[Italics are my interlocutor; regular text is me.]
Hi Charles, I’ve been pondering the Republican debacle that is Donald Trump and would love your view. I’m wondering what alternatives a Republican with coherent conservative principles is supposed to do in the coming election. Is the anti-Hillary vote a vote for Trump? Or is a conservative vote a Libertarian vote at the expense of the general election? It just doesn’t seem like there is any good option for a conservative with a sound mind. Do you lean toward Trump to stop Hillary and forego the dignity of the country, or do you vote your beliefs and vote Libertarian, preserving the dignity of the US but conceding four years of democratic leadership? Or is there another option I’m missing?
______, good to hear from you. First off, congratulations! And we’re glad you’re moving back to __________, too!
This is a good question, of course, and one not frequently directly addressed, because most of the players have a particular ax to grind. That is, if you’re a conservative who’s not part of partisan politics as such, and not a talking head or commentator, your views are rarely publicly represented. Why would they be? And those involved in partisan politics and talking heads have views on Trump that are colored by the (mostly negative) consequences of his rise, which views they try to conceal under a screen of pseudo-objectivity.
So, in my opinion, the only correct thing to do is to vote for Trump. At its most basic level, a vote for Trump is not a vote for the degradation of the political process. It is a recognition that the political process is degraded. Such degradation is the inevitable fate of all political structures, as any glance through history will tell. Trump is the harbinger, not the denouement, but whether or not Trump wins, Trump-ism is here to stay, and voting for him, or not, will not change that. Of course Trump is a demagogic clown. But that’s what we deserve at this point in our history, because of the choices we collectively have made to get us to this point.
However, that’s not really your question, which is what “a Republican with coherent conservative principles is supposed to do?” I’d drop the “Republican” part, since Trump has exposed the fractures in the Republican party, and just stick with (hopefully) coherent conservative principles. I have three distinct answers to that question
So, first answer, I’ll vote for Trump (and not Libertarian, say) because, however bad he might be, he is going to be much better than Hillary on domestic policy, who is a genuinely evil person under whom the country would continue aggressively down the disastrous and hugely divisive path it’s on. On foreign policy, Trump is similarly likely to be much better, although it depends on whom he has as advisors. One of Obama’s faults has been to surround himself with sycophants who are ignorant and think history began in 1960 (e.g.., Valerie Jarrett). One of Bush’s faults was he surrounded himself with neocons with a particular, and similarly ahistorical, view of spreading democracy by force. If Trump had informed realists (e.g., Henry Kissinger) as foreign policy advisors, he might do just fine. I’ll admit there is some chance Trump could be a foreign policy disaster, not because of being a cowboy, but through inconsistency and off-the-cuff action. But I’ll bet Putin is a lot more concerned about a Trump presidency than a Hillary presidency, because the whole world has gotten used to treating the US as a non-serious and weak player, and Trump is likely to reverse that. In any case, on balance, Trump can’t be any worse than Hillary on foreign policy.
Second answer is that I will vote for Trump because he is the anti-PC candidate, and, related, anti-mainstream media candidate. This is a very powerful reason for much of his success, and, I suspect, totally invisible to you (no offense). When Trump is accused of racism, misogyny, etc., usually on thin or zero evidence, this is really what his critics mean. People all over the country are tired of the PC culture that has exploded in the past few years, where, for example, people like Brendan Eich are fired. People are afraid and angry of it. For example, if I had stayed in law, and was now a partner at my law firm, and I said even once that I did not support gay marriage (or, on a technical front, said that the Constitution did not guarantee the right to gay marriage), I would lose my job—maybe immediately, or maybe it’d just be made clear that I should look elsewhere. You may not believe that, but it’s undeniably true. The same is true at any large employer, and in academia, etc. (witness, BTW, Nicholas Kristof’s related recent columns on academia and the reaction). Of course, I can do what I want because I run my own business and am financially secure, but that’s quite rare. People are tired of being told the Emperor has clothes and being made down to bow down to the golden calf (mixed metaphors, I know). And they are tired of the media, who are wholly participants in the liberal agenda, and Obama and his cronies, telling them that they are racist, and bad, and so on. I suspect you see none of this, again—but why would you, since you live in a different world (again, no offense, and you of all people have always been highly reasonable—but I expect you’re simply not exposed to cogent thoughts of this type, or to the evidence, which the news-setting media actively suppresses).
The third answer, and the most important one for me, is that I’ll vote for Trump because he’s the Candidate of Necessary Change. From a conservative perspective, things have been going wrong for some time. The way it works is that when liberals control, they take X steps “forward.” When conservatives control, at best they stay stationary, and when liberals again control, they move “forward” again. This has been going on for nearly a hundred years. (Much of the reason for this is liberal control of the judiciary, such that things liberals cannot accomplish legislatively are mandated by the courts, and conservative legislative accomplishments are reversed by the courts. The end result of that, of course, is Trump attacking the judiciary. When the judiciary does not act independent, it cannot complain when it is attacked as a political actor. Again, this is a historical commonplace.) So if, say, Ted Cruz had become President, he could have accomplished little or nothing. The only possible strategy, then, for conservatives, is to blow it all up and see what configurations can be made from the pieces that are more advantageous.
This is a bad strategy, of course. Most likely Trump will not change things that much. Or if he does, the resulting reconfiguration is unlikely to be better for conservatives, or anyone else, on balance. Yet it is the best of the bad options. And Trump will win. In a landslide.
All this will end in blood, because it always does. Not blood under Trump, necessarily, and not necessarily civil war or anything truly dramatic. But all political structures have a life cycle, and we are reaching the time of troubles. Ultimately, there will be some major reconfiguration. It is unlikely to result in increased political liberty for the average person. But let’s not forget that the average person in the Rome of Augustus’s time, or the France of Napoleon’s, was a lot better off than in the decades preceding the rise of those men. (Note that Trump is not that man; he is merely the harbinger of a time of turmoil, to be followed by others now unknown.)
Now, plenty of conservatives are more optimistic than me. For example, Yuval Levin recently wrote a book “The Fractured Republic,” which is quite optimistic (my review coming soon!) And there is more to be said on this topic, including why talking head conservatives are not reliable guides to what actual conservatives think, and more on the role of the media and the ruling classes, Charles Murray’s “cognitive elite,” in all this. But enough for now!
Thanks for the extended reply Charles. I think part of what I’m trying to figure out is what constitutes a coherent conservative ideology. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think I could articulate a coherent liberal ideology, but I can easily trash a neo-liberal agenda which seems to be the common set of beliefs espoused by most middle-class democrats.) I get fiscal conservatism. I understand a strict and narrow interpretation of the constitution. I understand a desire for small government. These are all principles that, while I don’t necessarily subscribe to them, make logical sense to me. Where I get stuck is how these principles get morphed into the unfathomable mess that is our two-party political system. (Once religion gets tossed in the mix it all starts to go to hell, so to speak.)
Again, to be fair, I can’t explain how liberal and Democrat go together. Both the major parties seem like random mixes of ideologies that have grown to symbolize, and be defined by, binary opposition to one another, rather than any clear set of principled beliefs. Thus we find ourselves with Hillary and Trump. Two wretched people, neither of whom should govern our country. And yet, I will vote for Hillary. Because she is not Trump, and I find Trump’s complete lack of any principled beliefs, about anything, to be even more problematic than the convoluted and hypocritical Clinton-based oligarchy. (I seem to remember you favor an oligarchy). I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I generally avoid politics in favor of considering various issues on their merits. I’ve found thinking critically about issues doesn’t mix with politics very well. Perhaps that is what I’m hoping you can reconcile for me. How does someone, like yourself, who thinks about particular issues in a reasoned way, reconcile those principles with modern politics as represented by Trump/Clinton? I just throw up my hands and vote Democratic because it’s the closest to a few of my beliefs. It sounds like you’re supporting Trump because he doesn’t censor himself and might just bring the whole system crashing down. Neither my nor your reasons for selecting a candidate inspire a celebration of democracy. What is a thoughtful American to do? I look forward to having a drink and being schooled in conservatism somewhere in the heartland in the not-to-distant future. Peace, _________
Always a pleasure. I have a variety of thoughts! Please excuse the lengthy response; part of the reason I write in detail is the same reason I write lengthy reviews of books—not to inform or lecture other people, but to crystallize and refine my own thinking. (Why I feel the need to do so is another, more interesting story, but for another day.)
1) On what’s a coherent conservative ideology, the threshold difficulty is that “ideology” is itself largely a Left concept. In the classic James Burnham formulation, an ideology is “a more or less systematic and self-contained set of ideas supposedly dealing with the nature of reality . . . and calling for a commitment independent of specific experience or events.” Liberals tend to overarching, utopian solutions, because they believe that we are more or less perfectible. Most (but not all) conservative thinking is traditionally based on practical experience and incremental responses to those experiences. The exceptions are (a) libertarians and (b) proto-fascists, to the extent those latter can be considered conservative. Generally, therefore, I’d refer to conservative principles, which are general and experiential, and not conservative ideology.
Modern conservative principles certainly CAN form a consistent set, but other than what you mention (small government, strict constructionist, “Madisonian”) typically don’t. Being a foreign policy hawk is not really conservative except in a narrow sense (and is most associated with neoconservatives, who are late to the party and leaving it now, leaving a train of wreckage). Being a jingoistic “America, F— Yeah” type isn’t really a set of conservative principles. Arguably Nozickian philosophical libertarianism is another type of conservatism. Yet another might be communitarian-focused conservatism, so called “Crunchy Cons,” which tend to be tied to the nascent grouping of “reform conservatives.”
But I don’t think that’s really your question, which I take to be focused on the two-party system and democratic decision-making. Here, taking the Republican Party as a proxy for conservatives, it’s a commonplace that for a long time it’s been a coalition of disparate groups—much more Big Tent than the Democrats for some time, in fact (there are zero pro-life Democrats in national life, for example, all having been driven out of the party). Those disparate groups have now gone, or nearly gone, the way of all fissiparous groups, courtesy of the Destructor, Trump. But if hadn’t been Trump it would have been someone or something else. So to answer your question, I think the Republican Party is an “unfathomable mess” because it has no coherent set of governing principles, anymore. Or ideology, for that matter. Whether conservatives can have, or do have, a consistent set of principles therefore is irrelevant to the question of party politics, and therefore to the question of modern democratic decision-making.
There is nothing odd about this; it is the nature of things. The Whigs died and the Republicans were born; the Democrats are very different than they were a few decades ago, though they kept the name (even if it’s fun to remind people that the main objectors to 1960s civil rights were Democrats, and the Ku Klux Klan was exclusively Democrat, it’s not actually fair as a historical matter). So I think it’s an unfathomable mess because that’s what precedes what comes next, because it always does. I’m sure the 1850s Whigs were an unfathomable mess too. So the question is more—what comes next?
2) As you say, whether effect or cause, the two major parties are increasingly defined in opposition to each other. This is normally referred to as “polarization,” but that’s not quite accurate, I think. Yes, there is polarization, but much of it is actually talking past one another, not engaging one another. This is not the Federalists/Anti-Federalists rerun, or Lincoln/Douglas. It’s something much less valuable and much more pernicious.
Taking the historical angle first, extreme polarization is the norm in America. We’ve largely escaped it for decades (though that can be exaggerated—witness the late 1960s and the 70s), but, for example, in 1794 when John Jay, the first Chief Justice, signed an unpopular treaty with Great Britain, it was said that one could travel from Boston to Philadelphia solely by the light of his burning effigies. And then there’s that whole Civil War thing.
So polarization is nothing new. I think what’s new here is two things. First, cribbing from Yuval Levin’s recent book “A Fractured Republic,” both parties look past each other, because they are looking to the past, to a “politics of nostalgia,” focused on the periods of the past (roughly the 1950s or 1960s), where things were allegedly good, and focusing policies on returning to those times. This is the opposite of engaging on what new policies are required for a new time, which is also polarizing, but more productively so. That’s the optimistic take, because it implies a solution. But second, cribbing from me, the difference today seems to be the huge degree of irrationality and lack of respect for reason. Sure, in the past people violently disagreed. But anyone who held himself up in the public eye militating for a political position was expected to be able to rationally support that position. Contempt and obloquy would have been the lot of anyone who did otherwise, from all sides. (Imagine Lincoln/Douglas with emojis and today’s level of political discourse!) Today, feelings and emotion are regarded as acceptable and relevant, and co-equal or superior to reason and facts. (“For the children” and “we have to do something” are typical political angles that result.) Communication is deliberately dumbed-down with Twitter, emojis and so on (in fact, both Apple and Facebook claimed this week they were trying to move “beyond the written and spoken word”—but there’s a reason hieroglyphs have fallen out of favor). Saying “Delete your account” is somehow regarded as a killer argument, which I suspect would have astonished Hamilton and Madison, or even Marx and Lenin. Every person is entitled to an opinion, which is supposedly valid and valuable, but never has to be demonstrated as such.
So, for example, it is possible to have a coherent argument about nearly any political issue, but to do so, you have to be able to boil it down to the most specific level of generality, peeling away the onion. But we are stuck on stupid sloganeering, not just on Facebook, but at the highest levels of government and politics. There is a viable argument to be had on abortion, for example, boiled down to, in essence, whether the unborn child is a person and why, and if so, what does that imply, and if not, what does that imply? But (and this is mostly the Left’s fault), we are stuck with dumb statements that are meant as killer arguments in and of themselves, like “it’s a woman’s body.” Maybe that’s true, but stating it as fact is mere question-begging, because by itself it is just a conclusion, that might be reached by answering the real questions I just outlined. Similarly, on gun control, there are viable arguments to be had, which basically boil down to what the costs and benefits are. For example, I think a benefit of guns is a reduction in the chances of government tyranny, and I am willing for society to accept costs to realize that benefit. Others might disagree. But instead, nearly everyone in favor of gun control is totally ignorant, both of the facts and arguments, and proud of it. Almost all pro-gun control statements are mere moral preening and virtue signaling, designed to show the superiority of the speaker. It is a type of religion and the demand for gun control is a form of “burn the witches,” combined with the unpleasant human desire to control other people. It doesn’t have to be, but it is in practice. As a result, gun control proponents are pitifully easy to hammer into the ground. What they should do is boil it down to its essence, to viable arguments. It’s certainly possible. But they don’t realize they have been hammered into the ground, and we never get to the arguments. In fact, they think they have made killer arguments.
This is more of a Left problem, as well as a problem with those neither Left nor Right, but just generally ignorant. Though this type of closed-mindedness can also occur on the Right, it tends to occur more on the Left because anyone with liberal views can lead a normal life, absorbing mainstream news sources, mainstream TV shows, mainstream movies, etc., and never be exposed to any conservative viewpoints, at all, and certainly not put coherently. But any conservative is necessarily constantly and continuously exposed to liberal viewpoints, except those conservatives who only listen to conservative news sources—and even there they are constantly exposed to liberal views, if only to react and rebut them, since a small group of very liberal media actors decide what the news is, and therefore what ends up being discussed. But whether Left or Right, if either or both side adopts the modern characteristic of arguing from ignorance, it prevents any real discussion, and therefore any real progress.
Related to this is the increasing tendency of political actors to take advantage of perceived crises, when emotions are high (Patriot Act; any gun control), to actually prevent reasoned discussion. There are other drivers, among them deficient education in many areas. Another driver, as Cass Sunstein has pointed out, is that technology allows self-sorting into echo chambers with like-minded people, thus diminishing knowledge of other opinions.
But the net impact on society is a group of people who feel no obligation to reach their conclusions by reasoning, or to be able to demonstrate to others why their reasoning is sound and should be adopted. Combined with the parties being an unfathomable mess, this is a recipe for total societal and political incoherence, where the entire society is buffeted by fear, emotion, and pure reactiveness.
3) What you then get in such a society is “leaders” like Clinton and Trump. When you ask how I “reconcile [my] principles with modern politics as represented by Trump/Clinton?”, the answer is “I don’t.” I wholly reject modern politics on an intellectual basis. But, of course, as Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Same thing for politics. You can’t avoid it, and you especially can’t avoid it with the modern Leviathan state, which cannot be avoided in any walk of life.
4) Unfortunately, this is not a stable societal position. It leads to increasing demonization, contempt and hatred, because when one side “knows” the other is just plain wrong, and neither side is offering much in the way of rationalization, the other side must be driven by some form of irrational animus, which tends in the direction of making them less than human, which is the first step toward Very Bad Things. The best recent example of this, though there are many on all sides, is gay rights. Ascribing political or religious positions to “hate” itself leads to hate, and is in any case not true. But this technique is universally handy, because it fits the template of not needing any thought or reason. This is a downward spiral, and the center can’t hold.
5) This originated in a question from you to me about what I personally think. So, to answer that, I’m of two minds. I’d like to think that there are reasonable people who can together move the country forward (again, see Yuval Levin’s book—he thinks that). I’m not hopeful, though. I certainly know people, you among them, but also others, who are capable of that. The other part of me, being totally honest, thinks that’s not possible, in part because such people are a tiny and getting tinier minority, and even if there were more of them, the times do not allow them a voice or any influence—the times, and the structures, that have given us Hillary and Trump. So the other part of me thinks we should all just move to Plan B—knocking people about the head, and responding “F— you” when people argue from emotion, feelings, or other socially corrosive and invalid techniques. This is how conservatives are generally treated by the power structures of society, including the media, large businesses, social media overlords, academia, and most leading politicians of both parties, or more accurately, how social conservatives are treated. This is, ultimately, the Mao solution—“power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Conservatives should arguably adopt the same tactics. (A third possible option, religion-centered, is the “Benedict Option” of Rod Dreher, involving a political, but not physical, withdrawal.)
And, when anti-Trump partisans assault Trump supporters and try to shut down Trump events by violence, and the police do nothing, and local politicians endorse the violence, what will happen next is not shutting down more Trump rallies, but pro-Trump gangs dishing out their own violence. If that’s where we’re headed, we might as well get it over with, and, again, find out what comes next when things settle down.
For me personally, I am torn, again. I realized a few years ago my chief talent is conflict. I enjoy conflict. The times are filled with conflict, and there will be more. But that’s bad. It’s bad for me, it’s bad for my family, it’s bad for society. It’s bad for my soul. Hence, I vacillate (and this is why sometimes you’ll see me being very nasty on FB, something I normally try to avoid).
6) What a thoughtful American is to do, though, at a minimum, is to struggle against Plan B, and to try to maintain the bonds of community and family. Starting with that drink. Which I will provide, in celebration of your new position! Regards to all.