Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
They Said It:
Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.
The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century’s Northerners and Southerners — nearly all of whom, as Lincoln reminded them, “prayed to the same God.” By contrast, while most Americans pray to the God “who created and doth sustain us,” our ruling class prays to itself as “saviors of the planet” and improvers of humanity. Our classes’ clash is over “whose country” America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. The gravity of such divisions points us, as it did Lincoln, to Mark’s Gospel: “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
Angelo Codevilla, “America’s Ruling Class – and the Perils of Revolution,” The American Spectator, July 16, 2010.
OUR DOOMED 45TH PRESIDENT.
As a general rule, presidential elections offer a sense of catharsis. And this is especially true of elections that do not feature an incumbent. George W. Bush defeated Al Gore, and the country was able, after eight years of corruption and debauchery, to return to “normal.” Barack Obama defeated John McCain, and the country was able, after eight years of war and internal strife, to heal, to embrace the power of “change,” and to attempt to move on from its fractious near and longer-term past. Or at least that’s the way it felt for most Americans in the first few days, weeks, and months of these new presidencies – and countless others before them.
This election, however, is different. This election – this incredibly bizarre and incredibly tedious election – offers no such hope of catharsis. Whoever wins this contest in five weeks will undoubtedly enter office as the least-liked new president in contemporary history, if not in the entire history of the nation. Moreover, this dislike will not be strictly partisan. Yes, this is a rancorous and exceptionally hostile contest between the major parties, with much antipathy and anger on both sides. But both candidates are disliked as well within the confines of their own caucuses as well. All of which is to say that the next President of the United States will have no honeymoon whatsoever. He or she will never enjoy the support of 70-plus percent of the country the way the last few new presidents did. The fear and loathing of this campaign will not go away – will never go away.
Unfortunately, this is precisely as it should be. The next four years are going to be difficult. And rather than be led by a politician who will be able to rise to the occasion, or even one of serviceable competence, we will, instead be governed by a leader of unique ineptitude, regardless of the winner. The last eight years have been hard for most Americans: Racial issues have ignited and reignited. Immigration questions have not only not been solved, but have been exacerbated. The global scene is as perilous as at any time since 1938, with both friends and enemies difficult to identify and even harder to support. Terrorism is, once again, a legitimate threat to the domestic tranquility. Health care “reform” has yielded an even more broken system. The economy continues to plod along at a pace inconsistent with long-term general wealth creation. Monetary policy has reached the limit of its capacity to stimulate growth, while fiscal policy remains a debt-riddled disaster promising little hope for reform, in the near or long term, and practically no use at all in restarting the economy.
In short, it’s hard to imagine how things could get worse. But they will. Mark those words carefully: things WILL get worse. Indeed, our expectation is that nearly ALL of the unbearable conditions extant in the country today will be even worse four years from now. And for a variety of reasons, that expectation will apply, irrespective of the outcome on November 8th.
Yesterday, we read a piece by our friend Roger Kimball on the election and its ongoing bizarre twists and turns. Kimball, as you may know, is the editor of The New Criterion and the Publisher of Encounter Books. As always, his insights are interesting and useful. One bit of his essay caught our attention in particular. Kimball wrote:
Trump’s besetting weakness in this little danse macabre is his susceptibility. Like that most susceptible Chancellor in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe, he seems unable to help himself when needled. He just has to respond. Who cares if he had a spat with a Beauty Queen who was running to fat? He shouldn’t have taken that bait, just as he shouldn’t have taken the bait offered by the Constitution-waving Muslim at Hillary’s convention.
Of course, it’s easy to say that. It’s not you being needled on national television, in front of an obviously biased moderator. But still, it’s something Trump should work on.
This is, we think, a valid point. But it’s one that needs further development and which, once developed, will explain a big part of the problem we, as a nation, will face over the next four years.
Yes, Kimball is right, Trump is susceptible. As Hillary Clinton herownbadself has put it numerous times, “any man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Trump can be baited. Easily. By a tweet. He is susceptible. He simply cannot help himself. But why?
The consensus answer to this question is that Trump is vain – shockingly, horribly, painfully vain. He marries beautiful women and then dumps them for younger models when they get too old for him. He not only dresses sharply, but thinks that every man should dress just like him; hence he has a retail line of his own suits and ties. He refuses to acknowledge the ravages of father time – and male pattern baldness – and thus styles his hair in a ridiculous and confusing swirl designed to hide what we all know lies beneath. He bristles and then fights when someone mocks his appearance, even – or perhaps, especially – his short-fingered hands. He considers himself the smartest man, the best “dealmaker” in every room. He is the best, really awesome, the greatest man ever to trod the planet. And he’ll be damned if he’s going to let anyone mock him for it.
Consider, for example, the case of Alicia Machado. Once, a long time ago, Trump said some unkind things about the onetime Ms. Universe. Hillary Clinton mentioned these unkind things in last week’s debate, and Trump simply could not allow her accusations to go unrebutted. So he spent the entirety of the next week explaining his words, enumerating Machado’s personal flaws, and detailing the ways in which he was right and she was wrong. The weird thing is that all of this energy was expended for no purpose whatsoever – except to soothe Trump’s ego, to try to ensure that everyone understood that he was in the right, and she the wrong. Nobody would have even remembered Hillary’s snide and aimless remark, much less changed their vote because of it, had Trump not insisted on blowing the whole thing out of proportion. But he did. And he did because he can’t stand the idea of being wrong. Last week, the inimitable Charles Krauthammer described Trump’s problems as follows:
I don’t know why everybody’s surprised of his lack of discipline. I mean he’s been out there for 15 months, he’s completely undisciplined. . . . The minute you let him loose, meaning on the debate stage, where there is no prompter, and then immediately after when he’s reacting . . . What emerges is his central weakness: Vanity. . . .
Again, Krauthammer is right, but it’s more than that. It’s not just that Trump is vain. It’s that his entire temperament is unsuitable to high office. Yes, he takes himself too seriously. But he takes EVERYTHING too seriously. He has no sense of joy in his leadership, no spirit, no sense of wonderment. The man has no sense of humor, for crying out loud.
Think about it a minute. Have you ever heard Donald Trump say anything funny? Have you ever heard him make a quip, or a joke, or even just laugh? The closest thing he gets to laughing or joking is mocking others – be they chubby Ms. Universes or handicapped reporters. The guy cannot take a joke because he doesn’t have any understanding of what a joke is or what one means. He is temperamentally humorless.
Compare Trump with the great presidents of the last several decades. JFK was charming, despite his many very serious personal flaws. And he was charming in large part because he could laugh, joke, use humor to disarm his opponents and his enemies alike. Or take Ronald Reagan. Reagan was, almost without question, the wittiest American politician in the last half century. Aha, you say, but Trump is a serious man for serious times. Well . . . OK. But are these times any more serious than when Reagan took office? Moreover, how better to diffuse the tension of serious matters than with a joke or jibe? Less than three months into his presidency, Ronald Reagan was shot. What could be more serious than that? And yet, in the hospital, he quoted Jack Dempsey to his wife, telling her, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Alan Greenspan, the former Fed Chairman and the intellectual heft behind Candidate Reagan’s budget proposal, concluded that the 40th President was “psychologically a professional comedian.” And he was right. And it worked.
Bill Clinton was funny – roguishly so, but funny nonetheless. George W. Bush was funny – sometimes unintentionally, but funny nonetheless. Even Barack Obama has a comic’s timing and a certain wit about him. We don’t care much for Obama’s humor, given that it is very much a piece of the liberal-Left “snark” that dominates late-night comedy these days. But at least he has a sense of humor. At least he laughs and seems, earnestly, to enjoy himself.
Donald Trump can’t do that. He won’t do that. To laugh – especially at himself – would be out of character; it wouldn’t be intimidating . . . or something. Whatever the case, the guy is a drag. And worse yet, he lets his serious and impeccable image of himself affect everything he does. Who gets up at 7:30 on a Friday morning to get in a tweet war with an over-the-hill beauty queen? A temperamentally defective man, that’s who; a man incapable of letting go or of finding the ridiculousness in everyday life.
The aforementioned Roger Kimball suggested that Trump’s impetuous, self-centered habit of tweeting about unimportant personal spats is “something Trump should work on.” Well, sure. But that won’t solve the bigger problem. That is something a 70 year-old man can’t really work on. He is who he is. And he is a narcissistic, temperamentally unfit windbag.
Now, before you begin questioning our sanity and wondering if we’ve decided, against all odds, that Hillary Clinton might be the best candidate for the presidency this year, we want to make one more point about presidential temperament and senses of humor. If there is any major political candidate in the last fifty years to be less temperamentally suited for high office than Donald Trump, that candidate is Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump may be a small, self-absorbed, dour jerk, but Hillary Clinton is a small, self-absorbed, dour gnostic, which is to say that she shares all of Trump’s negative characteristics, but, in addition, also thinks that she honestly knows the answers to humanity’s questions and can fix what’s wrong with this country and its basket of deplorables. Speaking of which, what kind of person talks like that anyway? What kind of person calls her fellow countrymen “deplorables?” Well, we’ll tell you what kind of person: an egotistical, over-serious, bitter scold, that’s who.
Unlike Trump, we’ve actually seen Hillary Clinton laugh. We imagine you have too. And if so, we imagine that you, like we, felt a little sense of dread, just a touch uncomfortable watching. She tries too hard. She doesn’t actually appear to find humor in anything – save maybe pulling the wings off of flies. Like Trump, she has no real sense of humor. When she laughs, she makes that weird face and tries with all her might to look genuinely amused. She opens her eyes really wide and forms an exaggerated “oh” with her mouth. More than anything, it’s scary. Of course, Hillary is a third-wave feminist, which means that she’s predisposed not to find much humor in our phallocentric world. But she’s also a scorned third-wave feminist, one who had to sell out every single one of her principles to maintain the façade of a normal, well-adjusted life, which means that she’s royally ticked off at the world and not likely to forgive it for not behaving according to her dictates.
From a personal perspective, we find all of this deeply troubling. A person who can’t laugh, who has no sense of humor, is unlikely to be able to cope with the world’s most serious and powerful job. Humor breaks tension. Laughter is like taking a little vacation. Jimmy Carter was once a joyful, happy man. Then he became president and, like all presidents, he bore the weight of the world on his shoulders. But unlike most, he forgot to laugh, forgot to enjoy the moments he could enjoy. He suffered from “malaise,” and the malaise ate him and his presidency up. As it turns out, laughter is serious business, especially when the stakes are as high as they are in the presidency.
Robert Gates, you may recall, was George W. Bush’s last Secretary of Defense and Barack Obama’s first. He saw both men up close and understood what made both men tick. Moreover, he served in several other administrations in various positions. He saw them all up close. And three years ago, when he published his memoirs, he argued that a sense of humor was among the most critical characteristics of an effective leader. Slate’s John Dickerson interviewed Gates and ended his write-up of their chat with the following:
The second important quality for a president to have, says Gates, is a sense of humor.” I mean that in a very serious way,” he said. “I think a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd reflects a balance and a perspective on the world that is very healthy. Of all the presidents that I worked for, there are only two who had no discernible sense of humor: Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. I rest my case.”
We couldn’t agree more. And the fact that neither of the major party candidates has a sense of humor bodes terribly ill for the immediate future of the nation. The next four years are going to be very hard on all of us, if for no other reason than they’re going to be very hard on our unlovable, un-laughing president, whoever it may be.
Unfortunately, that’s just the start of it. The other reason that the next four years are going to be so difficult, not just for the country but for the new president as well, is the fact that this election will resolve absolutely none of the issues that have made it so terribly messy. Above and beyond everything else, this presidential campaign has been the first national-level, bipartisan rejection of business as usual in Washington. For more than six years now, we have been writing about the clash between the ruling class and the country class, between those with power, who wish to rule, and those without power, who wish not to be ruled, but to be governed.
Slowly but surely, the frustration with the ruling class has been building among the country class. The nomination of Donald Trump and the near-nomination of Bernie Sanders suggest, in concert, that the country class has had just about all it is willing or able to take. Ironically, even our current semi-retired president, the ruling class’s favorite son, understands the trajectory of this movement, even if he misunderstands its sincerity and importance. In a late August interview with the New Yorker’s Jonathan Chait, Barack Obama said, “I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the tea party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party.” What he didn’t see, though, was the importance of that “shift” in the political atmosphere more generally. He continued:
Whether that changes, I think, will depend in part on the outcome of this election, but it’s also going to depend on the degree of self-reflection inside the Republican Party. There have been at least a couple of other times that I’ve said confidently that the fever is going to have to break, but it just seems to get worse.
And there’s the key: Obama STILL, after all this time, thinks that this is a Republican problem and, more to the point, that it’s indicative of their own sickness, their own fever. He couldn’t be more wrong. The Republicans’ fever, it turns out, is the body politics’ response to a system-wide illness. As with all bodies, the fever isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of the problem, the body’s response to and attempt to fight off an infection. Obama doesn’t get that and neither, frankly, does the rest of the virus we call our ruling class.
If you spend any time reading the thoughts and plans of the ruling-class honchos in either party, one notion that you’ll see repeated over and over is their intention to “move on” with politics as usual, as if nothing had happened, as if Trump was a fluke. Once this fluke is vanquished, they all agree, then the smart set can go back to running the country as it sees fit, without the interference of the rubes out in flyover country and without worry that someone, somewhere will come along and shut down the proverbial gravy train. With a few exceptions – the brilliant and bold Joel Kotkin, to name one – the sentiment on both sides of the political aisle is that the GOP must start by purging any and all elements of the Trump coalition. Whatever voodoo it was that made Trump’s rise possible, must be destroyed, along with anyone or anything that came into contact with it.
In a late August election pre-mortem published by The Washington Post, Tom C. Korologos and Richard V. Allen, two longtime GOP operatives, offered their perfectly mainstream opinions for rebuilding their party after Trump. And among their four suggestions was the need “to clean house at the Republican National Committee and change the primary rules that allowed Trump to win the nomination.”
Yes, of course. Donald Trump received more votes than any other Republican presidential primary candidate IN HISTORY. Therefore, the problem MUST be with the rules that allowed him to turn those votes into the nomination. The key to fixing the GOP is to ensure that, in the future, Republican voters have less say, while party insiders have more say, more opportunity to substitute their own will for that of the dumb-dumbs who just don’t know any better.
As you may have guessed, we think that this is a recipe for disaster. But it’s a recipe that the entirety of the ruling class wishes to use. The catch here is that this is not only an ill-advised plan, it is an impossible one as well. We hate to mix our metaphors, but this genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The country class isn’t just going to go away and behave itself because Trump lost. Heck, it isn’t going to go away and behave itself even if Trump wins. The mood and the energy of the frustrated masses will continue to cause major problems for our detached ruling class, unsettling our politics for the foreseeable future.
As some of you may recall, the original ruling class vs. country class argument was introduced just over six years ago in a piece penned by our old friend Angelo Codevilla (featured in the “They Said It” section at the top of this newsletter). Codevilla recognized the fury of the masses and understood its origins. And he predicted the massive upheaval that few others saw coming.
Today, Codevilla is warning the ruling class that its trials are not over, that the Trump phenomenon is just the beginning. The members of the ruling class remain ignorant of the fury in the electorate at their own peril. This will not end well. In a recent essay for the Claremont Institute, Codevilla laments the end of our republic and the spasms of populism that will great its death.
For the record, we don’t agree with everything that Angelo writes in this piece. We tend to think that the administrative state (which he mentions, but only in passing) is a far greater cause of the republic’s death than the Civil Rights Act and omnibus budgeting, which Angelo sees as dispositive. In any case, we’ve bored you enough with our rants on the administrative state and will undoubtedly do so again. So we will note here only that Codevilla is right about the current problems facing our abused constitutional order and the popular responses both to those problems and to the ongoing abuse. He writes:
Over the past half century, the Reagan years notwithstanding, our ruling class’s changing preferences and habits have transformed public and private life in America. As John Marini shows in his essay, “Donald Trump and the American Crisis,” this has resulted in citizens morphing into either this class’s “stakeholders” or its subjects. And, as Publius Decius Mus argues, “America and the West” now are so firmly “on a trajectory toward something very bad” that it is no longer reasonable to hope that “all human outcomes are still possible,” by which he means restoration of the public and private practices that made the American republic. In fact, the 2016 election is sealing the United States’s transition from that republic to some kind of empire.
Electing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump cannot change that trajectory. Because each candidate represents constituencies hostile to republicanism, each in its own way, these individuals are not what this election is about. This election is about whether the Democratic Party, the ruling class’s enforcer, will impose its tastes more strongly and arbitrarily than ever, or whether constituencies opposed to that rule will get some ill-defined chance to strike back. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the republic established by America’s Founders is probably gone.
The overriding question of 2016 has been how eager the American people are to reject the bipartisan class that has ruled this country contrary to its majority’s convictions. Turned out, eager enough to throw out the baby with the dirty bathwater. The ruling class’s united front in response to the 2008 financial crisis had ignited the Tea Party’s call for adherence to the Constitution, and led to elections that gave control of both houses of Congress to the Republican Party. But as Republicans became full partners in the ruling class’s headlong rush in what most considered disastrous directions, Americans lost faith in the Constitution’s power to restrain the wrecking of their way of life.
From the primary season’s outset, the Democratic Party’s candidates promised even more radical “transformations.” When, rarely, they have been asked what gives them the right to do such things they have acted as if the only answer were Nancy Pelosi’s reply to whether the Constitution allows the government to force us into Obamacare: “Are you kidding? Are you kidding?”
On the Republican side, 17 hopefuls promised much, without dealing with the primordial fact that, in today’s America, those in power basically do what they please. Executive orders, phone calls, and the right judge mean a lot more than laws. They even trump state referenda. Over the past half-century, presidents have ruled not by enforcing laws but increasingly through agencies that write their own rules, interpret them, and punish unaccountably — the administrative state. As for the Supreme Court, the American people have seen it invent rights where there were none — e.g., abortion — while trammeling ones that had been the republic’s spine, such as the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. The Court taught Americans that the word “public” can mean “private” (Kelo v. City of New London), that “penalty” can mean “tax” (King v. Burwell), and that holding an opinion contrary to its own can only be due to an “irrational animus” (Obergefell v. Hodges). . . .
Never before has such a large percentage of Americans expressed alienation from their leaders, resentment, even fear. Some two-thirds of Americans believe that elected and appointed officials — plus the courts, the justice system, business leaders, educators — are leading the country in the wrong direction: that they are corrupt, do more harm than good, make us poorer, get us into wars and lose them. Because this majority sees no one in the political mainstream who shares their concerns, because it lacks confidence that the system can be fixed, it is eager to empower whoever might flush the system and its denizens with something like an ungentle enema.
Yet the persons who express such revolutionary sentiments are not a majority ready to support a coherent imperial program to reverse the course of America’s past half-century. Temperamentally conservative, these constituencies had been most attached to the Constitution and been counted as the bedrock of stability. They are not yet wholly convinced that there is little left to conserve. What they want, beyond an end to the ruling class’s outrages, has never been clear. This is not surprising, given that the candidates who appeal to their concerns do so with mere sound bites. Hence they chose as the presidential candidate of the nominal opposition party the man who combined the most provocative anti-establishment sounds with reassurance that it won’t take much to bring back good old America: Donald Trump. But bringing back good old America would take an awful lot. What could he do to satisfy them?
The answer to this last question, unfortunately, is “not much.” And the biggest reason for that, of course, is that Trump himself doesn’t understand what it would take to make America great again. He has some understanding of what Americans are unhappy about, but the most important issues – like, for example, the corporatism that empowers the bureaucracy and enables big business – are those he either doesn’t comprehend or does comprehend, but on which he simply disagrees with the people.
What all of this means, then, is that the next president – be it Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – is going to face all sorts of problems, those plaguing the country from macro- and geopolitical perspectives, as well as those stemming from the country class revolt. The next four years at least are going to be ugly. And sadly, there’s no guarantee that what happens on the other end of the next presidential term will be any better. Indeed if Angelo Codevilla is right, it will be far worse:
We have stepped over the threshold of a revolution. It is difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate where it will end. Our ruling class’s malfeasance, combined with insult, brought it about. Donald Trump did not cause it and is by no means its ultimate manifestation. Regardless of who wins in 2016, this revolution’s sentiments will grow in volume and intensity, and are sure to empower politicians likely to make Americans nostalgic for Donald Trump’s moderation.