On the president-elect and the paternalistic logic of American conservatism.
A cottage industry of political commentary developed during the 2016 American presidential election. A bevy of commentators and historians agreed Donald Trump would have made the nation’s founding fathers spin in their graves. Trump was: a “threat the founding fathers foresaw”; “the guy our fathers warned us against”; “the demagogue that our founding fathers feared.” Following his victory on November 8, some like-minded commentators hailed the electoral college, the very device that overrode Trump’s nearly 3 million vote deficit to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as an institutional barrier that was designed by the “founding fathers…precisely for the purpose of guarding against the election of an unqualified demagogue such as Mr. Trump.”
Clearly these commentators were unpersuaded by the victor’s earlier pronouncement that Clinton’s policies, rather than his own, were the ones that were “direct affronts to our founding fathers, who wanted America to be strong, independent, and free.” Nor did they heed historian Joseph Ellis’s circumspection: we had no idea what the founding fathers would have thought of Trump, claimed Ellis, because “all efforts to transport them into our time zone are misguided, like trying to plant cut flowers.” But historical incongruities notwithstanding, “the urge to” interpret American politics according to the desires of dead American fathers, Ellis correctly noted, “is apparently irresistible.”
The paternal urge is so irresistible that it dominates one of the nation’s two major political coalitions. Modern American conservatism, I show in Raised Right, is suffused with a “paternal rights discourse” that celebrates both the nation’s historical founding fathers and its actual biological fathers, emphasizing how their enduring, watchful influence (real or imagined) breeds citizens who can be trusted to exercise their rights to self-governance in responsible and mature ways. Unsurprising, then, that some of the most prominent criticisms of Donald Trump’s un-fatherly characteristics came from conservatives, especially those who were a part of the “Never Trump” movement (including Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, Paige Lewis of Townhall.com, and the erstwhile Republicans who attempted to persuade individual electors to become “faithless” and withhold their pledged votes from Trump). But such uses of the founding fathers to illegitimize Donald Trump overlooked both defenses of his founding father-ness (by himself and by others) and his facility with a different, though related, type of paternal authority.
Modern American conservatism is suffused with a “paternal rights discourse” that celebrates both the nation’s historical founding fathers and its actual biological fathers.
According to the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, American conservatives tend to see themselves as strong fathers and their liberal opponents as weak fathers. American conservatism’s obsession with the nation’s founding fathers relies upon a similar elevation of dead American fathers to a status of unimpeachable wisdom, foresight, and virtue; in the conservative imagination they are less historical, corporeal beings and more, as in William F. Buckley, Jr’s estimation, mystical “supermen.” But if the enduring authority of the founding fathers is spectral and inspirational, the authority of actual, contemporary American fathers is, for conservatives, both present and necessary. Whether delivered as gentle and patient wisdom or as stern and corrective discipline, American conservatism venerates the authority of fathers to mold productive democratic citizens. And although it struggled to cast its candidate in the halcyon glow of the nation’s founding fathers, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign excelled in presenting him as a unique agent of the stern paternal force needed to “make America great again.”
The task, Trump intimated, was daunting; the nation’s enemies were many. Trump encouraged supporters at his campaign rallies to knock “the hell out of” peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors; he depicted America’s communities of color as crime-ridden ghettos in need of “law and order”; he castigated Central and South American migrants desperate to reunite with family members or seeking economic opportunity as “rapists” and criminals and insisted that Mexico would pay for the construction of a great border wall to keep them out; like a zealous father protecting his daughter’s chastity, Trump promised “extreme vetting” of international visitors to the American household. He consistently degraded his female opponent—a successful attorney, First Lady of the United States, two-time U.S. Senator, and American Secretary of State—as “crooked” but also weak, lacking the “stamina” to serve as President. Meanwhile, the sitting President was the “worst” leader, a “disaster” who allowed the American nation to become victim of all manner of international conspiracies against its prosperity, and domestic abuses against its safety.
Against these horrors stood Donald Trump. “I alone can fix” America’s problems, he told fawning supporters. “I’m the only one” who “will give you everything,” Trump promised them. He would “make possible every dream you’ve ever dreamed.” “Donald Trump will protect you,” proclaimed his campaign; “He is the only one who can.” Seeing disorder everywhere (“everything is bad,” he insisted), Donald Trump promised to deliver stern discipline, what legal theorists call “the law of the father,” to the nation’s many enemies.
The strict father morality, and the paternal rights discourse with which American conservatives articulate it, is heady stuff.
Trump’s popular appeal was thus animated by what Lakoff calls the “strict father morality,” where “father knows best…knows right from wrong, and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children do what he says, which is taken to be what is right.” So potent, in fact, was Trump’s paternal singularity that his supporters (even those with daughters of their own) were willing to look past his serial infidelity, his braggadocio about groping women without consent, and the multiple, credible accounts of his past sexual assaults. Trump overcame these controversies; and, in so doing, he succeeded in portraying himself as the paternal object onto which could be projected both widespread fears of our recently globalized and multicultural America and impossible, nostalgic desires for returning to earlier times. Under Trump “every dream you’ve ever dreamed” would come true and he would “make America great again.”
The strict father morality, and the paternal rights discourse with which American conservatives articulate it, is heady stuff. Confusing familial and political power, it simultaneously underwrites the concentration of authority in a singular figure, celebrates uncritical compliance with that figure, and legitimizes the punishment of democratic dissent. And, if the results of the 2016 presidential election are to be taken as evidence, there are tens of millions of American conservatives who are responsive to its call. As Raised Right shows, obsession with the power of strong fathers to mold democratic citizens so dominates modern American conservatism that it serves as its unifying creed; its paternal rights discourse gives American conservatism’s otherwise squabbling members something, and someone, to believe in.
But the paternal rights discourse has internal tensions of its own, not the least of which is the basic incoherence of its theory of family development. If fathers past and present, spectral and biological, must always be authoritative—if paternal authority never dies—then how exactly are children ever to become the autonomous democratic citizens who can be trusted to exercise their rights to self-governance? Aren’t they always in thrall to the desires of the fathers? Conservative adulation of paternal authority goes nowhere; it does not act as the pathway to responsible citizenship that its proponents insist that it does. It only sets in place the intellectual conditions for a lifetime of compliance to undemocratic authority.
Such concerns over the vicissitudes of paternal authority didn’t begin with Donald Trump’s presidency, or even with the ascent to prominence of modern American conservatism in the 1950’s. After all, Americans have puzzled over the relations between familial and political power, over the authority of parents and children, for hundreds of years. In 1838, for instance, Abraham Lincoln felt the legacy of America’s fathers; he fretted that his generation would pale in comparison to the “hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors” whose devotion to “liberty and equal rights” constituted America’s “political religion.” Lincoln feared that the gathering crisis over American slavery would lead his countrymen to “trample on the blood of [the] father[s].”
Edgar Allan Poe’s contemporaneous exploration of undying paternal influence proposed more extreme measures. In 1843’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the adult narrator, like modern American conservatives, originally venerates the household patriarch. But unable to escape the continued oversight of the old man’s “evil eye,” the narrator’s dreams of autonomy were perpetually thwarted. Eventually driven insane, he attempted to overcome paternal authority by murdering and dismembering the old man. But the homicide failed: the continued beating of the patriarch’s heart from underneath the house’s floorboards gave away the crime.
American conservatism’s current obsession with Donald Trump’s paternal authority may not, as did the similar obsession in Poe’s tale, drive its subjects mad. But the historical record suggests that conservative reverence for paternal authority, very much like the tell-tale heart, will continue to beat long after Trump leaves the Oval Office.