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Reviews |  Donald Trump and the Romance of Regime Change


The Jaffa school offered an interpretation of American history that could be described as Inception, Consumption and Corruption. Its great consumer was Lincoln, who restored the foundation’s promise by fully establishing the “all men are created equal” absolutism of the Declaration of Independence. Its villains were John C. Calhoun and the early 20th century progressives, the former for championing slavery and inequality, the latter for replacing a constitutional republic with a bureaucratized administrative state, and both for demonstrating of a philosophical and moral relativism which Jaffa despised (and which, as his intellectual quarrels multiplied, he also claimed to discern in many of his conservative colleagues).

But one thing you noticed hanging out with the Claremont folks is that while they were obviously interested in the good and bad of every American regime change, from the original (great) foundation to the Lincolnian refoundation (even better) to the re-founders of Woodrow Wilson (their big bad, the “lost cause” sympathizer turned arrogant technocrat) and Franklin Roosevelt, they were also very interested in the idea of ​​founding, when the moments of crisis bring out new orders from the old ones.

At one point, as a break from reading the texts of the founding era, we were treated to a screening of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, John Ford’s great western whose theme is the transition from Far West towards political modernity, moving from the rule of the gun (embodied by John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon) to the rule of law (embodied by Ransom Stoddard of Jimmy Stewart).

In the film, the transition cannot be made without a dose of chaos, a mixture of violence and deception. Lee Marvin’s outlaw Valance challenges peaceful lawyer Stoddard to a duel; Doniphon saves the lawyer by shooting the outlaw from the shadows – then the murder is wrongly attributed to the character of Stewart, who is adored by it and becomes a great statesman of the New West while the cow -boy and his vigilante code back off.

The not-so-subtle implication of Claremont’s reading of American history is that this kind of difficult transition doesn’t happen once and for all; on the contrary, it happens periodically in the life of any nation or society. Whenever a change or crisis overwhelms a political order, some version of (in our case) the American republic, you get a period of instability and brutal power politics, until the new era or the new colony is forged.

But that doesn’t happen without moments like Doniphon shooting Valance — or Lincoln suspending habeas corpus, say, or Roosevelt threatening to pack the Supreme Court — when standards and niceties must be suspended for the new system that awaits. to be born.

When I try to figure out what Eastman imagined himself doing serving Donald Trump until the Constitutional Crisis, that’s where my speculation turns. I do not think this is the necessary implication of Claremont’s thought; indeed, you can find in the latest issue of The Claremont Review of Books an essay by William Voegeli criticizing conservatives who seem “enthusiastic about chaos” and too eager to refound rather than conserve. But I think it’s an understandable place for Claremont’s reading of American history at a time when the American republic seems ossified, deadlocked, stalled, and in need of some sort of visible renewal.

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