When American conservatism becomes un-American

From Harvard Law School comes the latest conservative flirtation with authoritarianism. Professor Adrian Vermeule, a 2016 Catholic convert, is an “integralist” who regrets his academic specialty, the Constitution, and rejects the separation of church and state. His much-discussed recent Atlantic essay advocating a government that judges “the quality and moral worth of public speech” is unimportant as a practical political manifesto, but it is symptomatic of some conservatives’ fevers, despairs and temptations.

Common-good capitalism,” a recent proposal by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), is capitalism minus the essence of capitalism — limited government respectful of society’s cumulative intelligence and preferences collaboratively revealed through market transactions. Vermeule’s “common-good constitutionalism” is Christian authoritarianismmuscular paternalism, with government enforcing social solidarity for religious reasons. This is the Constitution minus the Framers’ purpose: a regime respectful of individuals’ diverse notions of the life worth living. Such respect is, he says, “abominable.”

Vermeule would jettison “libertarian assumptions central to free-speech law and free-speech ideology.” And: “Libertarian conceptions of property rights and economic rights will also have to go, insofar as they bar the state from enforcing duties of community and solidarity in the use and distribution of resources.” Who will define these duties? Integralists will, because they have an answer to this perennial puzzle: If the people are corrupt, how do you persuade them to accept the yoke of virtue-enforcers? The answer: Forget persuasion. Hierarchies must employ coercion.

Common-good constitutionalism’s “main aim,” Vermeule says, is not to “minimize the abuse of power” but “to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.” Such constitutionalism “does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy” because the “law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits,” wielded “if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them.” Besides, those perceptions are not really the subjects’, because under Vermeule’s regime the law will impose perceptions.

He thinks the Constitution, read imaginatively, will permit the transformation of the nation into a confessional state that punishes blasphemy and other departures from state-defined and state-enforced solidarity. His medieval aspiration rests on a non sequitur: All legal systems affirm certain value, therefore it is permissible to enforce orthodoxies.

Vermeule is not the only American conservative feeling the allure of tyranny. Like the American leftists who made pilgrimages to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, some self-styled conservatives today turn their lonely eyes to Viktor Orban, destroyer of Hungary’s democracy. The prime minister’s American enthusiasts probably are unfazed by his seizing upon covid-19 as an excuse for taking the short step from the ethno-nationalist authoritarianism to which he gives the oxymoronic title “illiberal democracy,” to dictatorship.

In 2009, Orban said, “We have only to win once, but then properly.” And in 2013, he said: “In a crisis, you don’t need governance by institutions.” Elected to a third term in 2018, he has extended direct or indirect control over courts (the Constitutional Court has been enlarged and packed) and the media, replacing a semblance of intragovernmental checks and balances with what he calls the “system of national cooperation.” During the covid-19 crisis he will govern by decree, elections will be suspended and he will decide when the crisis ends — supposedly June 20.

Explaining his hostility to immigration, Orban says Hungarians “do not want to be mixed. . . . We want to be how we became eleven hundred years ago here in the Carpathian Basin.” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, authors of “The Light that Failed,” dryly marvel that Orban “remembers so vividly what it was like to be Hungarian eleven centuries ago.” Nostalgia functioning as political philosophy — Vermeule’s nostalgia seems to be for the 14th century — is usually romanticism untethered from information.

In November, Patrick Deneen, the University of Notre Dame professor whose 2018 book “Why Liberalism Failed” explained his hope for a post-liberal American future, had a cordial meeting with Orban in Budapest. The Hungarian surely sympathizes with Deneen’s root-and-branch rejection of classical liberalism, which Deneen disdains because it portrays “humans as rights-bearing individuals” who can “fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.” One name for what Deneen denounces is: the American project. He, Vermeule and some others on the Orban-admiring American right believe that political individualism — the enabling, protection and celebration of individual autonomy — is a misery-making mistake: Autonomous individuals are deracinated, unhappy and without virtue.

The moral of this story is not that there is theocracy in our future. Rather, it is that American conservatism, when severed from the Enlightenment and its finest result, the American Founding, becomes spectacularly unreasonable and literally un-American.

Congress whiffs on war powers

There are 99 better, or at least less abject, senators. However, Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is inadvertently useful by incessantly demonstrating the depths to which senators sink when they jettison institutional responsibilities to facilitate subservience to presidents of their party. Consider the contrast between Graham and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) concerning Congress’s responsibilities regarding war.

Last Wednesday, administration officials, in what they evidently considered an optional concession to inferiors, gave a short (75 minutes), closed-door congressional briefing on military action against supposedly imminent threats from Iran. Presidential freedom to unilaterally commit acts of war unrelated to imminent threats would amount to an uncircumscribed power to undertake not just limited preemptive actions but to wage preventive war whenever a president unilaterally decides this might enhance national security.

Lee is famously mild-mannered but wasn’t after what he called an “insulting and demeaning” briefing in which executive branch officials instructed Congress concerning what it can debate: The briefers, who included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, warned that making military action subject to congressional authorization might encourage Iranian aggression. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) asked whether, if the administration decided to take the extreme action of assassinating Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, it would at least notify Congress. The briefers would not say so.

Congress last declared war on June 5, 1942, against Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, with a war already raging. This was 78 years and many wars ago. A power neglected, like a muscle never exercised, atrophies. Now, Graham explicitly says that even debating, not a declaration of war but merely the wisdom of past military actions and necessary authorization for future ones, means “empowering the enemy.”

Last April, Pompeo was asked during a Senate hearing: Is the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda and other nonstate actors responsible for 9/11 sufficient authorization for the president to wage war more than 18 years later against Iran? Pompeo laconically said he would prefer to “leave that to lawyers” — presumably those he employs.

With a few exemplary exceptions, notably Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), congressional Democrats, too, have been situational ethicists about their responsibilities regarding war. The Obama administration’s shambolic intervention in Libya’s civil war, the costs of which are still mounting, proceeded unaccompanied by congressional authorization but swaddled in executive branch sophistries. Barack Obama’s Justice Department vigorously defended what no one denied — that presidents may initiate military action without congressional approval. The issue, however, was that the administration, which had said the intervention would last “days, not weeks,” then said that thousands of airstrikes, which caused numerous casualties over seven months and had the intended result of regime change, did not constitute “hostilities.”

Wednesday’s briefing caused Lee to endorse Kaine’s proposal to direct the president to stop engaging in hostilities against Iran or any portion of its government or military unless continuation is explicitly authorized by a congressional declaration of war or other authorization of force. Senate passage of this would take Democratic unanimity and two more Republicans joining Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul in supporting it. The House presumably would concur. Though Senate Republicans would subsequently sustain a presidential veto, virtues are habits, and this exercise might be the beginning of congressional involvement in decisions about war and peace becoming habitual.

Presidential discretion is presumptively greatest regarding foreign relations. And many aspects of the modern age — weapons of mass destruction; the swift, perhaps surreptitious and potentially intercontinental delivery of such weapons; the multiplication of violent nonstate actors — have radically altered the context in which the framers’ spare language in the Constitution’s pertinent provisions must be construed: The Congress has the power “to declare war” (also to “raise and support armies” and “maintain a navy”); the president is commander in chief of the armed forces.

Concerning limits on presidential discretion, there is a large gray area. However, the activity of unilaterally preventive wars is not in it.

Coons asked the briefers this: Suppose that in coming months the administration concludes that Iran, having shed the nuclear agreement’s constraints, is about to acquire a nuclear weapon. Would you need authorization from Congress prior to strikes meant to prevent this? The briefers would not agree even to consultation with Congress, though Coons several times restated and narrowed the question. Congress should not be surprised when the executive branch takes Congress’s responsibilities regarding war no more seriously than Congress does.

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U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Updated January 10, 2020

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question to Post reporters.

The spiraling president adds self-impeachment to his repertoire

Donald Trump, an ongoing eruption of self-refuting statements (“I’m a very stable genius” with “a very good brain”), is adding self-impeachment to his repertoire. Spiraling downward in a tightening gyre, his increasingly unhinged public performances (including the one with Finland’s dumbfounded president looking on) are as alarming as they are embarrassing. His decision regarding Syria and the Kurds was made so flippantly that it has stirred faint flickers of thinking among Congress’s vegetative Republicans.

Because frivolousness and stupidity are neither high crimes nor misdemeanors, his decision, however contemptible because it betrays America’s Kurdish friends, is not an impeachable offense. It should, however, color the impeachment debate because it coincides with his extraordinary and impeachment-pertinent challenge to Congress’s constitutional duty to conduct oversight of the executive branch.

Aside from some rhetorical bleats, Republicans are acquiescing as Trump makes foreign policy by and for his viscera. This might, and should, complete what the Iraq War began in 2003 — the destruction of the GOP’s advantage regarding foreign policy.

Democrats were present at the creation of Cold War strategy. From President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Achesonthrough Sen. Henry Jackson and advisers such as Max Kampelman and Jeane Kirkpatrick, they built the diplomatic architecture (e.g., NATO) and helped to maintain the military muscle that won the war. But the party fractured over Vietnam, veering into dyspeptic interpretations of America’s history at home and abroad, and a portion of the party pioneered a revised isolationism. Conservative isolationism had said America was too virtuous for involvement in the fallen world. Progressive isolationism said America was too fallen to improve the less-fallen world.

Hence, Republicans acquired a durable advantage concerning the core presidential responsibility, national security. Durable but not indestructible, if Democrats will take the nation’s security as seriously as Trump injures it casually.

Trump’s gross and comprehensive incompetence now increasingly impinges upon the core presidential responsibility. This should, but will not, cause congressional Republicans to value their own and their institution’s dignity and exercise its powers more vigorously than they profess fealty to Trump. He has issued a categorical refusal to supply witnesses and documents pertinent to the House investigation of whether he committed an impeachable offense regarding Ukraine. This refusal, which is analogous to an invocation of the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, justifies an inference of guilt. Worse, this refusal attacks our constitutional regime. So, the refusal is itself an impeachable offense.

As comparable behavior was in 1974. Then, the House articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon indicted him for failing “without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by” a House committee, and for having “interposed the powers of the presidency against the lawful subpoenas” of the House.

If Trump gets away with his blanket noncompliance, the Constitution’s impeachment provision, as it concerns presidents, will be effectively repealed, and future presidential corruption will be largely immunized against punishment.

In Federalist 51, James Madison anticipated a wholesome rivalry and constructive tension between the government’s two political branches: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected to the constitutional rights of the place.” Equilibrium between the branches depends on “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives.” But equilibrium has vanished as members of Congress think entirely as party operatives and not at all as institutionalists.

Trump is not just aggressively but lawlessly exercising the interests of his place, counting on Congress, after decades of lassitude regarding its interests, being an ineffective combatant. Trump’s argument, injected into him by subordinates who understand that absurdity is his vocation, is essentially that the Constitution’s impeachment provisions are unconstitutional.

The canine loyalty of Senate Republicans will keep Trump in office. But until he complies with House committee subpoenas, the House must not limply hope federal judges will enforce their oversight powers. Instead, the House should wield its fundamental power, that of the purse, to impose excruciating costs on executive branch noncompliance. This can be done.

In 13 months, all congressional Republicans who have not defended Congress by exercising “the constitutional rights of the place” should be defeated. If congressional Republicans continue their genuflections at Trump’s altar, the appropriate 2020 outcome will be a Republican thrashing so severe — losing the House, the Senate and the electoral votes of, say, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina and even Texas — that even this party of slow-learning careerists might notice the hazards of tethering their careers to a downward-spiraling scofflaw.

George Will and Jonah Goldberg — The conservative sensibility | VIEWPOINT

George Will and AEI’s Jonah Goldberg discuss the broad changes affecting American politics and conservatism.

(14:00)

This is an outgrowth of the Flight 93 election syndrome which is that the end is nigh unless
people listen to people like us.
It’s a way of pumping up the grandeur and magnificence and importance of people who
say, “We stand at Armageddon, and things have never been worse, but they might get worse
tomorrow unless radical things are done.”
Jonah: Right, and people who disagree with you must shut up for we are at an existential
crisis.
George: Exactly, existential crisis, but the self-dramatizing, things aren’t that bad.
I mean, I’m not happy.
No one writes political philosophy if they’re content, right?
Because you’re irritated about something or anxious or afraid or something.
But I just think this hysteria is to be ignored.
Jonah: I quote you in one of my previous books.
There’s a story you tell about how when you first got your syndicated column, you called
George…William F. Buckley, “How the heck am I going to write two columns a week?”
What was his advice to you?
George: He said, “The world irritates me three times a week.”
He wrote three times a week.
He said, “The world irritates me.”
And it turns out it’s true, the world irritates or amuses or piques my curiosity 100 times
a year.
I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have three or four things I wanted to write about.

Trump’s presidency is one giant act of trolling

America’s feral president swerved into a denunciation of a nonexistent bill — “It’s called ‘the open borders bill’  ” — that, he thundered, “every single Democrat” in the Senate has “signed up for.”

..  Reid was in the Senate. In 2012, while the Nevada Democrat was majority leader, he brassily said during the presidential campaign that the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, had paid no taxes for a decade.

.. Romney, unlike the Republicans’ nominee four years later, did not hide his tax returns. Reid, however, remained proud as punch of his accusation when, three years later, he was asked why he still defended it: “Romney didn’t win, did he?

.. “We don’t mail Elvis a Social Security check, no matter how many people think he is alive.” No. Matter. How. Many.

.. Bannon says: “The way to deal with [the media] is to flood the zone with shit.”

..  Trump’s presidential lying, which began concerning the size of his inauguration crowd, reflects “a strategy, not merely a character flaw or pathology.” And the way to combat Trump’s “epistemic attack” on Americans’ “collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood” is by attending to the various social mechanisms that, taken together, are “the method of validating propositions.”

.. Validation comes from the “critical testers” who are the bane of populists’ existence because the testers are, by dint of training and effort, superior to the crowd, “no matter how many” are in it.

.. Rauch says Trump’s “trolling of the American mind” has enjoyed “the advantage of surprise.” But as this diminishes, the constitution of knowledge can prevail because, although trolling has “some institutional nodes” (e.g., Russia’s Internet Research Agency and Trump’s Twitter account), they are, over time, much inferior in intellectual firepower to the institutions of the constitution of knowledge.

.. much of the public has formed the impression that academia is not trustworthy.

.. Imposing opinions and promoting political agendas, many academics have descended to trolling, forfeiting their ability to contest he whom they emulate.

Another epic economic collapse is coming

.. the contraction probably will begin with the annual budget deficit exceeding $1 trillion.

.. The president’s Office of Management and Budget — not that there really is a meaningful budget getting actual management — projects that the deficit for fiscal 2019, which begins in six weeks, will be $1.085 trillion. This is while the economy is, according to the economic historian in the Oval Office, “as good as it’s ever been, ever.”

.. The fastest — 13.4 percent — was 1950’s fourth quarter, perhaps produced largely by bad news: The Cold War was on, the Korean War had begun in June, and fear of the atomic bomb was rising (New York City installed its first air-raid siren in October), as was (consequently) a home-building boom outside cities and “scare buying” of products that might become scarce during World War III.

.. Today, Shiller says, “it seems likely that people in many countries may be accelerating their purchases — of soybeans, steel and many other commodities — fearing future government intervention in the form of a trade war.” And fearing the probable: higher interest rates.

.. Jerome H. Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, says fiscal policy is on an “unsustainable path,” but such warnings are audible wallpaper — there but not noticed. The word “unsustainable” in fiscal rhetoric is akin to “unacceptable” in diplomatic parlance, where it usually refers to a situation soon to be accepted.
.. A recent International Monetary Fund analysis noted that among advanced economies, only the United States expects an increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio over the next five years.

.. among those economies, ours is performing especially well. What, however, if this is significantly an effect of exploding debt? Publicly held U.S. government debt has tripled in a decade.

.. the political class is more united by class interest than it is divided by ideology. From left to right, this class has a permanent incentive to run enormous deficits — to charge, through taxation, current voters significantly less than the cost of the government goods and services they consume, and saddle future voters with the cost of servicing the resulting debt after the current crop of politicians has left the scene.

.. This crop derives its political philosophy from the musical “Annie”: Tomorrow is always a day away. For normal people, however, the day after tomorrow always arrives.