In Defense of the Voters...Even if Trump Is Winning

Should the success of Mr. Donald Trump in the Republican nomination contest make us despair of our people's capacity to govern themselves?  That seems to be the implication of certain writings by nominally conservative authors in recent months.  Such reaction to electoral disappointment has been common enough on the left, as anyone around after the 1994 congressional elections will recall.

Bears, cornered in the hunt, have departed life with greater decorum than some of the Democrats and their media allies exhibited, reacting to the loss that year of the majority in both Houses of Congress.  But how startling now to read Bret Stephens on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, inveighing against the voters themselves: "Mr. Trump is a loudmouth vulgarian appealing to quieter vulgarians. The vulgarians comprise a significant percentage of the GOP base.  The leader isn't the problem.  The people are. It takes the demos to make the demagogue."

 All of the longings and grievances that might lead ordinary citizens to repose hope in a Trump presidency Stephens dismisses as "a parade of semi-sophisticated theories that that act as bathroom deodorizers to mask the stench of this candidacy."

A little less acerbic but in much the same vein are the remarks of Jonah Goldberg and Peter Wehner.  "[I]f it's true that politicians can disappoint, I think one has to say that the people can, too," laments Goldberg.  Wehner likewise reminds us that "vox populi is not vox dei" and posits that "a fever that is raging through significant parts of the Republican Party these days, one that is immune to reason."  The coming of Trump Wehner further attributes to a contemporary "cultural rot," affecting "the moral sensibilities of the young."

And there is John Podhoretz, whose contempt for Trump's supporters is, if anything, more unbridled than Stephens's.  He attributes their folly first to "baby boomer nostalgia" (here reference is made to the writings of Yuval Levin) and then to a mindless and malignant desire to punish.  Podhoretz deems it foolish for anyone to be worried about the presence of millions of foreigners here illegally and a continuously porous border when the Simpson-Mazzoli Act was propounded in 1986.  It is similarly absurd to oppose the abortion industry and the horrors of infanticide today, when the Supreme Court decision constitutionalizing abortion occurred in 1973.  These concerns are out of date – you know, like record players.  Furthermore, Trump supporters have no good reason to be worried about terrorism by Moslem immigrants, as at San Bernardino, or by Mexican ones, as in the murder of Kathryn Steinle.  They just want Trump to punish someone – anyone. "Whatever. He's their Punisher" is Podhoretz's mocking characterization.  Trump supporters have no more claim to sense than a pack of hyenas. 

Now, there are a few of us who generally share the view of Donald Trump voiced by the above writers and therefore support the Republican candidate who has most nearly matched Trump in the primaries and caucuses: Senator Ted Cruz.  We support Senator Cruz not merely because he is the only one with so much as a slight chance of defeating Trump before the convention, but also because of his exceptional intellect, oratorical gift, parliamentary courage, and devotion to the cause of constitutional conservatism.  He is the best that we have in government, and he would address the very salient preoccupations of Trump's followers.  Among the authors cited above, only Jonah Goldberg has written in support of Cruz as the available alternative to Trump.  Stephens and Podhoretz, in other columns, display a detestation of Cruz at least equal to that which they hold for Trump.

Between them, Trump and Cruz have won an overwhelming majority of votes and delegates in the nomination campaign.  Is it then the wider Republican electorate, not merely Trump's plurality of voters, whom our commentators despise?  And should either Trump or Cruz be elected president, the same condemnation logically would apply to a majority of the entire American voting public.  Can we claim to believe in representative democracy, and yet so rudely dismiss the judgment of the people?

"No policy that does not rest upon philosophical public opinion can be permanently maintained," says Lincoln (1860).  This must be the most enigmatic fragment attributed to the great man.  If there is one thing that can never be philosophical, then surely it is public opinion!  What might he have meant?  To be "philosophical," we take it, is to be wise, in some sense.  Can the great multitude of people, with their limited education and attention to public affairs, be wise in political matters?  There is an ancient voice that tells us, "The many, of whom none individually is an excellent man, nevertheless can when joined together be better – not as individuals, but all together – than those [who are best] just as dinners contributed [by many] can be better than those equipped from a single expenditure" (Aristotle, Politics III, 11).  The people's wisdom, while slight in each individual, is great when combined, as though they become one person, formed of their combined virtue.

Madison says our system is predicated upon a confidence that the best qualities in our people will be dominant: "As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in higher degree than any other form" (Federalist, 55).  If popular wisdom springs from the amalgamation of millions of souls, then no doubt it requires time for it to form and take effect.  In any case, it seems that we must wait for it.  The vox populi assuredly is not the vox dei, but as we a while back dispensed with the divine right of kings, it is the will of the people that determines our rulers.

Mr. Trump, of course, has proclaimed his intention of "making America great again."  It is natural that to a dynamic man, this should mean performing prodigious deeds, his footsteps thundering in the world.  Such men are likely to be uninterested in the preservation of a document that limits what rulers may do to their citizens.  We nonetheless venture to suggest, no more to Trump than to Republicans countenancing support for Hillary Clinton, that America will be made great again only by restoring the primacy of its Constitution.  That is the foundation of everything else.

Will Trump adopt the attitude of the incumbent president, of Secretary Clinton, and of many in their party that the Constitution is but an anachronistic series of impediments to progressive action?  The signs – e.g., Trump's expressed intention to silence unfriendly newspapers by punitive lawsuits – are not encouraging.

It is easy to forget that a democracy's greatness arises from the endeavor, the bravery, and the patriotic devotion of the people, and that those things result from a disseminated confidence that such endeavor and sacrifice will be attended by justice, not by arbitrary penalty and repression.  It is in order to live in a free society that Americans have always been willing to labor and to fight, and the Constitution that upholds freedom.  But however wrong some of our citizens may be in supporting Trump, it is understandable doubt of either party's willingness to protect their American birthright, and not the loutishness attributed to them by a certain class of commentator, that accounts for the present twilight of political orthodoxy.