Category Archives: Leadership

The Ungrateful Republic

Statues are not erected to honor private virtue, but public service. 

In 1872, Thomas Nast, a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, took up his pen in defense of America’s beleaguered chief executive. At the time, President Grant was weighed down with allegations of running an executive branch laced with corruption. Despite Grant’s impeccable personal integrity, it was widely intimated that his staunch loyalty kept him from keeping a close watch over unscrupulous staffers and political cronies who sullied his administration.

Nast, who had long banged the drum for Republican principles, portrayed Grant as a great man greatly misunderstood. Any leader would have struggled to administer a clean government at the onset of the Gilded Age, given the ripe environment for scams and swindles supplied by breakneck industrial expansion, the protracted rule of the Republican party, and the hasty settlement of the West. Patronage and deal making was nothing new in the federal Leviathan (which had swelled enormously during the war), and so Republican partisans plausibly felt that the old general in chief was being traduced and abused on account of his unflagging efforts to protect black suffrage and enforce black rights.

Standing with the figure Liberty, Grant is pictured by Nast as an honorable leader braving slings and arrows out of fealty to republican virtue. The caption blared: “The Republic is not Ungrateful.” Continue reading

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Filed under Leadership, Political Philosophy, Social Policy

‘America First’ and the Coronavirus

The United States now has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other country in the world, and within ten days will likely have more total deaths from the disease than any other country. A map of the United States showing that many states and regions were, as late as March 27, still failing to adhere to general guidelines of social distancing to “flatten the curve” of the virus is a national disgrace. To be sure, some other countries’ official tallies naturally invite skepticism—does anyone believe the figures China has reported?—but even discounting the statistics from authoritarian regimes and failed states, the United States is at the vanguard of the industrialized world in coronavirus infections. This is a dubious form of American exceptionalism—one intimately related to having a president of the United States who plainly never understood, and proclaims never to have believed in, the concept. Continue reading

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Filed under Leadership, Quotidian Politics

To the Best of His Ability?

The presidency is occupied by an unprincipled rogue who defiles the office and diminishes its authority 

Historians will marvel at the wreckage to the conservative cause piled up high in our time by an administration claiming, without serious challenge, the banner of the Republican party. What most catches the eye is not ostensible conservatives’ abandonment of free trade principle or their newfound contempt for international alliances, lamentable as these tergiversations have been. The truest betrayal on the right in this time has rather been at once more grave and more elemental: the jettisoning of the understanding of—or at any rate the concern for—the role of character in a republic.

It wasn’t so long ago that a typical Republican might have been expected to snort with derision at any suggestion that character does not matter in high public office. This profoundly republican position now sits awkwardly in a party that struggles to say a disobliging word about Donald Trump. Continue reading

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Filed under Book Reviews, Defense Policy, Foreign Policy, Leadership, Political Philosophy

The Case for Trump, Refuted

The most serious pro-Trump book to date argues that its subject is a tragic hero akin to Achilles. The truth is that as long as he remains president, Trump will be America’s vulnerable heel. Continue reading

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Filed under Book Reviews, Leadership, Republican Reformism

Homo Americanus

Anyone who cares about the American idea should mourn McCain’s diagnosis.   

Whenever considering the case of John McCain, I have often recalled an old rule from William Hazlitt, a partisan of the radical movements in the age of revolution: “It has always been with me, a test of the sense and candor of anyone belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”

McCain is as close to a great man as his generation produced. Continue reading

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Filed under Essays in Biography, Foreign Policy, Leadership

The Chinese Dream?

In his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Thomas Friedman laid out the case for what might be called his Chinese dream. In the course of his characteristically mind-numbing prose, the New York Times columnist proposed that America might consider becoming “China for a Day.”

What this provocative chapter -– and subsequent columns on the same subject -– amounted to was a paean to the command-and-control system of state capitalism pioneered by China in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Under the benevolent guidance of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China has, inter alia, made “multibillion dollar, 25-year-horizon investments” in high-speed rail, ultramodern airports and bioscience technology. They have even made tentative steps toward reversing environmental despoliation, banning plastic bags. “Bam! Just like that – 1.3 billion people, theoretically, will stop using thin plastic bags,” Friedman marveled. “Millions of barrels of petroleum will be saved, and mountains of garbage avoided.” Others have followed in his footsteps, and indeed the facts around China’s explosion in growth are stupefying.

It has never been hard to devise an argument for limiting, or even transcending, the democratic process in favor of the expedient force and ferocious dynamism of the authoritarian model. In The Republic, to take the most famous example, Plato eviscerated democracy for its tendency to sacrifice vital needs in service of grubby short-term considerations favored by the rabble. Only an elite set of philosopher-kings could be trusted to guard the true interests of the state. This assumption has only become more prevalent at a time when ideology has fallen out of fashion, and when it has been replaced by an insistence on what “works.”

The crisis of democracy in our own age is the subject of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist “newspaper” (this insufferably pretentious appellation serves in lieu of the apparently pedestrian “magazine”). Continue reading

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Filed under Book Reviews, Leadership, Political Philosophy

The Man of All Seasons

“All censure of a man’s self is oblique praise. It is in order to show how much he can spare.” – Samuel Johnson

In 2008 many conservatives resorted to supporting McCain faute de mieux. In lieu of something better. To be clear from the start: Although that caveat must apply, or at least ought to apply, nearly every time one casts a vote, I confess that I have failed to register much hesitation. People like me (to be slightly self-referential about it) had McCain’s back before it was cool. Continue reading

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The Man of All Men

“In politics a man, I take it, gets on not so much by what he does, as by what he is. It is not so much a question of brains as of character and originality.” – Winston Churchill, 1897

Just who is Barack Obama? The sheer number of people posing this touchy question after Election Day stands as testament to the incoming president’s considerable disguise. Continue reading

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