View all Events
Event Culture Culture & Society

2016 Wriston Lecture: 1776. Would You Like to Reconsider?

Thursday October 2016


Andrew Roberts Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; Visiting Professor at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London

Read the adapted remarks featured in The Wall Street Journal.

Professor Andrew Roberts read modern history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, from where he is an honorary senior scholar and Ph.D. He has written 12 books, including Salisbury: Victorian Titan (winner of the Wolfson Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award), Napoleon and Wellington, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (Intercollegiate Studies Institute Book Award), Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 (Emery Reves Award), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (British Army Military Book Award), and the New York Times bestseller Napoleon: A Life (Los Angeles Times Biography Prize and Grand Prix of the Fondation Napoléon).

Roberts is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Historical Society, a trustee of the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust and the National Portrait Gallery, chairman of the Lehrman Institute New-York Historical Society Military Book Prize, the Lehrman Institute Distinguished Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, and a visiting professor at the War Studies Department of King’s College, London. He has delivered the White House Lecture, has lectured at Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, and was a visiting professor of history at Cornell. Roberts sits on the academic boards of five conservative think-tanks and organizations and is a founding member of the Friends of Israel Initiative. In 2016, he won the Bradley Prize.

Event Transcript

I’d like to speak to you tonight about a primary system that has thrown up two presidential candidates who are despised by 60% of Americans, and argue that it is broken and urgently needs to be reformed. Nearly one in four of over twelve hundred 18-to-35 years olds polled by the University of Massachusetts recently have said they would prefer to see a giant meteor destroy the Earth than see either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the White House. 

The only rational response to the choice of Mrs Clinton or Mr Trump is that of Henry Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq War: ‘A pity they both can’t lose.’ For a non-American who defends the United States at every opportunity I get, I must ask: Are you deliberately trying to make it more difficult for me this year?

Senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska, speaking in support of the Supreme Court nomination of Judge G. Harrold Carswell in 1970, famously said: ‘Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They’re entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.’ It was unsurprisingly thought to have damaged Carswell’s cause, but, ladies and gentlemen, in today’s presidential race mediocre would be a huge improvement to what’s on offer. 

It’s not for me as a foreigner to try to choose between the two candidates. I’ll come on to 1776 and the Founding Fathers in a moment, but one of their contemporaries, Samuel Johnson, made the remark: ‘Sir, there is no settling the point of presidency between a louse and a flea.’ For all the undoubted genius of your Constitution, in the year 2016 it is no longer sustainable for Americans to say that they have the best democratic system in the world. There have been plenty of different types of democracy – the Athenian agora model of direct participation, the Westminster-based constitutional monarchy, the Swiss referendum and cantonal model, Indian mass democracy, and so on – but it is impossible any more to suggest that the finest one is that which has thrown up Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the final choice out of 320 million Americans.

It might be alright were this election taking place in a vacuum, but at a time when Chinese GDP is overtaking America’s we are engaged in a vital ideological struggle over which political system delivers the best results for people: the state corporatism of the Beijing model, where there is no free speech and no democracy, or the democratic model of the West, whose leading democracy today presents its people with a choice between a preposterous, petulant monster of self-regard - he refers to himself in the third person, for God’s sake ! - with deep, dark psychological flaws on one side, and a proven failure whose views float with the polling data and whose word of honour simply cannot be relied upon, on the other.

At a time when the latest World Economic Forum report tells us that, for the first time in history, dictatorships are more trusted by their peoples to deliver what their leaders offer than are democracies, the American model of democracy is losing its moral momentum, and this rancid presidential election has made the situation much worse. Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that democracy is under threat in America. President Obama has stated that this election is ‘a ballot of democracy’, which serves to remind us yet again that for a former editor of the Harvard Law Review he is occasionally given to saying quite the most  extraordinarily stupid things. With your Constitution, Bill of Rights, media, First Amendment, Congress, separation of powers – quite apart from the sublime instincts of the American people – democracy is under no threat whatsoever here, for all your president’s absurd hyperbole. But the concept of democratic values as worthy aspirations for modern society certainly is under serious threat globally from a totalitarian state-capitalist model that is dangerously attractive in what it is producing for its populations, while American democracy is meanwhile offering its people a choice between a crook and a clown.

If you ask people walking down the street whether they want Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton almost everyone asks for a better choice. From the previous Wriston Lecturers alone there are at least ten, maybe more, men and women who would make better presidents than either Mr Trump or Mrs Clinton, indeed there are probably more than that in this room, yet out of 320 million Americans your system managed to produce those two. In the great political, cultural and ideological struggle against the Chinese model for growth, America must be seen to do better or else their argument will bury ours. In Vladimir Nabakov’s novel Bend Sinister, he writes of how ‘It was as if one side of the globe had been struck with paralysis while the other smiled with an incredulous smile.’

So what is to be done? Firstly, the Republicans need party leaders and candidates who confront people like Trump seriously from the start, and do not coddle him in the vain hope that if you’re nice to him, you inherit his supporters when he collapses on his own.  As we can see, that strategy was as self-defeating as it was cynical and cowardly. Secondly, it is ludicrous to have debates controlled by TV channels which want the GOP to split and the Democrats to win, and which frame their questions accordingly. In response, the Republicans need to return to the Reagan Rule by which no Republican speaks ill of another in the race. When in 2012 Newt Gingrich described Mitt Romney’s business record as one of ‘vulture capitalism’, he did Obama and Biden’s work for them. That must stop.

Thirdly, the talking down of America, even in an election year, has gone too far and is likely to be misinterpreted abroad. Mr Gingrich has also said that if Mrs Clinton wins, America will go the way of Venezuela. No it won’t. When Adam Smith was brought the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, and was told that Britain was ruined forever, he replied. ‘There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.’ If we got over losing America and went on to become the largest empire in history, you can get over four years of Mrs Clinton, however dreadful she is. The word ‘again’ in ‘Make America great again’ is a terrible libel on your country, which is still great on any objective criterion, albeit clearly going in the wrong direction. Self-pity is not a part of the American national character – however emotionally and rhetorically alluring it might be during election-time – and you must not permit Mr Trump’s sloganizing to allow it to find a place there. 

Fourthly, the percentages of support that guarantees a candidate a place in the debate should be drastically higher so that you don’t have a dozen or more people taking part in them and thus sometimes given no more than 30 seconds in which to try to sum up complex issues, leading to a moronically low standard of debate. If Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were forced to debate each other in a minute or 30 second bursts, answering politically-loaded questions from CNN and ABC and CBS intended to embarrass and humiliate them, you probably wouldn’t have got a much better outcome.

I suspect historians will discover that a Democrat-dominated news media gave Trump an easy ride in the opening stages of the campaign - as well as the invaluable oxygen of free publicity - because they thought it made good ratings and assumed he was eminently beatable by Mrs Clinton. They were right that he made good box office, in the same way that movies such as The Exorcist and The Shining make good box office, but we’ve yet to see about the second part. If they miscalculated, they will have four years in which to rue their cynicism, myopia and gross lack of professionalism. Of course they will argue that they were merely doing their job in reporting the Trump phenomenon, but in fact they were instrumental in creating it. 

That Donald Trump has held no public office whatever also ought to have been an automatic disqualification. I know you like the idea in America that absolutely anyone can be president, but you are really testing that dictum this year. You’ve had plenty of presidential candidates who’ve not previously held elected office, including William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Wendell Willkie and Dwight Eisenhower. But they all held high offices or served their country outside politics: Taft was Governor of the Philippines, Hoover was Head of the Belgian Relief Agency during WW1, Willkie fought the Ku Klux Klan and headed his local bar association, and Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander during WW2 and President of Columbia afterwards. These weren’t elected offices, but they were all fine and honorable positions of importance and responsibility. Mr Trump has been head of Miss Universe and star of The Apprentice, both businesses in which he owned an interest.  I know he has created jobs, but that was as a positive by-product of making money, not the primary purpose of the enterprise.

If ever there were an election that cries out for a credible third party candidate it’s this one, but America is as much a two-party state as Zimbabwe is a one-party state. There ought to have been a Bull Moose-style candidate around whom Americans could have coalesced, denying the presidency both to Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton.

I suspect what will happen here in 12 days’ time is what happened in France in 2002, where both the French Right and Left voted for Jacques Chirac in order to keep out Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac gained 83% of the vote, largely from people who had spent a lifetime hating and despising him, but who nevertheless voted for the lesser of two evils.      

One of the attractive aspects of the old House of Lords before they abolished the hereditary element was that people who were certifiably insane through generations of inbreeding could nonetheless make their own unique contribution to their Lordships’ deliberations. One such as the 4th Earl Russell – he was descended from the dukes of Bedford and was a cousin of the philosopher Bertrand Russell – who in 1976 solemnly informed the House that Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter were in fact the same person in disguise. Needless to say this delighted their noble Lordships, who fell about laughing. Not even Lord Russell, however, would mistake Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the same person. They do have one thing in common, though. Mrs Clinton will make America weaker, just like President Obama has. And Mr Trump will - for all his bluster about American strength - make America yet weaker still, turning the United States into a pariah nation with his neo-isolationism, wall-building, flight bans, Protectionism and appeasement of Vladimir Putin.

The Republican Party should not have allowed itself to be hijacked by a man with so minute a record of contribution to the nation, and needs to alter its rules to prevent a similar demagogue with deep pockets and no conscience from doing it ever again. Unless there are reforms of the system it will continue to encourage candidates who combine the populism of William Jennings Bryan, the demagoguery of Huey Long and the divisiveness of George Wallace. The Republicans need a super-delegate system of sane party elders who want to see the party win. If there hadn’t been super-delegates in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders today would be within a hair’s breadth of the White House.
So my sixth reform is for the Republican Party machine to have the last say in who is or is not a Republican, and who can therefore stand under the Republican banner, and it ought to demand a relatively long-standing commitment to the party. In October 1999 Mr Trump left the Republicans and in August 2001 he enrolled as a Democrat. In September 2009 – having spent most of the 2000s as a Democrat – he rejoined the Republicans. In December 2011 he wrote on his registration form ‘I do not wish to enroll in a party.’ Then in April 2012, he rejoined the Republicans. If someone doesn’t walk, talk or think like a Republican, then the chances are that he isn’t one, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to stand as one.

Winston Churchill, after crossing the floor of the House of Commons for the second time, joked that ‘Anyone can rat but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.’ What the Republican party has moronically allowed Mr Trump to do is to re-re-rat, which might have been understandable if he had been promoting traditional Republican policies and values, but he never has and is certainly not doing so now. Today he should have been a maverick third party candidate ranting away into the wind, rather than enjoying the formal imprimatur of one of the great political parties of the Western World.

Should Trump lose, the Republicans mustn’t waste time recriminating about the lack of support the Party gave him; he was a terrible candidate and that’s an end to it. It must just be put down to one of those terrible aberrations that suddenly occur in history, appearing seemingly from nowhere, doing terrible damage, and then disappearing. Like cholera.  

The Republicans will likely pay the price right the way down the ticket in November, and the United States will pay the price if Secretary Clinton is elected – a Senator without a bill to her name and a truly disastrous Secretary of State whom any number of other Republicans could have trounced in these elections.

Of course great presidential leadership has not been a prerequisite for America to be successful. She threw up no truly great president in the 36 years between Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and Teddy Roosevelt’s accession in 1901, but she threw up leaders aplenty. Those were also the years of America’s greatest economic growth spurt, and the leaders of that period weren’t politicians – who had the sense to stand back from government interference - but were the great businessmen of those days, the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans, Fricks and so on – who built the enterprises that allowed the USA to burst onto the world stage as the Great White Fleet circumnavigated the globe in 1909. But in the present era of only anaemic growth – for reasons the Manhattan Institute does a fine job in delineating – we do now need political leadership of an abnormally high order. 

I am not one of those who believes that there are no good people going into politics anymore, because of the press intrusion, or the low pay, or the 24/7 news cycle, or the cyber abuse or the toll on family life or the   reduced esteem of one’s peers. Several of the candidates for the presidency except the winning two were fine upstanding gentlemen and ladies.  Now that might sound effete or elitist or just British of me, but I believe that the President of the United States should possess the gentlemanly or ladylike  virtues of chivalry, courtesy, moderation and finer feeling, because as Head of State he or she needs to be a role model for the nation. If you are going to continue down this path of having your Head of Government and your Head of State as the same person, then you need to have someone who can personify the best of America. In short, someone who can be respected as a person. 

Nor is there any dichotomy whatever between being a gentleman and making America great: America was at its greatest in terms of global power and influence under Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower none of whom so far as we know boasted that their preferred modus operandum with women was to ‘Grab them by the pussy’. (The revelation that Mr Trump was lewd and lecherous has to stand as the least surprising October surprise in the history of October surprises.) You’ll recall the moment in The Importance of Being Earnest when Lady Bracknell tells Mr Worthing: ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ Well, to be accused of sexual harassment by one woman might be a case of ‘He said, she said’, but to be accused by eleven is something else entirely, and if the allegations are true should preclude him from personifying your country to the world.

His statement about not necessarily accepting the result of the election is equally unconscionable, revealing a Third World mentality towards democracy. Even in this, Mr Trump is an innovator, however. Hitherto, actually losing was always thought to be a necessary precursor to being a bad loser; it has taken Donald Trump somehow to cut out that crucial stage of the process and go straight to being seen as a bad loser even before he has in fact lost.   

Of course politicians have always been in the spotlight, but usually it was over relatively important things. If they lived in the 24/7 news cycle today, William Howard Taft’s weight, Winston Churchill’s personal finances, FDR, Eisenhower’s and JFK’s love-lives, Gladstone’s mission to save women from prostitution, even George Washington’s dentistry and Teddy Roosevelt’s penchant for shooting rhinos would all be held up to obloquy and ridicule to a degree that might even have deprived the English-speaking peoples of many of their greatest leaders. The effect of this ceaseless, humourless, politically correct micro-inspection is to turn politicians into such identikit dwarves, so when someone as preternaturally unqualified as Donald Trump stands for the presidency he is able to dominate a debating stage precisely because he is not a politician, and he has literally to be caught on camera saying precisely where he likes ‘to grab’ women before his party finally turned away in disgust. 

For further reforms, why not change to a more rational system that gives equal weight to each vote rather than huge amount of power to voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina but none whatsoever in the 35 virtually-uncontested  states. You should certainly stop people from being allowed to vote in the primaries of other parties from their own, and why should voting always start in Iowa and New Hampshire? Why not start alphabetically, or if you don’t want to begin in Alabama and Alaska then in order of incorporation into the Union, or if you didn’t want to start on the East coast then by size of population, or decide it by drawing lots, or any other system? Why shouldn’t it start in places where the voters are more metropolitan and sophisticated, where issues like ethanol subsidies and abortion aren’t automatically front and centre?

Can the ideals of 1776 still work in the modern world? I believe they can, indeed they are the best ones to cleave to. I’ve been re-reading the Federalist Papers; of course they are very good on how to prevent tyranny in the United States but for all they say about preventing vulgarity and corruption, the authors tended to assume that the people could be trusted to vote against vulgarity and corruption, but didn’t foresee a situation when there is only a binary choice, between vulgarity on one side and corruption on the other. There the Federalist Papers are less helpful. In Federalist No. 10, however, James Madison wrote of how: ‘Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.’ I don’t accuse Donald Trump of corruption and intrigue and I don’t know whether he has a sinister design, but he certainly has a fractious temper and local prejudices. 

Madison’s answer was that if people he called ‘fit characters’ acted, then ‘It will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried, and the suffrages of the people being more free will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters.’  Now clearly we’ve long gone beyond that point, since neither of the 2016 presidential candidates possesses ‘the most attractive merit’ or ‘the most diffusive and established characters’, and both are more than happy to practice with success ‘the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried’. So we now need to look to 2020 when the winner of this contest will presumably be eminently beatable, to see what reforms should be enacted. 

For an Englishman, of course, I find a certain irony in the way that you overthrew King George III - a charming intelligent bibliophile who protected you in the French and Indian Wars and taxed you at far lower rates than he did his British subjects, as you know - and having got rid of the concept of dynasties you then proceed to run candidates called either Bush or Clinton in no fewer than seven out of the last eight presidential elections. But at least we never came up with the idea that George III’s wife should become Head of State, blameless though Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz undoubtedly was.

Just because an idea is bad, it doesn’t mean it can’t last a long time – look at Communism. Your primary system has only been around for 120 years – almost exactly half the Republic’s existence - and is ripe for reform, not least because the leaders it has thrown up are not noticeably better than the ones from before the Progressives changed the voting rules.  Luckily the US Constitution makes no mention of parties or primaries, so instead we may be guided by practical common sense in changing the way candidates are chosen. And common sense dictates that having a dozen or so candidates on a stage answering loaded questions from political opponents in the media for 30 seconds or a minute only is a ludicrous way for a party that calls itself Grand and Old to go about choosing a presidential candidate.  

Very often when someone says they’re a candid friend it’s a precursor to them saying something rude and unpleasant. Well, I’m a candid friend of America who goes on TV and radio and writes books and articles in defence of America – and I worked at the Senate Steering Committee when it was chaired by Jesse Helms, so I can’t be accused of being a lily-livered liberal. So I hope you won’t shoot the messenger if I tell you straight that your Unique Selling Point as a nation – Democracy – is just not cutting it in the modern world any more, largely because you are just not selling it properly and with the exception of female franchise, lowering the voting age, fixed term limits and the 1965 Civil Rights Act – none of which cover the primary system - you haven’t bothered to modernize it significantly since the Progressivist era of the 1890s.

If you really want government of, for and by the people to survive and prosper when you are no longer the largest income-generator on the planet, you are going to have to raise your game.  It won’t be done internally without a fight, because no politician in office ever genuinely thinks that a system that has had the perspicacity to put him can possibly be broken. But it’s no longer enough for America to navel-gaze and worry about their president’s gender or skin-pigmentation – or even his ludicrous haircut - instead you need to look at what is happening to Democracy globally. As a political system it’s on trial and right now it’s losing across huge swathes of Asia and Africa, losing out to the ideas of totalitarian state-directed corporatism that seems to be delivering much higher growth and much better leaders. He wasn’t democratically elected, but who can deny that purely as a leader President Xi Jinping stands head and shoulders over both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Millions of people across the world are drawing their own conclusions.

America needs to double-down on the concepts that made her great and modernize the political system that gave her global hegemony in the first place, and in this the Manhattan Institute is providing sterling work on how that can be done. Walter Wriston wrote ‘Risk is a Four-Letter Word’; true reform involves risk, but it’s one you must now take. These abysmal presidential candidates are just a depressing symptom of a larger problem with American politics today, but you have four years to change the system. For you owe it to the American people never again to give them such a putrid choice as the one they will face the Tuesday after next.