Charles Kesler’s Crisis of the Two Constitutions

I’ve written a review of Charles Kesler’s recent book Crisis of the Two Constitutions for National Review. The book is worth reading. Its insights on issues ranging from Federalist 10 to Washington’s conception of civility are excellent and characteristic of its learned author. But I do pick a few fights. One is whether Kesler can maintain his seemingly bemused aloofness from Trumpism. Another is how conservatives should treat the rhetoric of crisis.

I’m an originalist. I think the Constitution got a lot right in 1787 and that many of its imperfections have been corrected by amendment. Moreover, I agree that the Constitution has drifted enough to argue, as Kesler does, that we now have two of them: the Philadelphia and the Progressive versions. (Incidentally, I generally prefer the former, but those wringing their hands about the latter should take one step forward if they are willing to renounce their Social Security benefits.)

That said, I do not believe America is falling apart. I didn’t buy it when Trump warned of “American carnage,” nor did I buy it when his critics warned of American fascism. What I do believe is that assertions of crisis are almost always claims to power. Pat Moynihan put it best in his book Coping, in which he identified “the unvarying political content of the proclamation of impending doom. The person making such a statement is asking that power someone else has be given to him or to her.”

Kesler has made important contributions to the study of American political thought. Much of his book is insightful. Relatively little of it, in fact, is explicitly about Donald Trump. But the rhetoric of crisis is inseparable from a key claim of Trumpism: “I alone can fix it.” Whether the “I” is Donald Trump or a savior of a different political stripe, constitutionalists should be wary.

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