Harvey Mansfield XI Transcript
Taped 29 November 2017
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi I’m Bill Kristol, welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m joined again by Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University. This is three weeks after Donald Trump was elected. You’re going to explain the meaning of Trump from the point of view of political science, political philosophy. Is Trump an altogether new phenomenon, or he is intelligible in terms of classical political science?
MANSFIELD: Well, let’s see. He’s certainly a challenge to political science. But let’s start with Trump as demagogue.
KRISTOL: A traditional term.
MANSFIELD: A traditional term of Plato and Aristotle, a classical term, “demagogue.” It’s also used by the American Founders as something to be avoided in a popular government. Demagogue in Greek means, “an actor for the people.” Demos is the beginning, “people.” A “people actor”. It’s unclear whether the actor is the instrument of the people, or the people are the instrument of the actor. I think that’s a characteristic unclarity of a demagogue.
But the classical writers seem to come down, at the end, to say that he’s an instrument of the people. So, demagogues, demagogy is characteristic of the people, so to speak – their fault, they are to blame for the people they are using to gain their ends.
Now, a demagogue also has this characteristic which Trump has, for sure, in that he loves to be loved, and he doesn’t worry about the quality of the people who love him. He’s only worried about the quantity. He wants a lot of people to love him, so to speak, without discrimination. That bears a close resemblance to what we call a “celebrity” in our democratic society now.
A celebrity, I would say, is right next door to a demagogue. Trump qua celebrity had a good preparation in life for becoming in politics a demagogue. [He is ] not so worried about the quality as the quantity. That would imply that he has a kind of preference for what is directly popular and not so much for what some thinker or maker of doctrine works out. So a demagogue doesn’t have an “-ism.” He is just himself and he wants to promote himself. Or is it the people? Or is it both?
And so you can see three things that Trump does in politics, two of which are new. First is that he loves big rallies – that’s typical, traditional with a demagogue. Big rallies in which he gets to stand there and hold the attention of everyone, and everyone’s looking at him, and listening only to him, and they get it directly from him. Without the media. That’s his great point; he wants a direct appeal to you.
But, nowadays we have media. So to get around the media, Trump has invented this new technique, which I think is original with him for a politician, which is the tweet. Just a few words, but they always have a punch in them. He can attract attention that way, and the media are in the position of having to talk about him instead of he having to talk through them.
It’s really an advantage, a considerable advantage to be able to sidestep, get around, run an end-run around the Washington Post and the New York Times, even the Wall Street Journal. They’re all listening to him.
Then the third thing that he does is be outrageous. And in a way that no one has never seen, I think, in an American politician, and certainly not in a presidential candidate. For example, referring to a woman’s menstrual condition is really forbidden territory, one would think. But he goes into forbidden territory, issues insults: “Crooked Hillary,” “Lying Ted.”
MANSFIELD: Epithets, yes. Therefore, he gives people the impression that he, as they say, “he tells it like it is.” Meaning he goes beyond the barriers, or the boundaries of good taste and of good manners, of politeness, of gentlemanliness.
But especially beyond the boundaries of political correctness, which are boundaries of our time, characteristic of our time. That makes people think that on this other side, beyond, he’s found something secret, or the hidden cause of things, and he brings that out in the people.
He appeals to what is hidden in our thoughts. Really, our feelings, and gives it formulation; brings it out, makes it public. He doesn’t exactly cause it in us, because it’s there already, but you might say a “precipitating cause.” It’s a cause that makes the hidden cause – our dislike, our resentment, say, at political correctness – and brings it out.
Political correctness causes a lot of resentment. It’s just – the most, maybe, characteristic expression of it is euphemism. So today we get a lot of talk about “undocumented immigrants.” That’s a euphemism. Why don’t they have documents? It’s because they’re here illegally. They should be called “illegal immigrants,” that’s what they are. That’s the non-politically correct expression for them. I noticed that even the Wall Street Journal is now talking about undocumented; and, of course, all the universities are up in arms about great dangers to the undocumented.
So that’s an example. And Trump is appealing to those who are excluded from the benefits of political correctness, for whom there is no euphemism. But, in fact, they can be called “deplorables” and you can get away with it. These people look on those who are on ‘the list’, say, the protected list – so Blacks and other minorities, Asians, immigrants, Islamic gentlemen – and they see that they aren’t on that list, and their interests are therefore not being preferred as those others are.
So that’s, I think, the three elements of demagogy that you find in Trump.
But then, we characteristically call him, or his ideas, by an -ism. So today in American politics you can hear the word “demagogic” to refer to particular events or actions, but “demagogue” as a whole, to describe someone, is quite rare; instead we use the word “populist,” implying “populism.” So that’s this tendency to rationalize the irrational and to make it respectable, bring it out.
People will talk in terms, I think, more of ideas about Trump than is the case. To the extent he’s a demagogue, he doesn’t care about ideas; he cares about being loved, no matter by whom. But, maybe, he does have these characteristic ideas because he’s looking at a particular audience, a particular section of the demos that is going to prefer him.
He also appeals to others who want to use him. That’s another way in which, you know, people are not so enthusiastic for Trump’s ideas as they for his ability, and wish to change. To change. This is a kind of reckless word, “change.” It doesn’t say whether it’s change for the better or not, or what kind of change, just change. As if we were desperate. As if our society was in desperate straits and we were reaching for any hope of safety.
That’s this demagogy and populism that he has: Immigration, free trade, pulling back from nation building, from neo-conservatism, martial adventurism – things like that that he’s associated with. But, perhaps one should be careful of defining him by those ideas. He won’t stick to them – this gives hope, maybe, that he won’t stick to them, because if he is strongly opposed or if he sees that it isn’t popular, he’ll do something different.
On the other hand, he has this great confidence, having won against the odds, against everybody’s opinion, every respectable opinion – well, let’s say not quite everybody, most everybody’s respectable opinion – he has a greater confidence in his own view than of others’. So we don’t know exactly that we’re facing.
KRISTOL: Let’s go back to the demagogue question for a minute. Maybe you could distinguish that from the more traditional American, you know, common touch, log cabin. I’m struck that Trump did invent sort of, for the modern era, this notion of running his entire campaign as rallies. Traditionally, in the last week or two you have big rallies in the general election or something like that. But the way you showed – let’s say Bill Clinton, or most candidates – showed empathy with the common man was to go to a diner and have a photo op where they pretend to have a conversation over coffee. Hillary Clinton did this with regular people, “ordinary Americans,” as Hillary Clinton said at one point. But that’s different somehow, I think, isn’t it? Maybe you could distinguish sort of, let’s say, ‘normal democracy’ from –
MANSFIELD: The normal politician would say, “Oh, you need informality.” Informality is the way to get to the people. And they’re right about that. But you can use this ‘lecture’ – is what Trump is essentially doing at these rallies – like a professor. You can use that in a very informal way.
KRISTOL: And he does speak informally, of course.
MANSFIELD: Very informally, with a lot of personality, and in his case, insults instead of jokes.
KRISTOL: He doesn’t have a natural sense of humor.
MANSFIELD: No, he doesn’t have a sense of humor of any kind.
KRISTOL: Demagogues don’t, I guess.
MANSFIELD: Yes, I think that’s right; they don’t appeal to the popular love of humor – like Abe Lincoln, who always had a joke, had a funny story, relaxing a little bit. No, he wants to keep you tense.
KRISTOL: So humor implies some distance, maybe, right?
MANSFIELD: It does. You’re backing off, you’re able to laugh, i.e., laugh at yourself. A demagogue? No, he’s serious. You’ve got to be.
KRISTOL: I was struck at the Republican Convention, and this is when I thought he could win; I didn’t think he would win, as most people didn’t, but I always thought he had a chance. When he said, I think it was something like this, “Hillary Clinton says, her slogan is ‘I’m with Her,’” and he sort of ridiculed that and said, “My slogan is,” or “I’m standing here to say, ‘I’m with You.’” Which is a nice formulation, I think, of either a democratic leader or a demagogue, depending how you think of it.
But, in a way, Hillary Clinton was too old-fashioned, perhaps. Or the identity politics. I guess his appeal to the public, as a whole, trumped her kind of identity politics.
MANSFIELD: Her identity politics comes out of, you might say, the ‘twilight of progressivism.’ The Democratic Party stands for progress. But coming out of the Progressive Party in the early 20th century, but it’s been a long time since they’ve really believed in progress.
Progress means you can rationally say that some situation, some state of things is better than another. For example, it’s better to be more equal than not. That’s what they believe, but they don’t think there is any reason they can give, as they are caught up in relativism and in the fact/value distinction and the inability of science to say what is good and what is bad.
So, they have redefined progress, simply, in this word ‘change.’ Makes it much vaguer; it takes the edge off it. Doesn’t really promise anything except as if you were to pick up America like a doll and give it a shake – that’s ‘change.’
And, so, they’ve come to identify bringing more equality as protecting the most vulnerable sections of American society. And that comes back to their list of the politically correct minorities. They forget about the majority as a common good. Where is the common good? It isn’t there. The common good consists of an addition of the good of, or the interests of various ethnic groups. So, that is really striking.
Even books that are written about “the emerging Democratic majority,” they’re just adding up minorities in order to make a majority. That seems totally inadequate. Where’s America in that? And, especially, where is America’s pride? Or, to think of Trump, where is America’s greatness?
And America’s greatness, of course, gets lost, lost in relativism. America thinks it’s great, so does every other country; therefore, we’re all equal. Therefore, actually, the countries that think they’re great are morally inferior to those who are satisfied with being Denmark. So, that leads to a very weak, appeasing foreign policy. A foreign policy of apology, as we saw very clearly in Obama.
So, the status quo. The status quo, then, turns out to be the people who believe in, or talk about change – even though they don’t believe in it. Or you could say that progressives are people who have stopped believing in progress, today.
KRISTOL: Our friend Jim Ceaser wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard, he was very struck by Bill Clinton, this was the late 90s, his use of “I feel your pain” as his attempt to identify with the public, obviously, in this sort of populist way, you might say, maybe a little demagogic way. I think he traced that back to Germany and thought nothing good would come of this kind of politics. But, I guess, it is striking. So, the liberal view is “I feel your pain,” and Trump doesn’t quite put it that way. I mean, he does talk about how things are bad and things have never been worse, “It’s the worst trade treaty ever.”
MANSFIELD: But he denounces it. He denounces it morally. “This is very bad, this is terrible. It doesn’t have to be.”
KRISTOL: So, it’s less empathy and more rebellion.
MANSFIELD: Justice, or sense of rebellion. Resentment. Nietzsche wouldn’t like Trump. Nietzsche, the philosopher, opposed to resentment.
KRISTOL: He wouldn’t like “I feel your pain,” either.
MANSFIELD: There’s a lot of things he doesn’t like, while we’re talking about Nietzsche.
KRISTOL: What about the Founders, though? They might be upset by a politics that’s a competition of “I feel your pain” or “I express your resentments?”
MANSFIELD: Right. I think they would prefer a politics of contentiousness, yes. But a politics where people propose for the common good, or for the public good. In America one finds a kind of mix, or a combination of two opposite things. A can-do spirit – things can be done. There are barriers in the way, but keep trying; we’ll find a solution and then we’ll do something, we’ll get good results.
But then, also, there is a love of process. I’ve got my rights; you’ve got to respect them. You mustn’t let your can-do spirit get in the way of my rights. If I’m a small house owner in the way of huge building that wants to get built, none of your can-do for me, I’m going to fight for my rights.
Somehow it’s been – The people who stand behind the can-do spirit, I think, the common people who want to get things done, who live in a democracy and they suffer from democratic impatience. They don’t like long-lasting wars, for example. Nothing long-lasting. Everything must be found and found quick. Freedom now. That’s democratic impatience.
And most of the desire for process comes from the elites. It’s the elites that protect our rights or define our rights. The elites consist mostly of lawyers. They stand up for things, which means they stand in the way of things.
Our Constitution is a kind of combination of the two: It has a lot of rights in it, but it also has powers in it. And this was meant to be a republican constitution that, for the first time, would work. That’s what was promised to us in 1787. All previous republican constitutions have been lists of wishes. If only the people could have this and that; and if only this would happen and other things wouldn’t get it the way.
Now, for the first time, a republic was going to be made capable and effectual, with a strong executive and not just a list of rights but a separation of powers. A separation of powers which would have checks and balances; but, also, in the contention between the powers, something good or better would emerge.
Having a constitution slows things down, slows down the hurried impatience of a republic or of a democratic people. It makes you think twice. A bicameral legislature – you can’t pass a law just through one house, you have to also get the Senate, as well, and the signature of the president. All of this is supposed to add up to something more than merely preventing government from doing bad things, but also enabling it to do good things. Give it more energy and give it more stability, those two opposite characters that are promised in The Federalist for our Constitution.
You could say that the Constitution was set up against demagogy, against the demagogues. The main danger identified by Madison in Federalist 10 is a faction of a majority, not just of a minority, which most republics have been aimed to prevent, but a majority. Because a majority faction – that is, something that acts against the rights of others or against the common good – looks like a legitimate, republican majority. It’s a seeming majority; majority for faction rather than for good.
This majority faction comes to be seen as the main danger, and the majority faction is mostly demagogues – people or leaders who are able to bamboozle the people. Mislead them, take them from where they ought to go, but perhaps, where they might like to go. The Federalist rather minimizes the contribution of the people, or the blame that the people deserve for their resentments, as opposed to their finer feelings.
KRISTOL: Right. And Hamilton, I think in Federalist 1, says, “In this and other circumstances, there will be these demagogues that try to arouse the public passion,” and so forth. But I suppose there is, in a way, a somewhat thin line between these demagogues inciting the public and “standing with them,” as Trump says, and energy in the executive. Right? Trump does appeal to something, or fuzzes that over, perhaps.
MANSFIELD: Yes, that’s right. So, our Founders also appeal to that. A kind of Machiavellian love of what is sensational – what makes a splash; what catches attention. That’s what Trump gets by being outrageous. And that’s what Hamilton tries to, you could say, ‘tame’ by giving Constitutional expression to it. Enabling a person with ambition to be an outstanding person and contribute to the common good, instead of being dismissed or even exiled because, because as one person with his own ambition, he’s a danger to the republic.
So these ambitious, dangerous individuals are turned to good account in the Constitution; but they’re checked, partly by the other powers – Congress and the Judiciary – but also, partly by the other ambitious people. Ambition is something that permeates our politics, I think. American politics is mainly defined as the “politics of contentious ambition,” I would say. In front of the people and for the approval of the people.
KRISTOL: Somehow Trump wasn’t checked, though. Either the Republican candidates or –
MANSFIELD: They tried, they did their best. There were too many of them.
KRISTOL: Maybe they weren’t ambitious enough? I hadn’t really thought about this before. I had that instinct during the campaign, that they were too – everyone said that they seemed too, too conventional, vanilla, orthodox. There was a way in which to check Trump you need to be a bit –
MANSFIELD: They underestimated him and his attractiveness to people. But, you know, it’s hard to blame them for that. Because this is unprecedented, that such a person as Trump could become our president.
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