On the 'Vulgar Manliness' of Donald Trump
In “The Vulgar Manliness of Donald Trump,” Harvard Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield depicts the President as a demagogue -- precisely the sort of crass figure whose rise to power the Founders wished to forestall. The theoretical underpinning of the article, the concept of “manliness” itself, receives its full expostulation in Professor Mansfield’s book, Manliness (Yale University Press, 2006). We are unable to go into that rich and learned work here. Suffice it to quote from the book’s preface, “Manliness seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk.” But it is “about fifty-fifty good and bad.” The good manliness, that of the first responders on 9/11 (and, we might add, of the Seals who killed Osama bin Laden), is necessary to resist the wicked manliness of the 9/11 attackers and their ilk.
According to Professor Mansfield, Trump’s is a vulgar manliness, and therefore to be disdained. Vulgarity was understood in ancient political philosophy as the characteristic of the common people. Classical authors, and others through the centuries, viewed democracy as problematic and likely to collapse into tyranny, because the people, in Mansfield’s reprise, were “hasty, angry, impulsive, brash, and punitive.” We need only think of the Roman mob in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The people inevitably will choose a man with those same qualities, one as vulgar as they are, but with the ambition, guile, and rhetorical talent to raise them against “men of quality, nobles, aristocrats, or gentlemen.”
The popular demagogue excites class envy, making those same “men of quality” out to be “enemies of the people” and vowing to take and distribute their wealth if only the people give him power, surrendering their liberty. The President’s behavior “fits with the classical demagogue, who roused the demos against the nobles or gentlemen, and Trump has used the same method against the leaders of both parties.” The intricate structure of constitutional republicanism, with its checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism, independent judiciary, and electoral college, all designed to prevent the election of men like Donald Trump, failed us in the 2016 election. The wall was breached.
The President, Mansfield tells us, displays “the outrageous coarseness of a vulgar man.” The adjective “outrageous” appears not less than three times in the piece. Besides outrageous coarseness, Trump made “outrageous comments” about Fox correspondent Megyn Kelly after she went after him at the first Republican presidential nomination debate. In opposing political correctness, he supported “vulgar manliness” with “outrageous behavior meant to be offensive.”
The worst aspect of Trump’s campaign, in Mansfield’s view, appears to be his encouragement of the base tendencies of his supporters -- just the sort of louts who delight at his “lack of good taste, of good manners, of gentlemanliness, of protocol, and of tact.” They are people who suppose indecency and “blurting lies” to be honesty. Trump, furthermore, exploited a racial envy and resentment in poor white voters. It is not immediately clear if this category -- the poor white voters angry at special privileges being accorded blacks -- is different from the first (the cheering section for bad taste). But as to the poor whites, Trump shrewdly discerned their sentiments and began to mobilize them as a white voting block to oppose that of the “black community.” In doing this, “Trump was not calling on the finer feelings of the electorate.”
Certainly, there is no denying the President’s propensity for insult and rough language. Those of us who supported Senator Cruz had occasion to resent the personal attacks on both Senator Cruz and his loved ones. We, ourselves, may even have worried that the most ardent Trump supporters during the election had not been improved by his influence. See, for example, Peggy Noonan's Trump Tears It is, however, a little difficult to identify the “men [and women] of quality, nobles, aristocrats, and gentlemen [or ladies]” to whom Professor Mansfield refers.
Against what exemplary public figures did Trump seek to raise the rabble? Surely Professor Mansfield does not have in mind Trump’s predecessor in office, or the awful brute of a woman he defeated. Does he refer to the Democratic congressional leadership, to Senator Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi, or to their acolytes in the news media and Hollywood? One would hope that it is not such a company that comprise the defenders of republican virtue in Professor Mansfield’s formulation. If the incumbent President is vulgar, and a bad influence on his partisans, then what are his Democrat enemies?
Barack Obama’s ascent, no doubt, was attributable to more politically significant factors than the utter disgrace of the American intellectual. That was merely the aspect of the 2008 election most distressing to me. Men of letters, including newspaper and television pundits who fancy themselves as such, saw in Obama one of their own: a man of supreme urbanity, reflection, and wit, and one whose elevation to the highest authority would alleviate racial strife. In the event, this determined radical and his subordinates did everything in their power to exacerbate racial strife. The Justice Department hounded local police departments into passivity, accusing them of bias, even as the President received advocates of cop-killing at the White House.
Democratic politicians, now and since the transformation of the Party during the Vietnam years, have opposed virtually every plan to enhance the nation’s prosperity, and most especially any proposal to reduce taxes, by screaming that it is a plot to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Who among their prominent figures has failed to resemble “the man who incites faction against those who have wealth”? Plato, Republic, 566a. Do they appeal to anyone’s finer feelings, inciting envy and racial animus? Is it, perhaps, a little late in the day to be worrying about the demise of republicanism under Donald Trump?
And what evidence is there that Trump has been an instigator of class resentment? Free market conservatives lament his pressuring companies into keeping jobs in the country and his occasional threats to retaliate for the inimical trade practices of foreign powers. But the policies he has pursued -- lowering taxes, repeal and replace ObamaCare, and paring business regulations -- have all been in the direction of growth in the private sector, and have provoked the usual Marxist wailings from the party opposite. The insistence that equality is morality, pure and simple, and that liberty, beginning with the right to own and enjoy private property, must be sacrificed on its alter, comes from the Democratic Party.
Perhaps Professor Mansfield means more the Republican congressional leadership when he writes that Trump denigrates the “Establishment” and that by this term we should understand the “nobles or gentleman” in the land. But has not the Republican leadership proven at best feckless in passing legislation, even when the Party holds the majority in both Houses and the Presidency, and at worst deeply dishonest with its constituents? The leaders and members were indeed chosen by the people, but with the promise that, among other things, they would do something about the health care disaster that Obama bequeathed them.
It might be argued that Senator McConnell is hardly responsible if a two-faced old fraud like Senator John McCain -- that, regrettably, is what he turned out to be, with all regard for the heroism of young Lt. John McCain -- wins reelection by assuring the voters that he will be in the forefront of repealing ObamaCare and then once back in office, deliberately frustrates the endeavor. But there were no consequences for McCain and the other turncoats meted out by leadership. Their chairmanships and their party support in the next election remain unaffected, as far as we can tell. The opposition of the Republican leadership and a number of senior members of Congress to the Democrats appears to be nominal.
Professor Mansfield finds additional evidence of the President’s demagoguery in his “bypass[ing] the media, the parties, and the Constitution” and appealing directly to the people. As to bypassing the parties and the media, why should he not have done so? They are rotten, and reflect the national decline. Presidents in the television age often appeal directly to the people. And as to bypassing the Constitution, it would have been helpful had Mansfield cited an example of Trump committing an unconstitutional or lawless act.
In the previous Administration, such instances were legion. Obama’s I.R.S. persecuted conservative political groups in order that they not endanger his reelection. He purported to amend his own healthcare bill by executive order, without further action by Congress. With the cooperation of craven Republicans, Obama upended the Treaty Clause by his agreement with Iran. To cover what looked very much like a decision to abandon American fighting men in Benghazi, Obama and his Secretary of State fabricated a story about a film prompting a spontaneous riot, and threw the obscure filmmaker into jail. And that same Secretary of State relentlessly violated the Espionage Act by putting classified documents on a private server. All of this represents my idea of “outrageous.”
The supporters of candidate Donald Trump no doubt included some unsavory types, but tens of millions of people voted for him. Are they to be dismissed as vulgar or envious of privileges given other races? Or were they driven by a leftist assault on the very Constitution that Professor Mansfield elsewhere rightly calls “our way of life” to choose someone dauntless enough to resist? Were they not for the most part admirable and patriotic Americans, who sought only that their way of life not die?