[Mark Safranski / zen ]
I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of Books. I will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted.
The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election
By: A Yeoman Farmer
The Flight 93 Election
By: Publius Decius Mus
September 5, 2016
On 5 September 2016, a writer under the pseudonym of Publius Decius Mus, wrote a defence of Trump which was also an extended meditation on the American conservative movement. Although not aware of it, the author was engaging in the age old American practice of the jeremiad, the difference, though, was that it was a European jeremiad, not an American one as it addresses the problem but offers no solution. Or, in this case the author offers a solution that is worse than the problem.
The following is an extended commentary on the essay, which hopes to honor the author’s wish to be flayed in the public domain.
- 2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.
Like my title, the author’s was hyperbolic and like his, my title serves a purpose. It is to warn the reader that we cannot always believe the Reichstag is burning, that each election is a democratic Gotterdammerung for the conservative movement if not America, in part because one can find this language in nearly all elections going back to the founding. A cursory reading of J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment, would show that republics are always unstable, surging with democratic thymos, virtù as well as their corruption, since they seek to maintain a bounded
space within time fully conscious that they may share the fate of their predecessors. Yet, the American Republic is different and it is this difference the author does not acknowledge or simply declares is no longer material which causes us to consider the author’s intent.
The author seems intent on arguing that both choices are bad with one choice worse than the other simply because of what it means for conservatives and by extension America, which seems to invert the normal understanding that what is good for America should be good for conservatives but that seems at a level of nuance beyond the author’s intent.
If we start with the opening sentence, we find an unsettling proposal. If this is the Flight 93 election, then the airplane is America and the pilot is POTUS and the cockpit is the government. The author suggests that America has been hijacked and that would mean that the sitting President was an Al Qaeda terrorist intent on killing the nation that is crashing the plane. Why would we start with that premise? How can a responsible person, let alone a publication like the Claremont Review of Books, publish something as irresponsible as this and still seek to portray itself as sober, serious, and scholarly in its work to understand and promote statesmanship and its study? The author wants his readers to take his writing seriously, yet he starts with a premise that is simply unsustainable and is deeply insulting to the American people. He is suggesting that the President who was twice elected by large majorities and was responsible for the country’s national security and its general wellbeing, for which he and his administration did an honourable job in delivering, is the equivalent of an Al-Qaeda suicide attacker. Are we to understand that this is the level of debate and argument which is now worthy of being promoted and celebrated by the Claremont Review of Books and those who support it? If this is the case, then what evidence does the author have, beyond disagreeing with policy decisions, that the President and his administration are Al-Qadea operatives?
The author does not elaborate on this possibility and moves to exploring the core issue: the choice between Trump and Clinton.
2. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.
Leaving aside the idea that playing Russian Roulette with a semi-auto is simply guaranteed suicide which begs the question of the comparison since the game is played with the same weapon. You don’t get to choose which weapon you want to use for your turn in Russian Roulette. In any case, the author wants us to know that both candidates are a potential disaster, if not a certain disaster. It has been a long time since we had a election like this one. One could only point to the nearest equivalent, in modern era, of Nixon vs McGovern or, if you are of a certain persuasion, even Nixon vs Kennedy, to see the choice that the country faces. What is clear though is that one of the choices was not a politician who had held an elected office.
Once we understand that the choice is between an experienced politician and an amateur, we must consider the nature of the organisation that published this essay. The Claremont Institute is nominally dedicated to the study of statesmanship, which requires one to have an understanding of what statesmanship means, how to recognize its appearance and absence. In other words, if we are to understand or study statesmanship we have to be able to differentiate between better and worse statesmanship. We would expect this from the essay, so that we could understand what the election means as well as what the candidates represent, but will we find that in this essay?
3. To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!
Here the author starts to explore the conservative movement’s strange genealogy. He states that there are ordinary conservatives so there must be extraordinary ones or abnormal ones. Who are these extraordinary conservatives, these uber-conservatives who will give us the new conservative values? Who will admit to being the abnormal conservative? Are these the Trump supporters? Will it be such men as Publius Decius Mus, for they alone have the courage to see and speak about what others cannot or will not see or speak about. Moreover, do they have the virtù to make it happen? Strangely, though he invokes Hegel as if this is the moment when history ends, not 1989 but 2016 is the EoH. I wish someone would make up their mind since we were told that it was originally 1805. Perhaps the EoH like treason is a matter of dates. In any case, the author chides those, like the late Harry Jaffa, who believe that all human outcomes remain possible, for there is no tomorrow if Hilary is elected. It would appear that we can expect a 1000 year progressivist Reich to begin with her election, which neither the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, nor the people could resist. Except the American regime is based on the idea that no election ever ends history since the process is that renews America and provides her vitality since its political institutions are based on the idea that elections every two years allow the people in their wisdom to change course by changing their elected representatives. In their choices they are guided by the United States Constitution which acts like a sheet anchor to steady the country’s path.
The challenge, though, according to Charles Kesler and the author is that America is in crisis. For a writer who uses an ancient Roman general as his pseudonym, this claim seems ahistorical. The question to ask is: “When has the Republic *not* been in crisis?” A cursory reflection on republics, as even Publius understood in the Federalist Papers, would indicate that republics are always on the brink of crisis for they are a dynamic entity that thrives on crisis for renewal. Every four years America undergoes a political revolution. How can we say a country is not in crisis when it has a revolution every four years? However, there is something different with this election. There is something that is important. It is the choice between Hilary and Trump. The choice, though, is not a choice in a strict sense, but the author does not notice that or if he noticed it, he chose to overlook it once he has mentioned it.
End Part I.
- Mus was inspired by a religious dream. One has to ask whether the person who used him as a pseudonym has similar religious belief. If he had, would he have written this approach that presents an end of the world scenario.
- A jeremiad is a political sermon designed to criticize those who have fallen away from the path of righteousness. According to Sacvan Bercovitch, there are two kinds of jeremiad, the American and the European. An American jeremiad promises, and is infused with the belief, that future success will occur so long as the audience accepts the necessary reforms. The American jeremiad is optimistic in its promise. By contrast, the European jeremiad is pessimistic in that it does not suggest that reforms will return the righteous to the promised destination. The European jeremiad addresses the problem but offers no final salvation. Bercovitch, in modifying the work of Perry Miller, differentiates between an American Jeremiad focusing on renewal within the promise and potential of America against the more pessimistic and anxious European Jeremiad. In this typology, Kissinger’s jeremiad would be European because his anxiety over the United States’ future belies a belief in its power to renew itself and the world. Kissinger believed that the Soviet Union would be a permanent problem and that the United States’ could only hope to adapt to its diminished role. He did not see the possibility that the United States could achieve more than the modest goal of reducing tensions with the Soviet Union and stabilizing the international system. For a careful assessment of Miller and for Bercovitch’s variations on Miller, see Francis T. Butt, “The Myth of Perry Miller” The American Historical Review 87, no. 3. (Jun., 1982): 665-694.