The left in all its manifestations wrongly dismisses the right’s critique of its condemnation of the Capitol riot as “whataboutism.” William Voegeli has contributed the definitive analysis and takedown of the left’s condemnation in the City Journal essay “About ‘whataboutism.’” (Jewish World Review has reposted Bill’s column here.) Voegeli harshly makes out the bad faith of the left.
Beyond the bad faith of the left, however, we need to understand the gravity of the Capitol riot and President Trump’s contribution to it. Steve Hayward drew on Lincoln’s Lyceum Address of 1838 in his City Journal column “The end of Trump.” Steve renders judgment in the context of the “whataboutism” phenomenon that is the subject of Voegeli’s analysis. This is Steve’s final word:
Donald Trump has shown great perception of the defects of our political order; he has had many salutary achievements in office; he has fought hard for worthy objects against the intransigent opposition of the permanent government; his love of country is undoubted; he has given new hope to many unheard and hitherto unrespected Americans.
At the same time, his reckless public pronouncements have fallen short of the standard of the high statesmanship most needed—never more so than his remarks on the Capitol Mall on Wednesday. He has left himself vulnerable to the charge that he will exit office amid a flurry of “pulling down” not only fellow partisans, but the very institutions of our government itself.
Steve’s judgment here is guarded. Applied to the events of January 6, the judgment that Trump’s “reckless public pronouncements” fell “short of the standard of high statesmanship” leaves a lot to be said. At the least, it is a judgment that must be filled out.
Professor Michael Zuckert explored the political science of Lincoln’s speech in his 2019 National Affairs essay “Populism and our political institutions.” The Trump phenomenon forms the backdrop of Professor Zuckert’s essay. Zuckert explicates the distinction Lincoln draws between the character of mobs “lawless in spirit” and “lawful in spirit.” Further, following Lincoln, Zuckert draws the connection between the two:
From the “lawless in spirit,” the contagion spreads to “good men” — men “who love tranquility” and who “desire to abide by the laws, and enjoy their benefits.” Experiencing the breakdown of the law, these individuals, “the strongest bulwark of any Government,” Lincoln said, “become tired of, and disgusted with, a Government that offers them no protection” and thus lose their attachment to that government. These ordinary, law-abiding citizens then become open to experiments in governance by strongmen who promise them more peace and security than what is being provided by republican forms.
The path along which the perpetuation of our political institutions is endangered is now clear: The mobs encourage the “lawless in spirit” to violate the law, which in turn leads to the disaffection of the “lawful in spirit” and their yearning for order and security through more effective governance than the republic supplies.
Zuckert takes up Lincoln’s anatomy of mobs as a phenomenon inherent in popular sovereignty:
Lincoln’s analysis of the close link between populism and popular sovereignty is probably the most valuable lesson that his populist moment can offer our own. One implication of that analysis is that we should not look at populist eruptions as novel or freak events. They are, in effect, baked into our three-cornered political order, which combines popular sovereignty, constitutional democracy, and populism. Lincoln’s analysis is both reassuring and worrisome. On the one hand, insofar as populism is endemic to our kind of regime, and insofar as we have survived past bouts of it, we can be confident, to some degree, that we can survive this one too. But reassuring as the implications of Lincoln’s analysis may be, his warnings of the dangers inherent in a populist movement are explicit and far more concrete. Many details of Lincoln’s moment and ours differ, but the challenge populism poses to constitutional government and the rule of law is a peril common to both.
Here are Zuckert’s concluding paragraphs:
Lincoln would urge us to distinguish Trump’s policies from his threats to the Constitution and the rule of law. President Trump does indeed look at times like the man of great ambition trying to whip up his populist base in order to go beyond or outside the constitutional order. Lincoln would tell us, I believe, to agree to disagree about Trump and his policies, but at the same time to agree about the value of the constitutional order — which, whatever its flaws, has secured more civil and religious liberty over time than any other in world history. On this front, do not cut Trump slack; do not make excuses for him; do not seek partisan advantages by countenancing moves he makes that threaten the Constitution and the fundamentals of the constitutional order.
If we remain true to the Constitution, and to the rule of law it provides, we will get through this moment just fine, perhaps even reaping some of the benefits of populism. But we can do so only if we do not succumb fully to the lure of populism, and if we keep before us the necessity of finding a balance between the rule of the people and the rule of law.
Written in 2019, Zuckert’s essay nevertheless anticipates the current moment. If you are still trying to understand the events in which we are mired and draw your own conclusions, along with Steve I recommend Lincoln’s speech, to which I would add Zuckert’s essay.