The BLOG: Campaign 2016

Trump’s ‘Passions and Interests’

Over at Public Discourse, political scientist Carson Holloway argued that Republicans should stop treating Trump’s supporters as irrational. Those supporters are acting in their own interests, as they assess them, and anyone who wants to woo them should appeal to those interests. Appeal to principles will not do the job. Political realism is required. Holloway thinks that the Founders, who understood the power of interests, would have agreed.

Trump himself is, of course, unprincipled. He acts in his own interests without much regard for moral constraints or enduring or universal principles. He is uncivil, casually throwing around epithets such as “liar,” “choke artist,” “goofy,” and “fool.” He is famously sexually incontinent. He was for abortion before he was against it. And so on.

The Founders did think a lot about interests as the basis of political arrangements. According to Madison in Federalist 10, a primary job of the national, constitutional order is to constrain factions from establishing tyrannical majorities. The Constitution bequeathed to us by Madison and others sets faction against faction by pitting interest against interest, thus making it less likely that factions will join together to form tyrannies.

This arrangement is one fruit of an intellectual tradition mapped by the late intellectual historian Albert Hirschman in his book, “The Passions and the Interests,” a book to which I was introduced last year. The basic idea, developed in the Enlightenment, is that in the absence of virtue, religion, or other moral authorities, the destructive passions could still be checked by the interests. Commercial society generally, and later capitalism specifically, would create incentives for peoples not to destroy the fabric of political society, not to go to war, not to destroy or steal each other’s resources.

I am not confident that the interests of Trump’s supporters are capable of checking the passions of Trump’s supporters. It seems to me we are witnessing the limits of interests as the basis of political society. Without some understanding of God, moral obligation, or even simply the common good, the interests and passions seem to align quite effortlessly.

Then: Trump. As NBP Editor Jennifer C. Braceras notes in her column, Trump draws support from many factions in American society. The interests of those factions do not obviously align. Yet the factions are aligning, and tyranny threatens on the horizon.

The Founders did think a lot about the interests, but not to the exclusion of virtue, goods, religion, and morality. A President Trump would almost certainly not feel himself constrained by the rule of law because he does not feel himself constrained by moral obligation generally. Trump’s interests are his own.

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod

Adam J. MacLeod is a member of the Maine and Massachusetts (inactive) bars and an Associate Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law. He is the author of “Property and Practical Reason” (Cambridge University Press) and dozens of articles in journals in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, many of which can be accessed at his website.