Will an Influential Conservative Brain Trust Stand Up to Trump?

Plus: Cases for, and against, medical euthanasia in Canada

Donald Trump
Joshua A. Bickel / Bloomberg / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What’s been your personal experience with the health-care system in the United States (or the country where you live) and what larger lessons, if any, have you drawn from it all?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com.

Conversations of Note

When I was 18 or so, I discovered the Claremont Institute because its headquarters was near my alma mater, Pomona College. Then I learned that its stated mission was “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” As a fan of rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and Madisonian checks and balances, that sounded good to me.

A few years later I briefly did editing and writing work for a newsletter on local government that the think tank published, during which I was exposed to Crisis of the House Divided, the formidable historiography of the Lincoln-Douglas debates by Claremont’s intellectual progenitor, the political philosopher Harry Jaffa. The book explores and morally champions slavery’s incompatibility with the Declaration of Independence. Even today, when the think tank is rightly criticized for its failure to oppose Donald Trump, for the sycophantic legal advice that Claremont-affiliated thinkers like John Yoo and John Eastman gave to different Republican presidents, and for the histrionic catastrophizing of Michael Anton, I value some of what is published in the Claremont Review of Books and elsewhere on its website—especially, as with its best critiques of the administrative state and the foreign-policy writing of Christopher Caldwell, when formidable challenges to the establishment are aired. On the whole, however, I no longer believe the core of Claremont’s work is restoring the principles of the American founding.

I do wish the institute would return to that mission, and an opportunity to begin restoring it has presented itself. Last weekend, responding to reporting on Twitter’s dubious decision to block a New York Post article about Hunter Biden’s laptop, Trump posted an extraordinary statement: “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles,” he wrote, “even those found in the Constitution.”

Everyone associated with the Claremont Institute knows how it would respond if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton stated that the Constitution should be suspended so that they could be installed in the White House: forcefully, emphatically, disdainfully, and prolifically, as one would expect of an outfit dedicated to restoring “the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” Can the organization defend its stated values as steadfastly against Trump?

It hasn’t yet. Sad.

A New Low

At the UnPopulist, Ilya Somin, a George Mason University law professor, argues that even after all of his past sins, Trump’s latest outburst matters, and ostracizing him for it matters too.

He writes:

If Trump continues to be the dominant figure in the Republican Party, he could potentially normalize the idea of “terminating” the Constitution, and much other evil … Trump is far from the only recent president who tried to circumvent constitutional limits on his authority … But no other president or ex-president has gone so far as to try to stay in power after losing an election, or called for the complete “termination” of the Constitution, as opposed to merely pushing beyond the limits of his power on some specific issue.

None has defined constitutional deviancy nearly as far down as Trump.

How do we forestall the dangerous normalization of constitutional deviancy? By ensuring that politicians who engage in such behavior pay a heavy price. Ideally, Trump and others like him should at least be ostracized from polite political society, and never again considered worthy of holding any position of power again. If that happens, it will serve as a valuable deterrent for future would-be political malefactors. The next time an unscrupulous ambitious politician considers whether imitating Trump’s behavior is a good idea, he might conclude he better not, lest he suffer the same fate. Trump’s defeat in 2020 and the failure of Trumpist election deniers in several key 2022 races was a step in the right direction. But … so long as Trump remains a powerful figure in one of the major parties and his anti-constitutional ideas remain part of the GOP mainstream, the threat of a dangerous spiral of constitutional deviancy will persist.

On the American Health-Care System

The Atlantic published a thought-provoking cover story on that subject back in 2009. Mariah Blake’s “Dirty Medicine” from the following year also remains a worthwhile article. I found Ronald Dworkin’s essay on the role of the humanities in specialist medicine surprising. And Scott Alexander explains what your doctor spends 80 percent of their time doing.

Winding Down the Pandemic

Megan McArdle argues that Twitter is correct to stop policing its site for COVID-19 misinformation.

She writes:

I spent the pandemic years arguing forcefully against such nonsense, often to the point of despair. I understand the temptation to simply say “Shut up and go away” rather than try to argue people away from beliefs I considered to be poorly evidenced and dangerous.

I gave in to that temptation more than once.

Unfortunately, I now suspect this did more harm than good — and all the more so when it was official corporate policy rather than criticism from a frazzled columnist. For one thing, moderators aren’t good at determining what constitutes actual misinformation. A lot of the dangerous nonsense about covid that circulated on social media came from the same public health experts social media companies were using as arbiters. It was public health experts who initially told us masks don’t work, an assertion they knew to be false. It was public health experts who insisted, without good evidence, that covid wasn’t airborne. And many public health experts helped support prolonged school closures that have been proven to undermine learning … The public health community eventually recognized its most egregious errors, while the quacks doubled down. But free and open debate on social media assisted that process of course correction.

Euthanasia Up North

After surveying its legalization in Canada, Ross Douthat lambasts that nation’s approach:

The rules of civilization necessarily include gray areas. It is not barbaric for the law to acknowledge hard choices in end-of-life care, about when to withdraw life support or how aggressively to manage agonizing pain. It is barbaric, however, to establish a bureaucratic system that offers death as a reliable treatment for suffering and enlists the healing profession in delivering this “cure.” And while there may be worse evils ahead, this isn’t a slippery slope argument: When 10,000 people are availing themselves of your euthanasia system every year, you have already entered the dystopia … The idea that human rights encompass a right to self-destruction, the conceit that people in a state of terrible suffering and vulnerability are really “free” to make a choice that ends all choices, the idea that a healing profession should include death in its battery of treatments — these are inherently destructive ideas. Left unchecked, they will forge a cruel brave new world, a dehumanizing final chapter for the liberal story.

In contrast, a Canadian court ruling overturned prohibitions on “physician-assisted dying for competent adults who seek such assistance as a result of a grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes enduring and intolerable suffering.” Here is an excerpt of its reasoning:

The right to life is engaged where the law or state action imposes death or an increased risk of death on a person, either directly or indirectly. Here, the prohibition deprives some individuals of life, as it has the effect of forcing some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable. The rights to liberty and security of the person, which deal with concerns about autonomy and quality of life, are also engaged.

An individual’s response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition is a matter critical to their dignity and autonomy. The prohibition denies people in this situation the right to make decisions concerning their bodily integrity and medical care and thus trenches on their liberty. And by leaving them to endure intolerable suffering, it impinges on their security of the person. The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. The object of the prohibition is not, broadly, to preserve life whatever the circumstances, but more specifically to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness. Since a total ban on assisted suicide clearly helps achieve this object, individuals’ rights are not deprived arbitrarily. However, the prohibition catches people outside the class of protected persons. It follows that the limitation on their rights is in at least some cases not connected to the objective and that the prohibition is thus overbroad.

Provocation of the Week

Writing in The Harvard Crimson, Brooks B. Anderson, class of 2025, speaks truth to administrators:

Harvard is one of the world’s preeminent universities; surely it has used its billions of dollars of accumulated wealth to primarily invest in its educational program, building an unparalleled roster of top professors, expanding offerings to students, and reducing class sizes. Right? Wrong. Harvard has instead filled its halls with administrators. Across the University, for every academic employee there are approximately 1.45 administrators. When only considering faculty, this ratio jumps to 3.09. Harvard employs 7,024 total full-time administrators, only slightly fewer than the undergraduate population.

What do they all do?

Most administrators have a legitimate function. I will happily concede that the University does need administration to operate effectively. No professors want to handle Title IX compliance or send institution-wide emails about Covid-19 protocols. Yet of the 7,000-strong horde, it seems that many members’ primary purpose is to squander away tax-free money intended for academic work on initiatives, projects, and committees that provide scant value to anyone’s educational experience.

For example, last December, all Faculty of Arts and Sciences affiliates received an email from Dean Claudine Gay announcing the final report of the FAS Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, a task force itself created by recommendation of the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. This task force was composed of 24 members: six students, nine faculty members, and nine administrators. The task force produced a 26-page report divided into seven sections, based upon a survey, focus groups, and 15 separate meetings with over 500 people total. The report dedicated seven pages to its recommendations, which ranged from “Clarify institutional authority over FAS visual culture and signage” to “Create a dynamic program of public art in the FAS.” In response to these recommendations, Dean Gay announced the creation of a new administrative post, the “FAS campus curator,” and a new committee, the “FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage.” Regardless of your stance on the goal of fostering a more inclusive visual culture, the procedural absurdity is clear. A presidential task force led to the creation of an FAS task force which, after expending significant time, effort, and resources, led to the creation of a single administrative job and a committee with almost the exact name as the second task force. I challenge anyone other than the task force members themselves to identify the value created for a single Harvard student’s educational experience.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.