According to Ross Douthat, in his April 1, 2017 New York Times article, “Trump Needs a Brain”:
Trump himself doesn’t know what he wants to do on major issues and there’s nobody in his innermost circle who seems to have a compelling vision that might guide him.
Douthat says in an “ideologically unstable age” Trump needs ideological expertise. “The dearth of Trumpists” is a major problem because “Trump himself doesn’t know what he wants to do.”
Trump needs no such experts. The information Trump needs about what to do—information about the character of good citizenship and the good of the whole—is not technical in nature. A better theoretical understanding of Trumpism by Trump would make Trump worse, not better.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle described wisdom as divided into practical and theoretical wisdom. While theoretical wisdom can provide advice to practical wisdom, as Aristotle did in the Ethics, it is not theory that chiefly informs statesmanship. Theoretical wisdom examines the true nature of the whole for the sake of knowing. While theoretical wisdom for Aristotle is in the superior position for the sake of understanding, it is in an inferior position with respect to direct application for practical enterprises.
In Metaphysics [1072b], Aristotle describes his theoretical understanding of God as pure actuality, as thinking, thinking about thinking. Following this description of the divine as understood theoretically [1074b], Aristotle explains that almost no one actually understands divinity in this way. Instead, ancient Greeks understood the divine as many anthropomorphic gods.
Harry Jaffa’s Thomism and Aristotelianism lays out in Chapter VI “Magnanimity and the Limits of Morality” (pg. 121) the dichotomy between the incentives of the statesman and those of the philosopher. The statesman and philosopher both direct their intellectual powers toward the highest thing, the imitation of the divine. But the philosopher imitates the divine—thinking, thinking about thinking—through contemplation. The statesman has a different view of the divine and imitates the divine—the gods of the city—acting as a benefactor to the people he serves. Think of how the anthropomorphic gods of polytheistic faiths are praised for conferring benefits on mortals, as—for example—Athena confers benefits on Athens. If the statesman had a theoretical understanding of the divine, he would not have a compelling incentive to do what he does. He would sit around some think tank in D.C. or worse, write a column for the New York Times.
We do not live in a polytheistic age, but this same basic understanding of the whole persists for many adherents of monotheistic faiths. In practice, these faiths allow for lesser participations in divinity, such as angels, saints, and heroic figures. Within each particular faith doctrinal distinctions exist that are crucially important. Polytheism, of course, is a heresy, but psychologically the views of our religions bear some comparisons with to those in the ancient world of gods, demigods, and heroes.
On some occasions, Trump personally has revealed these views. Trump is nominally Presbyterian, but he made clear with comments like “Two Corinthians” and “little wine and little cracker” and his comfort with other faiths and interfaith marriage, that the specific doctrines of the sects with which he affiliates are unimportant. On at least two occasions has discussed things even more revelatory of these views. He referred to his father, Fred Trump, as “looking down” on events and approving Trump’s conduct in securing the presidency. In addition, in his February 28 joint speech to Congress, Trump referred to U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens as follows:
Ryan died as he lived: a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation . . . Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.
When the applause finally subsided, Trump, addressing Ryan Owen’s widow, said extemporaneously:
And Ryan is looking down, right now—you know that—and he is very happy because I think he just broke a record.
For Trump—and his “you know that” suggests he presumes this is the view of every decent person—the heroic dead are very much alive, and they are judging our conduct. They want to us to break records, or as Aristotle would say, achieve excellence.
If, for Trump, the heroic dead are very much alive as were the gods of the city to the ancient Greeks, then Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and other heroes of the American past are, for Trump, very much alive and judging Trump’s conduct. Washington, D.C.’s monuments to these men are laid out to overlay these heroic dead on the pattern of the ancient Greek polytheism—not to establish polytheism—but to establish a civic religion that can serve as a guide to citizens and statesmen alike.
Such a civic religion can be a guide only to people who are open to such a view, and Trump clearly is. Imitation of the divine for Trump consists in measuring up to the standards and judgment of these heroes of the past. In that sense, Trump the statesman can be said to have the right opinions for practical wisdom, opinions that do not require any further ideological underpinning to tell him what to do.
These opinions are ones that progressives—who speak of faith traditions rather than of faith, consider unscientific and from the realm of the superstitious. President Obama placed importance of his father as a personal hero but modern psychology defined his view. Obama’s father was not “looking down;” rather there were “dreams from my father,” subconscious impulses, subject to the technical evaluation of Freudians and their kith. Obama, if I understand him, would not think of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as heroes against which his own actions could be judged, but merely as several of many parts in an irrational past up for evaluation only by the progress of science and ever-improving expertise. There is nothing inherent in the wisdom of our forebears to inform us today—only an openness to “progress” as such. Obama, I submit, could not be open to being informed by our classical civic religion as is Trump. As a result, Trump appeared to Obama to lack the temperament for the office, not just for policy reasons, but because his worldview seems to Obama to be genuinely alien.
A civic religion which calls us to live up to the judgments of the Founders is superior to the progressive worldview, despite the generous way in which progressives seem happy to interpret themselves. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln worked to confer the benefit of securing self-government for their fellow Americans in the hope that each American could, in some sense, be molded after themselves, capable of and willing to live up to the equality before the law that their nature as men deemed proper and their inheritance as Americans promised. Below are illustrative quotes:
From Washington on rule of law:
The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.
Lincoln on Jefferson regarding equality:
. . . in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, [Jefferson] had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
From Lincoln regarding equality and liberty:
As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.
These statesman knew what to do because they knew themselves—which is to say that they knew what sort of being they were and what sort of dignity that demanded. No further “ideology” was necessary, and there was little further useful formal expertise. The practical character of the American Founding is why it defies attempts—and there have been and will continue to be many such attempts—to impose upon it an ideological strait jacket as wholly defined the Enlightenment.
If one interprets Trump using this lens, Trump makes perfect sense. He wants for the American people the things he wants for himself: nationhood, rule of law, self-government, and economic opportunity. He says this all quite plainly:
- restore the idea of American nationhood (“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” – Trump Inaugural),
- restore the sovereignty of the people (e.g., “What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.” –Trump Inaugural),
- restore rule of law (e.g., “To any in Congress who do not believe we should enforce our laws, I would ask you this one question: What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” – Trump Joint Address to Congress),
- rescue the economy and the American people an out-of-control administrative state (e.g., “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost” – Trump Inaugural),
- end perpetual war and invest in the United States (“The thing I do best is build. When you have an infrastructure of a country like ours that is absolutely decaying and rotting and falling apart and we—by the way, we’re spending $5 trillion in the Middle East instead of doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We have to knock the hell out of ISIS and all, but we have to get back to rebuilding our country because you look at our airports, our roadways, our tunnels, our bridges—67 percent of them are in trouble.” – Trump on Morning Joe, February 9, 2016), and
- rescue the middle class from unfair trade and globalism (e.g., “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry.” – Trump Inaugural; “For too long, we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries. We’ve financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and so many other places throughout our land.” – Trump Joint Address to Congress).
Trump does not need a hired brain to tell him what to do. What Trump needs is loyal help implementing what he already knows. #Nevertrump Republicans and conservatives, such as Katie Walsh—a part of a disloyal opposition styled as “Resistance”—and even some so-called “non-partisan” employees of the executive branch have undertaken to impede the new administration. These are not checks on power as were envisioned by the Framers. These are bad actors. The help Trump needs now will come from those who know best how to break through these impediments, so he can do the work of the American people.