Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
They Said It:
Pluralist society is free society exactly in proportion to its ability to protect as large a domain as possible that is governed by the informal, spontaneous, custom-derived, and tradition-sanctioned habits of the mind rather than by the dictates, however rationalized, of government and judiciary. Law is vital – formal, statute law – but when every relationship in society becomes a potentially legal relationship, expressed in adversary fashion, the very juices of the social bond dry up, the social impulse atrophies. The genius of the English common law lies not only in the social and communal roots of this law, as these are to be seen in the history of England during the Middle Ages, but also in its tacit concern, repeatedly expressed in judicial decision, that as little as possible be transferred from the nonlegal, nonpolitical lives of human beings living in a social order to the necessarily legal and political lives of the same human beings conceived as subjects of the sovereign. Nothing, it would seem, so quickly renders a population easy prey for the Watergate mentality of government as the dissolution of those customs and traditions which are the very stuff of morality and, hence, of resistance to oppression and corruption.
Paul Nisbit, The Restoration of Authority, 1975.
DONALD TRUMP, POPULIST.
We are not making a prediction here, but it looks more and more like Donald Trump could be the next President of the United States. The now-legendary Nate Silver and his vaunted election model tell us that if the election were held today, Trump would likely win. That’s quite a turnaround from just a couple of weeks ago, when everyone who is anyone – Silver included – fully expected a Hillary Clinton landslide.
Now, to hear the old-line, establishment conservatives like Bill Kristol and George Will tell it, Trump’s election would be the end of the world as we know it. To hear Hillary and her liberal faithful tell it, it would be the end of the world as we know it, or at least the end of America as we know it. To hear Art Laffer tell it, it would be the dawning of a new era of American global leadership.
There is no point in recounting the arguments of the doom and gloomers. They are aired daily in the mainstream media. Laffer’s views, on the other hand, are not so widely known. So here, briefly, is some of what he is saying. Trump will cut taxes, cut regulation, allow firms to bring foreign profits into the United States without punitive tax consequences, and generally create a climate that will bring economic growth back to America. Like many others, Laffer also makes the point that all of the rest of the world is in such bad shape that the United States can once again stake its claim to being the “shining city on the Hill.” Generally speaking, we agree with Laffer. We are also impressed by the folks that Trump has in his corner, men like our old friend Steve Moore.
Our concern is that even if Trump does everything right, and gets complete cooperation from Congress, the path from where we are today to the wonderful world that Laffer envisions is going to be extremely rocky. There is no need to detail our concerns. It should suffice to say that a great many eggs are going to have to be broken to make this omelet. Indeed, Paul Volker’s attack on double digit inflation during the opening days of the Reagan administration will look like child’s play compared to what the Fed is going have to do this time to get the nation out of the mess that it has created during the past eight years. Indeed, the cold hard fact of the matter is that the only way to do the things that must be done – and which Trump promises will be done – is for some sort of crisis to clear the way first. No crisis, no reform. That is the way the United States works today. Not only will it take a crisis, it will take one so big that it can’t be painted over with borrowed money.
Ironically, it is possible that a Hillary Clinton presidency would delay the crisis. After all, she seems to think that everything is jim-dandy today; that better management is all that is required. This means that she is unlikely to push a stick into the hornet’s nest, in which case, the status-quo could continue for a while. Trump, on the other hand, will have no choice but to shake things up immediately. He promised he would. And he will.
We have no intention of attempting to forecast the details of coming melee. But given the global problems that are currently making the United States the world’s “safe haven,” it would seem likely that the excitement will not be confined to the United States.
One thing that seems to have caused considerable confusion in heady atmosphere of the on-going presidential race is the use of the customary labels to define the candidates. You see, while Hillary is most often described as a “liberal” or a “progressive,” she is neither. We’re not sure what she is exactly. Part of us wants to call her a socialist, but we know that’s not exactly right. And so the other part of us wants to call her a corporatist, which is probably closer to the truth. And ironically enough, it’s but a short, unsupervised leap from corporatism to full-blown fascism and from socialism to national socialism. All of which is to say that while the media frets and sputters about Donald Trump and his “Hitlerian” tendencies, they’re probably overlooking the real threat that resides in the person of Madame Evita Clinton. As for Trump, they call him a conservative, but he isn’t. Rather, he’s a populist.
One could, we suppose, argue that these are all distinctions without a difference and that the labels don’t really matter. But they do matter. You see, liberalism and conservatism are fairly anodyne “isms.” They connote stability and, for the most part, some varying degree of incrementalism. The rest of the “isms” – socialism, corporatism, fascism, and even populism – are much different. They are utopian ideologies, which is to say that they don’t work. They can’t work. Moreover, all have a strong odor of totalitarianism about them.
In the case of socialism and its cousin fascism, the totalitarianism can be traced to the founder of communism, Graccus Babeuf, who, while he loved the poor, didn’t trust them to run things immediately after the much awaited revolt of proletariat. He thought the poor dumb things would need a “temporary dictatorship” of smart people like him. Needless to say, this became a favorite premise of Lenin and has remained a standard element in Leftist ideology ever since. The people – the masses, the proletariat, the volk, whatever you call them – must be guided. And since they refuse to be guided gently, they must be guided more harshly, for their own good!
Unfortunately, populism too tends toward authoritarianism. It too requires a “strong leader” to look out for “the people,” who are, of course, “getting screwed.” The people are powerless by themselves, unable to stand up to the forces of evil. And so “they need a strong leader who will act on their behalf.” “And by God, I am that leader.” Just for fun, take a look at or listen to Trump’s rhetoric and then compare it Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark, whom Warren modeled after Louisiana’s, real-life, ultra-populist governor Huey Long. Warren describes Stark as follows: “He’s a roll-up-the-shirtsleeves politician, who loves to campaign. He isn’t hung up on ‘dignity.’ He by-God wants to ‘change things.’ He’s exuberant, energetic. He’s deeply cynical about politics and politicians. He lies . . .” Here are a few classic populism quotes from Stark.
“‘I will do those things. So help me God. I shall live in your will and your right. And if any man tries to stop me in the fulfilling of that right and that will I’ll break him. I’ll break him like that!’ He spread his arms far apart, shoulder-high, and crashed the right fist into the left palm. ‘Like that! I’ll smite him. Hip and thigh, shinbone and neckbone, kidney punch, rabbit punch, uppercut, and solar plexus. And I don’t care what I hit him with. Or how!’” . . .
“I’m going to build me the God-damnedest, biggest, chromium-platedest, formaldehyde-stinkingest free hospital and health center the All-Father ever let live. Boy, I tell you, I’m going to have a cage of canaries in every room that can sing Italian grand opera and there ain’t going to be a nurse hasn’t won a beauty contest at Atlantic City and every bedpan will be eighteen-carat gold and by God, every bedpan will have a Swiss music-box attachment to play ‘Turkey in the Straw’ or ‘The Sextet from Lucia,’ take your choice.”
“By God, I don’t care how fine [other hospitals are], mine’s gonna be finer, and I don’t care how big they are, mine’s gonna be bigger, and any poor bugger in this state can go there and get the best there is and not cost him a dime.”
“You’ve got to use . . . that scum down in the Legislature. You can’t make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand straw from the cowpen. And if you think you can make it any different, you’re crazy . . .”
The official media narrative in response to Donald Trump’s convention speech last week was that the address was “dark” and painted a “sinister” picture of the country. Hello? Really? That’s populism, kids. The world is a mess, you are getting screwed. And I am going to fix it.
The surprise is that anyone is surprised. We wrote the following seven years ago in a piece entitled “There’s Always Something,” in which we predicted the coming populism:
[If you are uncertain about the coming populism] our guess would be that you have not been spending enough time lately at the local, blue-collar watering hole listening to people who are unemployed, about to be unemployed, scared that they are soon going to be unemployed, and underemployed; who can’t pay their bills, whose kids can’t find a job, who are certain that their already too high taxes are going to be raised even higher and don’t know how they are going to manage to pay them, who have given their homes back to the bank or who have friends who have done so or are about to do so, who are concerned that the government is borrowing the nation into bankruptcy for reasons that have nothing to do with their welfare or lives, who are convinced that Washington is run by a gang of crooks and fools, who can’t understand what the hell business it is of the government if they own a gun, and who are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” . . .
Now, it’s fun to speculate on the origins and character of the person who will emerge as the leader of a 21st century populist movement in response to Obama’s on-going orgy of collectivism. The natural assumption would be a southern governor, or perhaps an attorney general from a conservative state, who gets the itch to use the power of his or her office to launch a high profile crusade against the corruption that is metastasizing throughout the land on the heels of the Obama crowd’s propensity to give vast sums of federal money away to friends and to form close ties with deeply corrupt organizations such as Acorn and with the sleaziest of the nation’s union bosses. But then, given the American public’s childlike gullibility and moth-to-light-bulb attraction to celebrities, the coming populist “leader” could be almost anyone, from an athlete to a television talk show personality, or perhaps to a washed out, late night comedian.
The effectiveness and impact of such a populist reaction would depend on the charisma of the leader, the message mix, and the intensity of public dissatisfaction with the status quo, which, as our good friend Bob Feinburg once noted is a fancy Latin phrase meaning “the mess we’re in.” It is possible, of course, that a truly effective and eloquent populist could win the White House if Obama manages to bring the nation to the brink of disaster.
So what about conservatism? Well, it failed to defend the interests of its constituency against the Left’s assault on their values, their mores, their traditions, their moral code, and their way of life. Why it failed is a topic for a future piece. In the meantime, this failure has left a significant portion of the American public feeling angry and vulnerable, clinging desperately to their bibles and their guns.
In short, conservatism has surrendered its place in the political order to populism, a mass movement that has been traditionally anathema to conservatives, which is why we, theoretically at least, have a “republic” rather than a democracy.
TED, BERNIE, AND THE STATUS QUO.
The general consensus among the denizens of our political class is that last week’s Republican convention was an absolute, unmitigated disaster. The whole thing was inadequately scripted, apparently, which for contemporary politicos means that it was proof of . . . well . . . uh . . . something.
For some it was proof that Donald Trump is an amateur running an amateurish campaign which is destined to fail. For others, it was proof that Donald Trump is an unlikeable egomaniac who can’t be trusted and wants to expand the size and scope of government to suit his own malign purposes. To still others, it was proof that the GOP learned nothing from its 2012 debacle and its subsequent “post-mortem,” which encouraged party leaders to start speaking Spanish, to grant immediate and unconditional amnesty to all people in the country illegally and to do everything they can to pander to whatever pressure groups they can in a bid to “rebuild” the party from the ground up. The conservative blogger and columnist Ed Morrissey encapsulated the conventional wisdom on both sides of the political aisle when he wrote the following:
Traditionally speaking, the Republican national convention would look like a near-total debacle. In the era of television, major-party conventions have become tightly choreographed displays of party unity, bland speeches hailing the nominee, and almost entirely forgotten by everyone except the delegates after the usual polling bump recedes. By that measure, the GOP’s four-day event in Cleveland was a debacle: floor fights, a vanquished primary candidate telling the world from a prime-time main stage speaking slot that he didn’t support the nominee, and a plagiarism scandal that went on at least a day longer than necessary thanks to attempts to rationalize it away.
By any traditional measure, it was a trainwreck, and a wide opening to Democrats to offer a contrast with a traditionally predictable convention in response.
We’re not sure how bad the Republican convention looks today, after the disastrous first day of the Democrats’ own little trainwreck. And we’re likewise not sure how it will look after the Democratic convention is over. Maybe days two-through-four of the Democrats’ party will come off more smoothly, thereby causing people to forget its miserable start and lifting Hillary to new heights in the polls. Or maybe they won’t. Who knows? And frankly, who cares? For our part, we’ve seen all we needed to see.
Michelle Obama was fantastic, so good, in fact, that we’d suggest that four years from now, the GOP nominee’s wife should plagiarize her speech. Republicans should worry that she will change her mind and decide someday to run for office. Elizabeth Warren was trite, small, and unremarkable. Republicans should not worry that she will run for president. She might, but so what? Cory Booker seems to have learned how to speak at Trump University, where every line of a speech is meant to be shouted. Republicans should figure that he may, someday, be somebody’s running mate but that he’s no real threat. As for Bernie Sanders, well, his speech was, for our money, the most important of the evening – and probably of the entire convention.
For starters, the open and unembarrassed bawling by Sanders supporters during his speech was, frankly, remarkable. On the one hand, we were shocked and horrified to see so many alleged grown-ups crying as if they’d just experienced a real tragedy of some sort. And on the other hand, we couldn’t help but be reminded of Oscar Wilde: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” How fun.
The bigger, more important takeaway from Sanders’ speech, though, was the resignation and submission it delivered. The guy promised a revolution but delivered a plea for the status quo. It might be a touch unfair to call him a fraud, but what other term fits as well? The most radical candidate in contemporary American politics stood on the dais at the convention, looked his militant supporters in the eye, and as much as started chanting “four more years!”
Now, to be fair, this was not unexpected. Sanders had already given up and told his supporters that they should too. More to the point, Sanders made his bed last year when he exchanged the (I) after his name for a (D). You see, the Democratic Party – the alleged home of progressivism, hope, and change – is a status quo party that brooks no dissent. All of which is to say that for us, the most important takeaway from the conventions is the contrast between Bernie Sanders and his GOP equivalent, Ted Cruz.
On the off chance you don’t remember, Ted Cruz supposedly shook up the political world and violated all of the norms of decency and probity when he took to the stage last week and refused to endorse Donald Trump. For some commentators and politicians, what Cruz did was the worst thing ever done anywhere by anybody. Chris Christie called the speech “awful and selfish.” Michael Reagan said that “Cruz is worse than Kasich by not endorsing Trump. . . ” Congressman Peter King called Cruz a “disgrace.” There were reports that various party leaders and delegates were screaming at the Senator; some had to be restrained; and, of course, the man was booed wildly.
For our part, what Cruz did was revelatory. Now, for the record, we don’t mean that it revealed anything to us about Cruz. We know who and what Ted Cruz is, and the speech fit our expectations. Rather, it showed us that for all the criticism of the convention and of the GOP, it is still the party of dissent, of ideas, and of intellectual health. Think about it for a minute: Ted Cruz had a primetime speaking slot and he flatly refused to endorse his party’s candidate. Moreover, the candidate knew what Cruz was going to do before he did it, and he allowed him to speak anyway. Donald Trump is either a lousy totalitarian, or he’s not a totalitarian at all, much to the mainstream media’s surprise. Trump and the entire Republican Party were strong enough, confident enough, and brave enough to let the second place candidate go on stage and cause a ruckus. That’s heartening.
And it’s especially heartening by comparison to Sanders’ speech. For any number of reasons – the closeness of the race, the unfair advantage provided by superdelegates, and, of course, the emails showing that the party itself had worked to undermine him – Sanders had far more right to be unhappy than Cruz did. And yet he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. And can you imagine what would have happened to him if he had done it? Granted, the guy is almost 75 years old, but we doubt he’s too terribly eager to end up in Ft. Marcy Park or to have his home gym crush his trachea any time soon.
All of this, we think, confirms an observation we made 16 years ago, when a much younger and slimmer Al Gore was running against a slightly less goofy George W. Bush, namely that the Democratic Party is no longer a “liberal” party in any sense of the word. It does not brook dissent. It does not advocate change. It does not offer solutions to the problems facing real Americans. It defends the status quo. It defends the rich and powerful. It stands for nothing.
The Republican Party, by contrast, remains the party of ideas. It’s a party comfortable with dissent and with heterodoxy. Moreover, it’s a party that is unafraid of the mess that such dissent might cause.
One of the constant refrains of the NeverTrump crowd is their fear of what the Trump candidacy will do to the Republican Party and to the conservative movement in the long run. We share those concerns, we suppose, but after last night, we’re far less worried than we once were. Yes, the GOP has its problems. And yes, the conservative movement will have a hard time rebounding from Trumpian populism. But at least the GOP remains a party in which these problems and their solutions can be discussed. That is FAR more than anyone can say about the Democrats.
No matter how the rest of the convention turns out; no matter how the election turns out, the Democratic Party is left in the unenviable position of defending a crumbling status quo and, moreover, doing so while entertaining no new ideas, no new plans, and no dissent from the accepted orthodoxy. And in our opinion, that presents it with a far more difficult task than the one faced by the admittedly dysfunctional GOP.