Studies of contemporary public opinion have shown that if most people know one thing about conservatives’ ideas about the Constitution, it is that they stand on the rock of originalism—the proposition that judges should read the Constitution by the lights of the nation’s Founders.
While there have been some laudable exceptions, many originalists at the country’s top law schools have steered clear of the broader Donald Trump phenomenon, in the meantime taking deep dives into hermeneutic linguistic theory and 18th-century understandings of words such as commerce and emoluments, and phrases such as public use and well-regulated militia.
But outside of legal academia, many conservative scholars—the Claremont McKenna College government professor Charles Kesler; the Saint Vincent College politics professor Bradley C. S. Watson; the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics director and AWC Family Foundation fellow at the Heritage Foundation David Azerrad; the Johns Hopkins University political-science lecturer Ken Masugi; the Hillsdale College lecturer Michael Anton; the Hillsdale politics professor Thomas G. West; the Amherst College professor emeritus of American institutions and director of the James Wilson Institute Hadley Arkes; and legions of others—have embraced, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, Trump, a man who would have been the Founders’ worst nightmare, and the antithesis of every Christian or civic value and virtue that conservatives have purported to champion. The white evangelical segment of the electorate agrees: As Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic earlier this week, white evangelicals have expressed unwavering support for the president, and many say there is nothing he could do that would cause them to reconsider. Many commentators have explained this embrace as crassly transactional: Conservatives, they say, accept Trump because he will appoint their judges, or roll back regulations they hate.
While that may be true for some, it neglects a little-known but long-standing constitutional argument for an all-powerful, redemptive executive, one rooted in fundamental law and high principle, and one that has underwritten the thinking right’s steadfast support of this president. This argument long predates the rise of this real-estate developer turned politician, and its origins lie not within the nation’s premier law schools or the Federalist Society, but in the pages of major mid-century conservative publications such as Triumph and Modern Age; on radio and television programs such as Fulton J. Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living; in books; and in academia—and, crucially, within the philosophy and political-science departments, not the law schools.
In these places, students of the Jewish German émigré philosopher political philosopher Leo Strauss—in particular, the Claremont McKenna political scientist Harry V. Jaffa—and a diverse array of Christian thinkers insisted, often in high, prophetic dudgeon, that the ultimate foundation of the U.S. Constitution was not structural, institutional, or procedural, as other conservatives were arguing at the time, but moral. To them, the Constitution’s foundational principles were to be found not in the shallow, democratic soil of what “we the people” happened to want at any given time—including the 1789 Founding—or in the Constitution’s first three articles, but in the eternal principles of natural law and right set out in 1776 in the stirring language of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”
In practicing and tolerating chattel slavery in 1789 and afterwards, Jaffa argued, the American Founders had betrayed the bedrock moral commitments of the Declaration, the country’s foundational constitutional text. Only when President Abraham Lincoln belatedly pronounced slavery morally wrong was the regime redeemed. Others echoed his views: Both other Straussians and touchstone Christian-right thinkers such as the evangelical Francis Schaeffer, a seminal figure in the anti-abortion movement, and the Thomist Catholic theologians Sheen and John Courtney Murray, insisted that only those who likewise affirmed and attested to the natural-rights and natural-law foundations of the American republic earned our approbation as statesmen, guardians, and defenders of the American constitutional republic.
Jaffa’s seminal 1959 book, Crisis of the House Divided, set out these understandings in an extended moral-philosophical exegesis—he called it his “teaching”—of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Trained by Strauss at the New School for Social Research (before Strauss moved on to a long career at the University of Chicago and then, briefly, at Claremont and later St. John’s College, in Annapolis), Jaffa read those debates as a world-historical clash “very nearly in form identical with the issue between Socrates and Thrasymachus” recounted in Plato’s Republic. Jaffa pronounced the debates one of the most profound texts in human history, pitting against each other the respective claims of merely positive, human-fashioned law—what the majority of the people will—and natural, divinely ordained law, which is to say what is true, right, and good, or what the people should will. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois argued for positive law in propounding his theory of “popular sovereignty” concerning slavery in the country’s western territories. Lincoln argued for natural law, insisting that the people had no right or power to enact any law that violated the equality of natural rights by providing for the enslavement of other human beings.
To Jaffa, Douglas’s ideas reeked of another major conservative school of thought at the time—structuralism, propounded by men such as the Republican moderate Martin Diamond of Northern Illinois University, the incendiary maverick Yale (and later University of Dallas) political scientist Willmoore Kendall, and the Dartmouth College English professor Jeffrey Hart. Their ideas, as Jaffa saw them, embodied the theory of merely positive law, of might makes right. The antidote to this wicked capitulation, whether by the faithless structuralists or their intellectual progenitor, Douglas, was leadership by virtuous, Lincoln-like statesmen who ruled with the proper moral and philosophical foundations at the forefront of their commitments, men who put natural law—God’s law—first.
Today, to the befuddlement of many, Trump is receiving his strongest support from the most moralistic elements of the modern right. Given Trump’s personal amorality (if not immorality), this smacks of little more than nakedly hypocritical opportunism. But many on the moralistic right tell themselves a different story about their steadfast support for Trump—that he is the long-awaited statesman who will restore the constitutional republic to its forsaken natural-law foundations.
They see a promised return to their understandings of natural law in his reminders that “when the Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they invoked our Creator four times” and that “America is a nation of true believers,” and in his administration’s professed commitment to “unalienable rights.” They see it in his fiercely expressed support for righteous Christians facing mockery and attacks, whom he praises for having the “courage,” “guts,” and “stamina” to not let “other people tell you what you believe, especially when you know that you’re right,” and in his spurning of rotten compromise in defending “civilization against a tide of barbarity.” And perhaps most important of all, they see in his promise that “you will never be ignored again,” and in his ironclad, and kept, promise that “the time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action,” a long-hoped-for leader in the White House who, as committed to these principles, means what he says, and acts. This is a framing forged by Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians and the evangelical, fundamentalist, and Roman Catholic right during the postwar conservative movement’s formative years.
Contemporary conservatives haven’t had to go back and read Jaffa’s, Murray’s, and Schaeffer’s moralist statements about the natural-law and natural-rights foundations of the American republic from the late 1950s through the 1970s, or to watch old clips from Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living, to be touched by their ideas. Jaffa’s, Sheen’s, and Schaeffer’s views are on offer, in polemical and popularized form, around the clock, in modern intellectual right-wing sources peddling existential civilizational crisis, such as American Greatness; the Claremont Institute; the Claremont Review of Books; the University of Dallas’s American Public Philosophy Institute; The American Mind; First Things; Hillsdale’s Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship; the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey; and the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding in Washington, D.C.; and in a growing corpus of new historical and constitutional scholarship bankrolled by conservative foundations, in university-based or adjacent programs on the natural-law and natural-rights foundations of American constitutionalism, in the pulpits of megachurches, on talk radio and Fox News, and on hundreds of internet bulletins, blogs, news feeds, and evangelical, fundamentalist, and Catholic-right websites.
While not all of these contemporaries call expressly for an unchecked presidency, their unyielding support for Trump in the face of a line of egregious constitutional transgressions and repudiations of clear and fundamental constitutional provisions and processes plainly indicates that is precisely the sort of presidency they support, provided it is aimed at the proper moral ends. At long last, the country has the president who will pull no punches—and brook no opposition—in restoring the republic’s natural-law and natural-rights foundations. While Lincoln—who himself seized broad executive power and skirted positive laws in a time of moral emergency—did so by ending slavery, Lincoln’s current legatees, the Jaffaite Straussians in the academy, and the Christian-rightists in the populace and in the Trump administration, will fulfill their latter-day Lincolnian mission by fighting by whatever means necessary abortion rights, gay rights, and the abandonment of “natural” gender roles, in battles they see as essential for protecting “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” In the way these movement voices have framed the stakes, the right and the Republicans stand in the shoes of the 19th-century abolitionists and Lincoln. By contrast, in these arguments and stories, progressives and liberals are cast as the legatees of Douglas who, heedless of divinely ordained right and wrong, accede to the claims of merely human will in blatant defiance of natural law.
The fact that Trump’s most fervent intellectual support within the conservative movement is issuing from the West Coast’s Claremont Institute and the Christian right, often from scholars, clerics, and pundits who—far from ignoring America’s history of slavery, as oblivious liberals often charge—talk and write, it sometimes seems, about nothing else, is not happenstance. And it is more than crass transactionalism. While they certainly grumble about Trump’s personal morals, they have arrived at an unshakable conviction about his divinely ordained role as a vindicating statesman and great president who is willing to do whatever it takes to restore the country to its moral and constitutional foundations.
This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.
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