Coolidge is at first the obvious choice. The only president to fully confront the Leviathan of government, Coolidge and his seriousness, humility, and constitutionalist conviction are indispensable antidotes for the vacuity, celebrity, and grotesque caesarism of our political present. As Amity Shlaes, Coolidge’s most eloquent contemporary champion, reminds us, Silent Cal not only governed with a fiscal discipline and dedication to the rule of law that is sorely missed today; his modesty and Cincinnatian refusal to pursue personal power and fame embody the very principles of limited government and constitutionalism.
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It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.It is easy to see why conservatives might pine for a Coolidge, a student and servant of the constitution, to take the reins in a time of such fiscal profligacy and social instability. But whom would Coolidge inspire?
On one reading, the sordid state of the American Right is the product primarily of poor policy choices and political betrayal by a cartel of corporatist elites. The problem is that Republican after Republican has paid lip-service to Coolidgeian principles, while governing as Wilsonian progressives—invading the world, inviting the world, and relentlessly expanding the size of the state. What’s needed is a true man of conservative principle, a man who is capable of resisting the siren call of statist public choice incentives.
On another view however, the plight of the American Right draws from a far deeper cultural crisis. A profound change in America's reigning orthodoxy and cultural dogma plagues American society and has brought about the rightwing populism of the day. Now is not the time for a withdrawn, committed constitutionalist. As Tocqueville famously exclaimed, a new political science is needed for a world altogether new. What is needed in our broken world today is an active, energetic leader who can simultaneously harness and tame these most vitriolic of populist impulses.
In a 1941 lecture, the great German émigré political theorist, Leo Strauss, sought to diagnose the conditions which gave rise to the “German Nihilism” of the 1930s and 40s. He sought to examine the spirit of reactionary anger which festered throughout the Weimar Republic and exploded in the form of Nazism and Hitler. Surprisingly perhaps, Strauss argued that this nihilism did not ultimately arise from nationalism or a militarist love of war. Those were merely symptoms of a profound act of moral protest against the new de-moralized world of “cultural bolshevism” and liberalism.
The new populism of the right stemmed not from a rejection of the ethical life, but from a “love of morality” and a sense “of responsibility for [an] endangered morality.” The new orthodoxy of a “pacified planet, without rulers or ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and consumption only”—in other words, the empty orthodoxy of contemporary cosmopolitanism—was “positively horrifying” to a generation of young Germans. Arising from the moral debasement of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the new nihilists rebelled against their elites' deflated conflation of the moral life with merely “an attitude of claiming one’s rights, or with enlightened self-interest, or the reduction of honesty to the best policy.” This modern “mercenary morality” and its hackneyed teachers had nothing to offer. As such, the young nihilists became the dedicated enemies of modern civilization, turning instead to a new coterie of post-Nietzschean philosophers who sought to purify the land of its putrid, liberal pieties.
What then could have saved these young nihilists from Nazism? To Strauss, the answer is Winston Churchill. Only a Churchill could have quenched their thirst for vigorous, virile leadership. A Coolidgeian dedication to quaint 19th century ideas could not have tamed their Nietzschean angst. But by embracing aristocratic means in service of a threatened constitutional order, Churchill succeeded in humanizing rule in a liberal democracy. Paradoxically perhaps, the man who saved a Whiggish political order did so not through a reinforcement of enduring constitutional institutions, but through an act of spectacular, political will.
Only an aristocrat, Strauss suggests, can save democracy from itself. Only Churchill, a man steeped in the heroic, militaristic ethos of an earlier age, could productively channel the irascibly nihilistic impulses brought on by the new democratic orthodoxy.
This leaves us with a puzzle for contemporary politics. Who best can preserve the principles of our liberal order? Do we need a Coolidge, a man who in every respect embodies political restraint and a quiet respect for the law? Or do we need a Churchill, a man who vigorously preserved English liberty through the flamboyant pursuit of his own heroic kleos?
I’m not quite sure what the answer is, but one thing is certain: the GOP won't be nominating a Coolidge or a Churchill any time soon (though Mr. Trump is likely closer to one than to the other).
(NB, the above of course is not sustained, rigorous argument of any sort. It is instead a brief, fanciful reflection concerning a *highly* stylized contrast).
Update: It has come to my attention courtesy of Professor Shlaes' twitter feed that this sort of dichotomy was not lost on Coolidge's opponents in the Democratic Party, who in 1924 called for a "Paul Revere" instead of a "Sphinx" to be the next American president.