The Messianic Presidency in Conservative Constitutional Thought

Ken I. Kersch is professor of political science at Boston College.

When the Trumpist Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo published a new foreword to a 2018 re-issue of the conservative political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom:  Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (1980) — the long-awaited follow-up to Jaffa’s career-defining Crisis of the House Divided (1959) — Guelzo drew from Jaffa’s own “teaching” to illustrate what Jaffa had meant by “the equality of natural rights” — the “Proposition,” the commitment to which Jaffa insisted defined the American constitutional and political tradition.  In the book, Guelzo reported, Jaffa had taught that “[t]he Civil War was fundamentally an attempt to nullify the operation of an election, and elections are the fundamental means by which equal citizens in a republic make their consent as the governed known.” Guelzo underscored the same point by drawing attention to Jaffa’s chapter on the peaceful constitutional transfer of power from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson.  In the 1800 election, Jaffa had taught, the Declaration of Independence’s author had demonstrated his commitment to the American Proposition by reaffirming his loyalty to “a political order in which equal citizens agree, on the basis of that equality, to abide by the conclusions of elections.” 1

Autre temps, autre moeurs.  As followers of conservative intellectual life know, the “West Coast Straussian” school of constitutional thought that Jaffa birthed at California’s Claremont McKenna College — now propounded by a phalanx of his former Ph.D. students from from The Claremont Graduate University — was, from the outset, with some sore-thumb exceptions, all-in for Donald Trump.  In virtual lockstep, Jaffa’s acolytes either fully supported, or had no serious issues with, #StopTheSteal. 

But Guelzo’s explication of Jaffa’s Propositionalist teaching may have been more than simply ill-timed.  It was either a botched reading of Jaffa or, alternatively, if correct, dangerously indiscreet.  Botched because if respecting the outcome of elections were really the ne plus ultra of the principle of the equality of natural rights, then Jaffa’s Propositionalism would be indistinguishable from what Jaffa holds to be its antithesis — the doctrine of popular sovereignty as propounded by Stephen Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  If correct, however, Jaffa’s (and Guelzo’s) sanctimonious public commitment to respecting the results of American elections always involved a parallel but only whispered commitment to the proposition that it would not apply if the wrong sort of people prevailed in those elections — people who spurned the “American Proposition,” as West Coast Straussians and their Christian Right compatriots understood it (The Slave Power; Joe Biden).  This, needless to say, is the perfect political and constitutional theory for a Trumpist Republican Party.  And it is a textbook enlistment of the notorious Straussian affinity for Plato’s noble lie (“we will respect the results of elections”) and “esoteric writing” (“it is too dangerous for the philosopher in the city to say what, as spoken amongst his elect coterie, he knows to be the Truth”).

Prominent postwar conservative movement scholars, including Willmoore Kendall, Jeffrey Hart, Frank Meyer, Martin Diamond, Walter Berns, and M.E. “Mel” Bradford, warned long ago about Jaffa’s mistaken premises and subversive implications.  Their charge was that Jaffa’s Propositionalism would justify and, indeed, encourage executive “Caesarism” and “Messianism” in a way that portended the toppling of the American Founders’ carefully calibrated constitutional structure, and order.

Of course, there is much to admire in the idea that the U.S. is founded on the principle of the equality of natural rights, as announced in the Declaration and reaffirmed by Lincoln at Gettysburg, not least as the chief moral justification for ending chattel slavery.  But Jaffa’s mid-century conservative critics immediately recognized that, although it was flying under the banner of rights-based liberalism, Jaffa’s idiosyncratic reading of the implications of Lincoln’s thought was, subtextually, profoundly illiberal.  As a radicalized American Right has ascended to power in recent years, that illiberalism has been openly peddled by ultramontantist Catholics like Adrian Vermuele, who unabashedly appeals to the French monarchist Joseph de Maistre and enjoins “strong rule” by the America’s “rulers” over their “subjects” (as a republic, the U.S. is comprised of citizens, not “subjects”).   By contrast, however, Jaffa’s illiberalism, which professes fidelity to “the equality of natural rights,” was hawked in deceptive packaging. 

Jaffa’s understanding of the American “Proposition” is as idiosyncratic as it is stringent.  Jaffa teaches that John Locke was an Aristotelian.  As such, Locke’s (and, hence, Jefferson and Lincoln’s) understandings of individual rights are held by Jaffa-ites to be comprehensible only by the lights of a rigorous, and substantive, telos, involving the pursuit of the correct human ends (“human flourishing”).  Anything that does not serve those a priori ends, as stipulated by Jaffa, does not count as a legitimate right.  Individuals are not free to pursue their own ends, but only the correct ends.  It is only in pursuing the correct ends (virtue) that they are held to “flourish.”

Much of the allure of Jaffa’s Propositionalism comes from the way that Jaffa appended this philosophy to an emotionally compelling history of the progress — and decline — of the American nation (hence the Jaffa-ite journals American Greatness and The American Mind).   At the center of that history is the demonstration that, in fact, great evil happens when one disregards the principle, and Proposition — viz. chattel slavery.  A lynchpin of Jaffa’s account of American history is the story of how a great leader (Lincoln), armed with the Truth, can appear, under the conditions of impending apocalypse, to rally to country to war, vanquish the enemies of the Proposition, and restore the nation to its anchoring foundations. 

While Jaffa’s two major books don’t talk about contemporary events, Jaffa himself did.  And so do his students, now teaching at places like Notre Dame and Hillsdale College, and staffing think tanks like The Claremont Institute and The Heritage Foundation.  In doing so, they added an additional chapter to this history.  That chapter recounts how, since the Progressive Era, positivist, secularist, historicist, relativist, and nihilistic progressives (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on to Barack Obama and Joe Biden) have repudiated that Proposition.  And great evils — comparable to chattel slavery before it — have resulted.  Jaffa-ites and their Christian Right compatriots view those developments as self-evident across the full spectrum of contemporary culture war issues, from abortion, to gay rights, to the purported war on “religious liberty.”  And thus onwards to the promise of a vindicating, restorationist executive (Donald Trump) who promises — as did Lincoln before him — to restore the American nation to its natural law foundations.

These understandings offended the institutionalism of Jaffa’s postwar movement critics.  Willmoore Kendall’s opposition to Jaffa’s Propositionalism, for instance, underlined the importance of the constitutional text in its entirety, as understood in light of the country’s heritage and traditions — its lived experience — along with (commonsense) political theory.  The critical feature of the Constitution for Kendall was its foundation in popular sovereignty (“We the People”).  The Constitution’s structure was designed to serve the Preamble’s six societal objectives.  The essence of the Founders’ design was to achieve those objectives by distilling the “deliberate sense” of the American people (Hamilton) through sober, structured deliberation.  The institutions of our “compound republic” (Madison) were designed to cool hot emotions, slow down the political process, and sift and filter diverse views.  Kendall criticized what he took to be a contemporary overemphasis on the role of both rights and (plebiscitary) direct democracy which distorted the original constitutional system.  This criticism was certainly aimed at liberals.  But it was also expressly aimed at Harry Jaffa.  “Throughout his career,” M.J. Sobran contemporaneously attested, “Kendall deplored the messianic pretensions . . . of what we may . . . call the Declaration Tradition, with its universalism and stress on individual rights.” “Against this,” Sobran explained, Kendall “placed the Constitutional Tradition of government by consensus, which tended to mute sharp moral issues and scale down grandiose causes to politically assimilable dimensions.” 2

Amongst our national institutions, Kendall considered the (Article I) Congress first amongst equals.  In his view, there were two basic ways to frustrate the Founders’ original constitutional design – to overdevelop the powers of either the (Article II) president or the (Article III) courts.  Modern liberals achieved their policy objectives by doing precisely this, imposing their views over and against the deliberate sense of the American people.  Jaffa’s Propositionalism, Kendall argued, threatened similar corruptions, beginning with the Article II President.  Joining Kendall in this, Jeffrey Hart warned that Jaffa-ism promised that “By these lights, “America will build a New Jerusalem . . . Through Him, through the Great President, we are to be reborn.” For his part, the libertarian Frank Meyer similarly denounced Jaffa’s “airy and cavalier lack of concern with how power is distributed….” 3

The deeply “problematic” Mel Bradford — a racist segregationist — was also, like Kendall, an institutionalist who elaborated a distinctive, and prescient, critique of Jaffa’s Propositionalism.  For all his faults as an unreconstructed neo-confederate, Bradford nevertheless had the signal southern virtue of being deeply conversant with “revealed religion,” American style, about which Leo Strauss, a scholarly German-Jewish exile, was blissfully ignorant, and to whose moral zealotry and millennialism, Bradford discerned, Jaffa was dangerously attracted.  Bradford may have mischaracterized Abraham Lincoln himself, but he got Harry Jaffa’s Lincoln exactly right. 

The Lincoln Jaffa celebrated, Bradford recognized, was moral zealot who, in the spirit of Oliver Cromwell, the French Revolutionary Jacobins, and the continental revolutionaries of 1848, sought to impose his moral vision on the United States through the power of an unrestrained central state.  The manner of his commitment to his “proposition,” Bradford warned, would launch a “juggernaut . . . powerful enough to arm and enthrone any self-made Caesar we might imagine.” The Lincoln Jaffa lionized was “very early, touched by a Bonapartist sense of destiny,” and clearly imagined himself in such a role. He believed he was “authorized from on High to reform the world into an imitation of [himself] – and to lecture and dragoon all who might object.” These sorts of leaders, Bradford warned, believe that “[they] receive regular intimations of the Divine Will through prophets who arise from time to time to recall them to their holy mission.”  This Lincoln was “an enemy of the ‘founding’” who became “a scripture in himself,” committed to “the attribution of his own opinions to an antinomian revelation of divine will.” 4  In this high-prophetic mode, Jaffa’s Lincoln lusted to play a leading role in “the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world.” “All that remained of his evolution” at this point, Bradford observed, “was a claim to direct communication with the god of history, of which we hear[d] a great deal once Lincoln got the crisis which he wanted.”  This millennialism “augur[ed] either a final perfection or an apocalypse…. [by which] [t]hat which comes soon may be either the kingdom or the beast.’” 5

One characteristic of Jaffa’s political thought, and temperament, Bradford identified was its palpably apocalyptic cast.  The West Coast Straussian school that Jaffa propagated begins with the conviction that western civilization is under existential threat, and on the verge of imminent collapse.  At that point, only the most extreme measures would serve.  

For a certain species of conservative, the flip side of radical pessimism is radical hope — for final-hour deliverance and redemption.  Apparently a riveting teacher, Jaffa had excited the passions of his students and followers by enlisting a Biblical narrative that cast Lincoln as a redemptive Christ figure (or of a Tablet-bearing Moses on the shore of the Red Sea).  It was far from incidental that, besides elevating Lincoln, Jaffa’s quasi-religious imaginary also happened to cast Leo Strauss — and Harry Jaffa himself — in the role of prophets.    

In her study of the apocalyptic political imaginary in western political thought, the political theorist Alison McQueen described the emotional allure of apocalyptic political visions which, trafficking heavily in portents and symbols, “position us at a rupture in time, at the edge of great transformations,” promising that “[n]othing will be the same again.”  The prospect of “a world charged with meaning and at the edge of a cosmic transformation,” McQueen explains, “can be highly motivating.” 6  “By presenting us with terrifying images of imminent scourges and doom,” apocalyptic political imaginaries “aim to shake us from our complacency and give us the moral courage to act together in the name of justice.” 7  While such visions have been enlisted in the service of the highest ideals like ending chattel slavery to confronting environmental catastrophe, there is no guarantee that they won’t be enlisted for more nefarious purposes.  In “captivat[ing] the imagination,” apocalypticism brings both “power and potential danger.” 8

Many of the canonical texts of the postwar conservative movement like Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom were relatively sober tracts.  Others widely-read movement texts typically omitted from the canon, however — The John Birch Society’s Blue Book (Robert Welch), Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, and Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto — are textbook manifestations of the apocalyptic political imaginary.  Positioned in between are movement texts like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, James Burnham’s The Struggle for the World, and Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, that, while works of serious scholarship, are also characterized by an underlying apocalypticism.   These were crucial bridge works that provided a common ideational frame, fused to an emotive base, for different strands, standpoints, and temperaments — “respectable” and fringe, mainstream and “radical” — of the modern conservative movement.

Looking to its recent worship of executive power (during Republican presidencies, at least), with its attraction to routinizing “emergency” powers under a “state of exception,” contemporary commentators like Sanford Levinson have alluded to the modern Right’s Schmittian turn (after the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt).  But, in the American context, given its pervading Christian politics and imaginaries, the apocalyptic/messianic vantage point is probably more apt.  After all, since the late 1970s, the contemporary conservative movement was remade by the Christian Right.  Jaffa borrowed what was once the left anti-slavery apocalypticism of figures like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown and turned it towards contemporary right-wing purposes.  Drawing its moral authority, vicariously, from the presumptive moral clarity of the participants in events of nearly a century earlier, Jaffa — whose influence is much stronger today than it was pre-1980 — offered contemporary political actors in a party radicalized by the Christian Right a prêt-à-porter apocalypticism, tied, crucially, to both a relatively sophisticated constitutional theory and a (superficially) plausible reading of American history that they can borrow, weaponize, and apply it to contemporary constitutional and political issues.  

“And the war came.”  The epigraph to Jaffa’s New Birth of Freedom was taken from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.  We know what war Lincoln was referring to.   What about Jaffa?  Yes, the earlier Civil War.  But also, it is intimated, the new civil war brewing — if not, in fact, already under way.  Constitutional abandonment — or, more specifically, the alleged abandonment of the Constitution’s natural law foundations by progressives — has been presented as a catastrophe, auguring End Times.  It is this catastrophe and last days vision that has underwritten the West Coast Straussian and Christian Right support for the presidency of Donald Trump which has now suffused the entire movement, and, in popularized form, nearly all of the Republican Party.

Ordinary politics in modern liberal democracies, Alison McQueen has explained, is sustained in significant part by a “political realism” that is grounded in an acceptance of the tragic as inherent in the political.  This means that, in significant part, it is sustained by an almost quotidian forsaking of ideals.  Conflict, trimming, compromise, contradiction, incoherence, making peace and moving on — are all constitutive of this sort of “realistic” politics.  An apocalyptic politics, by contrast, spurns such realism.  It yearns, and even lusts, for a showdown that will usher in “a final escape from conflict,” where, at long last, “difference, conflict, and moral complexity will be eliminated.” 9 “With the restoration of divine order on earth, not only is evil abolished, but so too are all the previous markers of difference.” By these lights, “God’s final assertion of earthly sovereignty destroys all the boundaries, differences, conflicts, and moral complexity that define the political world.” This kind of politics, McQueen makes clear, “offer[s] … audiences not only the promise of a world without persecution [of themselves] but also a seductive vision of a world without politics.” 10

At the time Jaffa was writing, there were Christian theologians who offered relatively conservative visions of American politics free of apocalypticism.  Reinhold Niebuhr grounded his own anti-utopianism and anti-communism in his understandings of both original sin and the lures and dangers of righteous pride.  In 1960, the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray SJ offered his own version of Propositionalism grounded in the exact same foundations as Jaffa’s — the Declaration of Independence and the thought of Abraham Lincoln — that fused Catholic theology, political and constitutional theory, and a reading of American history.  In contrast to Jaffa’s Propositionalism, Murray’s Propositionalism was the opposite of apocalyptic:  it was sunny and optimistic, and it took diversity and pluralism as the essence of what America was. 

Jaffa’s apocalyptic Propositionalism is, by contrast, a much darker affair.  Instead of what Murray proposed as “articles of peace” with modern liberal democracy — including the “distinction” between Church and State — Jaffa insisted instead that the time was at hand for articles of war.  To its phalanx of far-flung Christian Right preachers and theologians and acolyte and allied political theorists, West Coast Straussianism offers a “political theodicy.”  It “situate[s] contemporary political circumstances” — including the ascendency of Donald Trump to the White House — “within a sacred worldview, thereby endowing them with divine significance.”  The significance is that the end is near, and our last hope is a president in the White House who will do anything — literally — the restore the nation, with the last chance it has, to its natural law foundations.

It is of significance that the process by which “divine redemption and universal vindication” unfolds promises not only an end to conflict, which is the end of politics, but the end of history.  While Leo Strauss himself frequently railed against historicism, and called for an unwavering attention to the timeless and eternal — to permanent things — the West Coast iteration propounded by Jaffa — again, mirroring its progressive antagonists, and in direct contrast to the thought of Willmoore Kendall — posits history as having a direction.  As in the Bible, its promise is the final demonstration of God’s sovereignty over history itself.  With the arrival of the Messiah, “First Things” become “Last Things” … and a permanently redeemed world begins. 11

But, it should be said, in alluding to Murray’s Propositionalism, even Willmoore Kendall, who proclaimed that “the genius of our political system lies in the sloughing-off of genuinely controversial issues,” ventured that, at rare moments, issues arose “that bore, in the deepest and most direct manner possible to imagine, on the very destiny of the American people,” presenting “a question that the American people must answer, in order to know themselves…, their mission in history, [and] their responsibility under God….”  In an essay defending Joseph McCarthy, Kendall confirmed that such issues had “genuine civil war potential.”  They were characterized by “mutual accusations of heresy,” which are “capable… of being mentioned in the same breath with the slavery issue.” 12 For various reasons, Kendall observed in the early 1960s, the issue of the toleration of communists had dissipated.  But next time around, he ventured, they likely will not.   It is the contention of the West Coast Straussians that, at long last, that moment is at hand.  When the war comes, the American President, like Lincoln before him, must step up to his historical and constitutional role, and destiny, as Commander-in-Chief.  While the war against America’s enemies might be fought not abroad but on the battlefield of the homeland itself — as it was for Lincoln and Joseph McCarthy — there is no less at stake.  And when it comes to saving the Constitution, victory is the only option.  “The time for empty talk is over,” Donald Trump confirmed in his own Inaugural Address.  “Now arrives the hour of action.”

  1. Allen C. Guelzo, “Foreword,” Jaffa, New Birth of Freedom, xviii-ix.
  2. M.J. Sobran, “Saving the Declaration,” National Review (December 22, 1978), 1601.
  3. Jeffrey Hart, “Peter Berger’s ‘Paradox,’” National Review (May 12, 1972), 512; Frank Meyer, “Again on Lincoln,” National Review  (January 25, 1966), 71.
  4. M.E. Bradford, “The Heresy of Equality: Bradford Replies to Jaffa,” Modern Age 20 (1976): 62-72
  5. M.E. Bradford, “Dividing the House: The Gnosticism of Lincoln’s Political Rhetoric,” Modern Age 23 (1979), 19-20.
  6. McQueen, Political Realism, 62.
  7. [1] McQueen, Political Realism, 14.
  8. McQueen, Political Realism, 23.
  9. McQueen, Political Realism, 7, 42.
  10. McQueen, Political Realism, 42.
  11. McQueen, Political Realism, 24-42.
  12. Willmoore Kendall, “McCarthyism: The Pons Asinorum of Contemporary Conservatism,” in Willmoore Kendall, The Conservative Affirmation (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963), 50-76, at 52, 56, 63, 68, 74.

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