Wanted: A President Who Can Shape Americans’ Visions of Themselves


Luke Phillips

The Hamiltonian Republican

Note: This piece is published by The Hamiltonian Republican as a late Presidents’ Day exhortation.


Robert W. Merry, formerly the editor of the once-dominant magazine The National Interest, and now the editor of the ascendant magazine The American Conservative*, has an interesting piece at TAC on American historians’ obsessions with presidential ranking. C-SPAN just released its latest “Greatest Presidents Ranked” list, and Merry’s commentary offers up some interesting reflections on changing historical norms and the role of partisanship in determining “greatness.”

But above the fray of the middling Jacksons and Reagans and Trumans and Johnsons and Wilsons and Kennedys, and regardless of historical shifts and political preferences, three names stand out every time, as they have since these polls were first conducted in the 1950s: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Theodore Roosevelt typically occupies an honored pedestal beneath only these three titans.) The Father of His Country, the Savior of the Union, the Leader of the Free World. Though cultural leftists routinely prick these men for their insufficient progressiveness and though economic libertarians snootily hold themselves above the “collectivism” of FDR and Lincoln (and curiously, even Washington,) the vast majority of Americans of all political stripes and social ranks adore these men for what they did, what they envisioned, and what they represented.

There are plenty of reasons for this- I’ve argued before, in the vein of Michael Lind’s Three-Republics thesis in “Land of Promise,” that each of these three Presidents was something of a “Lawgiver” who laid down the institutions of the Republic for a new era of greatness, after steering the country through strategic and social calamity. David Hackett Fischer of Brandeis University is reportedly working on a study of these three men entitled “Open Leaders” and if his previous work is any guide, it’ll be a must-read for every student of American history. And frankly, the accomplishments of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, in historical context, dwarf anything any other President of the United States managed to do, perhaps because the trends of history and fortuna swirled around each man and they, in their virtu, took the lead in bringing forth a grand new era.

But I think there’s another reason, one that’s particularly relevant to the American situation of Presidents’ Day 2017. That reason: Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, perhaps more profoundly than any other Presidents, shaped Americans’ vision of who they were as a nation, what they represented, and why they were bound up together in this political experiment- in a word, Washington and Lincoln and FDR shaped the American identity more profoundly than any other occupants of the Oval Office.

This is not the place to go into intense detail on what each contributed to American identity and national purpose, but let it suffice to say that President Washington personified the independent, constitutional Republic; that President Lincoln personified the powerful, modernizing Union; that President Roosevelt personified the advanced, free-world superpower. And that though others shaped and amended these identities in the intervening decades, none quite laid the mold the way the three great “Lawgivers” did.

Which brings us to the present day. Who- who– would argue that there is any coherent, broadly agreed-upon, and deeply unifying national narrative of American identity today? Who would argue that it has any coherent spokesmen and spokeswomen? The country’s cultural divisions suggest a reality closer to Fischer’s Albion’s Seed or Colin Woodard’s American Nations than the lofty united ideal promulgated in Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We? or, frankly, Theodore Roosevelt’s speeches on citizenship. There’ve been writers here and there trying to rebuild something like a consensus- Wilfred McClay’s essays at The Public Interest and National Affairs have been useful, and Eric Liu’s project at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas has resuscitated some of this thinking on the left (albeit in a predictably identity politics-driven style.) But despite the endless talks about the relationship between ethnicity, ideology, institutions, experience, and the elusive jackalope we call “a new American identity,” no single strand of spaghetti thrown on the wall seems to stick.

Two very recent op-ed pieces by two very different center-right writers- Steven Hayward and Robert D. Kaplan, both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting- shed a little more light on why that jackalope is so hard to find.

Hayward’s piece, apparently a consolidation of his new book “Patriotism is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Redefined American Conservatism,” looks at the role of ideas in American national identity and the importance of striking the right ideational balance in the patriotic habits of the people. He cites my least favorite Abraham Lincoln quote- “[the great Senator Henry Clay] loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country…” Hayward then argues that the spirit of the age from the 1960s’s cultural upheavals onward to the present day- “the principle of equality,” bastardized into “the founding modern principle for every conceivable grievance and demand for redress”- has turned American ideals inside-out on themselves, and resulted in powerful public philosophy on the left that *technically* lives and breathes and fights for the American principle of equality, while being profoundly uncomfortable with American identity.

This is why I never, ever fully buy into the “America is an idea” theory of American identity. If America is an idea with a nation rather than a nation with an idea, then under popular modern standards of the moral agency and ultimate moral judgment of individuals, individuals would be morally justified to be ashamed of their country if it didn’t live up to their personal interpretations of the American idea, and still be considered in the moral right, or even patriotic, for rejecting patriotism. The subtle implication of Hayward’s (and Abraham Lincoln’s and Henry Clay’s) “national idea” or “free country” definition of patriotism, is that if the country were to cease being free or true to its ideals, it would not be worthy of its citizens’ loyalty any longer.

But that’s not patriotism- patriotism that requires no sacrifice of one’s own scruples, patriotism that comes with an infinite number of petty strings attached, is not patriotism.

Let me illustrate with the most vivid imaginable example. I believe there are no greater American patriots than Americans who fought for Uncle Sam even as the United States government discriminated against their communities. African-American soldiers from the Revolution up through the Korean War fit into this category, as do the Indian guides for the U.S. Cavalry in the Western Indian Wars. Most dramatic, though, was the patriotism of the interned Japanese-Americans who volunteered to don the uniform and fight Nazi Germany even as President Franklin Roosevelt ordered them and their families to be sent to the internment camps. The late Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was one such man. There is no greater act of patriotism, by my measure, than the last full measure of devotion, when the country itself has turned against you. Of course we should strive to be a better America; but we should love America because it is America, and strive to make it better because we love it, rather than making our love contingent on its betterment.

The eccentric pop culture icon George Takei, who lived through the Japanese internment as a child, clearly disagrees with me; at a talk I saw him deliver a few years back, he opined that the Japanese-American detainees who refused to serve Uncle Sam were the moral equals of the detainees who went to serve and fight, and that their patriotism should be equally honored. This notion of patriotism clearly equates “America” with certain ideas of liberty and equality and rights, as opposed to “America” being the physical-ideational-institutional entity, worth loyalty in itself, that happens to hold liberty and equality and rights in reverence. And while America-as-liberty is a nice idea, it just doesn’t hold up, in my opinion, to the flesh-and-blood reality of true nationhood, where a patriot and a citizen must be loyal to people and institutions along with ideals, oftentimes reserving and overriding private judgment on ideals in the name of a grittier loyalty. If you’re just loyal to the American idea and not the actual nation, you can easily justify being disloyal or even treasonous to the nation as soon as you judge the institutions of the nation to be coming up short in keeping fealty to the idea.

Hayward clearly doesn’t like people who come to that conclusion either, but his solution is more like a thought-control-esque rectification of ideas, and an encouragement to deemphasize the modern, expansive definition equality in favor of more classical, limited ideas about the same concept. In my opinion, any national identity based explicitly and solely off of ideas is subject to natural diversities of opinion and interpretation and to the evolution and reinterpretation of those ideas, and is necessarily sitting on a foundation of sand, human nature being what it is. That’s no way to sustainably institutionalize American national identity into the future.

Patriotism is better based off of something more morally nuanced, less messianic, and more deeply rooted in realities than in ideals and principles.

Fortunately, the travel writer Robert D. Kaplan has given us just such a something in one of his latest columns, evidently adapted from his new book “Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World.” Though he often casts himself as a geopolitical analyst, and often works as a travel writer and historical journalist, I personally think Kaplan is at his finest when he writes as a literary tutor to princes, a tragic bard of empire who reminds the lofty-minded public of the dark eternal verities it so often forgets. He does this through the twin lenses of geopolitics and literature, which lace all of his writings; and in my opinion he is the single most important writer for anyone hoping to make moral sense of the rough-and-tumble of world affairs.

Kaplan’s piece looks at America as a dramatic historical entity of Shakespearian contradictions, rather than a checklist of enlightened principles. He criticizes two prominent contemporary interpretations of patriotism- President Donald Trump’s “jingoistic fashion” of America-First-ism, a bastardization of American patriotism and nationalism if there ever was one, and the contemporary American left’s “hard-core academic political correctness” that airbrushes any figure not in line with contemporary zeitgeists, and tends to condemn our past far more than praising it. (See Ross Douthat’s excellent piece at The New York Times.) Kaplan argues instead for replacing Trumpist jingoism and “a hateful, deconstructionist left-wing history” with something in the patriotic middle, “an old-fashioned liberal one, written by the kind of [mid-20th century liberal historians] who barely exist anymore.” Such a history would be “accurate, balanced, well-researched, and immune to academic fads”- a folk-cultural interpretation of “the real American past—multilayered and beautiful, despite its bouts of ugliness, and also holding stories of inspiration… told in plain English, free of jargon and full of nationalism and heroism.” I, for one, would like a rigorous form of this kind of American history to come back into vogue outside of the literature of the military and intelligence communities; I have a sick feeling I might have to be the one to write it.

All this is beautiful and relevant. But it is Kaplan’s distinct understanding of the checkered intellectual nuance required of American patriots that makes this piece especially valuable, and makes it an incredible corrective to both the “America First” ideology of President Trump, and what might be called the “America Last” ideology of the contemporary upscale left. Kaplan describes the dilemma of American patriotism and basic moral truth, in a passage worth quoting in full:

American history is morally unresolvable. In the course of conquering the frontier, both in the South and in the West, Americans enslaved blacks and virtually extinguished Native American life. But in settling a continent rich in natural resources beyond imagining, overlaid with the greatest internal river system on Earth, America found itself with the economic and geopolitical capacity to save civilization in two world wars and the Cold War that followed. One circumstance led to the other. In a better world, it would have been different, but it wasn’t. We should be both ashamed and proud. And because our history is complex, the teaching of it requires texture and nuance, not ideology or opportunistic politics.”

This is why I cannot both be an American patriot and inhabit the far left, nor concede to the far left any kind of moral-intellectual superiority. The cultish religions of human rights and social justice simply have no room in their absolutism for the nuance required of patriotism and the duties associated with it. When an incident occurs that touches on the legacies of slavery or the Indian Wars in particular- for example, Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem, or alternatively, the hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and its Native American protestors- ugly, fundamentally anti-American narratives are mainstreamed and lauded across the board by people who should really know better.

This is not to say that we should whitewash history and celebrate slavery and Native American genocide as eggs America had to break to make its great continental omelet. But it is to say that any simplistic rendering of the past is both politically dangerous and intellectually unsound. Machiavelli, frankly, is probably a better moral guide to political affairs than, say, Rousseau or Kant or Voltaire.

To the larger point, then: America is not merely a set of ideas promulgated by Jefferson and Franklin, but a morally complicated, real-life, flesh-and-blood mix of culture, institutions, economies, and masses of human beings, an actual thing built and defended by generations of American patriots who happened to have ideas laced up in there too. With Edmund Burke, I believe in the civilizational covenant of every generation with those generations that preceded it and those yet unborn, and it is a covenant not of rights but of duties.

Patriotism is not just about feeling good about your country and agreeing with what it does. It’s a bigger picture, a much bigger picture, and you need the kind of nuance Kaplan describes to comprehend and fully appreciate it. Not a lot of people have that, particularly not those in high culture and public life today- if there were any, it’d be their duty to communicate such nuance and faith to the public.

On that note, I am of the opinion that America could really, really, really use a leader who’s familiar with Kaplan’s works, or at the very least this one op-ed of Kaplan’s and my commentaries on it. We need someone who is a patriot of this sort, who genuinely loves their country despite its flaws and wants to make it better, who can craft the narratives of American identity and American patriotism in a way that can at the very least inspire the center-right and center-left of American politics, if not a broader spectrum.

We need, moreover, someone who, like Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, will be so charismatic, so influential, so rhetorically powerful, that they will continue to lead and inspire the American people after they die- a true “lawgiver” of the Republic on the scale of the three previous ones. Rudyard Kipling wrote a famously confusing yet inspiring poem on manliness, “If,” one of the lines of which goes:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone…”

It took me a good long time to figure out what he meant. I think he meant that truly great men leave a legacy so great that their footprints are felt by those a generation after them or more. And Washington, Lincoln, and FDR certainly did so; we could use another President or other national leader like them.

I think it’s fairly clear that Donald Trump is not that President, and it doesn’t look like anyone on the shortlist for the Democratic nomination in 2020 is that President either. Or, for that matter, any of the Republican presidential aspirants looking for opportunities to unseat a failing President Trump when his turn for reelection comes.

Perhaps the fact of the matter is our country is simply not capable of producing such heroic greatness at the moment, and elevating such greatness to the levels of leadership necessary for princely statecraft. Maybe we’ll get back to that in due time, or maybe a Huntsman or Gates kind of leader will rise to the top through some fluke of political intrigue and restore the old patriotic narrative while working to guide America through this dangerous century.

It’s not clear that that will happen, though. I’ve argued before that we might have to settle for finding lesser greatness of similar character and vision at lower levels of responsibility across the country- a new generation of great leaders working to preserve Americanism because they love their country.

But we shall see.


*The National Interest and The American Conservative are required reading for reformist Republicans, though they are not as regularly high-quality as The American Interest or National Affairs.

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