote the natural rights of people living under imperfect and even unjust governments, or should it seek primarily to promote the just interests of its own people? Does interfering in the domestic politics of other nations with a view to promoting rights, freedom, and equality actually advance those causes, or does it end up doing more harm than good? The Declaration of Independence does not presume to try to answer these questions.

Matters Not of Principle, but Policy and Prudence

In truth, the issues Trump has raised, important as they may be, are not matters of fundamental principle but of policy and prudence. Conversely, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, though vital, are not very useful in addressing the questions Trump’s candidacy has brought to the fore. The best way to address those questions depends not so much on faithfulness to the rudiments of our political morality as on prudent analysis of the complex economic, social, and national security effects of the policies in question. To govern and to deserve to govern, the GOP will have to show itself not only faithful to our founding principles but also capable of formulating prudent policies in these areas.

The Republican Party’s ability to act as a guardian of the morality of the Declaration of Independence depends upon its ability to act also as a competent manager of national issues that do not directly involve questions of fundamental principle. The conservative party in any modern democracy faces a challenging task. As we learn from Tocqueville, the citizens of a modern democracy tend to be somewhat indifferent to the past and to tradition, easily enthralled by visions of progress and change. A party that directs their attention to the country’s moral and political inheritance performs a necessary but somewhat thankless and arduous task.

Indeed, we are informed of similar difficulties even by the philosophic architects of the doctrine of nature and rights found in the Declaration of Independence. That philosophy, which claims to offer a realistic assessment of the human condition, teaches us the important moral truth that all human beings have rights that must be respected, but also the unavoidable practical truth that most human beings, most of the time, are motivated most powerfully in their political activity by their own self-interest.

Seagrave thinks it is important for the Republican Party to turn to a Lincolnian statesmanship of the Declaration’s principles so it will have a coherent moral vision informing its policies. He is correct that this is necessary. A political party without a moral foundation could never serve the common good and therefore could never deserve to govern. And since human beings are moral beings, a party with no moral content to its appeal could never hope to win a majority and so get a chance to govern.

At the same time, however, the realities of the human condition, as well as of the modern condition, compel us to admit that voters will not respond favorably to a political party that offers them moral principles—especially principles rooted in the past—without also showing a real concern for their concrete interests. The future ability of the Republican Party to make a positive contribution to our politics will depend on its ability to do both.

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