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Trump“I am convinced that the most advantageous situation and the best possible laws cannot maintain a constitution in spite of the manners of a country; whilst the latter may turn to some advantage the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws. The importance of manners is a common truth to which study and experience incessantly direct our attention. It may be regarded as a central point in the range of observation, and the common termination of all my inquiries. So seriously do I insist upon this head, that, if I have hitherto failed in making the reader feel the important influence of the practical experience, the habits, the opinions, in short, of the manners of the Americans, upon the maintenance of their institutions, I have failed in the principal object of my work.”

So wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in volume I, chapter 17 of his classic work on American political and social institutions, Democracy in America. Tocqueville, a French lawyer and member of the aristocracy, came to the United States in the spring of 1831. He traveled around Jacksonian America for nine months, and returned to France in the winter of 1832. In 1835, he published the first volume of Democracy, which was received with enormous enthusiasm in both France and England. He published the second volume in 1840. The book continues to be one of the most far-reaching analyses of American culture ever written.

Tocqueville was convinced that the underlying reason for the success of democracy in America was the “manners” of the people. By manners, Tocqueville meant the value-assumptions of the Americans, their overall “character of mind.” He went on to say that manners referred to “the whole moral and intellectual condition of a people.”

In his statement above, Tocqueville said that American manners form the foundation for the success of the American experiment in democracy. This is striking for a couple of reasons. First, when Tocqueville used the term “democracy,” he had in mind much more than simply government by the people. He had a much more expansive definition of democracy—he equated democracy with equality of condition, the fact of the absence of feudal hierarchical social structures which had broad social and political ramifications.

Second, Tocqueville did not think that democracy was an unmitigated good. Rather, he assumed that democracy tended toward the tyranny of the majority. Equality of condition in a society would gravitate toward excessive individualism among the populace. This individualism would thus result in the people turning inward, away from civic duty and toward their private interests. As a result, the people would become civically lazy. They would lose interest in engagement with local affairs, become satisfied with nationalization of politics and the centralization of rule. They thus would learn to love only themselves, and cease to love each other. What kept democratic despotism in check was the uniquely American habit of voluntarily associating together in local bodies such as reform organizations, civic societies, and most of all, churches. This cultural and political habit—or manner—of localism thus was fundamental to the protection of liberty.

What influenced the manners of the Americans? In a word, religion. Tocqueville observed that Christian morals pervaded American society, and the Christian religion shaped and formed American manners. He said, “In the United States, religion exercises but little influence upon the laws, and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the manners of the community, and, by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state.” Furthermore, Tocqueville observed that the Americans themselves believed religion to be indispensable to their republic.

So, more than geography, more than laws, more than anything else, manners—informed by religion—were the basis for American greatness and the only means of preserving freedom, according to Tocqueville.

Lest we rely on an idyllic picture of antebellum America, we should remember that Charles Dickens made his famous visit to America just ten years after Tocqueville. He was not impressed. He famously wrote to his friend William Macready in 1842 that “this is not the Republic of my imagination” and “I would not condemn you to a year’s residence on this side of the Atlantic, for any money.” He was also disgusted by how Americans sought to profit off of his visit to America, and described being nauseated by their tobacco spitting. He called Washington “the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva.” Tocqueville was also realistic about Americans, noting that they were more obsessed with money-making than any society he had encountered. The quotable Tocqueville—that is, the usable Tocqueville—is celebratory of America, but a careful reading of Tocqueville alongside other contemporary accounts yields a more complex picture.

Trump as Case Study

Still, if Tocqueville was right about manners and their significance to American democratic institutions—and full disclosure, I believe that he is—then we are surely living in interesting times. The phenomenon of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump becomes an interesting case study in Tocqueville’s writings about manners. It is hard to be neutral about Trump. Ezra Klein recently expressed what many worried Republicans are thinking; namely, Trump is fun, but are we really prepared to have him represent the United States to the world? And what attracts voters to Trump? Seventy-eight percent of Republican primary voters in South Carolina liked him because he “tells it like it is.”

And how does he do that? He insults. He uses profanity. He bombasts. If you’re really interested, the New York Times has collected a catalog of Trump insults on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. (Spare yourself. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.) This kind of behavior reveals what he thinks about human dignity. Forget about his pro-choice stances, if you can. Forget about his racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant policy positions, if you must. Just note what comes out of his mouth.

Trump’s statements shock many. I hear a lot of my Christian friends express their befuddlement, asking things like “Who is supporting him?” and “I don’t know anyone who backs him.” Clearly, a lot of people are. And instead of being shocked by Trump and his buffoonery, we should be shocked at ourselves.

After all, Trump is not an anomaly. He is a reflection of American culture. He is the image of the coarseness and incivility in American culture that has grown more and more pronounced until today, when it is acceptable for a major presidential candidate to refer to one of his opponents by means of vulgarity. He ought to have his mouth washed out with soap. (That was my grandmother’s form of waterboarding.)

When we see Trump, we see ourselves. Trump is a credible candidate today, and he would not have been credible in the past. Trump has always been a boor, but American manners have not always been boorish enough for Trump to find a place in public discourse. Now they are. We have no one to blame but ourselves, we who have become narcissistic, uncivil, civically lazy, obdurate, gullible, uncouth, easily offended, and in the prophet Jeremiah’s words, we are so implacable, we do “not know how to blush.”

One of the insidious realities surrounding Trump’s rise is how many Christians have latched onto him. To be fair, Christians are split in their support of Trump. But many Christians continue to flock to him. In South Carolina, thirty-four per cent of Trump’s voters were born-again evangelicals, and thirty-one percent said that it was important that the candidate shares their religious values. Jerry Falwell, Jr. of Liberty University and Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas have publicly endorsed him. Franklin Graham has come short of a full-throated endorsement, but has spoken favorably of him. Mr. Graham has been especially supportive of Trump’s idea of banning Muslim immigration to the United States, ironically as a part of his “campaign for God.”

What does the rise of Trump say about the state of American Christianity? This subculture is sometimes hardly distinguishable from the coarse American society in general. Over the past few generations, text-based authority has been replaced, in large measure, by subjective authority. Individual constructs of pragmatics, feelings, preferences, and sensibilities have taken the central place of authority that the Bible had in other periods of history (prior to the introduction of existentialism and Protestant liberalism in the early 20th century). When textual and orthodox tradition is neglected and replaced by self-actualization as religious authority, then religious culture coarsens. And if Tocqueville was right about the influence of religion on manners, then the coarsening occurring in religious culture has had, and continues to have, a direct effect on the coarsening of culture in general.

Tocqueville’s Solution?

Today’s cultural decay is a complicated problem, to be sure. But if Tocqueville is any guide, there is wisdom in two more observations he made in Democracy in America.

First, Tocqueville noted that Americans were not especially virtuous, but they did have an abiding self-interest, and they recognized that their interests were promoted by the public interest. In other words, the best way to achieve private goods was to guard the interests of the whole. Tocqueville famously called this reality “interest rightly understood,” and posited that it prevents society from descending into moral chaos. It may not make all people in society virtuous, but it does raise those up who are particularly lacking in virtue: “I regard it as their chief remaining security against themselves.” Yet the principle of interest rightly understood does not come naturally to people. It must be taught, and again, religion has a role to play in the instilling of this principle.

Second, and most importantly, if society is to preserve liberty, it must be vigilant and determined to be proactive in doing so. For example, to exercise the principle of interest rightly understood, “daily small acts of self-denial” are required. Because egotism is the basic vice of the human heart, the selfie culture is the natural tendency in an equal society, and despots encourage egotism. Tocqueville said of the despot, that he “easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other.” And when they do not love each other, they will not seek to govern themselves but they will be satisfied to leave the responsibilities of government with the despot. This statement fits Trump, perhaps like no other statement from Tocqueville does.

Supporters of Trump are looking for the easy way out of what ails the country—an ailing military and economy, the failure of U.S. leadership in the world, illegal immigration, and the rising tide of secularism and the growth of the influence of those who profess no religious faith. They are looking for someone who can “make America great again” by “bombing…” ISIS, by getting rid of all illegal immigrants, by making sure that everybody says “Merry Christmas” around December-time. And of course, Trump assures us that if he is elected president, “we’ll win so much, you’ll get bored of winning.” If we are to believe Trump, all we have to do is elect him, and all our problems will go away.

Tocqueville wrote that despotism promises all the answers, but it can only deliver despotism: “despotism often promises to make amends for a thousand previous ills.” Under a despot, the “nation is lulled by the temporary prosperity which it produces, until it is roused to a sense of its misery.” But liberty, Tocqueville stressed, is the fruit of long-term commitment, determination, and labor. And contrary to despotism, of which fruits can be measured in the short term (i.e. “he keeps the trains running on time”), liberty can only be appreciated once its effects have taken time to develop. “Liberty… is generally established with difficulty in the midst of storms; it is perfected by civil discord; and its benefits cannot be appreciated until it is already old.”

Cultural decline is never an inevitability. And there is no such thing as a point of no return. The statement, “we live in a coarse society” may be a truism, something most of us know intuitively. But human beings have free will, and they have it within their power to reject indignity, incivility, and boorishness. To put it bluntly, it is not necessary to use vulgar words to describe our political foes. But it is necessary to refine our manners, at least if we aim to preserve our liberty.

Trumpus delendus est.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from  The American Conservative (March 2016). 

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17 replies to this post
  1. So let’s see. The present level of ‘ moral chaos ‘ is acceptable? And, who has maneuvered by lies through congressional ram-rodding and executive dictatorial fiat with a dose of judicial over-reach the ‘ moral chaos ‘ we find ourselves in with the prospect of rounds 3 and 4 looming on the electoral horizon? So, you are advising us to reject the plain talker who addresses critical issues instead of dressing them with more lies? When one looks at the family of the plain talker, it’s easy to see the kind of class Tocqueville envisioned as necessary in a President. Can the same be said of the other family? Clinton Global Initiative. Nice little shakedown for influence peddling? Should cover retirement plans. Time to pin the tail on the donkey and light the fuse.

  2. Mr. Trump is indeed vulgar and democratic. Yet in a careful reading of Washington’s letter to the Hebrew congregation and his views on the Quakers and military service we find that no religion is above the law and Mr. Trump’s views on Muslims are not a violation of the First Amendment but a necessary defense of it (especially if we begin to distinguish between the various iIslamic communities on a case by case basis).

  3. I was reading this piece and got to the following short sentence:

    “Forget about his racism”

    At that point, I pretty much dismissed everything else in that article. “Racism” is the classic left wing smear, the atom bomb of personal attacks, the sort of thing that, if you can make it stick, can ruin a person’s career. It’s akin to calling another man’s wife a prostitute or (if you’re in the military) calling a fellow soldier a coward. And, as is typical when left wingers use the smear, the writer of this piece provides zero evidence that Trump is a racist, just saying it is so is supposed to make it so.

  4. This article asks the wrong question, which is: “What would Tocqueville think of the twenty-first-century United States?” or maybe just “What would he think of the twenty-first century?” That really is an interesting question, but, maybe, one too demoralizing to ponder.

  5. I had thought this November I’d find myself darkening the oval next to Trump’s name. After watching the RNC with its applause for both deviants and Trump’s we will be all things to all people big guvmt speech, well, no thanks. I’ve no use for the Democrat-lite party. Darrell Castle it is.

    • I have no use for the republican party, either. However, we must not let Hillary in the White House. Unfortunately, we must vote for the lesser of the 2 evils and the most likely candidate to beat Hillary, which is Trump. Not voting for Trump will get us another 4 years of destructive socialist agenda, please don’t let that happen. This is the sad state of political affairs we live in.

  6. Mr. Mack: what you are proposing is to make legitimate a political system with more than 2 parties. Voters stand a chance over the long run to prevail by voting for the one between the two who lines up, even though minimally or marginally, and hold that person’s feet to the fire to do or try to do what was said in the election needed to be done. If that were done from local elections up the political ladder , eventually we would get people who would truly represent the voters. 50% + 1 is a platform upon which things can get done. A third party simply allows an unacceptable level of political manipulation of the electorate, as if buzz word use, political correctness, deception, say-or -do-anything to get elected isn’t confusing enough. The missing ingredient is likely the fact that most people are unwilling to put the time in to become politically astute or understand the right to vote is the duty to vote. I rely on what our Lord said, ‘ Pay unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar ‘. Our Caesar, a democratic republic, needs us to pay our dues in the voting booth.

  7. Al, I suppose if I would propose, actually wish, for anything it would not be a three party system but that enough conservatives turn their backs upon the GOP that it becomes defunct; but alas the remnant is not large enough to bring about such a situation. So I propose nothing more than that I cannot any longer vote for a “throw the dog a bone” party given the “enlarge the tent” mandate the party has. The “eventually” fantasy is the carrot the GOP hangs in front of conservatives every election cycle when out of power, only when the party does get power the state continues as under the Democrat party and the carrot gets pulled back and stowed away until the next election loss, so conservatives already live under as you say an “unacceptable level of political manipulation.”

    In truth, a political solution there is not for this country that is well down the road to perdition, but only a Great Awakening will suffice so pray to that end. In the meanwhile, we’ll both do our civic duty and vote, albeit, for different candidates.

  8. Mr. Mack: Sometimes you just have to hold your nose. It can be discouraging, but Rahm Emanual had a clever idea [ my paraphrasing ] to exploit a negative for political advantage. Abortion is wrong. God bless those stalwarts of the right-to-life movement who have made great strides in using that tragedy to inform the consciences of the majority of Americans of the evil that abortion is. The social issues adopted by the Republicans are of similar evil. Worse evil will prevail if Trump is not elected and that fact should be the deciding factor in November voting. The good fight needs the resolve of the overwhelming number of good people in this country.

  9. Al, being no spring chicken I’ve heard all the clichés and used them myself even very recently including the one concerning the Court. Trouble is that although it was “back in the day” a conservative could at one time with a decent conscience vote for either party. The milieu today is such that the donkeys have led the way to perdition, but the elephants play catch up now in earnest to gain the constituents necessary to win elections, and with both parties it is about one thing of course, getting power, and that end justifies the means. I’ve been disenchanted with the elephants for some time but “held the nose” and until the RNC thought I’d do the same this year, but the stench from the elephants is such now that holding the nose won’t work for me and I think it best to simply leave the tent and that is the end of it.

  10. Kevin, I’m with you. I see things the same, and I’ve been very tempted to “leave the tent,” as you say, at the polls. Believe me, I “left the tent” mentally long ago, I no longer identify as a republican and will not give the GOP a dime. HOWEVER, I’ll still be grabbing a republican ballot in the booth…yes, and “holding my nose” as I vote for Trump. As Al said – the only reason is to prevent the greater evil from occupying the white house. It’s painful, it hurts my pride, and the GOP doesn’t deserve my vote….but I will only do this because of the obligation to the greater good. While I respect you and your decision, I implore you to consider the greater good of our nation and her citizens when you pull that chain. There’s a certain selfishness to throwing one’s vote away when we have a chance to halt (the greater) evil from advancing…

  11. MO Rebel, considering the GOP has abandoned or perhaps I should say has mostly only played lip service to the conservative cause, I think it for the greater good that those of the conservative temperament abandon the party. This that good may come of it in due time either through a new truly conservative party emerging, or through a great reformation of the elephant toward conservative principles. The latter will not occur while conservatives allow the party to continually play the lip service game. I have always despised the Clinton’s with every part of my being, but perhaps here also good may come should she win and end in like fashion to Nixon, which I think highly probable.

    Since you are of similar mind I believe you can understand that this has been a hard and wrenching decision for me and is then a difficult subject to discuss at this time and so I leave off here.

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