Insurrections and Abstractions

Ben Kleinerman and George Thomas have eloquently said what most needs saying about yesterday’s unspeakable events. There is not yet enough distance to process them soberly. But a preliminary thought: The insurrectionists’ chant, and apparent self-justification, as they plowed through security barriers, scaled walls and smashed windows of the U.S. Capitol, was “Our House!” Never mind whether they act that way in their own homes. The question is: Whose house, exactly? This was an “our” contraposed to a “them”: real Americans versus traitors, with the latter category encompassing not only 81 million Americans who voted for Joe Biden but also, evidently, the millions more who were willing to accept the result like grownups.

Earlier in the day, Trump had incited the mob with this profound political insight: “You will never take back our country with weakness.” He was, as he said this, the sitting president of the United States. Take it “back” from whom? Scratch that: The question assumes the thought was coherent. In any event, the analysis of Trump’s seditious remark—sedition abetted by the ambitions of Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and the antics of Rudy Giuliani and his ilk—has focused on his warning against “weakness.” But his inchoate invocation of “our country” may have been more revealing.

In 3:3 of The Politics, Aristotle—having earlier declared his intention to investigate what the city “actually is”—offers this observation: “Now the most superficial way of examining this question concerns the location and the human beings constituting it; for the location and the human beings can be disjoined, with some inhabiting one location and others another, and it will still be a city.”

Trump does not read Aristotle, nor would this definition work for him if he did. But it says something about the rhetoric of “our country”: On the Trumpist reading, the “country” is the place and the people, and the “our” is those among the people who, apparently deprived of other sources of personal meaning, live in thrall to a president who finds them to be repulsive but useful.

But Aristotle does not buy the “superficial” assessment. For him, the political community is defined by its form of government. 

[J]ust as we assert that a chorus which is at one time comic and at another tragic is different even though the human beings in it are often the same, it is similar with any other community and any compound, when the compound takes a different form…. It is evident that it is looking to the regime above all that the city must be said to be the same; the name one calls it can be different or the same no matter whether the same human beings inhabit it or altogether different ones.

In other words, “our country” is not amber waves of grain or purple mountain majesties. It is the Constitution. That is the sense in which yesterday’s events were insurrectionary. And they show the danger of abstract and jingoistic appeals to the motherland as opposed to its form of government. 

Even when politicians talk about the Constitution, which is too rarely, it tends to come in the form of abstractions. David Pozen and Eric Talley of Columbia University Law School and Julian Nyarko of Stanford Law School have shown that Republicans have largely dominated constitutional rhetoric in Congress in recent years. Yet—and this is an informal rather than an empirical observation—these invocations are largely of an abstract ideal rather than a concrete system of government. 

Congress does not have serious debates about constitutional mechanisms like the separation of powers or federalism. It does not meaningfully debate whether its enumerated powers license legislation it considers. Instead, invocations of “the Constitution” have become as amorphous as invocations of “our country.” 

The danger of such appeals is that they lack any content and consequently are empty vessels amenable to being filled according to convenience. They partake of Burke’s description of a politics indifferent to circumstance. Responding to a petition from the Unitarian Society in 1793, Burke said every statesman needed principles. Without them, “all reasonings in politics, as in everything else, would be only a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion.” 

However, he continued, statesmen differed from professors. Professors could be concerned with abstractions alone; statesmen had to care about their implications. Those who pursued abstraction without regard to circumstances were “metaphysically mad.”

“Strength” is such an abstraction for Trump, as is “our country.” His strength fetish attempts, poorly, to conceal his weakness. History will record him, eventually, less as a direct threat to democracy than as the American equivalent of the bumbling Soviet troglodytes who launched an incompetent coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.

That is, needless to say, enough to put him in the company of James Buchanan in presidential rankings. It does not minimize the gravity of yesterday’s events. But it is worth observing that he is no more committed to “our country” or “the Constitution” than they were to Marxism-Leninism. These are abstractions that conduce to personal power, and their affective intensity grows as the grip on actual power slips.

Perhaps one long-term lesson of the insurrection of January 6 is not just that “our” country belongs to a genuine “our.” Nor is it simply that our “country” is defined by the regime delineated in our “Constitution.” It is that the Constitution is a concrete governing document, not an inchoate ideal. More concrete invocations of it might be one sign of a return, however halting it is sure to be, to civic health.

One thought on “Insurrections and Abstractions

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