A reader writes, starting by quoting me:
“It wasn’t enough to justify a vote for Trump on my part, but it did cause me to abstain, as I saw them both as poisonous.”
I have been thinking about this particular stance of yours in the context of the very same passage from Dante’s Inferno for months now.
When I was a kid, my friends and I would often roam the dilapidated streets of the small (Bohemian) town where I was growing up. Sometimes the adults would yell at us for being a pain, and sometimes we would yell back: “what were you doing in ’48?!?” What we were saying to them (without really understanding it) was: “where is your moral high ground now, eh? You have none!” Many of those quite decent people chose not to participate in the political circus of 1947 and 1948. That helped the communists win fairly democratic elections and forced the president to name a communist prime minister.
There still was a chance. A Czech version of gen. Pinochet was on offer. Instead, the non-communist members of the government found it morally unacceptable and decided to resign. A few months later the president was dead, and the very same people found themselves occupying much lower grounds scraping uranium ore from mineshaft walls with teaspoons.
The Benedict Option did not work out well either. Religious orders were rounded up and sent to the same mines or gulags. Faith-based groups were dispersed and punished severely. Would I have preferred a Pinochet to the total social and economic, generations-long devastation? Absolutely.
I guess what I am trying to say here is that perhaps making a pact with the devil is sometimes the moral thing to do.
Well, I would have too, and had the choice been between communism or Trump (or an American Pinochet), I would have had no qualms about voting Trump. That wasn’t the case, not remotely. I mean, I agree with the reader’s point that in politics, sometimes you do have to make a pact with the devil. I’m not convinced that 2016 was one of those times. Besides, as I’ve said here, my withholding my vote was ultimately an act of vanity; Trump won my home state easily, meaning my anti-Trump vote, had I cast one, would have been meaningless. Had I lived in a swing state, I am pretty sure I would have been compelled by conscience to have voted one way or another.
Still, let me say again: the reader is right about politics sometimes putting you in a position in which you have to choose one evil to avoid a worse evil (though I think to call Trump or H. Clinton “evil” is to devalue the term). What bothers we about the way establishment Washington (of both parties) is resisting Trump is what looks to me like failure on its part to understand why the electorate had lost so much faith in it that it voted for a man like Donald Trump as the lesser evil.
On the other side, it is becoming clear that Trump’s administrative and political incompetence is going to cost us all. Ross Douthat has a good column today talking about how populism in power often fails to deliver, because the things that made it work on the campaign trail puts it at a disadvantage at governing. Excerpt:
Second, having campaigned against elites and experts and all their pomps and works, populists imagine that their zeal can carry all before it, that proceduralism and institutional knowledge are for losers and toadies and men with soft hands, and that a few guys in the White House can execute a major overhaul of a delicate system without bureaucratic patience or rhetorical finesse.
This assumption is deeply mistaken, for reasons evident this weekend — in the chaotic scenes at airports, the spectacle of people already in transit being turned away, the crazy attempt to apply the ban to permanent residents, the absence of obvious carve-outs and exceptions, the failure to get adequate buy-in or advice from cabinet officials, and the blowback from Trump’s political allies as well as his opponents.
Then, finally, because populism thrives on its willingness to shatter norms, it tends to treat this chaos and blowback as a kind of vindication — a sign that it’s on the right track, that its boldness is meeting inevitable resistance from the failed orthodoxies of the past, and so on through a self-comforting litany. That makes it hard for populists to course correct, because they get stuck in a “the worse the better” loop, reassuring themselves that they’re making progress when actually they’re cratering.
Read the whole thing. Douthat says that Trump has not shown either the popularity or the political skill to be an American Putin. Rather, he looks more like the hapless Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was elected president of Egypt, but who was so administratively incompetent and politically maladroit that he provoked a coup. Douthat does not predict a coup for the US, but he does predict that Trump’s tenure will be ineffective, in part because he will have alienated the people in both Congress and in the bureaucracy who are needed to make the trains run on time.
Nobody knows yet what’s going to happen. We are in uncharted territory. One danger that conservatives face is that Trump’s blunders will call forth a massive reaction from the left — remember, Trump really did lose the popular vote — and bring to power Democrats who are ideologically fired up and eager to punish. In other words, we wouldn’t be looking at a restoration of establishment governance in terms of restoring the status quo, but a relative radicalization of the establishment. If I were a liberal Democrat, I would want nothing to do with anything Clintonian; I would be demanding stronger stuff.
The danger the Democrats face is that their party will rally behind a Jeremy Corbyn figure. The danger the rest of us face is that their party will rally behind an American Hugo Chavez. To be sure, I don’t think American political culture can produce a Hugo Chavez, or a right-wing counterpart. But a year ago, I didn’t think Donald Trump would be our president, so what do I know?
Here’s a prediction, based on my early reading of René Girard’s work. If Trump continues on this path of antagonism and incompetence, social divisions will intensify. We will either come apart, or we will unite around scapegoating Trump. We will agree that he is responsible for our problems, and that only by ridding ourselves of him and those associated with him can we restore the peace. Whether or not this is true, this will be the story most of us agree on, because the alternative is communal disintegration. And Evangelical Christians, for whom the left has particular contempt (and who are unbeloved by elite Republicans), will be scapegoated along with Trump, whom they embraced as their champion.