The good man out of the good treasures of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil, for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart. (Luke 6:45)
In articles I’ve written since he first entered contention for the GOP nomination for president I’ve given my reasons for believing that Donald Trump exactly corresponds to the kind of demagogue America’s greatest statesmen foresaw as the likely means by which America’s constitutional republic would finally be overthrown. Yet this week I published an article suggesting that his rise is a symptom of America’s present and impending decline, not its cause. Of course, there are various kinds of causes, as the philosophers say, but in this case I use the word in its most immediately comprehensible sense, in reference to the proximate or immediate cause for an event, as when the cue ball hits the eight ball and it moves toward the pocket in a game of pool.
Donald Trump surely represents a radical degradation of the tone and substance of political discourse in the United States. But what is worse, he does so as an affectation, as part of the political con he is running against the people motivated to support him by their anger and resentment against the elitist faction’s betrayal of their country. He is quite emphatically not a working class American, whose rough way of speaking reflects his hardy way of life.
He is the scion of wealth and power, used to operating in circumstances that at times require consideration and even finesse. He poses as a blunt instrument because this is appropriate to the persona he is holding out for the occasion. The fact that this pose involves combative insults, sexual vulgarity and a half-wit, in-your-face way of mimicking sincere passion reflects the underlying fact that it is all an imitation of life. It borders on being an insulting, upper class caricature of “Joe Blow,” at least in part because that’s exactly what it is.
I say in part because it also reflects the behavioral culture characteristic of Trump’s actual ideological background. The use of bad language, shocking sexual innuendo and bully boy verbal violence has been a hallmark of the left since I was a student in the 1960’s. It’s of a piece with the promotion of sexual licentiousness, including homosexuality — ostensibly as a statement against stifling social regimentation, but actually as part of the assault on the key pillars of stability, prosperity and confidence that undergirded America’s great success, success that defied the predictions of Marxism’s demonstrably false explanation of human social history.
The sexual aspect of the leftist offensive had Christianity particularly in view. From early on Christianity distinguished itself from many pagan religions because it valued sexual self-discipline for the multitude. The Christian ethos challenged the assumption that the incapacity for such discipline was an inevitable artifact of the inferior material status of the “lower classes.” Just as the Puritans’ New Model Army proved the capacity of common people for effective military courage and self-discipline on the battlefield, the Christian model for family life proved that regular folks were just as capable of self-discipline, for the sake of family, as those of “noble” birth, who had made that discipline a way to consolidate class power and extend its cohesion over generations.
The appearance and success of America’s middle class, even when it faced the challenge of increasing urbanization, was a crucial reason for the country’s resistance to right and left wing socialism in the mid-twentieth century. Destroy the modest discipline and sense of personal responsibility that made it possible, and that mainstay of what the Marxist’s decried as America’s “capitalist” society would slide toward dissolution. Combine that attack on its moral basis with an invasive system of taxation and regulation in the name of the “welfare state”, and you have the key ingredients for the left’s long march of destruction through the social institutions that accounted for America’s social prosperity.
Of course, given that the character of the people at large is critically important to the preservation and functioning of America’s political institutions, the offensive against its social institutions was mainly intended to achieve a political effect. Though often ignored by people who purport to be its friends, or denied by others known to be its enemies, the connection between good character and good government was essential to the establishment and perpetuation of America’s constitutional government of, by, and for the people.
This connection is apparent from the very beginning, if one is willing to see it. In the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, for example, its signers invoke the “authority of the good people of these colonies.” The reference to “good people” may slide past our hearing as an artifact of what seems to us the excessive formality of those times. But in fact it is consistent with the whole logic of the Declaration.
That logic defines the source and purpose of government in terms of rights endowed by God. But what is right endowed by God if not the right actions of those who abide by “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God?” When it comes to human society, those laws enjoin all that preserves humankind. They forbid what attacks and preys upon humanity. They enjoin peace. They condemn the initiation of violence, particularly with intent to rape, rob and enslave innocent people.
According to the Declaration’s logic, government is the instrument that arises from the common will of people determined to do right, as God has endowed it. Its powers derive from their consent to join forces in order to secure the good fruits that may arise from that determination. So the phrase “good people” isn’t an overly polite nicety. It describes a moral fact essential to the people’s claim to govern their own affairs.
Obviously, good people often have to act in opposition to bad ones. As James Madison is noted for saying, “if men were angels no government would be necessary.” But if the power of government is rooted in the common will of good people, which aims to secure their righteous activities (rights) against interference from bad people, it makes no sense to entrust government power to bad people, only to good ones.
The question then becomes, how are we to distinguish between the good and the bad? As I said in my previous article this week, America’s principles require that we make that distinction in light of the understanding of right endowed by God — the understanding that is supposed to inform the good consciences of the people disposed to do right — the good people of the United States. This ought to preclude selecting people who give signs that they are, or have been, disposed to wrongdoing.
But given the words of Christ quoted at the head of this article, people who take His prudent instruction seriously, must consider whether a person’s words are an indication of his disposition. Donald Trump may scoff at the reporter who questioned him about his offensive language. But if Jesus is right, his verbal violence points to violence at heart. His willingness to order iniquitous violence against innocent people, in order to terrorize terrorists, points to iniquity at heart.
Of course, words are not the only basis for judgment. Christ also said “By their fruits ye shall know them.” So what has been the fruit of Donald Trump’s participation in the presidential contest? His insults have invited insult; his ad hominem attacks have proliferated ad hominem attacks. His appeals to anger, resentment and fear to drive people toward his banner have established the tone of heedless, raging passion that presently characterizes the whole process. Is this fruit good and nourishing for America’s spirit?
Trump promises greatness, but the only great things his demeanor as a candidate seems to promise are great rage, great vengefulness and the manipulation of great fear — all used as excuses to justify acts that violate the limits and constraints the Constitution justly imposes on government power. But in the end, isn’t great power abused without regard for its just limitations the very definition of tyranny? If this be the fruit of Demagogue Donald’s promise of greatness, what greatness will come of the triumph of his self-idolizing ambition? What indeed but a great loss of God-endowed right, including liberty, for our land once overflowing with its blessings.