Noah Millman

Now, Who Could It Be? Could It Be … Satan?

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John Boehner probably isn’t the first person to compare Ted Cruz to the Prince of Darkness, but I’m more inclined to agree with the Satanic Temple that the hoof doesn’t quite fit. I’m more inclined to go with this comparison.

Meanwhile, do you realize who, by calling Cruz the rebel angel, Boehner is implicitly comparing himself – and the other targets of Cruz’s rebellion – to?

Milton’s Lucifer is indeed a rather miserable son of a bitch. Much of what makes him so compelling a figure is how effectively he converts his own misery — his terrible fall from grace and his painful knowledge that for God this act of banishment was almost an afterthought — into purpose, and power.

And that sounds a lot like Cruz. For essentially his entire life, he’s been actively disliked by most people, and yet he has turned virtually every setback into a launching pad for further advancement. Consider the way he has conducted himself as a senator, eagerly tearing down both his party and the Senate itself for the sake of private ambitions that seemed comically implausible. There’s clearly something of Lucifer’s spirit to that. And the spectacle of Cruz choosing his running mate immediately after it became apparent that he had almost no chance of becoming the nominee recalled Lucifer’s petulant declaration that he would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven (even though reigning in hell is as worthless a title as being Ted Cruz’s vice presidential pick).

The target of Cruz’s rebellion, though, simply doesn’t measure up to the majesty or consequence of Lucifer’s. John Boehner isn’t God. Neither is Mitch McConnell, nor Reince Priebus, nor Paul Ryan, nor the so-easily-overthrown Jeb Bush, nor any other luminary of the GOP. The comedy of Cruz’s rebellion is all too human.

On the other hand, if we want to find the personification of arrogant assertion without any restraint in this contest, we surely need look no further than presumptive nominee Donald Trump. Perhaps the root of the dread that sincerely Christian commentators like the New York Times’s Ross Douthat have about a likely Trump nomination is that Trump entirely lacks even the modicum of humility that graces even the most ambitious and vainglorious of American politicians. And what should give us pause is that it appears that what those Americans who admire Trump admire most about him is precisely that lack.

All of which is by way of saying: I’ve got a piece in Foreign Policy asking which candidate most deserves the title of Satanic Majesty, with references to Milton and the Bible.

Just doing my part simultaneously to raise and lower the tone of this campaign.

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How Conservatives Can Defeat Donald Trump

Andrew Sullivan is back, with a long piece in New York Magazine about how Donald Trump’s campaign is evidence of the decadence of our democracy and a harbinger of its possible end. I’m glad to see he’s his usual level-headed, temperate self. He concludes as follows:

[T]hose Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that. Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands. That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class—and Democrats must listen.

More to the point, those Republicans desperately trying to use the long-standing rules of their own nominating process to thwart this monster deserve our passionate support, not our disdain. This is not the moment to remind them that they partly brought this on themselves. This is a moment to offer solidarity, especially as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Ted Cruz and John Kasich face their decisive battle in Indiana on May 3. But they need to fight on, with any tactic at hand, all the way to the bitter end. The Republican delegates who are trying to protect their party from the whims of an outsider demagogue are, at this moment, doing what they ought to be doing to prevent civil and racial unrest, an international conflict, and a constitutional crisis. These GOP elites have every right to deploy whatever rules or procedural roadblocks they can muster, and they should refuse to be intimidated.

And if they fail in Indiana or Cleveland, as they likely will, they need, quite simply, to disown their party’s candidate. They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out. They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

Regardless of whether Sullivan is right about the threat Trump poses to democracy (and I think he does pose a real risk, though as I’ve said before I think he’s more Berlusconi than Mussolini), this is not well thought out, because it doesn’t consider how the voters are likely to react to attempts to frustrate their exercise of the franchise. The evidence by this point should be overwhelming that the use of procedural tricks is backfiring, and strengthening Trump. Ted Cruz manages to snag all the delegates out of Colorado without an election, and Trump runs in New York and Pennsylvania on a platform of “the system is rigged against me” – and wins overwhelming landslide victories. Cruz and John Kasich form an anti-Trump pact and Trump’s numbers go up; it turns out Kasich voters actually liked their candidate as opposed to merely being “anti-Trump” voters – and that a clear majority of voters strongly disapprove of the pact. What makes Sullivan think that further shenanigans won’t strengthen Trump further?

I’ll make a prediction right here. If Trump is denied the nomination in 2016 because of procedural tricks – the latest trial balloon is denying delegates’ credentials – he’ll be elected President in 2020, either as a Republican or under the banner of a new party that replaces the Republicans. It’ll be 1828 all over again.

So how can Trump be stopped?

Well, it’s possible he can be stopped passively. Republicans could campaign in a lackluster fashion and let demographics do the work for Hillary Clinton. Then come back after Trump’s landslide loss and pick up the pieces. That is almost certainly what the institutional Republican Party is planning: to lose by not trying very hard.

There are just a few wee problems with this plan. First, if the Republican campaign is lackluster generally, then officeholders up and down the ballot will see their jobs at risk. That means that their interests will not be aligned with the interests of the leaders of the national party – and I’d guess they’ll follow their own interests when they see the conflict. Second, if the GOP campaigns in a lackluster fashion, that’ll give Clinton a freer hand, which, in turn will be obvious to GOP voters, who may get angry. And when they get angry, they may vote for Trump. And finally, isn’t this exactly how they planned to defeat Trump in the primary? How’d that work out for them?

If Sullivan is right, and Trump is an “extinction level event” for our republic, then sterner measures are called for. But if procedural tricks will backfire, what else can be done?

Fortunately, democracy itself provides two perfectly respectable and effective ways to defeat Donald Trump. But they both involve destroying the Republican Party.

The first option is for a rump conservative faction to bolt the party and run independently. They can make a very straightforward argument that Trump is in no sense a conservative: not only does he violate movement conservative shibboleths all over the place, but he has patently zero respect for the Constitution. He’ll be no better than Clinton on some issues, and worse on others, and besides he’s a personal disgrace. So vote your conscience, and vote for – I dunno, Cruz/Fiorina.

This would unquestionably elect Hillary Clinton as the next President. But the argument to conservatives would be that this is far less-bad than electing Trump. And they’d tell a happy story about how, in 2020, they could take back the party, run a real conservative, and win. Instead of dreading 1828, they’d be looking forward to 1920.

Unfortunately, that story will be a lie. Instead, after such a defection we’d see outright civil war, as both Trump die-hards and establishment Republicans see conservatives as having crossed an unforgivable rubicon. Letting them back in would be admitting that movement conservatives have an outright veto over every major party decision. Not to mention that Trump’s partisans would have been given a clear mandate to play exactly the same game in 2020, threatening to bolt if their guy doesn’t get the nod again, and a fair shot at a re-match. Instead of ceding one election to recover and return stronger, Republicans might permanently tear their party in two, and give the Democrats control of the Presidency for a generation.

The second option would be for notable Republicans to flat out support Hillary Clinton. Either leave the Republican Party or form “Republicans for Hillary” and stuff it with an ideological cross-section of party members. The group couldn’t just say “we can’t stand Trump” though – as the primaries should have amply demonstrated, you can’t beat something with nothing. It would have to say, “Hillary Clinton won’t be so bad.” Get a bunch of manufacturers to say that she understands the economy, and while they’d rather see a real Republican in charge, they prefer Clinton to Trump. Get a bunch of retired military brass to say that Clinton has a clear understanding of American interests and capabilities and a good relationship with the services, and that she’d make a perfectly acceptable Commander in Chief under whom they’d be proud to serve. Whereas Trump . . . Make the case that, while Clinton isn’t ideal, she’d certainly be an adequate President – hardly disastrous. She’d muddle through, and the country would muddle through, and that’s good enough.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that it trashes the entirety of GOP messaging. The conventions of American partisanship in this day and age require outright apocalypticism about the opposing party. The Democrats can’t just be wrongheaded about this or that – they have to be outright aiming to destroy the United States of America. “Republicans for Hillary” would have to abandon a generation worth of demonization in an heartbeat.

Would many Republicans follow them? It’d be a test, in a way of just how Orwellian the party has become – how many would reliably declare that we have always been at war with Eurasia once their leaders told them it was so? Based on Trump’s performance in the primary so far, I’d say “not many.” But it wouldn’t have to be that many. There’s a big part of the country that is plainly really angry and ready to elect somebody manifestly unsuited to the office in order to express that anger. But it’s not a majority. In a baseline 50-50 nation, even the #NeverTrump contingent could swing an election.

The trouble comes later, when they try to go home again. Because in abandoning the party, they will have ceded it outright to Donald Trump. And they’ll have no obvious mechanism for winning it back, particularly not after a betrayal of that magnitude.

Which is why the leadership of the GOP is reconciling itself to Trump. They know that his victory means either vassalage or exile, and that’s not a very palatable choice. So they are either convincing themselves that he is not an “extinction-level event” or that, notwithstanding the impending end of the world, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

And right there in a nutshell is the problem with elites that Trump has been riding to victory.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Contradictions Should Sound Familiar

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The last word that Donald Trump would use to describe himself is “humble.” But if you look past that word, there’s a lot of continuity between the foreign policy that Trump outlined in his speech at the Center for the National Interest, and the foreign policy that George W. Bush claimed to advocate when he was running for President.

In that campaign, Bush called for a reduction in “over deployment” of American troops overseas, specifically criticizing mission-creep in Somalia, the extended involvement of American troops in the Balkans, the intervention in Haiti, and “nation-building” in general. But he also called for strong American leadership and robust support for our allies. He claimed that America should only use force as a last resort, but that when we use it we should make sure we use it overwhelmingly and achieve a decisive victory. He said we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, and shouldn’t presume to tell other countries how to run their affairs, as though our way were the only way to do things, but that nonetheless we should always infuse our foreign policy with our values. Bush even called for a more constructive relationship with Russia while also calling for stepped-up investment in missile defense for Europe.

The language was different in certain crucial ways – Bush never said we should “put America first” for example – but many of the same contradictions that bedevil Trump’s outline of how our foreign policy should change were already in place, because they are deeply rooted in contradictory desires on the part of the electorate, and even more so in policymaking circles.

Of course, there are some substantive differences, particularly in the way Trump talks about trade and its relationship to foreign policy generally. Getting a better financial deal for America is clearly a Trump priority, both in the terms of trade agreements and the terms of our alliances. What this would actually mean in practice under a hypothetical Trump administration is very unclear. Would Trump actually kick Germany out of NATO if it didn’t spend at least 2% of its budget on defense? Would he actually impose 45% tariffs on Chinese goods if his trade demands weren’t met? (Is either something the President can even do unilaterally?) What does “walking away from the table” mean, exactly, in the context of an attempt to renegotiate our commitments overseas?

But at a minimum, it will surely mean that Trump would prioritize the terms of trade in certain ways over other priorities in international relations – for example, getting China to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. If he doesn’t mean that, then he doesn’t mean anything at all. Which is, admittedly, possible.

Apart from that, though, what I heard from Trump’s speech is mostly the usual hodgepodge of wishful thinking that we get from most candidates – we’ll get more of what we want and it will cost us less – but with much less rhetorical emphasis on American leadership and much more rhetorical emphasis on American strength. I expect we’ll see more of this as the Trump campaign continues. The rhetorical tropes will be different than we’re used to, sometimes in striking ways. The actual substance will be – for the most part – depressingly familiar.

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Baseless Speculation of the Day: a Cruz-Fiorina Third Party Bid

I have no reason to believe this is true, but I wrote it anyway. Because it was fun.

[N]ominally, you’re projecting that only you [Ted Cruz] can save the party from a terrible mistake, because Trump is unelectable. But you know that if the convention were willing to overlook the clear plurality winner, and electability were the primary criterion for their choice, there’s no way the delegates would turn to you. So you’re also making the argument that Trump is not a “real conservative” — as, indeed, he isn’t by the standards that prevail among those who cherish the definitions of such contested terms. But if I recall correctly, in your view much of the party’s leadership fails that test as well. So why would you be laboring to throw open the election to the delegates, a cross-section of the people who form the sinews of the GOP, to decide of their own free will who the nominee should be?

You’re not Bernie Sanders, soldiering on without hope of victory with the aim of influencing the party platform and forcing the nominee to take your demands into consideration. If that were your object, you wouldn’t be playing these silly games, making pacts and announcing running mates. You’d just be trying to win as many delegates as you can on a principled basis — and you’d be angling for a VP slot yourself, not naming one of your own.

Moreover, if you were still trying to woo enough delegates to win outright, why would you announce your VP choice now? At the convention, that very choice could be the prize that nets you precious delegates from the Marco Rubio or Kasich corner, as well as their admirers among the uncommitted.

So what are you up to?

Well, if Trump is really unacceptable to true conservatives, then presumably true conservatives shouldn’t vote for him, even at the risk of electing Hillary Clinton. And if Trump is really an unprecedentedly dangerous person to elect president — because of his temperament, his blithe ignorance, or his manifest insincerity — then nobody should vote for him, regardless of their ideology.

And if either or both of those things are true, then neither should you. Or your supporters.

The Cruz campaign set out to redeem the Republican Party from its pusillanimous  pessimists and appeasers, the very people who are now prepared to pussyfoot with Trump in the hopes of achieving some semblance of party unity. But what if they can’t achieve unity that way at all — because if they try, you’ll free Cruz-Fiorina 2016 from the party?

Of course, such an independent campaign would be extremely unlikely to achieve victory. It wouldn’t even be on the ballot in most states — and if it got any meaningful number of votes, they’d come almost entirely out of Trump’s hide. Hillary Clinton would win in a crushing landslide, sweeping not only the blue and purple states but potentially taking states like Texas and Georgia, where there are enough Democrats to win a three-way race, or even Utah, where Trump is deeply unpopular.

But instead of staying home and sulking, all your voters (and the handful of #NeverTrump voters) would at least turn out to vote — and they’d presumably vote for the GOP candidates for the House and Senate. Republican representatives and senators would feel freer than they otherwise might to proclaim their independence from Trump if he proved toxic in their district, and independents otherwise inclined to punish the GOP would see Clinton’s inevitability as a reason to keep her in check by voting for the GOP for Congress.

You could almost call bolting the party a loyal thing to do, under the circumstances.

Or, if you prefer to see it as a threat, well, there’s one way the delegates at the convention could prevent it from coming to pass.

Enjoy.

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How Over Is The GOP Primary Race?

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This over: Trump could lose 8 of the next 10 contests, winning only New Jersey and West Virginia, and still be about 300 delegates ahead of Cruz:

Total

Trump

Cruz

Kasich

Indiana

57

9

48

0

Nebraska

36

0

36

0

West Virginia

34

34

0

0

Oregon

28

10

13

5

Washington

44

15

18

11

South Dakota

29

0

29

0

New Mexico

24

8

11

5

New Jersey

51

51

0

0

Montana

27

0

27

0

California

172

51

94

27

TOTAL

502

178

276

48

Current

954

562

153

Grand Total

1132

838

201

Shortfall

105

399

1034

That’s about as bad as it could plausibly get for Trump, and about as good as it could plausibly get for Cruz. Carly Fiorina can’t change that math except at the bare margins. (Though, as I recall from her tenure at HP, math was never her strong suit.)

Meanwhile, Cruz just gave away a bargaining chip that might have been useful for winning over Rubio’s or Kasich’s delegates, which he will absolutely need in the unlikely event that the convention considers turning to him rather than putting Trump over the top (which would be a whole lot easier).

Cruz is by all reports a very clever strategist. I feel like I’m missing something.

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Not For An Age But For A Moment—And Therefore For All Time

This past weekend marked the beginning of the Passover holiday, and it was only when I was deep into my annual preparations that I was alerted to the fact that Saturday April 23rd would be William Shakespeare’s 400th yahrzeit. Which occasion surely deserves to be marked, even if belatedly. I’ll take the occasion of this anniversary of his death to speculate just why it is that Shakespeare didn’t die – why he lives on, seemingly going from strength to strength even as his chosen medium (the theater) has receded from its central place in the culture, as the culture has swung wildly in its own artistic and political enthusiasms, and as the English language itself has evolved far enough from Shakespeare’s own usage that a major North American festival thought it appropriate to translate his plays into contemporary idiom. What accounts for this extraordinary life after Shakespeare’s own death?

As has been noted elsewhere, Shakespeare did little if anything to prepare an afterlife for his works. Partly, this is because at the time plays were not considered serious literature on the level of poetry. But Ben Jonson – Shakespeare’s rough contemporary and sometime rival – famously challenged that view by publishing a folio edition of his work including his plays. We don’t know whether Shakespeare was mulling the same idea before his sudden death, but if he was he showed no signs of it. Does that mean Shakespeare agreed with the contemporary prejudice that plays were not “serious” art?

I suppose that’s possible. One can imagine the author of Titus Andronicus or A Comedy of Errors saying to himself: I’m really quite good at this, but this isn’t meant to last. But it doesn’t take long before you come to works that simply cannot be explained as the product of a hack working for money, not even a naively brilliant hack. Even a relatively weaker early work like the Henry VI trilogy demonstrates a level of ambition impossible to square with being a purely popular entertainer. Henry VI is a sprawling, multi-part saga about a deeply traumatic period in his country’s recent history. Its ambition is to be War and Peace, or at least “Gone With the Wind.” I don’t personally think it reaches that level – but the scale of the ambition is wildly at variance with what you’d expect of someone who saw himself as merely a popular entertainer.

And if Shakespeare’s ambition was obvious at that early point, it only gets more obvious as his career goes on. Shakespeare’s Richard II  and Henry V weren’t just far more complex and sophisticated than the three parts of Henry VI – they were far more dangerous, asking quite probing questions about the foundations of political order. Coriolanus contains speeches so dense scholars are still debating what they actually mean, while plays like Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are so fundamentally unsatisfying they get classified as “problem plays” – “problem” not usually being a descriptive that producers want to read in a review.

And then there’s Hamlet, a downright bizarre idea for a drama, when you think about it. In the original story, Amleth pretends to be mad in order to fool his usurping uncle into thinking he’s no threat, all the while plotting revenge for his father’s murder. That’s a straightforward story that would be easy to tell – and easy to sell. Instead, Shakespeare makes a quite deliberate hash of it, removing his hero’s obvious motivation for acting mad (because Claudius, at the start, is trying to win Hamlet over, not get rid of him), and then on top of that having his hero mysteriously unwilling or unable to take revenge when the opportunity is handed to him on a platter. In other words, Shakespeare took a story with clear character motivation, strong dramatic tension and robust forward momentum, and turned it into a story about puzzled wills losing the name of action. And, yes, thereby created one of the greatest works of art in the history of Western civilization – but there’s no way he could have known that he’d achieve that, and he would have been mad to want to. What we can surmise, though, is that Shakespeare was motivated by some other ambition than merely to entertain, or why make so many choices contrary to the demands of the genre, or even of good story-telling?

Shakespeare was, indeed, a preternaturally brilliant wordsmith, and if that were all he was then yes, one might imagine that he was a kind of savant, someone who just didn’t know that what he was doing was art. But his thematic, characterological and structural innovations were far too profound to be chalked up to naive genius.

The puzzle, then, is how to square Shakespeare’s obvious artistic ambition with the plain fact that he didn’t do much of anything to ensure that his ambition would outlive him. It’s my belief that part of the answer is simply that Shakespeare didn’t think that plays were things that sat on shelves, nor that he was an “author” as a playwright in the way that he, himself, was when he wrote the Sonnets or The Rape of Lucrece. Every blues tune, every German fairy tale, had an author of some sort at some point, because only people compose tunes or stories. But we don’t think it’s weird that those authors may be lost, or a sign that those authors didn’t care about their work.

If that supposition is correct, then perhaps Shakespeare thought his art was deeply serious – but also essentially ephemeral, like a sand mandala. That may or may not account for certain qualities of his language – but, unintentionally, that attitude may have had another effect. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think that the peculiar authorlessness of Shakespeare is part of the reason why his art has proved capable of conquering the world the way it has.

In the Western canon, there are really only two other works that rival Shakespeare’s for influence: Homer and the Bible. Both are works of towering genius, of course, and both were backed by large projects of cultural expansion, just as Shakespeare was. As well, though, I don’t think it’s an accident that they are the two other works around which there is a real mystery regarding authorship. In Homer’s case, the text as we have it was written down centuries after its legendary author had died. Before then, it was passed down orally – and we cannot possibly know, therefore, to what degree it was altered and augmented in transmission (not to mention that the Iliad and Odyssey appear to have been part of a larger poetic cycle). As a consequence not only of our ignorance of the author, but also of the mode of transmission itself, Homer’s work has a mystical quality to it, simultaneously seeming to have been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all, a beauty like Aphrodite born of the sea itself. Read Homer and Virgil side by side, and it is immediately apparent that the Aeneid has an obvious and self-aware author in a way that The Iliad does not.

The Bible, of course, comes packaged with a proclamation of its divine authorship, notwithstanding that it is manifestly a collection of books compiled over time, that many of those books themselves refer to having specific authors, and that even the core text of the Pentateuch, which tradition ascribes to divine authorship, reads much more like a novel about God than anything plausibly written by God. But that core text, again, contains stories that simultaneously manifest the quality of having been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all. Read the saga of Jacob and his sons, and you know you are in the hands of a great writer – but that writer gives none of the signs that he (or she!) is conscious of telling us a story, and wants us to be conscious of it, the way that, say, Ovid is. Again, I suspect this is an artifact in part of the mode of transmission of the text.

The limb I’m going out on is to suggest that something of the same effect is at work with Shakespeare. The very fact that he did not curate his own work – that, instead, it had to be cobbled together from actors’ rolls and the like, and that we have to reckon with Good Quarto and Bad Quarto versions of many of the plays, along with the Folio version – has allowed a multitude of individuals to become co-authors with Shakespeare of his seminal works. And this multitude is layered on top of the fact that many if not most of Shakespeare’s works were adaptations of previous work (only two of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest – have original plots, and in both cases “plot” is a generous description of the action), that he more than occasionally collaborated with other writers, and that theater is inherently a collaborative and evolving art form, such that we cannot know whether individual actors made contributions to their roles, or whether Shakespeare – or anyone else – ever altered plays in response to their reception by the public. The result is a body of work that is at once highly individual, with a distinct verse style, distinct thematic preoccupations, etc. – but also strangely authorless, uncreated, eternal.

None of this would have availed were it not for Shakespeare’s genius. But Dante was also a genius; Chaucer was also a genius; Goethe was also a genius; Tolstoy was also a genius; Joyce was also a genius. And while their influences are titanic, Shakespeare’s influence really is different in kind. I cannot think of any other work that so belongs to us, the reader, the audience; of which we feel so free to talk about our versions of the work, as opposed to his, the author’s – to the point where this supreme genius of the English language has seen his work become foundational in entirely foreign tongues. The exception, again, being the Bible (and, in the ancient world, I suspect Homer would have been another exception).

For another point of comparison, take another genius, who died the same day as Shakespeare did – Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes’ influence was, in some ways, as large as Shakespeare’s. He not only arguably invented the novel (though there are clear precursors in the picaresque), he went right on to invent the metafictional novel immediately after, thereby permanently marking the form with a self-consciousness and reflexivity it has never managed to shake. But that very invention of metafiction was prompted by an identity crisis of copyright infringement. Don Quixote and Sancho were so popular that numerous knock-offs were being written about them by all sorts of people – and their creations were plainly inferior to Cervantes’s original. Given the state of the law at the time, there was nothing to do about this but to respond artistically, and so Cervantes did: Book 2 of his master work is an explicit reaction to those knock-offs, and takes place in a world where Quixote and his squire are well-known, and can no longer have naive adventures because they are everywhere recognized.

The result is an absolutely brilliant and supremely fecund piece of invention, but one which makes it all but impossible to avoid Cervantes’s authorship as a fact to be reckoned with. Resisted, perhaps, and there have been numerous attempts at such resistance, most prominently Kafka’s parable and Borges’s story, but these can be understood as somewhat desperate efforts to liberate Cervantes’s much-beloved characters from his authorial grasp, so that they might more directly and completely belong to us, an accomplishment which Shakespeare’s Hamlet achieves without even a hint of a struggle, because it is not the ever-elusive Shakespeare who labors to confine him, but Denmark, that prison, that nutshell whose bounds cannot confine the horror of his dreams. And we are penned in there right along with him.

Woody Allen famously quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Which – good luck to him with that. Meanwhile, we don’t know why Shakespeare, who was tenacious in other ways to carve out a name that would last beyond his life – carefully and expensively securing a place among the gentry, for example – was so cavalier about the ultimate disposition of his plays. But, in the end, that’s a question primarily of interest to his biographers. From my perspective, we should be thankful rather than frustrated that he was, for perhaps it was this blithe disregard that has made it possible for his work to assume the form, and therefore the status of a kind of secular scripture, and for us to treat it as such, living our lives through his words, his characters, his stories, and so to keep someone we really don’t know at all, alive, four hundred years after his death.

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The Indebted Way We Live Now

When I was in school, I remember having an argument with a friend whose family lived pretty close to the edge, financially. The argument occurred during a particularly rough patch when my friend explained to me that she was hungry because didn’t always have enough money for proper meals.

Now, another person would have been sympathetic, maybe even bought her a danish or something. But no! I was going to teach a man (well, girl) to fish, so she would not only eat today, but never hunger more. So I asked her: what about rice? Rice is really cheap. Anybody can afford rice. Figure out what the most expensive food is that she bought last month, and next month buy rice instead. Presto! Problem of hunger solved.

I came by this attitude fairly honestly, my family – my mother’s side, anyway – having gone through the privations of the war. And while I like to think I’ve gotten more compassionate with time, I know that, deep down, I haven’t really. I still basically think that most people could perfectly well live within their means if only they exercised some simple discipline. (I do hope – and believe – that I behave more compassionately now than I did then, precisely because I am aware that this ingrained attitude of mine is sub-rational.)

All of this comes to mind apropos of Rod Dreher’s post linking to this article about the democratization of financial insecurity. The author, Neal Gabler, laments the precariousness of his finances, notwithstanding the fact that he’s a successful writer earning a decent middle-class income. The author is aware of the various questionable choices he’s made that put him in this precarious position, but says this:

[W]ithout getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.

That’s very true – but it’s worth recognizing that it’s nothing new. Read Trollope, or Balzac, or, Tolstoy, or, well, any novelist of the 19th century, and you’ll find the books peopled with members of the gentry struggling with debt problems. Sometimes they go into debt because of bad habits – gambling, frequently – but plenty of times it’s about keeping up position. You only have so much income from your lands, but you need to keep up a place in society so that your children will marry well, and, well, soon the cost of keeping up that position has bankrupted you.

This position has indeed been democratized, thanks to credit cards, and it’s possible that Gabler and people like him just don’t recognize that they are the functional equivalent of impoverished gentry in the 19th century. But credit cards themselves are merely the latest manifestation of a long history of financial innovation to extend credit – innovation that tends to get more innovative in response to opportunity. Because those with credit to extend will always find ways to extend it as far as is profitable – and then use force, if necessary, to make sure they are repaid. Read Livy. His description of the Roman republic is an instructively repetitive tale of plebeians going deeper and deeper into debt, rioting against their patrician creditors, getting some relief, and then starting the cycle over again – a cycle that only “ended” by turning to plunder and conquest, first of Italy, then of the rest of the Mediterranean world.

On an individual level, the thing to remember is, indeed, not to let yourself get into extremity. For anybody in the middle class, this doesn’t require financial genius – just some serious discipline. Either make a budget, and live by it, or, if that feels like too much work, sock money away up front and wing it to live on what’s left while scrupulously avoiding touching that savings. And – this is the hardest part – take perverse pride in living more poorly than your neighbors with similar incomes. It’s not rocket science. The truly poor are another story, but for anyone with a solid middle-class income, these are real choices you can make.

But on a societal level, this is pretty much meaningless advice, because, in aggregate, financial resources cannot be saved for a rainy day – only real resources can. You can burn all your firewood now, or you can save some to make sure you don’t run out before the end of winter. But every single dollar that somebody saves has to be borrowed by somebody else – it’s a basic accounting identity. If you put that dollar in a box, you’re just taking it out of circulation – doing your small part to contribute to deflation. And so, in a very real sense, if everybody behaved like I was raised, and ate rice while stuffing currency in a box for later, we’d all be much poorer, and not a bit more financially secure.

Which is why, on a social level, questions of distribution can’t be reduced to questions of giving people what they deserve. There will always be some people who spend more than they earn, and some who earn more than they spend – that’s just human variation. Some of the people who spent more will turn out to have spent it wisely – the kid who goes to the expensive school winds up rooming with the founder of Facebook, and poof: you’re set. Most won’t. And those with a financial and information advantage will always find ways to press that advantage to the detriment of those with less money and poorer information. If you simply let that process ride, without regard to the consequences, you’ll learn pretty soon what the consequences are – and they are, on a societal level, pretty horrible.

Rising levels of indebtedness across the population aren’t a sign of moral decay; they are exactly what you’d expect in a society that has democratized affluence (so that virtually the whole population is living well above subsistence levels, and expects to do so) but has a low rate of productivity growth (so that expectations of future prosperity for most people run ahead of reality). That leads to a politics of scarcity – the kind of politics Livy and Balzac understood just fine. But the good news is that we actually do have tools for tackling those problems – not in a permanent way (these kinds of problems never get solved permanently), but well enough to kick the can of social unrest well down the road, and to make sure that in aggregate we’re not driving the middle class into poverty and saying “well, they lived beyond their means; they must deserve it.”

You want to get worried? Don’t focus on how quickly we are burning through our financial savings. Focus on how quickly we’re burning through the earth’s real resources.

 

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In Defense of ‘Hamilton’s’ Great Man Theory of History

Christopher Jackson as George Washington and the cast of "Hamilton". Photo by Joan Marcus.

That’s the title they gave my latest column at The Week – but it’s not really a defense of the Broadway show as history so much as a defense of “the way in which Hamilton makes a ‘great men’ story more accessible and less objectionable than it otherwise would be.”

Teaching the American founding as the story of great statesmen gathering to create the first large-scale republic in human history out of sheer genius and public-spiritedness is not merely false, it’s obviously false, and hence unlikely to inspire anyone of independent mind and spirit. But the Howard Zinn approach to American history, while emphatically worth engaging with, can’t ever rise above being a critique of traditional history. It can’t displace it. Nor can it ever really tell you what it must have been like to be in the room where the founding happened.

Hamilton does that: It makes the founding present, so we can understand it in our own terms. It doesn’t so much bring the founders down to our level as bring us up to theirs. Instead of having us believe they were born great, the show submits that they were present at an extraordinary time and rose to the occasion that their moment in history offered them. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” is the lyric — not, “gosh, you guys in the audience are so lucky it was us who were alive back then instead of you.”

Some people in the audience will be blessed — and cursed — with considerable ambition. Some could imagine themselves as Alexander Hamilton, as Lin Manuel Miranda did — or as his dark doppelganger, Aaron Burr, who I suspect Miranda understands pretty well, too. Most of those people will be Americans, and speaking to them matters, because how they direct their ambitions will do much to shape the country’s future.

Because the show’s story is the story of our nation’s founding, you might think it would speak to them automatically. But most of them will not be lineal descendants of the founders, or of anyone alive at the time of the founding. Even the tiny minority who are will have grown up in a very different America, culturally-speaking — or so they think. The audience might well start from a position of either inferiority, or opposition, or feigned indifference — on the grounds that these people are not their people. If they are to have any relationship with the American past, then, it will be akin to that of Major General Stanley — from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance — to his “ancestors”:

General Stanley: I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

Frederic: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco in your baronial hall is scarcely dry.

General Stanley: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

That’s why Hamilton matters, and matters for being exactly what it is: yet another telling of the story of the American founding that focuses on those same old Founding Fathers. It’s not about how we feel about them — it’s about how they make us feel about ourselves. They are our ancestors, unavoidably, and as long as we are Americans we will necessarily have a relationship with them and their work. The question is whether that relationship is more intimate or more alienated. Hamilton — because of its non-traditional casting, because of the writing and musical style, because of the way the story is told, and just because it’s so good — does an exceptional job of building that relationship anew, and letting all Americans imagine themselves in the founders’ lives. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I think it’s kind of funny that I wrote this piece, given that I also wrote an extended series of blog posts extolling the Tolstoyan view of history that would seem to contradict it. But, you know: I am large; I contain multitudes.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

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GOP Voters Deliberately Set The Party On Fire

Graphic by Tim Markatos

Daniel Larison has a bunch of explanations for Michael Brendan Dougherty as to how the GOP primaries wrecked so many promising political careers.

  • “Republican pundits and activists keep lowering the standards for acceptable presidential candidates, and . . . the same people consistently exaggerate and oversell the abilities and qualifications of the party’s latest group of new political leaders.”
  • “[W]e shouldn’t forget the candidates’ own significant weaknesses when accounting for their failure . . . Did Jindal do so poorly because the field was too large or because he had presided over a fiscal disaster in his home state? Rubio wasn’t ready to be president, and it showed during a campaign he should never have run.”
  • “Another factor that often gets overlooked in all this is the influence of the conservative media in creating an imaginary political landscape in which Obama is perceived as a deeply unpopular failure.”

The problem with these explanations for why so many candidates failed is that they don’t account for why the three candidates who remain are still in the race. Trump and Cruz, after all, are significantly less qualified and have significantly poorer abilities by most traditional metrics than the vast majority of the candidates they defeated, and are also the most over-the-top in their opposition to everything President Obama has done. Dougherty complains that for candidates like Huntsman and Perry “[o]ne branding problem or a bad debate becomes unfixable.” But Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have vastly worse branding problems. And let’s not even talk about the debates.

Instead, let’s talk about John Kasich. He’s a (relatively) moderate, non-insane candidate. He’s got perfectly respectable traditional qualifications for high office. And he hasn’t won much of anything, nor does he have much of a prospect of winning. Why is he still around, while Scott Walker and Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, all had to quit?

The main thing that distinguishes Kasich from all the people who have been driven from the field is that his candidacy has almost no support from the institutional Republican party, and never had it.

That’s it.

In 2012, the institutional Republican Party united behind Mitt Romney really early, and still struggled to push him over the finish line against largely ridiculous opposition. In 2016, the institutional Republican Party failed to unite behind anyone – and basically everyone to whom the party showed the slightest sign of favor went up in flames. The two remaining viable candidates are the two individuals who ran explicitly against the institutional party, and the also-ran candidate is someone the institutional party would find acceptable, but for one reason or another either ignored or treated as a joke.

The GOP’s problem is not fundamentally that too many more-or-less qualified candidates wanted to be President. That was not a problem for the Democrats in 1988 or 1992, after all. It’s that most of them thought the way to become President was to run for the Republican nomination. They didn’t understand that to have a chance with the Republican electorate, they first had to create their own, independent brand, and then run against the Republican Party.

Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests an “instant runoff” system as a solution to the GOP’s problems. But such a system, implemented in Iowa, would have left the top 3 finishers as Trump, Cruz and Rubio – exactly the three who actually finished on top there. Implemented in New Hampshire, it would have padded Trump’s plurality (I expect at least some Carson and Christie voters would have chosen Trump second). Beyond that, who knows? Would Fiorina voters in New Hampshire have picked Bush second? Or Rubio? Or Cruz? Does it matter? She dropped out anyway.

Since last September, well before voting began, a majority of GOP voters preferred the most-unacceptable candidates: Trump, Cruz and Carson. Since the voting began, that trio has earned a majority of the votes in essentially every contest. Not a plurality – a majority. No change in the voting system can make that majority preference go away.

As for simply banning unacceptable candidates from running – how exactly would that work?

When Reihan Salam suggested something similar back in September of last year, I said:

The evidence of the last few cycles is that the GOP’s voters deeply distrust the leadership. The evidence of the response of many insiders to this most recent cycle is that the distrust is mutual. If you want to solve that problem, you probably shouldn’t start by institutionalizing it.

Still true.

[UPDATE: I may have gotten a bit jumbled in my own head as to which arguments were Larison’s and which were Dougherty’s. Larison argues that the conservative echo chamber hatred of Obama may be responsible for Trump and Cruz’s success, for example, as well as for the overpopulation of the primary. My apologies for getting that mixed up.]

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Gangs of New York

Alexandra Lande / Shutterstock
Alexandra Lande / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, it has been brought to my attention that the best way to build an audience isn’t to write detailed ruminations on issues of the day, but to re-post stuff that other people report that you think your readers will want to read about.

Therefore:

A Borough Park businessman at the heart of a police bribery probe leaned on his police buddies to squash two assault raps involving his nephew, according to the victims of a pair of attacks.

Borough Park business honcho Jeremy Reichberg is being investigated by the feds for allegedly plying NYPD brass and at least one officer in the 66th Precinct with gifts in return for favors, according to multiple sources.

His nephew, Shlomo Reichberg, was part of a gang of disassociated Hasidic teens called Grouplech, which means forks in Yiddish, community sources said. The Hasidic hooligans were involved in two reported violent attacks in 2012, according to the victims.

In one scary encounter, Micha Kaplan, 45, says a group of Hasidic teens put him in the hospital for several days after a severe beating. The alleged beatdown started after the teens cut him off as he was driving in Borough Park.

At a red light, Kaplan rolled down his window and complained to the driver of the Chevy Impala.

That didn’t go over well.

Kaplan says the teens tailgated him for 20 blocks. The confrontation came to a head when one of the teens got out the car and tried to open Kaplan’s passenger side door. When Kaplan got out to close the door two of the teens started to punch and kick him, police records show.

During the attack they allegedly yelled “Litvak!” the Yiddish term for Lithuanian Jews, who are not Hasidic.

Kaplan, who works in real estate, went to Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. He spent four days there with internal bleeding.

After his release, he did some research in the community, and identified several of the teens he believes attacked him. They included Reichberg’s nephew, who was with the group at the time, but did not hit Kaplan.

But police from the 66th Precinct didn’t care, Kaplan says.

“They were squashing it 100%,” Kaplan said. “They told me I was unable to identify the guy and that my witnesses were no good. They never tried to make an arrest.”

Kaplan filed a complaint with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

Afterwards, the officers issued a wanted poster for one of the alleged attackers, Yossi Follman. But cops made no effort to find him and warned Kaplan to stay away, the victim contends.

“They told me not to hang out in front of (Follman’s) house and suggested I call 911 when I see him on the street so they could send a patrol car to arrest him,” Kaplan said. “It was a joke.”

No arrest has ever been made. . . .

On Wednesday, Follman’s mother downplayed the incident.

“How is this something new?” she asked a reporter outside her Borough Park home.

“Are you sure Mr. Kaplan isn’t exaggerating things,” she asked.

Asked about the gang, she said, “They are just a group of friends. Never into anything violent.”

That’s not how Benjamin Blau (no relation to this reporter) sees it.

Blau says he was attacked by members of the gang as he was delivering religious court notifications in Borough Park in October 2012.

According to Blau, several of the teens inside four cars jumped out and yelled in Yiddish “Kill him!”

“Between eight to 10 guys approached our car,” Blau recalled several weeks after the assault. One kicked the driver’s side door and flashed a knife.

In a panic, Blau accidentally unlocked the door. The gang members then yanked him from the car and one began hitting him in the head with a metal bar, Blau says.

“At this point I started losing consciousness,” he recalled.

Police arrested three of the assailants but the case was later dropped, records show. It is unclear why the charges were never pursued.

Consider this a dispatch from the world of the Kiryas Joel Option. And no, I’m not suggesting that Hasidic communities have a bigger problem with street gangs than non-Hasidic communities – that would be ridiculous. I’m saying: insular communities that stand by their own against secular authorities on matters where they are resisting the larger culture may well also stand by their own against secular authorities on matters of clear-cut criminality, and it’s worth being cognizant of that likelihood.

Meanwhile: anyone know why a gang of Hasidic street thugs might call themselves “forks?”

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