The Importance of Principle

It isn’t exactly news that Donald Trump’s agenda doesn’t really jibe with what would be considered conservative — or even Republican — orthodoxy. His abandonment of the core conservative principle of free markets was a cornerstone of his campaign, and he has shown no sign of backing down from it.

Most recently, his daughter Ivanka Trump has been reportedly making calls to Republican members of Congress in an effort to line up support behind her childcare initiative — just another entitlement program on top of the too many which already exist.

The embrace of this departure might just spell the end of the Republican Party as we know it, and while there are many who find this to be cause for concern, others embrace it as a good thing. Trump’s economic adviser, Stephen Moore, told a group of top Republicans that “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.”

First Things editor R. R. Reno already pointed out as much during the Republican Convention, writing that the party was no longer about freedom, and calling Cruz’s speech on that theme “rotting-flesh Reaganism.”

But what is this new party, and how do people like Moore and Reno see it functioning in the future?

Moore told his audience that despite the fact that he, as a conservative, abhors the idea of increased federal spending on things like infrastructure, it is what the party wants, and so, they should get it.

Reno seems to buy into this argument as well, having publicly come out for Trump shortly before the election, and justifying it with a 20-minute argument that boiled down to “that’s what people want.”

But they are wrong that a party exists to give people what they want. Thinking that is the case is a fundamental misunderstanding of proper function of a party.

Edmund Burke, the ideological godfather of all things conservative, wrote on parties in 1770, in an essay titled “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.” He defines parties as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours [sic] the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.”

Harvey Mansfield, one of the foremost conservative intellectuals over the last 50 years, explains that Burke was making the argument of principles over expediency. In a conversation with Bill Kristol, Mansfield said that Burke “thought that it was better to have principle than a series of wise decisions, each of them defensible on its own, but perhaps not coherent altogether.” Sticking to these principles (which Mansfield calls wisdom, transformed), Burke thought, even when it isn’t wise, leads to better long-term outcomes than relying on people making wise decisions on a case-by-case basis.

The argument is all the stronger when the decisions that are being made aren’t wise. Abandoning the wisdom of the principles for the foolishness of the people runs in direct contradiction to the purpose of party.

That principles are important is true when it comes to politics and governance. But it is more than important when it comes to, l’havdil, Yiddishkeit.

We often hear people making arguments about how the times we live in call for more permissiveness, and more understanding of people who don’t feel the need to subjugate their desires to those of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. That sort of foolishness — often masked as wisdom — would be easier to turn away if we were to better embrace our principles.

It isn’t new; the misyavnim would say the same things. We need to be more like our rulers, they’d proclaim, casting anyone who abhorred self-indulgence and who just wanted to serve Hashem as backward. But the Chashmona’im persevered, and they came into the Beis Hamikdash, trying once again to ignite the fire of the Menorah — which symbolizes Torah.

The miracle of the pach shemen, writes Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l (Mishnas Rav Aharon), is commemorated with the blessing of She’asah Nissim. On it, and only it, we proclaim “bayamim haheim, bazman hazeh — in those days, in our times.” That is because its message has a special relevance for all times, and one we must remind ourselves of every Chanukah.

The pach shemen was but a small jug of oil. Small, writes Rav Aharon, but pure. Hashem made that burn for eight days to show us that if we guard the purity of the Torah in times when it seems next to impossible, it will be able to —miraculously — grow on its own until, once again, it becomes self-sustaining.

At its core, that is the lesson of Chanukah. We aren’t supposed to relieve ourselves of our responsibilities, nor are we meant to dismiss our timeless principles in favor of modern-day “wisdom.” It is the purity of those mores which light the way for us, and which continue to guide us along the proper path which will culminate in the lighting of the Menorah in the third Beis Hamikdash.