Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

They Said It:

The most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people . . . The political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives. This means, among other things, that even a strong tradition of political liberty is no safeguard if the danger is precisely that new institutions and policies will gradually undermine and destroy that spirit.

There is one aspect of the change in moral values brought about by the advance of collectivism which at the present time provides special food for thought. It is that the virtues which are held less and less in esteem and which consequently become rarer are precisely those on which Anglo-Saxons justly prided themselves and in which they were generally recognized to excel. The virtues these people possessed – in a higher degree than most people, excepting only a few of the smaller nations, like the Swiss and the Dutch – were independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, the successful reliance on voluntary activity, noninterference with one’s neighbor and tolerance of the different and queer, respect for custom and tradition, and a healthy suspicion of power and authority. Almost all the traditions and institutions in which democratic moral genius has found its most characteristic expression, and which in turn have molded the national character and the whole moral climate of England and America, are those which the progress of collectivism and its inherently centralistic tendencies are progressively destroying.

F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 1944.



Just over a year ago, in a ground-breaking piece for London’s Spectator, the British author James Bartholomew coined the important and still-evolving phrase “virtue-signaling.”  Virtue signaling, Bartholomew wrote, is a way of demonstrating one’s righteousness (i.e. “signaling” your “virtue”) without doing anything that might actually be described as righteous (or virtuous), or . . . well . . . anything at all.  All you have to do is say something, or validate someone’s feelings, or back an idea, or – most effortlessly – express your hatred of something or someone.  If you can do any of these things, then you signal to the proper people – whoever they may be – just how awesome you are, actual awesomeness notwithstanding.  Bartholomew explained it as follows:

There are many ways to advertise your virtue.  You can say ‘I hate the Daily Mail!’ to suggest that you care about people who are poor and on welfare benefits.  You are saying that you respect them, care about them and do them the honour of believing the vast majority to be honest and in need.

You can declare ‘Page 3 of the Sun was degrading and embarrassing’ if you are a man: this indicates your great respect for women.  If, on the other hand, you are a woman, you can say ‘Isn’t Mary Beard marvellous!’ to show that you are way above the shallowness of mere physical appearance.

Virtue signalling crosses the political divide.  When David Cameron defends maintaining spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, he is telling us that the Tory party, or at least he himself — as a rather wonderful, non-toxic part of it — cares about the poor in the developing world.  The actual effectiveness or otherwise of foreign aid in achieving this aim is irrelevant. . . .

No one actually has to do anything.  Virtue comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs.  There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children.  These things involve effort and self-sacrifice.  That sounds hard!  Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition.

Over the course of the last year, the concept Bartholomew introduced has continued to develop, having been augmented or improved by other, likeminded critics of contemporary social and political culture.  Today, the term “virtue signaling” is used mostly by conservative or libertarian critics to describe any statement or action intended to advertise one’s virtue without imposing any costs – physical, political, ethical, and so on.

You may, for example, recognize the issue discussed in these pages last week – transgender bathroom rules – as pure, unadulterated virtue signaling.  Saying that men and women may choose to use whatever bathrooms they please and, further, that no one may stop them from doing so, under penalty of law, is a pure, pointless, and painless expression of liberal cultural piety and nothing more.  There was, by any honest accounting, no reason whatsoever for the city of Charlotte or the federal Department of Education or any of the countless other government bodies issuing dictates to get involved in this mess.  There was no rash of transgender suicides in Charlotte stemming from uncomfortable bathroom encounters.  There was no wave of dropouts in public schools due to transgender locker room harassment.  There was no indication at all, anywhere at all, that government entities had to act and act quickly to prevent some sort of public health crisis with respect to potty breaks.  The “issue” was entirely fabricated by righteous politicians and bureaucrats bound and determined to show the entire would just how wonderful they are by hypothetically compelling theoretical other people to alter their speculative bathroom behavior.  A government that has run out of things to do, but which needs nevertheless to justify its existence and its enormity, will spend its time posturing, preening, and parading its piousness.

Now, we mention all of this today for a couple of reasons.  First, the next five months promise to be rife with virtue signaling.  All campaigns since time immemorial have engaged in some signaling, of course, but this one should be overrun with it.  Indeed, virtue signaling will likely be one of the dominant forms of campaign persuasion this time around.

Second, and more to the point, Trump will win this part of the campaign and he will do so easily.  As with so many facets of political campaigning, Donald Trump is far better at this virtue signaling business than is Hillary Clinton.  Where she is slow, trite, and dull, Trump is quick, lively, and entertaining.  In short, he’s everything she’s not, just as Barack Obama was in the Democratic primary eight years ago.  And we all know how that turned out.

Before we go any further, let us just say that not all virtue signaling is necessarily negative.  Commentators and social critics use it principally as a pejorative because most such displays of cost-free righteousness serve no purpose other than to exaggerate one’s sense of moral superiority.  But that is not always the case.  Sometimes, there is a point.  And that brings us back to Donald Trump.

As you may have heard, last week Donald Trump began his charm offensive to woo conservatives back to the GOP fold.  Among other things, Trump released a list of judges he would consider for an appointment to the Supreme Court.  It’s a good list comprised of solid originalist jurists, precisely the list one would expect from a guy who promised to fill the vacancy on the Court with a jurist in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia.

For our money, however, the Supreme Court list was a mere sideshow.  The big news – and the biggest bit of signaling – came when Trump announced that he had named two economic advisers to the campaign, Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore.  Kudlow, of course, is a longtime Wall Street-guy-turned-media-guy, who generally advocates for free-market policies.  The big name, though, is Moore, who has been the most sought-after economics adviser for the last two or three presidential cycles.  Steve Moore is a huge “get” for Trump and sends an important signal to the rest of the political world.

By way of disclosure, we should point out that Steve has been a friend of ours for a long, long time.  That we began describing him in these pages as the “best young economist in Washington” nearly a quarter-century ago, when both he and we were actually young.

Of course, Trump was not signaling to us.   He was signaling to the broader conservative community that is trying to decide right now whether it would be better to sit this election out and allow Hillary to win or to get behind the Republican candidate for whom they have publicly and repeatedly expressed their loathing.   In this context, we think it’s important to point out who Steve Moore is and what he represents.

Steve started out, many years ago, working on economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, one of the original conservative think tanks.  Then he worked for President Reagan as the research director for the President’s privatization commission.  He worked for the free-market House Majority Leader Dick Armey.  He served for more than a decade as an economics policy fellow at the libertarian Cato Foundation.   In 1999, Steve founded the Club for Growth, which quickly became one of the most influential campaign organizations in the country.   It is worth noting, we think, that Steve and the Club for Growth provided the intellectual framework that eventually led to such things as the Tea Party movement.  Steve wanted to change the face of the Republican party, stocking it with advocates of free-markets and supply-side economics.  He, more than anyone in Washington, save maybe Grover Norquist, made low-tax, small-government conservatism the measure by which Republican candidates are measured.

After leaving the Club for Growth, Steve wrote about economics for a number of publications, including National Review.   In 2005, he joined the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, becoming its economic policy editor.  And in 2014, he left the Journal, returning to the place where it all began, becoming the chief economist at the Heritage Foundation.

Now, think about all of this for just a minute.   Steve Moore has worked for the most prominent conservative think tank in the country (twice).  He has worked for the most prominent libertarian think tank (Cato).  He worked for and developed policy for the intellectual force behind both the Gingrich Revolution and the Tea Party (Dick Armey).  He wrote for the premier conservative magazine in the country and served on the editorial board of the premier conservative/free-market-oriented newspaper in the country.  In short, Steve Moore has been a part of nearly every strain of conservative thought in the country since the Reagan era, bridging the gap between the conservatives and libertarians and between the free markets and social conservatism.  More to the point, Steve has worked for and is friendly with the two principal media sources of NeverTrump fervor, National Review and the Wall Street Journal.   He ticks every box, in short.

But wait . . . there’s more!

If you take a look at the books that Steve Moore has written, you’ll find a host of impressive and, indeed, legendary co-authors.   Steve wrote a book with Julian Simon, one of the most prominent libertarian economists of the last century and the man who almost single-handedly dismantled the “logic” (and we use that term loosely) behind the radical environmental movement.   He wrote a book that has a forward written by Glenn Hubbard, the Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and a former economic adviser to both Presidents Bush.   Most importantly, perhaps, Steve has written several books (and has gone into business with) Art Laffer, the venerable godfather of supply-side economics, the man who gave his name to the single most important economic doodle of the last half century (the Laffer Curve, natch).   Laffer is conservative/free-market economic royalty.  And Steve Moore is his co-author and business partner.

What does all of this mean?  Well, in the long term, that’s hard to say.  Maybe, if Trump wins, Steve will be an economics adviser to the President.  Or maybe he won’t.  Maybe he’ll go back to work at Heritage, and all will be as it was before.  It’s hard to say.

In the meantime, though, the short-term impact of Trump’s decision to add Moore and Kudlow to his team is immeasurable.  As you may have forgotten, given our ramblingly effusive praise for Steve Moore, this piece is, at least nominally, about virtue signaling.  And Donald Trump just sent the entire conservative world a huge signal.  By hiring Kudlow and especially Moore, Trump has very bluntly told the conservative NeverTrumpers that they should get over it, not just because he’s won, but because they have him all wrong.  He IS a conservative.  He IS a free-market guy.  He IS a Reaganaut.  He IS, in short, one of them.  Or at least that’s what he’s saying by hiring Steve Moore.  He’s saying that he wants to embrace Heritage and Cato, National Review and the Wall Street Journal, Moore and Laffer.  He’s saying he wants to be the most conservative president – at least economically – since Reagan.

As we said, we have no idea whether or not Trump really means any of this.  The whole point of virtue signaling is that you don’t necessarily have to do anything to back up your expression of virtue.  And maybe Trump will dump Moore once the election is won and go about being a corporatist in the tradition of Clinton, Bush, and Obama.  We can’t say.  We can say, however, that many on the Left received the signal from Trump as well, and they at least, are taking it seriously.  Consider, for example, the following, written last week by Robert Kuttner, a co-founder of the both hard-Left The American Prospect and the harder-Left Economic Policy Institute:

A week ago, I wrote in this space that “efforts by Republican leaders to block Trump’s election to the presidency will only intensify.”  Well, that prediction sure has been overtaken by events.

What about the plain contradictions between many of Trump’s positions and those of most Republicans?  Evidently, those will be papered over, too.  The man is nothing if not an opportunist.  He has shown himself capable of reversing his positions on a dime.  And he will.

The hiring of conventional (yet fringe) Republican economic policy advisers signals how this is likely to go.  Trump has named Larry Kudlow of CNBC and Steve Moore of the Heritage Foundation to advise him on economics — far-right economists with a record of getting things wrong, but familiar and comforting to leading Republicans.

As Trump repositions himself for the general election, we can anticipate more presidential-sounding and less lunatic pronouncements on foreign policy, and tax and budget proposals . . . The stop-Trump movement failed.

One thing is clear from all of this:  Kuttner is scared to death of Trump.  Last week?  He was just fine.  This week?  Scared.  To.  Death.  The only thing that changed between last week and now, of course, is the virtue signaling.  All Trump had to do was release a list of a few judges and hire the most sought after economic adviser on the right, and suddenly Kuttner –and countless others on the Left – is sweating bullets.  Like we said, Trump is good at this.

Of course, Trump is quite possibly playing the conservatives for suckers.  He may, in other words, be doing and saying whatever he needs to do to get elected.  He may have no intention whatsoever of embracing the small-government, supply-side tradition.  He may have no intention whatsoever of listening to Steve Moore.  He may, in fact, have no intention of doing anything other than what he damn well pleases, once in office.  That’s the catch, obviously.  Virtue signaling is cost free; it requires no real, substantive investment on the part of the signaler, and the sentiments thereby expressed may thus be changed at any time for any reason.

As conservatives who love this great land, we hope Trump beats Hillary and listen to Steve.  For the purposes of the next five months, though, that’s irrelevant.  He doesn’t actually have to see the light and read Hayek to be effective.  He has just as to suggest to the right people that he means to get around to it eventually.  Robert Kuttner is right to be afraid of Trump.  Hillary Clinton may well win, but it won’t be easy.  Trump is far better at this than most people expected him to be.



Last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece written by Elizabeth Word Gutting a “writer living in Washington D.C.”  It is a very personal and poignant story about Gutting’s mother, her struggles, and the faith that both women place in Hillary Clinton because of those struggles.  Gutting writes:

In 1973, my mother’s first husband was killed in a car crash in downtown St. Louis.  My brother, Jason, was nine months old.  In swift succession, my mother lost the following things: the father of her first child; access to a credit card; her car insurance; and the ability to take out a loan.  The first was terrible luck.  The other things were taken from her because she was a single woman — with a son, to boot — it was the 1970s, and, as she put it, “you were not considered legitimate at that time unless you had a man in your life.”

Four decades later, my mom is looking forward to having the chance to vote, she hopes, for this country’s first female president . . . She’d worked in labs at the university before, so when a friend told her about a part-time job with a young doctor, she leapt on the opportunity, even though what she needed was full-time work.

The young doctor was a flirt.  She was civil enough to him; at 24, she knew that the power dynamic in such a situation would not allow for any complaints.  Part of the job was using an electron microscope to examine specimens in a dark room that locked from the inside, so that no one would come in and ruin your work with a flood of light.  One day she and the young doctor were using the microscope together, which wasn’t so unusual.  But then he asked her if she knew where he could get some pot.  She said she hadn’t the faintest idea (my mother was just about the only person not getting high in the 1970s).  He was incredulous.  A minute later, he grabbed her high up on her inner thigh and growled something vulgar in her ear.

Her shock propelled her from the room.  Of course, there was no one she could tell. Two days later, she was let go . . ..

Recently my mom and I were talking on the phone, and I asked her how she was feeling about the election.

“I always feel good about Hillary,” she replied.

For the first time in her life, my mom sees someone who can directly relate to her own experiences in a strong position to become president.

Now we have no desire whatsoever to make light of this situation.  What Ms. Gutting’s mother went through –apart from the tragic loss of her husband – seems shocking by today’s standards.  The manifold ways in which she was mistreated are heart-wrenching and disconcerting at the same time.   The progress women have made over the last four decades is both significant and amply justified.   To put it bluntly: we have no problem whatsoever with Ms. Gutting’s story or with her mother.   But how on God’s green earth, we wonder, could the people at the New York Times publish this?  How could they not understand the rank insincerity of their publication of such a tragic tale in support of Hillary Clinton?

To clarify what we mean here, let us tell you another story:

Once upon a time, there was a young power-couple in Virginia.  He was a powerful lawyer and state senator.  She was a dedicated Democratic activist, looking to get more involved in politics.  The two of them did indeed get more involved, raising money for and helping campaign for a young, charming Southern Governor.  When that governor won the presidency, the couple travelled to his home state to join the victory celebration.

In the early years of his presidency, this woman volunteered at the White House, working in the social secretary’s office.  The two – the President and the woman – saw each other at work on occasion and he was always quite friendly with her.

One evening, near the end of the President’s first year in office, the woman came to him, despondent.  Her husband, a Democratic fixture in Virginia, had embezzled a large sum of money.  He was panicked.  She was panicked.  He was suicidal.  She was desperate.  She believed that she could help fix her husband’s problems, but had to have a real, paying job to do so.  And so she asked her friend, the President, to help.  Instead, according to her GRAND JURY testimony, he took her into a small room off the Oval Office to “console” her, which he did by kissing her on the mouth, fondling her, and pressing his genitals against her and to her hand.  The woman ran out of the room and fled the White House.

The next morning, the woman’s husband was found dead.  He was indeed suicidal and had shot himself.  The woman was left not just with his legal problems and legal bills, but with no a job and with no prospects, given the actions taken the night before by THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE WORLD.

This too is a shocking and tragic story.  And on the off chance you haven’t figured it out yet, the President in this tale is Bill Clinton.  And the woman is Kathleen Willey.

Now, we know that the Clintons and their adversaries have spent the last nearly two decades trying to bury Kathleen Willey or to minimize her claims.  But the thing is, you don’t have to believe Kathleen Willey.  She’s hardly the only one.  Remember Michael Isikoff?  He’s the investigative journalist who worked for Newsweek and who broke the Monica Lewinsky story.  A few years later, when he wrote his book on the investigation, Isikoff revealed that Lewinsky wasn’t alone; Willey wasn’t alone; there was a raft of women who told much the same story.  He put it this way:

Later that week, I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang.  A woman was on the line.  You know that story you had in the magazine this week about the woman Clinton made sexual overtures to in the hideaway office? she asked.  “Yes,” I said. “What about it?”  “That’s exactly the same thing that happened to me,” she said.  She paused.  “It was pretty awful.”

We spoke for the next half hour.  The caller was articulate and well-educated, a professional woman probably in her mid-to later-thirties, married and involved in politics.  She wouldn’t give me her name.  She couldn’t, she said.  Her husband was a player in the Democratic Party.  But she wanted me to know something.  “There are a lot of us out there who are not bimbos,” she said.

The story she told was chilling.  She had met Clinton over the years at political events and would get invited to come see him at the White House when she was in Washington on business.  Clinton’s attention was “pretty flattering. . . . He’s very charming.”  One day, about a year and a half before, she had gone by to see him and he had taken her into the hideaway office — the same one described in my article.  They chatted.  Clinton started getting physical, trying to kiss her, touching her breasts.  The woman said she was stunned.  She had no idea how to respond.  “I’ve never had a man take advantage of me like that,” she said.  “I haven’t felt that way since high school.”

As Clinton pressed himself on her, she said, she resisted — and finally pushed him away.  What happened after that? I asked.  Clinton turned away, she said.  She hesitated, and she said softly and with apparent discomfort.  “I think he finished the job himself.”  The image lingered.  The woman left the White House, humiliated and repulsed.  Clinton acted as if nothing had happened.  The woman told no one except her sister.  Then Clinton started calling her at work.  There would be a flurry of calls at strategic times — usually when there were developments in the Jones case.  He called many times in January, around the time of his inauguration — just as the Jones case was being argued in the Supreme Court.  The calls were embarrassing; she worried that her colleagues would start to wonder about them.  There didn’t seem to be any point to Clinton’s calls.  He just wanted to chart, to see how she was doing . . . .

Look, I told her, it’s really important that we get together and talk about this.  There are so many people who have been attacked by the White House, so many people who are worried about being slimed for daring to tell the truth about this guy.  You owe it to yourself, you owe it to all the others.

No, she couldn’t do that, she said.  “If my husband knew I was talking to you, he’d kill me,” she said.  She mentioned an administration official she knew who had told her about Clinton slipping his hands up her leg.  She too would never say anything.  It was just so awful . . .

A few minutes later, I wandered back to [Newsweek Washington bureau chief Ann] McDaniel’s office.  “In case you had any doubts about the Willey story,” I told her, “let me tell you about the phone call I just got.”  McDaniel listened. She shook her head sadly. “I didn’t have any doubts,” she said.

We don’t have any doubts either.  And more to the point, it strikes us as completely unfathomable that any American would have any doubts – about Bill’s behavior, about Hillary’s enabling of it, or about their vindictiveness toward his victims.  And certainly no one at the all-knowing New York Times can have any doubts.   Yet, they apparently believe that Hillary has some vulnerability on this issue.  Indeed, they appear to believe it quite strongly.

Last week, the Times ran both Gutting’s piece and a long, front-page piece attacking Donald Trump for enjoying the company of attractive women.   The celebrated feminist Camille Paglia, among others, noted both the desperation evident in the Times’ condemnation of Trump and the paper’s failure to change the race in the manner it clearly desired.  She wrote:

The drums had been beating for weeks about a major New York Times expose in the works that would demolish Trump once and for all by revealing his sordid lifetime of misogyny. When it finally appeared as a splashy front-page story this past Sunday (originally titled “Crossing the Line: Trump’s Private Conduct with Women”), I was off in the woods pursuing my Native American research. On Monday, after seeing countless exultant references to this virtuoso takedown, I finally read the article—and laughed out loud throughout. Can there be any finer demonstration of the insularity and mediocrity of today’s Manhattan prestige media? Wow, millionaire workaholic Donald Trump chased young, beautiful, willing women and liked to boast about it. Jail him now! Meanwhile, the New York Times remains mute about Bill Clinton’s long record of crude groping and grosser assaults—not one example of which could be found to taint Trump.

That last bit, we think, gets at the heart of the problem here for Hillary Clinton and her defenders.  They want the world to believe that Bill is a womanizer, but that Trump is too, therefore negating the issue.  Moreover, they want the world to believe that Hillary is the great defender of women, Bill’s wandering eye notwithstanding.  Unfortunately for them, none of that comports with the facts.  Trump may be a lecher, but as the Clintons ably argued back in the ‘90’s, a great many very powerful men are lechers.  The problems begin when a man crosses the line, moving from promiscuity to actual, physical assault.  The Democrats in the 1990s may have made politics safe for philanderers, but they couldn’t make it safe for criminal sexual abusers, no matter how hard they tried.  And nor could they make it safe for the women who abet them.

In his column this week, the Wall Street Journal’s Bill McGurn laments that the only difference between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump is that Trump is up front about his infidelity.  “The difference,” McGurn writes, “is that where Bill lies, The Donald boasts.”  That is certainly true, but it’s not the half of it.  If it were only about women and cheating and being a rake, then no one would care.  And certainly no one would think that it reflects badly on Hillary.  The Democrats won this fight, and, for better or worse, the electorate doesn’t care one way or the other about it.  But it’s not just about women and cheating.  With Bill, it’s about a great deal more.

Now, we have no idea whether the voters will care about Bill Clinton’s alleged assaults any more than they did about his infidelity.  Nor do we have any idea if they will care that Hillary has been his enabler all these years and has, in fact, aggressively trashed the women who accused her husband.  Certainly Donald Trump seems to think that voters will care.  And perhaps more importantly, the New York Times does too.

Hillary Clinton’s sole claim to the presidency is her “lifelong advocacy” for women.  If enough women can be convinced that this advocacy is mere rhetoric and that her actual behavior conflicts with her professed principles, then she will be in serious trouble come November.  Elizabeth Word Gutting and her mother may be forever in Hillary’s camp, and so be it.  The New York Times, however, is clearly concerned that other women will not be and that Trump’s strategy will work.  Time will tell, as they say.

 Copyright 2016. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.