John McGinnis imagines a speech from President Trump on entitlement reform, and how he could win bigly.
Donald Trump does not say things that are unpopular. Every time we see him speaking in front of an audience, that audience is clapping. He says things that anger elites and about which, often, events seem to confirm the seeds of his base’s opinions. It should therefore be unsurprising that the elite’s rejection and disdain inflame rather than calm the Trump phenomenon. The contemptuous response is not useful. The Madisonian one is.
Madison stands as a mean between two views of the politician’s role. The Burkean view is that the statesman looks outward to an objective standard of the public good accessible to his reason and for which he is morally—and personally—accountable. In his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol,” Burke, denying that he could be bound by instructions from his constituents, observes that it would be nice if the elected leader enjoyed “the strictest union” with voters. But:
his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable.
That is not to say Burke rejects public opinion or, for that matter, what he calls “the little arts and devices of popularity,” which, he explains in the Reflections, “facilitate the carrying of many points of moment … keep the people together … refresh the mind in its exertions; and … diffuse occasional gaiety over the severe brow of moral freedom.” But note, in the Bristol address, that the politician’s perspective is ultimately directed toward a public good extrinsic to public views and for which “he”—the politician in his personal moral capacity—is answerable to Providence.
This is the tack that elites are taking with Trump, only without those softening devices of popularity. Their straightforward reproach condemns not just him but the substantial strain of popular opinion he represents. Burke would have done it more skillfully and less superciliously, while doubtless sympathizing with the underlying idea that what the leaders judge to be wrong should ultimately be rejected in accordance with that judgment.
This contrasts sharply with, at the other extreme, the mode of representation emphasized in the Anti-Federalist tradition in American thought. This is the tradition that sees the representative as a mirror held up to the people, who does what they would do were it practical for them to assemble in full.
Melancton Smith thus declared in the New York Ratifying Convention that the proposed House of Representatives—which Madison had written ought not be too large so as to make it properly deliberative—was too small to be properly representative:
The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives is, that they resemble those they represent; they should be a true picture of the people; possess the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants; sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests.
On Smith’s account, to be sure, the representative must still seek his constituent’s “true” interests. But Smith proceeds to suggest that even natural differences in “talents” should not be a basis for elevating some to the rank of representative. What is needed is rather the “yeoman of sense and discernment.”
That hardly makes Smith, one of the most important New Yorkers of the early republic, a proto-Trump. But Trump’s constant invocation of popular opinion as authority for his own—even as authority for his misstatements, such as those Tweets that he claimed validated him on the mythical, tailgating Muslims of Jersey City—places him far more in this Anti-Federalist tradition. He sees the leader’s function as reflective, not in the sense of being thoughtful but in the sense of mirroring the will of the people.
Between these poles lies the Madisonian mean. Madison’s Tenth Federalist emphasized the “great points of difference, between a democracy and a republic.” The main one was representation, whose effect was
to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.
Call this the “refractive” rather than the “reflective” mode of representation. Its purpose is to focus the public’s views. Commentators who interpret Madison as an aristocrat neglect the fact that refining and enlarging the public views assumes that these are the raw materials on which politics should be based.
And this is the assumption of republicanism itself. If Aristotle is wrong in 3.11 of The Politics—that “the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good”—then republicanism is a doomed project. Madison’s insight is that public opinion is raw. It needs formation, and this is the statesman’s task: not to evaluate it for acceptance or rejection, but rather to focus it and give it shape.
This is what the Trump moment—and it is, historically speaking, but a moment—demands: a Jeffersonian “decent respect” that takes public opinion seriously, including its fears, but filters and enhances that opinion. This demands a prudence and statesmanship absent in the extremes of reaction to Trump: excoriation on the one hand, indulgence on the other.
Trump’s supporters are right to be afraid of Islamic extremism. They need something more than Trump’s braying, but more than establishment bromides, too. Their concerns about the non-enforcement of immigration laws are not unreasonable. They need something other than Trump’s anger, but other than elite stigmatization as well.
Elites would thus benefit from a Madisonian reminder that Trump, in all his ugliness, bigotry, and demagoguery, is not the issue. His attractiveness to individuals who are not all uneducated, uncouth, or unhinged is. Rejecting their views will not dampen Trump’s appeal. Refining and enlarging them might.