Up-from-nowhere Irishman Edmund Burke, with a Catholic mother and wife, Protestant on his father’s side, schooled at Trinity/Dublin, went to London to become eventually, according to Samuel Johnson, the “first man of Parliament” (where he served for 28 years).
The father of modern conservatism, Burke helped invent and defend the political party system as a bulwark against excessive government power, pointed out the folly of the king’s party’s war against American independence, predicted in 1790 the “extraordinary convulsion” that would follow from the French Revolution, and did his best to reveal and resist the East India Company’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” in India.
As a man, he was defiant of anti-Irish bigotry, becoming the third member of “The Club” along with Joshua Reynolds and Johnson. Consistent with ideas from the “small l” liberal community formed by his friends David Hume, Adam Smith and David Garrick, while in Parliament he fought for Catholic emancipation and a free international market for grain.
Certainly, Burke was a man for all seasons.
We don’t know if Donald Trump is a close reader of Burke, but the US president’s trade ideas are very like those of the Great Man.
In his “letters” to his constituents in the riding of Bristol, Burke said that in a (small r) republican parliament, the best politicians did not unthinkingly follow the dictates of public opinion, but rather applied their best and wisest judgment when studying policy and voting on complex issues involving national interest.
In particular, Burke’s sometimes narrow-minded merchant-voters wished to suppress Ireland’s trade with Great Britain, claiming it would diminish their profits. Burke told them that trade, when made more free (not entirely so), could benefit both buyers and sellers, and that trade was not a zero-sum game.
But Burke was nuanced. He advocated a national interest – British Empire – approach to trade policy. He accepted Britain’s Navigation Acts, which severely limited American colonists, and access to non-Empire trade opportunities, on the ground that Empire interests should come first everywhere so that Parliament’s political “family” might best maximize true national interest.
Moreover, it was important to him that the Americans (whose interests he defended because they were fellow free Englishmen) should “pay their way” as Empire members, and not free-ride when opportunistic and possibly transitory or shortsighted prospects arose.
Also, Burke criticized (in a quite special way) the anti-trade ideas of the so-called Mercantilists of his time. He wrote to a member of the Irish Parliament at a time when trade between Ireland and Britain was restrained: “[I will fight] to fix the principle of Free Trade in all parts of these islands as founded In Justice and beneficial to the whole.…” His idea was that, internal to a single state (the Empire), internal trade, and trade with the “outside” should not unfairly favor one “member of the family” over another.
Burke’s ideas were the same as President Trump’s. Silicon Valley big shots oppose Trump. This may be caused by his National Interest approach to high-tech international brain traffic.
In the manner of Burke, the US president may see that trade with an “outsider” like China unequally benefits Silicon Valley but adversely burdens America’s manufacturing sector. In addition, by way of California’s US-industry-sponsored (along with Chinese government money) “Confucius Institutes” where Chinese scholars and technicians find temporary intellectual homes as they transit back and forth across the Pacific, brain capital trade may “unfairly” benefit US high tech in the short run, while aggravating the unpaid-for export of American intellectual property.
One can see a parallel with Burke in Trump’s criticism of international organizations like the UN, NATO, the WTO and other ‘global’ entities, including his disengagement from treaties with adversaries like Russia and Persia … along with his support of Brexit and other signs of decay among post-World War II globalist players
One can see a parallel with Burke in Trump’s criticism of international organizations like the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization and other “global” entities, including his disengagement from treaties with adversaries like Russia and Persia (why Persia? I wish to remind my fellow Americans of the anti-Western history of what is now Iran), along with his support of Brexit and other signs of decay among post-World War II globalist players.
When Trump operates inside “the Empire,” as with NATO, like Burke and Burke’s good friend Samuel Johnson (Taxation No Tyranny) he speaks and acts like the Pater Familia of the metaphorical “family” of free nations. He scolds them when they don’t pay their bills (NATO), when they form subsidiary factions and challenge the leadership of America (the European Union, UN, WTO), he chastises them when they break the rules of good government (Venezuela), always in the belief, just like the belief Burke and his friends had of the essential goodness of their Empire, the legitimacy of its traditions and its Parliament, that his defense of the national interest of the USA is consistent with his willingness to bargain hard but play fair during international discussions over the division of costs and benefits concerning international relations of all kinds.
Finally, Burke’s defense of party allegiance and party loyalty as against faction and personality was based on his notion that faction leads to short-run internecine combat, inconsistent with principled debate over real issues.
In Burke’s time, his group (at first not a real party), the Whigs, was split, by the personality of the fiery radical Charles Fox, between the old and new Whigs. Fox, among other things, early on supported the French Revolutionaries, along with revolutionary “thinkers” inside Britain. Burke, as a new Whig, was horrified at what he presciently foresaw as the rule by guillotine, to be established by the likes of Robespierre. Burke argued that a party, founded on principles and ideas, not individual charismatic leaders, not driven by passion, enthusiasm or fashion, was the only foundation for effective consistent parliamentary rule, including the orderly transition of power.
Donald Trump, more than any president in American history (excepting, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln), is only too aware of just how destructive the faction-based hatred of him as a person has been.
And so, in his recent State of the Union speech (the timing of which was delayed by the high-school princess-style “you can’t sit with us girls in the cafeteria until we say so” faction-like antics of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), Trump implicitly asked both parties to abandon faction-based squabbling over his personality, and rather debate, according to the differing principles held on each side, and come to an agreement over border protections, by way of returning to classical party-based deliberations over the other, more important, issues of the day.
I applaud the parallels between President Trump’s behavior and the analysis and political style of Edmund Burke. I am impressed by (especially) the economic numbers that the Trump administration has put on the board. We hope that the Republican Party has the good sense to ignore things like the government shutdown, and just run home, bragging about economic success. It should not instead try to teach Trump good manners.
I ask my American friends to see Burke’s up-from-outside success story as a good reason to follow his political advice and rely upon principled party debates when they decide upon the many policy questions that affect all of us within reach of the benign Empire.