My latest column for The Week is all about how even folks who knew better — like me — still missed what happened Tuesday:
Before 2009, I worked on Wall Street, where I had a front-row seat for the financial crisis. I watched as a business I’d helped build — and that we thought we had approached with real concern for investor well-being — collapsed in the face of the financial equivalent of a 100-year storm.
It was what former risk analyst Nassim Taleb famously termed a black swan event, a highly improbable disaster that revealed everyone’s faulty assumptions. But I can assure you: Everybody I worked with knew, on some level, that such a storm was possible, and more likely than anybody acknowledged. We knew the ways in which credit quality was deteriorating. We knew that the ratings agencies allowed themselves to be arbitraged. We knew that the financial entities that insured the bulk of various banks’ portfolios were thinly capitalized, and that their assets were highly correlated with one another. We’d joke about extreme risks out on the tail of the distribution, risks that couldn’t really be quantified but that didn’t correspond to anything we’d actually observed, saying, “well, if that happens, we’re all dead anyway.”
We knew, but we didn’t want to know. And so we did what we knew how to do — as well and as conscientiously as we knew how to do — and battened down the hatches when we saw the storm brewing. And then watched our business get swamped when the storm hit anyway.
The same is true of the possibility of Donald Trump becoming president. For the political class, the possibility was inadmissible because it meant that all their knowledge was worthless: Anything could happen. For the journalistic class, the possibility was inadmissible because it would mean that their efforts to inform and influence were worthless: They were less trusted than Donald Trump of all people.
Some knew even less than that, but their ignorance was also deliberately chosen. The hedge fund managers in the film The Big Short made a killing betting on the collapse of the mortgage derivative market. How did they decide to place that bet? They read the offering documents. And they went and visited some of the properties that were being mortgaged, and talked to the owners and the lenders. That was all it took. With just a little bit of research, they learned what reams of historical data couldn’t tell them — that the market was built on sand.
How many of the pollsters and aggregators and political journalists attempted to measure, in advance, the likely voting propensity of the people who put Donald Trump over the top? Plenty of articles referenced the potential importance of non-college-educated white voters in the Midwest. Who seriously tried to answer the question of whether the various polls’ assumptions about that propensity were right?
All of that ignorance, meanwhile, fed the growth of the very risk that ultimately undid the system as a whole. That’s the difference between a black swan in zoology and a black swan in finance. Literal black swans exist or don’t regardless of whether we look for them. But if you undervalue the risk in the tail of the distribution, you create an incentive to pile up risk there, which drives the probability of that extreme event up and up. And If you don’t try to value it at all, then you are surely undervaluing it. And if you don’t collect the information that might have told you that the risk out there was increasing, then you’d never know to value it. Similarly, if you don’t ever try to turn qualitative pieces about potential Trump voters in western Pennsylvania into quantitative analysis, how will you know the likelihood that the polls will be wrong?
And what about people who just knew in their gut that something was up? How did they fare? Well, I was one of them.
I’ve spent some time looking back over my commentary on this election cycle. I started with my August 2015 column, “Why not Donald Trump?” that first explored why Trump was different from past flash-in-the-pan outsider GOP contenders. After Trump’s primary victory, I explained how the GOP would adapt itself to Trump’s leadership by adapting him to their policy priorities. Clearly, I knew GOP voters would mostly come home.
Turning my attention to Hillary Clinton, I wrote a series of columns on how she needed to redefine herself for the general election. More pointed was my warning to Clinton of the risks in focusing on adding unhappy Republicans to her coalition, and that she urgently needed to pitch more of her message at Trump’s key constituency of non-college-educated whites if only so she could understand how they were receiving Trump’s pitch.
Reading my own stuff, it’s clear I knew something like what happened could very plausibly happen, even if I wouldn’t have said it was more likely than not.
I still missed it. I didn’t want to believe what on some level I knew.
Speaking of things I knew: a lot of women friends of mine are especially anguished that the revelations about Donald Trump’s appalling behavior towards women didn’t flat-out disqualify him in the minds of voters. Unfortunately, I knew that would be the case as well. From one of my “advice to Hillary” columns back in May:
Let me make a suggestion. Have Huma put up a picture of Marcia Clark on the inside of the door to your Brooklyn office, to serve as a constant reminder of how to lose a sure thing by misreading your audience. Clark, as you no doubt recall, was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She thought she had a slam-dunk case and a jury eager to hear it, having stacked it with women who she figured would sympathize with the victim. She failed to account for the possibility that, as African-American women, they might have split sympathies — and that the more she painted Simpson as a cold-blooded killer, and the more she harped on the innocence of his white ex-wife, the more she was pushing their sympathies in the wrong direction, toward standing up for one of their men against a white woman’s defamation.
The 2016 election could present you with a similar problem — even without the explicit racial polarities. Say you focus your energy on attacking Trump and his supporters for being misogynists. You’ll have plenty of fuel for such an attack — but how will the women whose husbands are interested in Trump react? Are they going to let you get between them and their husbands? Or are they going to rally to their defense, and against this insulting, elitist outsider?
To get inside that defense, you can’t rely on female solidarity, or on women’s issues. Any voter for whom that kind of pitch has a strong appeal is already actively supporting you in the primary, and will certainly be with you in the general election. The women you need to reach are precisely those who are less-amenable to this kind of appeal. They are women who would consider voting Republican — who may have voted Republican in previous elections, whatever reservations or frustrations they might have had with that party. . . .
[I]t isn’t about the issues, or about experience. None of that matters if people believe that Trump is a straight-talking independent man who will put America first, while you are a cosmopolitan insider eager to do the bidding of special interests so as to win and retain power. You need to turn that around, and get people to believe that you’re a flawed human being who went into the business of politics in order to accomplish something, while your opponent is a fraud and a charlatan who has accomplished almost none of what he claims, and will do nothing of what he promises.
To make that case, you need to make an emotional connection, which means a personal one. A revelation of common experience that enables them to trust your judgment. That’s what the reintroduction is all about.
That reintroduction never happened. Instead, her campaign did exactly what I had warned wouldn’t work. And somehow, knowing it wouldn’t, I still convinced myself it had.
Before the election, TAC’s editor in chief, Daniel McCarthy, argued, in a piece explaining his support for Trump, that while it was possible that Trump would live down to the worst fears of observers like Ross Douthat, “he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.”
That’s as may be — but what I remember from the Bush years was not the success but the utter impotency of that left to affect the course of the Bush administration. And one major reason for that failure was that those on the right who might have shared their apprehensions or alarm feared breaking ranks.
The stakes are even higher this time, both because of Trump’s particular temperament and because of the considerably weaker institutional state of the Democratic Party. So while I expect McCarthy is right about how quickly that opposition will organize, I have little confidence in its efficacy.
That’s why I’m going to be watching particularly for resistance from the right — most especially from those segments of the right that have been supportive of Trump — to any evidence that Trump plans to disappoint their hopes for a more restrained version of an “America first” foreign policy. The battles will start almost immediately, with key nominations for the Defense and State departments, and continue immediately to questions of the authorization (or explicit de-authorization) of our ongoing involvement in Syria, Libya and Iraq, and to whether the Iran deal will be rigorously enforced or peremptorily abandoned. If the likes of Justin Amash in the House and Rand Paul in the Senate do not stand — early and strongly — for prudence and diplomacy, and work with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to prevent the worst, that will speak volumes. I hope I can expect the same from members of the conservative commentariat, including at this magazine.
From the left, I’m looking for something different — for evidence that they understand that rebuilding the Democratic Party will require not only resistance, but also evidence that they place the people’s business at the top of their list of priorities. Donald Trump’s one distinctive economic policy is a more nationalist approach to trade. Just as Newt Gingrich provided Bill Clinton the votes to pass NAFTA, Elizabeth Warren should be open to providing the votes to renegotiate it in a manner more favorable to the interests of American workers. Trump has promised to repeal and replace Obamacare — but he has no deep convictions on the matter, nor is there any sign that he even knows what that would mean. The Democrats should offer an olive branch of reform very quickly, and let the Republicans in the House be the ones to demand total repeal. Infrastructure spending is another area where there is an obvious overlap between Trump’s likely agenda and Democratic priorities.
The risk of handing the Republican president a “win” that makes him more popular is far outweighed by the risks of wall-to-wall obstructionism: that Trump has no-one to negotiate with but Paul Ryan, and that the Democrats get perceived as a purely negative force. The Democrats are not in a position to replicate the GOP’s playbook in 2010; they have a great deal of party building to do, and they need to show that they are listening to the concerns of voters who they lost in order to win their trust to give them governorships and Senate seats in 2018. They should stand on principle where principle is at stake, but they should also take advantage of the fact that Trump owes the institutional GOP nothing, and so can pursue whatever policies make him popular regardless of what his party’s backbenchers want.
Senator Bernie Sanders put it just about right in his statement on Trump’s election. Rep. Amash’s call to “[put] the band back together” is encouraging as well — if the band takes at least as much interest in civil liberties and war powers as it does in taxes, spending and regulation. We’ll see. That’s what I’ll be looking for.
This is going to be relatively brief, as I have little time and am still processing last night’s events. So I will just say this.
I completely understand Daniel McCarthy and Scott McConnell and others who are delighted to see someone promising to upend the bipartisan consensus for an aggressive foreign policy, a liberal trade regime, and amnesty for undocumented immigrants. I share many of their views of the first, have come to a greater appreciation over time of the second, and while I am not personally much concerned about immigration I understand why some people are, and I agree with the bedrock principle — which has come increasingly under question — that countries have every right to establish immigration policies that suit their national interests, provided they pursue them in a humane and just fashion.
But I admit, I could not feel hopeful about Donald Trump as the standard-bearer for such a movement, and feel only dread about the prospect of his presidency. First of all, I question whether Trump actually believes what they think, particularly on what matters most to me. Consider who he surrounds himself with. Foreign policy is going to be in the hands of the likes of John Bolton, Rudolph Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. These are the men who will restrain America’s interventionist habit, and put more emphasis on diplomacy? On economic matters as well, there’s a radical disconnect between some of Trump’s rhetoric and the likely policies he’ll actually pursue. For example, Steve Mnuchin of Goldman Sachs is going to run the Treasury. This is the man who is going to reverse the financialization of the American economy?
And then of course there’s the man himself, whom we’ve gotten to know much better than I ever would have wanted to in the course of the past year and a half, and will now get to know even better for the next four years, whether I want to or not. From what he’s eagerly shown, I do not.
I want to be hopeful. But I greatly fear they are projecting onto the leader they have a figure of the man they wish he were.
Myself, I stand more in the general vicinity of Ross Douthat:
I retract none of the warnings that I issued about the likelihood of catastrophe and crisis on his watch. I fear the risks of a Trump presidency as I have feared nothing in our politics before. But he will be the president, thanks to a crude genius that identified all the weak spots in our parties and our political system and that spoke to a host of voters for whom that system promised at best a sustainable stagnation under the tutelage of a distant and self-satisfied elite. So we must hope that he has the wit to be more than a wrecker, more than a demagogue, and that his crude genius can actually be turned, somehow, to the common good.
And if that hope is dashed, we must find ways to resist him — all of us, right and left, in the new chapter of American history that has opened very unexpectedly tonight.
To which I will only add — as I know Douthat would agree — that if that “crude genius” can be turned, it won’t turn on its own, but will require real assistance from people who know more about the world and the functioning of our government than the coterie he has surrounded himself with. Even though they thereby risk association with his likely catastrophes, I dearly hope that assistance is forthcoming — from members of both parties — so that the need for resistance doesn’t become a foregone conclusion.
Speaking of questions of legitimacy: how about that Brexit ruling?
If I understand correctly, the argument is that, as the referendum was non-binding, the government cannot trigger Article 50 merely on its own recognizance based on the opinion of the people as expressed in the referendum. The power to trigger Article 50 is reserved to parliament, which is sovereign. So, basically, the referendum advised parliament rather than the government to trigger Article 50 and withdraw, and now parliament has to vote on whether to take that advice (as they promised to do before the referendum) or to spurn it.
The trouble is not merely that properly informing parliament requires revealing the government’s negotiating strategy (which the government doesn’t want to do), nor that parliament’s debate and vote may wind up binding the government in specific ways that hamstring the process of negotiation (which the government doesn’t want to happen). Nor is it merely that MPs will now have to consider whether they will be punished worse for doing what the people asked (since, if it goes poorly for Britain, they will now be directly responsible for the decision, and won’t be able to blame the government), or whether they will be punished worse for refusing to do what the people asked.
No, the biggest problem is that if the parliament in London has to vote on Brexit then what about the parliament in Edinburgh?
Procedural legitimacy flows from observance of proper constitutional forms, while democratic legitimacy flows from the expressed (or presumed) will of the people. In general, conservatives are the sorts of people holding up the claims of the former against the claims of the latter. But right wing populism scrambles the usual arrangement.
It was ironic to begin with that it took the constitutional innovation of a referendum to make clear to Britain’s major parties that the country opposed their common project of European integration. It will be even more ironic if what ultimately frustrates the people’s will is not the fecklessness of its leaders but the structure of the British constitution that the Brexiters in particular proclaimed their desire to preserve.
It’s a two-column week for me at The Week — and this one is just for election obsessives.
Right now, it looks like Hillary Clinton is still significantly favored, and if she wins that the Democrats will likely control the Senate as well. But Donald Trump is clearly gaining ground, mostly because undecideds and Gary Johnson voters are coming home to the GOP. So it is possible that this thing will go down to the wire after all.
Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” — and if this election doesn’t prove him right then nothing does. Here, then, are three weird photo finish scenarios that are still possible ends to this weirdest of elections.
And then I outline three increasingly unlikely possibilities:
- Trump will “win” on Election Day but lose the election because of early voting. In itself, that’s not so weird or even so unlikely — but in my scenario, Trump wins states like Michigan and New Hampshire that currently favor Clinton but don’t have early voting, lending credence to the argument that the electorate “changed its mind” by Election Day.
- Trump wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote by a meaningful margin — between 1 and 2 percent. That result is actually likelier than most people realize, because Clinton’s support is “inefficiently” distributed — she’s doing better in large red states like Texas and Georgia than a typical Democratic candidate, but she’s still going to lose these states.
- Evan McMullin wins Utah in part because Democrats flock to him to stop Trump, leading to an Electoral College deadlock that throws the election to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
The commonality of all the scenarios is that the losing side has real reason to consider the election illegitimate, with all the possibility for further political instability that that implies.
Read the whole thing there. And have a nice five days!
As Shakespeare wrote it, the action of Coriolanus takes place 2,500 years ago, in the early years of the Roman republic, and describes the banishment from Rome of its greatest military hero, who in exile allies with his greatest enemy to wreak vengeance on the city that spurned him. But as conceived by director Michael Sexton, it could have been written this year.
We, the people, take center stage in the play’s first scene, as an angry urban mob — part Occupy Wall Street, part Black Lives Matter — threaten riot. Food is scarce, but the patricians, they are convinced, have ample stores of grain.
They are calmed by the arrival of the genial patrician Menenius, played by Patrick Page as an old school Southern senator in the mold of Lyndon Johnson or Fred Thompson (and it’s incredible how well Shakespeare’s own language suits that tone and cadence), the kind of fellow who has an old saw for every occasion. He tells the crowd a folksy parable of the time the body’s limbs and organs mutinied against the apparently idle belly, not realizing that the belly was responsible for the provision of nutriment to all the body’s members. (We barely need the explication he provides, as the parable is still operative today, used by Wall Street’s defenders to describe banking’s necessary function in allocating capital.)
The mob has begun to soften from Menenius’ gentle jibes, when Coriolanus enters, sneering. A soldier’s soldier and an aristocrat’s aristocrat, he oozes contempt for the common people — and even more for the Senate for having given in to their demands. The people will be given grain gratis during the famine, and furthermore shall be allowed to elect tribunes to balance the power of the consul, who is chosen by the Senate. If he had his way, the Senate would have let him cut the rioting people down as he did any of Rome’s enemies. The rhetoric is not so very different from our own, where one year Mitt Romney reviles the “takers” who are parasites on “wealth-creators,” and another year Donald Trump eagerly supports vigilantism to deal with “thugs” and restore order.
Sexton’s production is careful to make its critical correspondences between then and now promiscuously bipartisan. The two tribunes chosen by the people — Brutus (a condescending Merritt Jansen) and Sicinius (an oleaginous Stephen Spinella) — are corrupt, manipulative figures, resentful of Coriolanus’ contempt and eager to rile the people up for their own cynical purposes. Not coincidentally, they bear some resemblance to political figures from our world, Brutus appearing like a cross between Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Sicinius like a combination of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. But the people behind Coriolanus come off as in many ways no less cynical. Political leaders like Menenius and military leaders like the outgoing consul, Cominius (a very winning Aaron Krohn), conspire to hide from the people the true nature both of the man they would elevate to leader and to the program he would enact.
The comprehensive cynicism of the play — the fickleness of the mob, the corruption of the people’s tribunes, the self-serving and self-congratulatory behavior of the patricians — is part of Shakespeare’s strategy for bringing us into sympathy with Coriolanus. His arrogance and contempt should make us hate him in return — much as the people of Rome do. But we see by their actions that everything Coriolanus holds in contempt is, on some level, contemptible.
Though at one point he dons a familiar red cap, this Coriolanus is not Donald Trump. Trump’s braggadocious and vulgar manner could not be further from the Roman’s. But he is a highly convincing representation of a certain kind of Trump voter. Coriolanus gives us the mental self-image of someone who longs to make America great again, and sees his own greatness as going woefully unrecognized by people whom he holds in contempt — yet who somehow have become more powerful than he is. Is it any surprise he’s in a state of perpetual rage? How many of our soldiers and marines feel similarly misunderstood and unappreciated by a society they hold increasingly to be shallow and unworthy of defense?
The representation of Aufidius is the final way in which Sexton’s production brings the contemporary setting chillingly home. Heavily tattooed, hair cut more like a Hun than a Volsci, in white jeans and combat boots, this Aufidius feels like a kind of “alt-right” figure built of punk gestures and outsider anger. These Volscians are not a foreign people, but a kind of martial spirit freed of the restrictions of discipline or the bonds of natural allegiance — a spirit of pure destruction.
Coriolanus spent his life subduing men like Aufidius in the name of empire and order, and he was repaid for his labors with exile. So he dons the death’s-head moth tattoos himself, to make war on that same order, that same empire.
We are now 15 years into our War on Terror, another war to subdue by force the spirit of pure destruction. The battlefield continually expands while the very definition of victory remains elusive. And now we are treated to headlines about enlistment bonuses being clawed back, while Hillary Clinton, still our most likely next president, seeks to step up the scope and pace of war rather than even talk of peace.
Trump is already the overwhelming favorite among our soldiers and marines. What happens if our own defenders begin to sport Aufidius’ tattoos as well?
Please go there and read the whole thing. But more important: if you are in New York, go see the production. I’m biased, I freely admit — I’m on the board of Red Bull Theater, the company mounting the play. But trust me: this one is not for an age but for our time.
Coriolanus runs at the Barrow Street Theater through November 20th.
Somebody needs to get James Comey a white Russian already.
But seriously people: let’s think about this. FBI director James Comey is a civil servant of great integrity, as attested to by multiple people over the course of his career and as evidenced by his behavior across that period of time. (And I will say that I personally know someone who used to work with him who holds him in the highest possible esteem.)
Why does his office need to look into these emails? Because they appear to be pertinent — i.e., they pertain to the prior investigation of Secretary Clinton’s email server. The FBI doesn’t know yet if they are significant because they haven’t seen them yet. All they can tell is that they are likely pertinent, which probably means they know who they are from and who they are addressed to and not much more.
So why did Comey issue his terse letter? Well, consider the alternatives.
He could have said nothing — in which case he would have been sitting on information that was definitely pertinent to the Congressional committee responsible for oversight of the matter in question. That would have been much more blatant interference in the election — and it might have been a violation of his legal duties as well.
He could have said more — framing the news explicitly as “no big deal.” Such a framing might have pleased people in the Clinton camp, but its most likely effect would have been to further undermine Republican confidence in Comey himself. Why, after all, would he need to include such framing unless he were trying to influence their perceptions, and therefore the election? And how, after all, can he know there’s nothing there, until he’s completed his investigation?
It seems to me that he did what he needed to do and no more than that: report the facts. It just so happens that the facts themselves are very thin in this case.
So we’re left to fill in the gaps based on our prior perception of the candidates. If you think Clinton is sloppy and paranoid but not covering up anything in particular, there is literally no reason to change that perception. If you think Clinton is engaged in a sustained cover-up of illegal behavior, then there is no reason to change that perception either. Because there is not, actually, anything particularly new and significant that has come to light.
My latest column at The Week is about why I think it would be good if Trump wins some traditionally blue and purple states even as Clinton wins some traditionally red states:
[W]hat the country needs is a clear and decisive repudiation of Trump that also demonstrates that his message struck a chord beyond the precincts of Appalachia — a victory for Clinton that also contains a warning about the dangers to come if Trump’s legitimate issues are not addressed, and a loss for Republicans that also points to a more promising future under a different standard-bearer.
For a model of what such a loss would look like, consider not the blowout elections of 1972 or 1964, but the election of 1896.
For the 20 years prior to that famous election, the Democrats had done moderately well for themselves by nominating moderate candidates from the mid-Atlantic states (Samuel Tilden was from New York, as was Grover Cleveland; Winfield Scott was from Pennsylvania). They won some elections, and they lost some elections — and when they lost, it was by the narrowest of margins (indeed, they twice won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College).
But there were unaddressed issues bubbling that threatened the stability of the parties as they stood. In particular, America’s farmers were suffering severely under the prevailing hard-money policy that President Cleveland’s Democrats shared with the Republicans, and there was a pervasive anxiety about how mass immigration was changing both the character of the country and the distribution of the era’s economic gains.
In 1896, the Democrats broke with what had been their winningest formula, and nominated a populist champion, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran on a platform of bimetallism — an inflationary policy that would help indebted farmers at the expense of creditors — and against the banking interests on the East and West Coasts. And he personally represented a notion of what a “real American” was, or ought to be: white, Protestant, and oriented toward the countryside.
Bryan lost — and lost decisively. But he also won states that no Democrat had won since the Civil War — Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado — along with new states like Washington, Montana, and Utah. Bryan gave representation and a voice to those who were losing ground in the era of the robber barons. And while McKinley’s coalition was the coalition of the future, a version of Bryan’s coalition — one that more comprehensively added Northern industrial workers — represented the future of his party.
Today, America’s industrial laborers are in a somewhat analogous position to farmers in Bryan’s day. And while Trump is no Bryan, his explicit appeal to those voters, and declaration that he would be their voice, deserves electoral recognition. Both parties need to be put on notice that there is a set of voters, and a set of issues, that are up for grabs, and that there is opportunity as well as risk involved in courting them.
So if had my druthers, on Nov. 8, the map will look something like this:
Go there to read more about why I think such a state swap would be valuable.
I watched the final debate, and my impression was that Trump did fairly well when he got to be an angry critic of the bipartisan consensus, and did terribly when he had to advance any kind of proposition of his own. You might think this would mean that he’d do well ranting on his own television network — except that’s a space that is already pretty crowded, and not obviously growing. And I’m specifically not convinced Trump would know how to handle guests. Would congressional hopefuls really sign up to be contestants on Political Apprentice? I somehow doubt it. Anyway, potential investors in Trump TV should be appropriately skeptical.
The biggest headline from the debate, of course, was about Trump’s refusal to say that he’ll accept the results of an election he’s now extremely likely to lose. He’s now doubled down on that comment, to predictable outrage from anybody who still cares about American democracy. But in the end, I’m much less worried than commenters like Damon Linker that Trump will seriously undermine American democracy by refusing to concede. Rather, the bigger risk is that he will continue his destruction of the GOP. Because if Trump refuses to accept the election results, they will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
On the one hand, they could try to humor his supporters, holding hearings on voter fraud, promising to impeach Hillary Clinton within 100 days, promising to reject any legislation she proposes, filibustering her choices for the Supreme Court, etc. But this plays into Trump’s hand, keeping him relevant and giving him the power to pronounce that whatever they are doing is ineffective and weak and that if he were in charge Hillary would already be in prison. Moreover, a Trumpified GOP is already hemorrhaging educated white voters. That process will only accelerate if the GOP continues its policy of appeasement, with potentially dire consequences for 2018 and beyond.
On the other hand, if the GOP leadership clearly accepts the results of the election, and offers (however disingenuously) to work with the new President, they will likely face an outraged revolt by multiple parts of their base — not only by core Trump voters, but also those ideological conservatives who object to Trump’s deviations or his character but who want to see the GOP stand on conservative principle. Opportunists like Ted Cruz will greedily seize the megaphone to decry the sellout by the leadership even as they take pains to distinguish themselves from Trump.
Just as in the primaries, the GOP leadership faces a two-front war. They will want to avoid that war, and to reconcile on almost any terms in the interest of battling the “real” enemy. But reconciliation is impossible without the mutual respect that allows for negotiation to form a coalition, something manifestly lacking at present.
The only way out is true institutional and ideological reform, something the GOP leadership has vigorously resisted now for three presidential cycles. Trump has made that process much harder, but he has also made it all the more necessary.
One of the strangest developments in the 2016 election has been the spectacle of West Coast Straussians who champion Trump—and lustily denounce his critics—in various forums, including the Claremont Review of Books, a well-written quarterly edited by Charles Kesler, and on Web sites like the Journal of American Greatness, billed as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism,” since reborn as the Web site American Greatness. Twenty or so Claremonsters are also among the more than a hundred “Scholars and Writers for America” who recently declared Trump “the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.”
Imperfect though Trump may be, the argument goes, he has all the right enemies: Beltway insiders, academics, “social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals,” as Clarence Thomas’s tutor John Marini wrote. These are Strauss’s relativists and nihilists, who have perpetrated “regime change” at home, destroying the republic, or trying to. Trump’s redemptive greatness begins in his fearless opposition to political correctness, “a serious and totalist politics, aspiring to open the equivalent of a vast reeducation camp for the millions of defective Americans,” Kesler says. It would seem that reactionaries, while they inhabit our world, are not really of it. “They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over,” Lilla writes. This, too, is a lesson of Weimar. With luck, we won’t have to learn it in real time.
This engendered a (to me) fascinating argument between some of my favorite intellectual sparring partners on Facebook (including TAC’s editor in chief, Daniel McCarthy), about whether there is any plausible connection between Trump and the American reactionary intellectual tradition which preceded him, and which Lilla traces in his book.
The case against such a connection is that nobody from what I guess you’d have to call the “mainstream” reactionary right was calling for somebody like Trump prior to his emergence. Trump’s “movement” arguably has limited ideological content beyond the glorification of Trump himself, and Trump himself is not only a low huckster but someone with neither knowledge of nor respect for America’s constitutional traditions, something you’d think a west coast Straussian would care rather a lot about. Finally, inasmuch as Trump represents the ascendancy of certain political ideas, those ideas are not the ideas of Harry Jaffa but rather those of Sam Francis. So “blaming” Jaffa (much less Strauss) for Trump seem ridiculous — and if some of Jaffa’s heirs are jumping on the Trump train, then they are just wrong.
All of which is both true and fair enough as far as it goes. But there’s still the problem of explaining why there have been any intellectual defenders of Donald Trump who aren’t coming from the world of the “alt-right.” It’s all well and good to say “these people are ignominiously betraying the intellectual tradition they claim to be upholding” — but one still needs to know why.
I think the likely answer should make someone who wants to defend that “mainstream” reactionary tradition just a little bit uncomfortable.
Apocalypticism has consequences. Reactionary thinkers may genuinely believe that the regime that America has been living under since 1965, or 1937, or 1913, or 1868 — or whatever date a particular reactionary prefers — is fundamentally corrupt, and that we need a radical return to first principles to save our civilization. But if you actually believe that, then it follows that when it comes time to choose a champion, it’s rational to pick not the person you agree with most or who has the character of someone you’d want to see in a leader, but the person most likely to destroy a corrupt system that is beyond reform.
You might, at one point, have convinced yourself that Ronald Reagan or New Gingrich or George W. Bush was someone different, someone who really would restore the Old Republic. But when you think about it, wasn’t that perhaps a purer example of self-delusion than supporting a guy like Trump? Because Trump really could destroy the Empire. And your own ideas imply that such destruction is a precondition to a successful re-founding.
To avoid that kind of logic, you have to have a deep resistance to apocalyptic thinking as such. You have to be reluctant to see civilization on the line in each and every election, to doubt whether it’s ever possible to identify in advance a fatal Rubicon which, once crossed, makes catastrophe inevitable. But if Lilla’s psychology is right, a reactionary can’t really do that.
And if, perhaps, you hadn’t already traveled that road prior to Trump’s emergence, then consider how Trump’s success might change your perspective on the matter. I remain convinced that a major part of the reason why Trump was able to achieve the success he has was his willingness to attack his own party and that party’s ideas in the fiercest, most uncompromising terms, ideas that had only grown more rigid as they proved less effective, both politically and in their empirical result. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether I’m right about the reason for his success or not — what matters is that the consequence of Trump’s primary victory makes it impossible to hold to a prior idea.
Specifically, movement conservatives can no longer plausibly claim, to themselves or to anyone, that they speak for the “real” American people. Either that people no longer exists, or it never existed.
So an adjustment is required. One possible adjustment would be towards a kind of deep pessimism, a hunkering down until the arrival of another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict. But another possibility is to come to see that what one always thought isn’t quite what one had thought one did. Perhaps you didn’t initially greet Trump as the long-awaited savior (for any of the manifold reasons you might have for rejecting him). But once he triumphed, you might ask yourself whether you missed something — not necessarily about him as a person, but about what this moment in history was offering. If you really believe that a radical refounding is needed, are you going to reject the most dramatic opportunity to achieve such change, even if it doesn’t look like what you thought you were waiting for? And reject it in favor of a perfect avatar of the status quo?
Ideas do have consequences — but consequences also have ideas, which, in turn, have their own consequences. For a “liberal conservative,” Trump’s triumph has merely forced a reevaluation of the two parties — which is why many of these people will be voting for Hillary Clinton on November 8th whatever they think of her personally and however difficult it will be for them to rest comfortably with their new bedfellows. But for the kinds of people Lilla is talking about, Trump represents a more fundamental challenge. For those who decided that the right response is an adjustment of the sort I describe above, what will be true from now on is that they made that adjustment, and decided that Trump was the bandwagon on which to jump.
And we’ll have to wait to see what ideas emerge as a consequence of that decision.