The American Election and the Virtues and Vices of Liberal Politics (and Politicians)

I was one of those who was surprised by Donald Trump’s election. I had not even expected it too be close. I had thought Clinton would win by a mile. I thought that, when push came to shove, voters would not go for a man so evidently a slave of base passion— a man of intemperance, imprudence, lust, vainglory, and avarice; a liar, a cheat, a bully, and an egoist; a cartoon billionaire and a Twitter troll. I should have known better. The election helps to raise a lot of questions about the relation of politics and virtue within the horizons of liberalism. To what extent will voters in a liberal society demand virtue of their politicians? And what sort of virtue? Or to what extent does liberalism really reduce politics into a technique, rendering virtue irrelevant? Was the victory of Trump more a rejection of liberalism, or more a triumph of liberalism? These are some of the questions that have been thinking about since the result became clear.

Of course, the main reason why Trump won was that he was running against Hilary Clinton. It is clear that many voters, especially working class voters, rejected Clinton’s brand of cold, elite, globalist liberalism, which seeks to break down all barriers to the self-determination of sovereign, individual will, including the “barriers” of national cultures and traditions, of and of the natural law itself. “You can be anything you want,” Clinton supporters told their daughters. That is, each sovereign individual must decide for  herself (or himself), by a sovereign act of the will, wherein her highest good is to be found, and society must give her the freedom to pursue it without determining her to one role rather than another. This is the pure essence of modern liberalism: the objective good is not that which elicits desire, rather desire is what makes things good. This is the liberalism of both of neoliberal “creative destruction,” and of progressive denial of any natural foundation to sexual differences. It is the liberalism of the free migration of persons and of free trade. Of global capitalism, and of global bureaucratic regulation. It is also the liberalism of the promotion of abortion and contraception and of the enforced privatization of religion. This sort of liberalism is a threat to the way of life of simple people everywhere, and it is not surprising that they rejected it. Andrew Whaley, who has true connatural knowledge of so-called “ordinary Americans,” has a good podcast on this aspect of the Trump victory. The post election episode of This American Life includes a number of interviews with Trump voters who make the same point in a less articulate fashion. This is the aspect that can lead Matthew Schmitz to read the election result as “the death of liberalism.” And to the extent to which Schmitz is right there is something encouraging to be found in the Trump victory (along with the obviously discouraging fact of having a swinish brute at the head of the most powerful state in the world). Even the eccentric Lacanian Marxist Slavoj Žižek said before the election that, if he were an American, he would vote for Trump in order to disrupt the absolute inertia of neoliberal globalism. Many serious Catholics ended up reluctantly voting for Trump both for this general reason, and because the intricacies of his alliance led him to promise that he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would combat abortion— that greatest evil of our times. This seemed to them a proportionate reason to accept the risk that he will fulfill some of his other campaign promises that go against Catholic Social Teaching. I can understand that position, although I do not agree with it. As Coëmgenus put it, “Those who have supported him in pursuit of these ends are mistaken, not evil.”

But, as P.J. Smith has argued, the election can also be read as a triumph of a certain strand of liberalism. Shortly before the election I posted a quote from Charles De Koninck’s deeply anti-liberal book on the common good, claiming that, since politics is concerned with the common good of human life, one must demand “that the leaders of society be men who are good purely and simply,” that is, that they “must possess all the moral virtues and prudence.” A friend of mine commented, “While we’re living in a fantasy world, why doesn’t one require that all people in our lives be good?” The unspoken premise here, I think, is the classical liberal notion that politics can be reduced to a technique of balancing private interests according to certain empty, procedural principles. That is, that politics is not concerned with the human good as such, but only only with allowing individuals to concern themselves with it. And that therefore, to put it in ancient terms, politics is a matter not of prudence but of art. Just as one does not require one’s baker and candlestick-maker to possess “all the moral virtues and prudence” (however much one might prefer them to do so), but only that they make good bread and candlesticks respectively, so (on this classical liberal view) one should not require one’s politicians to be virtuous, but only that they respectfully apply the liberal Constitution, which is meant to guarantee the private pursuit of virtue and happiness. Roger Scruton, in his reflection on the election, quotes Spinoza on a virtuous government not being a government exercised by virtuous people, but rather one that remains virtuous even when exercised by villains. On such an account, the support of many personally virtuous persons for a obviously vicious man like Trump is a sign of the continued vitality of liberalism.

And yet, liberals do not cease to be human. It is natural to want the head of the political community to which one belongs to be honorable and virtuous, and so of course liberals do demand it. But of course they tend to demand that the head of state embody the typical virtues of the liberal, bourgeois age: respect and tolerance of others; a responsible personal life; humility, civility and decency; and, above all, a selfless devotion to “due process of law,” separation of powers and all the other quasi-magical barriers to tyranny in which liberalism sees the essence of political freedom.

I remember an open letter by a “conservative” pundit Dennis Prager after the American election of 2000, in which he gave the following expression to his disgust at Bill Clinton’s lack of virtue:

We have watched in silence as the White House and its sacred rooms have been put up for sale to Democratic party donors and Hollywood stars, as the presidency has been degraded to the point where young people could ask the president of the U.S. on national television what type of underpants he wears. We watched Bill Clinton respond to that question.

To call the rooms of the White House “sacred” seems almost comical in a liberal context, but it is natural to man as a political animal to invest the one who has care of the common good with a certain sacrality. And the sort of virtue and civilized decency that is being demanded is of course liberal virtue. Prager addresses his political adversaries with the following apostrophe:

You think that way because, in your arrogance, you confuse liberal with decent. But tens of millions of us have a different view of liberal— as increasingly nihilist.

Here Prager is using “liberal” to refer to a particular strand of liberalism— the radical, morally nihilistic strand represented by the Clinton style Democrats. But Prager too is a liberal, though a “moderate” or “conservative” liberal (what I once called a “soft” liberal). Moderate liberals tend to reject the modern, subjectivist account of the good. They think that there is indeed an objective good. But they also think that it is difficult to know, and that therefore government ought not to try to achieve it. Rather, government should limit itself to protecting the rights of individuals to seek the good.

Nevertheless, both moderate liberals like Prager, and radical liberals like his Democratic adversaries consider themselves to be taking the part of “decency,” of liberal virtue. And the 16 years that followed the 2000 election saw the administrations of two unusually “decent” exemplars of liberal virtue. From my perspective, of course, George W. Bush was singularly lacking in true political virtue. His naïve faith in the universality of the “values” of freedom and democracy led him into the unjust invasion of Iraq, resulting in the killing of many innocent persons. But he was a thoroughly well-meaning and honest man, who tried to do what he thought was the right thing. When Bush succeeded Bill Clinton, Clinton’s aids are said to have “trashed” their offices, as a sign of contempt for their successors. But when Bush was in turn succeeded by Obama (as Obama mentioned in his speech after Trump’s election), Bush instructed his aides to be scrupulously helpful to the incoming administration. Similarly, from my perspective Obama’s policies promoted sins that “cry to Heaven for vengeance”— the murder of the innocent in abortion principally, but also the sin of Sodom (not to mention the injustices against the poor in the capitalist system that he continued to support, as Bush had done). But Obama is himself a clearly decent man— temperate, honest, and faithful to his duties as a husband and father. And the “we’re all on the same team” attitude that he has taken towards Trump shows an almost heroically liberal devotion to due process of law and civility. I fundamentally disagree with Obama’s liberal principles, but I find it hard not to admire his honest devotion to them.

But I think that the more hopeful reaction to the election comes from persons of liberal tendencies in whom the result has led to a questioning of liberal premises. Rebecca Bratten Weiss has in the past endorsed key liberal principles—  government should “ not legislate morality,” but should limit itself to “protecting rights” and so on— but in a post on the Trump election she rejects the liberal-proceduralist conception of government fairly radically, though she still uses the language of rights to do so:

From a secular, political perspective, I reject the thesis that some mystical social contract obliges me to abide by rule of human-made legal structures, if these structures legitimize decisions not favorable to the common good. I have a natural right to oppose what I view as unjust authority. The idea that all authority is legitimate if upheld by a specific political process is itself a human invention. The social contract which demands that I acquiesce to it is not as binding as my obligation to stand for the decrees of my conscience. […] I do not accept Donald Trump as my president.

Whether she is right to question the legitimacy of Trump’s authority or not is a complicated question (see The Josias’s series on legitimacy in point here), but the interesting point is that the Trump election has led her (and hopefully others) to raise such fundamental questions in the first place.

8 thoughts on “The American Election and the Virtues and Vices of Liberal Politics (and Politicians)

  1. I’ve been on retreat the last four days and mercifully missed the bloodletting of the post-election days. Thanks for giving me something rational and insightful to read upon my return. I have some thought-sorting to do as I chat with colleagues from here on out and this will be a good starting point.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It seems to me that the “human-made legal structures” that Weiss now rejects have already been circumvented by globalism for some time, even if they remain on the books. If this election had any meaning, wasn’t it about a demand by many for the acknowledgement of a nation state versus leaders they see as acting as if the state has become obsolete while appeasing citizens with a few rhetorical flourishes? I think this is why Trump’s morality is treated with a shrug by his supporters, because having a state is more fundamental than the virtue of it’s leader.


  3. You have given much in this article that needs deep thought and reflection, Pater, but I should like to state two thoughts if I may. Firstly, it seems to me that we are seeing the beginnings of the return of “Illiberal”* Identitarianism (Nationalism and most probably Totalitarianism as well), rather than of “Liberalism”* per se. Secondly, the “Josiasian” concept of Legitimacy has failed to convince me, as it does not deal adequately (or in fact at all) with Usurpation, and the consequences of a regime founded on the violation of Ius and its expression in Lex. I am still formulating my thoughts in this regard, but I hope to have a contra position fully reasoned out in the second part of my discourse “On Legitimacy”. Until then, may God continue to bless you (and everyone writing at The Josias).

    (*Of course this depends on how broadly or narrowly one defines “liberalism”. I have always found the term Leftism more philosophically and indeed theologically appropriate.)


    • I agree with you that the right wing populism we are seeing in various parts of the world at the moment has very little to do with liberalism. I was merely pointing out that the rationalizations given for supporting such movements on the part of Catholics often show an unconscious liberal influence, which in turn shows that reports of “the death of liberalism” have been exaggerated.

      I would distinguish between liberalism and leftism— although there is certainly some overlap, i.e. there are liberals influenced by leftism and leftists who accept some of the basic principles of liberalism. But, I use “liberal” to refer to the individualistic philosophy of the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century and their later followers, while I use “leftist” to refer to the collectivistic political philosophies advocated by many advocates of the working class against the bourgeoisie. Most leftists do accept the subjectivist account of the good at the heart of liberalism, but not all. The Tradinistas, for example, are radically anti-liberal leftists.

      I look forward to reading your “On Legitimacy.” The Grenier piece in The Josias series does actually consider the problem of usurpation:

      1) At the time of the act of usurpation, both the rightful ruler and people have the right of defending themselves against a tyrant by usurpation: This is evident, for, if an individual man may use violence in self-defence against an unjust aggressor in the act of aggression, the people and the person in whom is vested the care of the people have a fortiori a similar right.

      Therefore, while war is actually being waged, the rightful ruler may, and the people not only may, but should resist an unjust aggressor, and, if necessary, put him to death, provided that the moderation of a blameless defense is observed.

      A private citizen may do the same, provided that he acts not on his private authority, but on the express or tacit authority of his ruler [Cajetanus, in II-II, q. 64, a. 3.].

      2) After the usurper has established his rule, both the rightful ruler and the people have, absolutely speaking, the right to dethrone a tyrant by usurpation.— This is evident, for no one may lawfully become a ruler by the use of violence [In II Sent., d. 44, q. 2, a. 2, ad 5].

      We say absolutely speaking, for if the people would suffer greater evils as a result of war against the tyrant, and there is no probable hope of overthrowing him, the exercise of rights should be suspended and submission made to the tyrant: for in this case, the public safety of the people, which is the supreme law, is at stake.

      Therefore, after a usurper has established himself in power citizens are bound to submit to his decrees if they are in the interest of the common good, for otherwise there would be no legislator, and the State would perish.

      3) A tyrant by usurpation can become the lawful ruler. It is not in virtue of violence, as is evident, but because of the necessity of peace and public security that a usurper can become the lawful ruler. For, if the rule of the usurper is looked upon as unlawful, public peace will be endangered as long as the people regard him as a usurper and question the lawfulness of his authority.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Pater, I overlooked that part of Grenier. I agree that “after a usurper has established himself in power citizens are bound to submit to his decrees if they are in the interest of the common good” but for a different reason than given above. Still, reading Grenier is always helpful in some respect. (Also just to clarify, I use Right to signify political philosophies that lead men closer to God and the Common Good, and Left for those that lead men further from God and the Common Good. “And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on His left”)


  4. Regarding the various strands within liberalism, it seems to me your thinking has some overlap with Zippy’s distinction of left vs. right liberalism and their faux wars as a mechanism of self-correction and self-preservation of the liberal system. Perhaps you would take some interest in his blog, even with his characteristic writing style featuring excessive hyperlinkage, which makes it a bit hard to provide a proper entry point though so I might as well go with

    God bless from Bratislava!

    P. S.: I’m reading Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints where a similar theme occurs:

    The editor had replied in his surliest of tones, “Now look here! You know you have no lease, no press. I could throw you out tonight if I wanted! … Sometimes I wonder why I haven’t already!” And Machefer, his mind much steadier than his legs, jibed back: “Well I’ll tell you why, old chum! It’s because, thanks to freedom of the press, you can print any trash you want, and poison the heads of a million damn fools. It’s because, thanks to freedom of the press, you can go your merry way, sapping the strength of the nation, quietly tearing it down brick by brick, behind your convenient satirical mask. Well, the fact is, old friend, the people aren’t all blind just yet, no matter how low they’ve sunk. To get them to swallow what you feed them, you need something vaguely resembling an opposition. For the moment, as long as you and your kind haven’t won hands down, you can’t let me go. I’m your excuse. Without me and a handful of other survivors not much better off, poof!, no more difference of opinion, no more freedom of the press! When the time comes, you won’t think twice. But you still have a while to wait. Why, I bet you a case of Moulin-à-Vent, the best there is, that if I decided to fold up today, and stick the keys under your door, you’d buy up my paper on the sly, and keep it running yourself, just to make sure you had something to sneer at! It wouldn’t be the first time. To ‘hold the line against fascism,’ or some bullshit like that, you’ve got to be sure there are still a few good pseudofascists handy. You have no kick! As demagogues go, you couldn’t do better. I’m a pretty good buy—efficient, convincing, cheap. And I save you doing the job yourself. That’s the price I pay for my innocent little whim. So leave me alone and let me piss on your mat in peace! You know damn well, when the time comes, you won’t have to make a move to shut me down, except maybe walkup the three flights to tell me. And even then, you’ll send your boy … Good day, Monsieur, it’s been a pleasure!”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Praise God | Sancrucensis

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