The late LDS leader (and former Agriculture Secretary and John Birch Society adherent) Ezra Taft Benson once taught “beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.” And the late LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie—as doctrinaire a man that ever walked the halls at LDS headquarters—similarly wrote that “anyone who follows a dead prophet rather than a living prophet will follow him to death rather than to life.”
These quotations are not offered to debate their accuracy in the religious context, but instead to wonder why a rule that applies to God’s mouthpieces wouldn’t also apply to those secular “apostles” of the American religion, the “Founders.” Even when Republican politics were far less fever-swampy than they are now, hagiography was the bare minimum requirement for invoking the Founders. Though earth-bound deities, they had to be as sinless as their eternal counterpart—as though their purity would make them worthy to atone for America’s original sin.
Unfortunately though, most modern invocations of Founding principles are rooted in little but misconception and fable, the result of decades of misguided oral history, blind ignorance, and, in too many cases, outright fraud. An early example. Twenty-five years ago, I spent two months (before leaving on my LDS mission) working for a GOP Congressional candidate for the Third District seat, based in Utah County. My candidate was a mainstream conservative. His GOP primary opponent was a raving lunatic—a Trump Republican decades ahead of his time.
One night I attended a live debate between the two candidates where the discussion turned to gun control. I do not remember my candidate’s response, though it would have been well within the conservative mainstream of the time. Surely recognizing that he could not distinguish himself as the Founder-endorsed candidate by parroting my candidate’s bland conservative fare, our opponent declared that the government could exercise no control over weaponry of any kind, up to and including a citizen’s right to possess “pocket nuclear devices.”
Now, one can hardly imagine a sharper, personal denunciation of the Founders than to believe they were cruel, stupid, or ignorant enough to leave the United States government without the power to protect itself, and its citizens, from the devastating consequences of individuals walking around with pocket nuclear devices. Cruel, because governments exist to stabilize society, not to condone interpersonal neighborhood arms races. Stupid, because for all of the Founders’ supposedly categorical and careful analysis of the nature of State authority, a government that permitted its citizens to possess the means of the government’s own destruction would be useless. And ignorant, because it demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the purposes of the Second Amendment. Indeed, while even those purposes are debatable, it can’t possibly be that one of those purposes was to encourage free-market nuclear proliferation.
It could be argued this is self-evident to anyone with a brain, but the Founders certainly knew all this because of John Locke. Locke argued that without a compact to order civil society, mankind would live either in state of nature or a state of war. While the state of nature would be peaceful and preferable, mankind would tend toward war because individuals naturally tend to dominate each other. Because individuals have the natural right to self-defense, they need to enter into a contract, or compact, to create some kind of neutral authority with the power to mediate and decide individual disputes. This undeniably comes at the cost of some quantum of freedom, but far less so than the cost of living in a world of constant threat.
Of course, once you know just this much—as much as I learned in the first three weeks of a first-year political philosophy class—you know why the Constitution must have granted the government power to bar pocket nuclear devices. A government without the power to regulate individuals at least that much would have no purpose to exist. It couldn’t resolve disputes among individuals, because the individuals with pocket nuclear devices would win all disputes, by definition. Locke’s natural state of war would merge with the form, but not the structure or institutions, of government authority. At best, the resulting government would be helpless. At worst, it would be complicit in subjecting its citizens to a constant state of war—a state of perpetual Hunger Games.
My candidate won the primary and went on to serve six terms. His opponent won 43% of the 1996 Republican primary vote.
Fast-forward to 2020. That 43% of the 1996 Republican Party is now 100% of the Republican Party. No serious Republican politician would ever suggest limitation on gun ownership, for the same reason that our opponent wouldn’t do so in 1996—it would require a neutral arbiter to resolve a disputed issue of fact; where to draw a line that must exist if civil society is to function.
And this circumstance repeats itself again and again. Instead of serving as the arbiter the American social compact requires—even a conservative arbiter—the Trump Administration simply pits the resulting mobs against each other in a state of perpetual war. The pandemic? Go fight for your PPE. Good luck to your state, unless it’s a blue one. Racism? Good people on both sides. Police reform? They need bigger guns, and the authority to use them. Interest rates? Only if preceded by a minus sign, and the lower the better. Health care? Repeal Obamacare, replace it with a Denny’s menu, so you can live it up for what little time you have left. QAnon? Some people say there’s something to it. Trump, he’s never really thought about it but with so many people who think so, how can you ignore it? Trump’s fundamental governing premise is that everyone is allowed a literal pocket nuclear device, or at least its equally destabilizing metaphorical equivalent.
Meanwhile, everyone learns in grade school of the separation of powers between the various branches of government. The Founders imagined that if authority were among the various branches of government, ambition would counteract ambition, with the effect that the warring branches would check each other. Of course, the Founders contemplated the potential for a man such as Donald Trump to be elected. But what they didn’t account for—couldn’t account for—is that in the ensuing 250 years, Congress would render itself nearly powerless to withstand executive overreach. When one combines the rise of the administrative state and Congress’ delegation of so-called emergency powers to the Executive with the election of a man who believes that his office already makes his authority “total,” it takes very little imagination to map out the result. And so, while a high school government teacher may suggest the solution to our current problem is the Founders’ robust conception of the separation of powers, the fact is that current circumstances neutralize that alleged protection as well.
And federalism? Tossed out with the stormtroopers. The spectacle of Trump handmaiden Hugh Hewitt last week attempting to convince Trump that Trump is a federalist, even as Trump waxed poetic about his federal marauders’ effectiveness, was an impressive display of Republican cognitive dissonance, even in 2020. Even giving Hewitt the benefit of the doubt1Pro tip. Don’t., the best-case scenario was that he and Trump were having two separate conversations: Hewitt’s about the dead principles in his head, and Trump’s about the living armed legions sent to tear up Portland. But Hewitt’s chief concern has nothing to do with governing Portland in any event. Instead, he considers himself the gatekeeper of a shiny box called “federalism,” built by the Founders to cleanse the stains of anything he places in it. A miracle cure. Not only is this no way to run a country; it is deeply weird. Federalism now amounts to the bleach-drinking of conservative “constitutionalism.”
Meanwhile, out here in the real world, most of the constitutionally-established arbiters of civic life are inert or collapsing. And for all their alleged devotion to founding principles, Republicans have adapted on the fly. Trump acts more as Gamemaster General than President now. His version of “law and order” involves tear gas, stormtroopers, and military force—something less than surprising for the cult leader of a party obsessed with conflict. The resulting amalgamation is the hollowed-out husk of an immensely powerful federal government promoting a permanent Lockean state of war. If this feels like something less than freedom, be assured it indeed might be the exact opposite.
But the Founders cannot save us, because most of their construction does not exist in either theory or practice. The structure has been tottering for years, in large part because Americans believed it to be secular gospel, and no one can improve on the gospel. But we now find we have been following dead prophets to death. As it turns out, Ezra Taft Benson was right.