American lit, conservative thought and Trump – St. Augustine Record

Posted: August 20, 2017 at 6:18 pm

Bob Fliegel

St. Augustine

Remember Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau? Although most of us English majors met those two in American Lit 101, I hadnt given them much thought in the intervening 50-plus years. Until, that is, I had the following epiphany: They represent two pillars of modern American conservative thought.

Consider the thesis of what is arguably Emersons most famous work, his 1841 essay on Self-Reliance. Surely self-reliance is an admirable trait. How could it not be? Shouldnt we all be expected to strive, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to be self-made, to eschew the government dole?

Of course, the reality is that not everyone thrives under capitalism. Many falter and fail for any number of reasons. Some are unable to overcome physical or mental shortcomings, while others may see themselves as economically victimized by forces beyond their control. Still others are inept or just plain lazy.

Enter social Darwinism. In that view, the survival of the fittest extends beyond Darwins theories of natural selection to a similar premise of socio-economic survival. Some of us will succeed.

Some of us will not. Theres a putative fairness to this being allowed to play out without government intercession. Why should the less able be given a leg up? Is a level playing field an inalienable right? Are unequal outcomes always prima facie evidence of unequal opportunity?

Add Thoreaus essay Civil Disobedience of 1849, in which he endorsed the Jeffersonian notion that government is best which governs least, and you have the conservatives rejection of a.) government intrusion and overreach and b.) assistance programs they regard as only fostering continued dependence on government largesse.

Ronald Reagans compassion for the truly needy notwithstanding, conservatives have remained skeptical about that truly part. Although they extol the virtues of voluntary assistance to the disadvantaged, they certainly dont feel the same way about involuntary taxation to help those who cant fend for themselves. In fact, many believe program abuses have become so numerous as to warrant throwing that truly needy baby out with the bath water of welfare cheats.

President Trump does not appear to exemplify either of these two major conservative tenets. More precisely, his transactional approach to governance does not seem to be at all grounded in the thinking of their historical advocates.

The odds of his being even minimally conversant about the contributions of a Thoreau, an Emerson, or a conservative progenitor like Edmund Burke, are low indeed. No doubt his supporters would call that contention elitist. So be it. They would, of course, be wrong.

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American lit, conservative thought and Trump - St. Augustine Record

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