Noah Millman

Five More Foreign Policy Questions For the Candidates

Daniel Larison has his questions, all, as he admits, vanishingly unlikely to be asked. And, if they were asked, I think he knows what answers he would get: Venezuela is a rogue state and an enemy of America; you can never trust the Iranians; Iran is to blame for the war in Yemen; war crimes are extremely serious but the worst crimes are committed by the Iranians; and Britain is too loyal a friend to America to elect an America-hater like Corbyn.

Here’s my pointless foreign-policy five:

1. There have been reports of late that intelligence analysts believe their pessimistic assessments of the fight against the Islamic State are being distorted before being presented to the President and cabinet officials so as to make it look like the President’s policies are working better than they actually are. Similar allegations were made during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and during the Vietnam War before that. How will you, as President, assure yourself that you are getting accurate and not rosy-scenario assessments from those responsible for executing your policies? And how will the uncertainty that you are, in fact, getting good information affect your decision making process when it comes to war and peace?

2. You have said that, when America fights, we should fight to win, and not engage in open-ended nation-building exercises. [I’m sure they’ve all said something like this.] You’ve also criticized this administration for squandering hard-won victories (in Iraq, in Libya) by leaving rather than remaining engaged on the ground to secure the peace. [Most of them have said something of that sort as well.] How do you reconcile that apparent contradiction? If you were President, and faced with a war that was not going well, are there any circumstances where you would say that it was worth redefining our objectives so as to be able to end the conflict? If not, what would you do?

3. Is it possible for other countries to have legitimate interests that do not align with America’s own interests? If so, can you give some examples, involving both of allied and adversarial countries, that have such divergent interests, and discuss how you would manage those divergences as President? If not, could you elaborate on why such divergence is impossible, and whether you think other countries have a similar view of the question?

4. In meetings with your national security team, what percentage of time on average do you anticipate spending on security issues and other foreign policy questions involving each of the following regions: the Middle East and North Africa, South and Central Asia, East Asia, Russia and the former Soviet bloc, Western Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America? Be mindful that your numbers must total no more than 100% (and may total less than 100% if you anticipate ever talking about Australia or Canada).

5. The United States has long refused to adopt a no-first use policy towards nuclear weapons. This policy originated in a period when America faced an opponent in Europe (the Soviet Union) with substantial conventional superiority. Today, the United States enjoys overwhelming conventional superiority against any plausible opponent that might attack us, but has not changed this policy. Under what circumstances, if any, would you, as President, use nuclear weapons first in a conventional conflict?

I threw in that last one because it’s a personal bugaboo. But I do think it’s one of those policies that most Americans are unaware of.

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Pharisees, Christians, and Hypocrites

What do we mean when we denounce someone as a hypocrite? That is to say – when and how does such a denunciation properly have force?

Damon Linker implicitly answers “not often” in his most recent column, arguing that the charge of hypocrisy is itself morally corrosive:

When we denounce someone for hypocrisy, we judge him harshly, but without having to express a substantive commitment of our own with regard to ends. The hypocrite is judged entirely on his own terms, accused of violating the ideal of human flourishing that he himself professes to uphold, revere, and use as a standard for judging others. The hypocrite is guilty, as we say, of having “double standards” — expecting exacting behavior from others while letting himself off the hook more easily. Simply pointing that out seems to allow us to be judgmental while remaining agnostic about whether we actually affirm any vision of human flourishing ourselves.

But that isn’t quite true. When we call someone a hypocrite, we often do so on the basis of two implicit moral assumptions: first, that a person who expresses a moral standard should be expected to live up to it with complete consistency; and second, that if a person fails to live up to it with complete consistency, the moral standard should be abandoned and replaced with one that can be consistently followed.

Those assumptions may not seem like much, but in fact they’re far more stringent — and morally corrosive — than the very different assumptions at work behind the scenes of the most widely affirmed moralities of ends.

Whether in religious or philosophical form, moralities of ends tend to presume that we will frequently fall short of the standards they hold out before us. The whole point of the end is to serve as an ideal — a vision of what a human being should do but often won’t.

He concludes:

To insist that we only affirm standards that we can achieve with perfect consistency is, in effect, to drastically lower those standards from something that we strive for (while often failing) to something within much easier reach — which probably won’t be much different from what we would do in the absence of any standard at all. It’s a license for us to go easy on ourselves: to aim low and succeed.

A moral world in which no one was guilty of hypocrisy would be one divested of the entire vertical dimension of morality. In such a world, we might all respect each other’s rights, but no one would strive to accomplish great, rare, exacting moral deeds.

I’d much rather live in a world filled with hypocrites.

I understand his point – and I think that, in general, our culture could benefit from vastly less denunciation, shaming and witch-hunting on the part of would-be puritans of all political stripes. But I think his conclusion is considerably over-broad – and mis-states the rationale behind many denunciations of hypocrisy.

Many charges of hypocrisy are attacks not on the message but on the messenger. For example: if a candidate uses dodgy loopholes to avoid paying taxes while promising to get tough on tax cheats, someone who agrees with the candidate’s position might attack the candidate as a hypocrite because she wants a better tribune – someone who will be more convincing to voters inclined to be cynical about politicians and their promises. Or, the candidate might be attacked as a hypocrite because her behavior suggests she considers herself to be above the kinds of moral rules that bind us lesser mortals – and that kind of double-standard really is corrosive to democracy whether you agree with the moral rule in question or not.

Other times, the charge of hypocrisy is pretty clearly tied to a real disagreement about what the morality of ends should be, as opposed to an objection to ends as such. Let’s say you have a married, male, Christian minister, a firm opponent of gay marriage, who is revealed to be having an affair with another man. Clearly, this fellow is going to be zinged for hypocrisy. But those doing the zinging are not neutral on the matter of “ends” – far from it. It’s likely that, in their view, it is a positive good to be honest, privately and publicly, about one’s sexuality, and that repressing it does actual harm, both to oneself and to others. The minister is denounced not so much for failing to live up to his own morality of ends, but because he is a walking proof-text for an alternative morality of ends.

Now let’s change the example – say that the minister is revealed to be having an affair not with a man, but with a woman. He’ll still be zinged for hypocrisy, but the charge would read somewhat differently – because it is unlikely (though not impossible) that those doing the denouncing believe in an alternative morality of ends in which cheating as such is fine. And yet, the force still comes from a real disagreement within a morality of ends, and not a dispute about the legitimacy of a morality of ends. The force comes from an implicit argument that public profession of Christianity is a lousy means to the end of sexual fidelity – and that attacking gay marriage for being a threat to faithful heterosexual marriages is particularly obnoxious because it burdens an uninvolved minority with the sins of the majority.

The charge of hypocrisy, in other words, is usually embedded within a larger framework of argument, one which may affirm or reject the specific morality of ends that the accused hypocrite claims to uphold. Rather than deny the legitimacy of the charge of hypocrisy, wouldn’t bringing that context out into the open advance the cause of honest argument more effectively?

After all, without the charge of hypocrisy, how would you make some of the arguments above? If I believe that repressing one’s sexuality is harmful, and I can’t point to the hypocritical minister as a piece of evidence, then my argument is badly weakened – and for no obvious reason. Why am I obliged to say, in effect, that his actions have no bearing on the validity of the principle he stands for, when his actions are, to my mind, evidence that his principle has pernicious consequences? Isn’t the question of how principles play out in practice an extremely important question in debating said principles?

Finally: it’s worth pointing out that Christians have a particular problem with charges of hypocrisy, for two reasons.

Here’s the first one:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Jesus’s denunciation of hypocrisy is hard to square with the wisdom of “the tribute vice pays to virtue.” Close to the core of Jesus’s ethical message is the claim that the Pharisaical approach – articulating laws for every aspect of life such that, if you stay within their bounds, you are righteous – far from being the path to righteousness is a path to sin. The law is still the law, and we’re supposed to follow it, to the best of our ability. But we should not follow people who declare themselves masters of the law, and we should not be impressed by people who make a show of their righteousness – we should not be hypocrites ourselves and we should not follow hypocrites.

So, when Christians act like Jesus’s Pharisees, they have a harder time relying on defenses that are explicitly rejected by Jesus.

But the deeper reason for the difficulty is that Christianity’s alternative answer to the problem of sin is, well, hard to swallow. Grace, justification – these are very weird, mysterious ideas that I suspect most Christians don’t really understand. They can sound, to someone who hasn’t swallowed them, an awful lot like a get-out-of-jail-free card, like a claim that once you say you’ve been saved, then you have no further obligation related to your past sins, and even future sins will be readily forgiven. It can sound an awful lot like, well, hypocrisy.

It isn’t – or needn’t be. Whether it’s true or not, and whether it “works” or not (which – for a pragmatist like me – amount to the same thing), Christianity is a powerful and sophisticated system. But as I understand it, the way you’re supposed to comport yourself within a Christian framework is rather like the way a member of AA is supposed to comport herself: as someone permanently addicted to sin, powerless to fight that addiction, seeking always to confess and make amends for past sins, and aware that only by the grace of a higher power has she made it through this day, and that tomorrow is yet another day in need of that same grace.

The standard of sinlessness cannot be met – that’s part of the Christian system’s point. And the standard of saintly humility can’t be met either. But there’s limited evidence that the kinds of people who are typically charged with hypocrisy were even trying to live up to it.

That may be the biggest reason why the charges so often stick.

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TANSTAAFL: Trump vs. Index Fund Edition

Would Donald Trump be just as wealthy – or even wealthier – if he had simply put his money in an index fund?

“It takes brains to make millions,” according to the slogan of Donald Trump’s board game. “It takes Trump to make billions.” It appears that’s truer than Trump himself might like to admit. A new analysis suggests that Trump would’ve been a billionaire even if he’d never had a career in real estate, and had instead thrown his father’s inheritance into a index fund that tracked the market. His wealth, in other words, isn’t because of his brains. It’s because he’s a Trump.

In an outstanding piece for National Journal, reporter S.V. Dáte notes that in 1974, the real estate empire of Trump’s father, Fred, was worth about $200 million. Trump is one of five siblings, making his stake at that time worth about $40 million. If someone were to invest $40 million in a S&P 500 index in August 1974, reinvest all dividends, not cash out and have to pay capital gains, and pay nothing in investment fees, he’d wind up with about $3.4 billion come August 2015, according to Don’t Quit Your Day Job’s handy S&P calculator. If one factors in dividend taxes and a fee of 0.15 percent — which is triple Vanguard’s actual fee for an exchange-traded S&P 500 fund — the total only falls to $2.3 billion.

It’s hard to nail down Trump’s precise net worth, but Bloomberg currently puts it at $2.9 billion, while Forbes puts it at $4 billion. So he’s worth about as much as he would’ve been if he had taken $40 million from his dad and thrown it into an index fund.

Not quite. First of all, with multiple children, multiple wives, multiple homes, etc., Trump has got some pretty hefty expenses, which have to be paid for somehow. This is one of the many ways in which Trump is different from, say, Warren Buffet.

But there are more important reasons why the comparison is problematic, which I thank Matt Levine for delineating so I don’t have to.

First of all: the value of the S&P includes intangibles, but most assessments of Trump’s worth do not credit much if any value to his much-ballyhooed brand:

Bloomberg’s computation of Trump’s net worth basically takes the value of his buildings and golf courses; it “doesn’t value Trump’s brand beyond accounting for cash held in accounts for his licensing deals and business partnerships.” But of course the value of the S&P 500 doesn’t come from the value of its cash and buildings. It comes from expectations of future earnings. Trump claims that he’s worth more than $10 billion because of the value of his brand, which “goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.” That sounds silly when Trump says it about himself, but it is dead right about the S&P, which has had a whole lot of feelings recently. But ultimately its value comes from its claim on earnings, and the S&P price/earnings ratio is about 19.6. Just for laughs, put that multiple on Trump’s $300-million-ish of income and you get an organization worth about $6 billion.

Second, most of these comparisons assume that the alternative to being Donald Trump is investing 100% of your assets in a stock market index on a single date. But market timing is a thing – a really hard thing, harder (in fact) than making money in real estate.

[S]aying that you should buy and hold index funds is very different from saying that you should build your wealth via private real estate entrepreneurship and then, at the start of a bull market, cash out and put all of your money in an index fund. Market timing is a skill. Comparing actual Donald Trump versus perfect-market-timer Donald Trump sets him up to lose, but it sets everyone up to lose. Trump’s 1999 net worth was $1.6 billion. If he had cashed out in December and put that money in the S&P, he’d be worth about $2.7 billion now, again without eating. He’s worth more. So you can roughly say that Trump outperformed the S&P from 1974 through 1987, underperformed from 1988 through 1999, and slightly outperformed since.

Not to mention that any sensible portfolio allocation would include bonds and real assets along with stocks. But the most significant problem with the comparison is philosophical:

Not literally everyone can index! . . . [T]hose funds necessarily free-ride off of the capital allocation decisions made by investors, and ultimately off of the business decisions made by entrepreneurs. Dopes like me can grow our wealth by investing indiscriminately in all the companies in the index, but we can only do that because other people — many of them with Wharton degrees and inherited wealth — made the positive, risky decisions to build those companies.

I carry no water for Trump in any capacity, not as a businessperson and certainly not as a political candidate. But I’m as baffled by the conviction of political journalists that they could do investing better than the professionals as I am by the conviction of so many businesspeople and Wall Street types – Trump, for example – that compared to what they do, politics must be beanbag.

Meanwhile, if you want to annoy Trump, ask him why he’s underperformed Richard Branson – or Richard Lefrak – over the course of his career.

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Fighting Outrage Porn Addiction

Before writing this post, I took a scroll down my Facebook feed, to see what news stories my friends are linking to. Here are the first four stories I spotted:

The essence of each story is the same: someone said/depicted something that you should be outraged by. Some are first-order outrage stories: we are supposed to be outraged by Taylor Swift’s clueless racism, and Norway’s clueless or malicious anti-Semitism. Others are second-order outrage: the Kentucky clerk is outraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling, and Dan Savage is outraged by her outrage. Yet others are third-order outrage: Black Lives Matter activists are outraged by police brutality, Ted Cruz is outraged by their outrage, and we are supposed to be outraged by Ted Cruz. Alan Jacobs has a brief piece up today about the Kentucky clerk in which he expresses his outrage at the outrage of those who have savaged said clerk.

Not all of these kinds of pieces are genuinely furious; some are more ironic or humorous. And these aren’t the only kinds of news stories out there. My feed has plenty of substantive stories about the Iran deal, or the Canadian elections, or off-Broadway theater openings (well, it is my feed, so, you know). But however inflected, outrage porn clearly a very popular genre – and that popularity ensures that it will continue to proliferate.

All of which just makes me . . . tired.

Does the stuff work on me? Sure it does, sometimes. Was I outraged by this Jezebel piece about college move-in day? Yes! Am I outraged by this piece from Time about the sisters in Uttar Pradesh sentenced to be gang-raped for their brother’s transgression against caste lines? Yes! But my outrage is entirely impotent. I don’t, after reading such stories, find my consciousness raised. I just find myself exhausted.

If I step back, I can formulate non-exhausting questions. I wondered how prevalent those college banners actually are – if highly prevalent, they would seem to me to be a prima facie decent case for a hostile environment harassment suit, against either the fraternities or the universities in question. I’m curious whether such a suit has ever been contemplated, and if not why not. The story out of India made me think about the limited reach of the modern state, and the ructions associated with modernity rubbing up against traditional society (and about how neo-traditionalists forget the extent to which traditionalism is upheld by violence, particularly sexual violence, just as modernists forget the extent to which modernity has proved no antidote to violence, particularly sexual violence). But those aren’t the kinds of thoughts that get into my Facebook feed. (And heaven knows what I’d be inundated with if I were on Twitter.)

I can remember when outrage fueled me, rather than leaving me enervated. In the wake of the attacks of 9-11, every terrifying piece of news felt like it was essential. When I was a more conventional right-winger, every outrage by the “other side” confirmed me in my convictions, and every time the “other side” got outraged it confirmed to me that their perceptions were deeply biased, their priorities deeply confused. But it’s not like that outrage fueled any, you know, action, much less any understanding. All it fueled was – a feeling.

Outrage is a kind of drug, one that gives the illusion of involvement, of caring, when really derives its power from an emotional and informational distance that the stories themselves then strive to deepen, laying the groundwork for the next piece of outrage porn to do its work. And thus proceeds an addictive cycle.

Alan Jacobs says of the Kentucky clerk story that there are “two significant stories here,” one about the clerk’s legal claims and one about the way she’s being treated in the press. But really, there are zero significant stories here. The legal questions she raises are not profound and will be handled by the duly-constituted authorities; there’s no crisis of any kind, genuinely nothing to see. And the press has been awful because unless they are awful, there’s no story. Because outrage, like sex, sells – and that is not news at all, nor likely to change.

And I don’t know what to do about that. In my own life, and my own writing, I strive to follow the line from “Wargames” – “the only way to win is not to play.” As a consequence, outrage, like cheap vodka, which once seemed to reduce my inhibitions and make me feel strong and confident, now makes me feel a bit ill, and puts me to sleep.

But without it, the job of blogging is a whole lot harder.

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Can the Party Still Decide?

I had to read Daniel McCarthy’s article on why the right loses GOP presidential contests a couple of times before I got it. He begins:

Republican from the party establishment enters the presidential race and immediately tops the polls. A few months later, he trails a politically inexperienced but media-mesmerizing businessman. The story of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump? Yes—but also the story of Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in late 2011. And a glimpse back at the early months of GOP contests in 2008 and 2012 suggests what’s to come in 2016: a Christian conservative leaps to first or second place, surprising the pundits, only to lose at last to the inevitable establishment nominee.

This is already starting to happen – Ben Carson, far from fading after a poor performance in the first GOP debate, has continued to rise, even catching Trump in the latest Iowa poll.

McCarthy continues:

The truth is that leaders like McCain, Romney, and the Bushes represent the GOP as a whole better than right-wing candidates do. Contrary to caricature, the GOP is not just the party of the South and relatively underpopulated states in the Midwest. Cohn’s headline calls the power of blue-state Republicans surprising, but it shouldn’t be: the majority of Americans live in blue states—that’s why Obama won the last two elections—and one would expect a national political party to draw a great proportion of its presidential delegates from the states where more Americans actually live.

In other words, when the establishment has a candidate, blue-state Republicans fall into line to support that candidate. Which is a big blue wall to climb for any would-be insurgent, however apparently popular.

But the failure of the right is also the result of factionalism – specifically, factionalism by religious conservatives:

Before 1988, religious conservatives voted with other conservatives. The religious right wasn’t yet organized in 1964, but “moral” voters were a significant component of Goldwater’s base, sometimes to the candidate’s own embarrassment. (He vetoed the distribution a short film, “Choice,” intended by his supporters to rally voters with alarming images of race, sex, and crime.) Reagan in 1980 was the first Republican hopeful, and then nominee, to benefit from effectively organized social-conservative groups like the Moral Majority.

The development of the religious right or social conservatives as a bloc discrete from conservatives generally proved to be the undoing of the right in Republican presidential primaries. But this differentiation into two distinct strands of conservatism, represented most of the time by competing avatars in GOP primaries, was not the result of hubris or short-sightedness on the part of religious conservatives. On the contrary, it represents a real philosophical divide that can be seen in the different emphases, attitudes, and even positions taken by social-conservative champions vis-à-vis other conservatives.

Establishment Republicans want to paper over those disagreements in the interest of winning. Which only makes the religious right more restive, and to express their dissatisfaction in increasingly disruptive ways. McCarthy’s completely disinterested conclusion is that the American right needs more publications like TAC that aren’t wedded to any particular political faction, program or party:

The proper way to address principled differences is not by disguising them. Once, before an entrenched conservative movement existed to assure the right that every GOP nominee was the gold standard in conservatism, the right had a few institutions that put a bit of daylight between themselves and the Republican Party, and these institutions—notably periodicals such as the ’50s and ’60s National Review and Modern Age—devoted themselves to working out a coherent yet capacious worldview, not by insisting on a politically convenient orthodoxy but by honestly confronting the differences between various schools of thought. Ironically, as intense as the intellectual battles were, and as inconclusive as the quest for an agreeable-to-all “fusionist” formulation proved to be, in practice traditionalists and libertarians voted together for Goldwater and Reagan. They did so for their own reasons, and that was quite enough.

The situation has been reversed ever since Reagan: every movement magazine, TV pundit, radio host, and think-tanker has come to insist upon a single, bland, homogenized ideology devised for maximum political convenience. The lively fights on the right used to be in the pages of its books and magazines; now they are at the ballot box, where the only winners turn out to be establishment Republicans—and ultimately liberal Democrats. 

The right, not just the Republican Party, is deeply culturally and geographically divided—much as the country is. That can be a source of strength, if it leads to rigorous testing of premises and policies, to re-learning the arts of persuasion and principled coalition-building: that is, building coalitions not on the basis of fabricated principles but on honest differences openly engaged. But all this is more than a political task, and alas, the real dirty secret of the Republican establishment’s success has been getting the right to bet everything on partisanship.

Like I said, it’s worth reading. But I do have a few questions:

First off, what does the establishment do when it doesn’t have a candidate? I was among those convinced that Bush would mostly clear the field of serious opponents merely by entering. That certainly hasn’t happened. Not only is Bush not dominating the race as a whole, he’s not even dominating the race to be the establishment’s nominee. He’s been behind Walker for a while in Iowa. He’s now behind Kasich in New Hampshire. And nationally he’s doing no better than fellow-Floridian Rubio. So who’s the establishment candidate?

If Bush wins the nomination in 2016, it’ll look something like McCain’s victory in 2008 – an unlikely turnaround dependent on all his various opponents failing to break through. But if there’s really no clear establishment favorite after South Carolina, what will happen? What will those blue state Republicans do without a line to fall into?

And then, take a look at the calendar. In February, we’ve got Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Then, on March 1, only a month after Iowa, we’ve got Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Oh, yeah, and Massachusetts and Vermont – but seriously, where’s the big blue wall?

And in what sense is Trump really a factional right-wing candidate trading on business experience, like Cain, or Forbes – or Carly Fiorina? Trump appears to be drawing support from across the GOP spectrum, at least in ideological terms. His positions, such as they are, don’t track well at all with what movement purists supposedly want. He’s not much of a Christian. He’s not really a conservative. He’s not even clearly a Republican.

Carson, Fiorina, Cruz – all of these candidates look like plausible “anti-establishment” flavors of the month comparable to those we saw in 2012. Trump is something else. He’s clearly tapping into the anger and dissatisfaction that fueled Newt Gingrich’s brief Napoleonic delusions, but it looks possible that he could channel those dissatisfactions in far less-predictable directions.

More specifically, if McCarthy’s thesis is partly that Christian conservative factionalism has weakened the right as a bloc, isn’t it notable that such a significant faction of conservative evangelicals have voiced support for a candidate – Trump – who barely pays lip service to their purported issues, and who, on a personal level, manifests basically none of the virtues that they supposedly deem crucial in a leader? Doesn’t that suggest that “principled differences” may not be the heart of the estrangement?

And doesn’t it feel notable just how much bigger the anti-establishment wave gets with each election? In 2008, McCain had to dodge challenges for the establishment nod from Giuliani and Thompson, plus Romney, a thoroughly establishment type masquerading as a right-winger. The factionalist Huckabee is McCarthy’s focus, but the main fight in 2008 was between far more mainstream figures. In 2012, we had a parade of implausible contenders – Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum – but they came in waves, and Romney remained the man to beat throughout (except for a brief moment when it looked like Rick Perry might be a thing).

But this year, Trump is way in the lead in the polls – but Carson and Fiorina are rising at the same time. And so is Ted Cruz. No, polls don’t mean much at this point. But does it really mean nothing that every plausible establishment candidate is polling in the single digits – in many cases the low single-digits? Has anything like that ever happened before in recent memory?

I’m not so much saying “this time is different” so much as “each time it gets worse.” So if this time isn’t different, what on earth are we going to be in for in 2020?

Finally, I think McCarthy gives insufficient attention to the colossal failure of the Bush administration in his explanation of how the GOP got here. In 2000, as McCarthy admits, George W. Bush won the nomination in part by winning over precisely the religious-right faction that he otherwise identifies as gravitating toward hopeless factional choices. The thing is that the Bush Presidency, which promised to be the apotheosis of a certain, more Christian version of fusion conservatism, turned out to be a disaster on virtually every dimension.

In the wake of that disaster, self-identified conservatives of nearly all stripes have pronounced themselves “disappointed” with what was wrought, but not only cannot agree on what, precisely, they should be disappointed by – they can’t even figure out how to disagree effectively. And that’s not a recipe for avoiding future disappointments – or defeating the establishment.

Now, I’m friends with a lot of self-identified conservatives who have been willing to make the case for what has to change. (Not all the same case, mind you – dozens of flowers are blooming, if not quite a thousand.) Many of them write for TAC. My anecdotal sense is that, out there in the world of people who read, there’s a palpable hunger for those kinds of voices. But does anybody actually read?

And at least a couple of candidates this time around – Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee – at one point or another looked like individuals who might have advanced arguments for a change of direction for the self-proclaimed conservative party. But these one-time dissenters have only grown more movement-friendly in their views. And still are pigeonholed as hopeless libertarian and religious-right factional candidates respectively. And now they are polling even worse than the establishment favorites.

It all begins to feel, after a while, like arguments aren’t really the point.

I suspect Donald Trump would agree.

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Who Is the Left-Wing Equivalent of Donald Trump?

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)
66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)

Kevin Drum asks:

Is there anyone out there who could be the Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump? There was some inane blather earlier this month comparing him to Bernie Sanders, but that was always pretty preposterous. Sanders is a serious, longtime politician. He may be too extreme for you, but he’s not a buffoon.

More specifically: Is it even possible that someone like Trump—no political experience, buffoonish, populist, boorish—could ever make a big impact in a Democratic primary? It’s never happened before, but then, it’s never happened quite this way in the Republican primary either. It makes me wonder. What if Trump had held on to his lifelong liberal beliefs instead of “evolving” so he could compete as a Republican? What would be the fate of a liberal Donald Trump? Would a big chunk of the liberal base embrace him?

I don’t know how he’d poll, but I know who my nominee would be for the post. With Hillary Clinton looking shaky, and the GOP in chaos, this may his best chance for him to give the idea a whirl. Anybody want to see what his publicist thinks of the idea?

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War, Religious Liberty, and Priorities

Alan Jacobs is worried whether voting on a single-issue basis to protect religious liberty is overly selfish for a serious Christian politics:

While I am, as I have often demonstrated right here on this site, a vocal supporter of religious freedom, I’m also rather uncertain about how my religious convictions should affect my political decisions. The problem arises if we distinguish between individual and collective Christian action.

On the individual level, I know what I am supposed to do: if someone slaps me on one cheek, I should offer them the other; if someone takes my shirt, I should offer him my coat; if someone curses me, I should bless him; I should always seek the well-being of others in preference to my own. (Of course, this is not to say that I actually do what I know I should do.)

If that logic holds in the collective sphere as well, then perhaps Christian churches should not focus too much attention on what is best for them, but on what is best for their neighbors. They might have good reason, in that case, to accept constraints on religious freedom if that meant preventing unnecessary violence, death, and destruction from being unleashed on others.

Now, some Christians might also argue that the Church exists for others, so that promoting religious freedom, even at the cost of lives lost overseas, is still the selfless thing to do. And that could be right, but I think we all ought to be very wary of arguments that provide such a neat dovetailing of our moral obligations and our self-interest.

I honestly don’t know what I think about this, and still less do I know how to apply the proper principles to our own more complex political scene. But I do think it’s right to conclude that there are at least some potential circumstances in which religious believers, in order to be faithful to their religious traditions, would need to refrain from direct political advocacy for those traditions.

I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with the underlying premise that voters should aspire to cast their ballots in a selfless manner. Indeed, I think “selfless” is a red-herring. The objective oughtn’t be to deny the needs or wants of the self, but to see beyond them, to feel other selves as equally worthy of care (and yourself as equally unworthy of supremacy), and thereby to achieve a feeling of solidarity with those other selves. (Then again, I’m not a Christian, so your mileage may vary.)

I also think that, from a purely selfish or an enlightenedly-selfish perspective, there are arguments on both sides of this one. (I will take as a given Jacobs’s premises that there are real threats to religious liberty, and that there are real threats of unnecessary and destructive war, and that there’s a real difference between the two parties on both points – all debatable premises, just not ones I’m going to debate here.) Christians – men and women from communities like his – will be the ones unleashing that unnecessary death and destruction Jacobs fears. They will suffer – possibly from injury or death, but also from being required to become killers. Which is worse: to tell 100 people they will lose their jobs if they do not conform to new social norms to which they have religious objections – or to tell 10 people they will be sent to prison if they do not kill a host of strangers when ordered to do so?

Thinking less-selfishly, there are also points on both sides. Jacobs presumably believes that these unnecessary wars are deeply harmful to the collective economic, political and spiritual well-being of the country. He also presumably believes that efforts to exclude traditional Christian believers from full-participation in the civic life of the country is harmful to the country’s well-being. And unnecessary wars and religious persecution alike tear at the fabric of the civil compact that holds the country together.

I think it’s a mistake to try to find a trump card in these kinds of situations. Or, rather, the trump card may not be the issue that is objectively most important either to your own self-interest or some more enlightened conception. It’s going to be the thing that you simply can’t swallow, no matter how hard you try. In that regard, and to tip my hand about how I’d decide the question, let me make two analogies.

First, I get a decent amount of flack for writing for this website from friends who can’t understand how I could affiliate with a publication founded by Pat Buchanan. And I can explain myself in part by talking about all the ways that the magazine has changed since those days, and also by saying that, when I signed on, I warned the editor that I was “off-side” on a huge number of issues versus where the readership was, and was reassured that the magazine had no “line” and that I’d be free to write what I wished. I signed on because, even though I no longer particularly considered myself to be “on the right” or “conservative” in any meaningful political sense, I thought it was exceedingly important that there be a voice from that quarter standing against the militarism that was overwhelmingly dominant in the American right. And I made that decision in spite of the fact that the faction of the right that is most-friendly to anti-war arguments has, historically, also been least-friendly to the interests of my own people. With, in the 1940s, genocidal consequences. I just decided that this isn’t the 1940s.

And a second analogy. Before 1948, the United States army was segregated. Thousands upon thousands of African-American citizens served with distinction in an army that explicitly regarded their citizenship as second-class. How would you rank their dilemma against the dilemma Jacobs describes? And how would you explain to a veteran of that period, who swallowed that humiliation to serve his country, that you could not vote for the peace candidate because of his party’s treatment of your people, but would rather see his grandson fight for an unjust cause?

I can’t think of a good answer.

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Why Not Trump?


I must have been in a strange mood yesterday.

I never seriously considered the Donald in, well, any capacity. (As in: I literally have barely ever thought about him over the past 30 years, and never seriously.) And for months I was convinced, along with most informed observers, that Trump was a vanity candidate who would go nowhere — or, at best, would make a Herman Cain-style lunge for the brass ring then crash to Earth well before any voting takes place.

But the scales have fallen from my eyes. And in the interests of spreading the blessings of enlightenment, I ask the question again:

Why not Trump?

And, in what follows, I take apart one by one the various answers I came up with to the question.

To be clear, I’m not going to vote for Trump, ever.

But why not?

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Mobs Have No Principles, Hacker Edition

Fredrik deBoer thinks the Ashley Madison hack is the latest proof that the left hasn’t really won the culture war:

Since at least the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States, it’s been trendy to say that the culture war is over. With acceptance of gay love now ubiquitous, with trans rights taking center stage, with even traditionally conservative culture like sports increasingly accepting of gender and sexual differences, many now presume that social conservatism, as a mass political phenomenon, is in permanent retreat. Indeed, some prominent social conservatives have been debating the “Benedict option,” which entails a retreat from public life by social traditionalists. Left and right both seem to agree that the battle is over.

With the recent leak of massive amounts of data from infidelity-enabling, though, and Gawker’s notorious naming and shaming of an obscure, married publishing executive who attempted to hire the services of an escort, we might well ask: if the culture war is over, who really won?

That social conservatism lost seems inarguable. Gay marriage was the hill that the forces of social conservatism were willing to die on, and die they did. . . . And yet I can’t help but feel that social liberalism hasn’t exactly won, either. Once, a central pillar of progressive attitudes towards love and sex was the right to be left alone, the right to have privacy, the right to undertake adult behaviors that others might not agree with but which nevertheless must remain permissible. That version of social liberalism—the one associated with tolerance and personal freedom—seems almost as dead as the religious traditionalism that we’re so eager to discard.

To which I can only ask: what makes you think the hackers are indicative of any political tendency at all?

There is a liberalism of principle and a liberalism of temperament, and I think deBoer is confusing the two here. A liberal temperament is pretty much diametrically opposed to the kind of outing and shaming involved with these kinds of hacks, regardless of the underlying politics. Whether we’re talking about outing closeted gay people or anonymous racists – or, for that matter, making public the names and physical addresses of the kinds of people who execute these kinds of hacks – there’s nothing liberal, from a temperamental perspective, about the activity.

But a liberalism of principle is as subject to perfectionism as any other politics is. And it’s easy to see how perfectionism can lead to justifications for all kinds of invasions of traditional zones of privacy and immunity. Slum-clearing was a project with considerable liberal backing; so was forced school busing; so is yes-means-yes. All of these are noble-intentioned projects that substantially invaded such zones.

Moreover, it would not be hard to construct a left-wing attack on Ashley Madison. What kind of men have the resources to avail themselves of the opportunities provided by such a site? Who benefits and who suffers most from the aggregation of this kind of data on “availability”? What does the existence of a site like that do to the power dynamic within most marriages? I’m not endorsing that kind of critique (nor am I getting into the thicket of ranking adultery itself in the table of sins – though I may do that at another time). I’m just pointing out that such a critique can certainly be constructed, and shouldn’t be dismissed with mere hand-waving.

And that is precisely why it’s important to keep the two questions separate. You can embrace a left-wing critique of an entity like Ashley Madison without being a neo-Victorian moralist. But you can also be a neo-Victorian moralist without embracing mob “justice.” And that is what is being enacted with the Ashley Madison hack – something essentially illiberal in temperament (as mobs always are), but also something completely lacking in principle of any kind, and motivated instead by base emotions like envy and schadenfreude (as, again, mobs always are).

The mob may well be winning the culture war. But that is not merely a different front from the one deBoer (and the rest of us) are talking about when we discuss gay marriage, or abortion. It’s a different war altogether. Because no principled politics of any kind, whether moralistic or libertarian, can safely or in good conscience rely on the mob.

UPDATE: oh – and this news story is of obvious relevance to “The Runner” – yet another reason to go see it!

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Home News: The Runner

Nicolas Cage plays a self-deluded idealist in "The Runner," directed by Austin Stark
Nicolas Cage plays a self-deluded idealist in "The Runner," directed by Austin Stark

Time for unabashed self-promotion again. The second feature film I was involved in producing – “The Runner” – has been taking up a bunch of my time and emotional energy lately. And it’s now available to view at home via all the usual outlets – cable and satellite video on demand, Amazon, iTunes, etc. So y’all have no excuse for not seeing it.

The film tells the story of Colin Pryce, a progressive rising star from a famous New Orleans political family, who gets kneecapped by a sex scandal just as his political career is about to take off. And the story is told against the backdrop of the 2010 oil spill that devastated a region that had just begun to recover from the economic fallout of hurricane Katrina.

The experience of making the film was very important to me – I was much more intensely involved in this one than in “Infinitely Polar Bear” (which, by the way, is still in theaters – go see it while you still can!), so on a purely educational level it looms large. But it also tackles a number of serious themes that I fear get short shrift in most entertainment about politics.

To start, it’s a portrait of a politician that tries to be realistic rather than lurid. Shows like “Scandal” and “House of Cards” are successful for good reason – they are enormously entertaining. But the caricature they paint of American politics may have a pernicious political impact: it encourages the electorate (and particularly better-educated electorate that tends to watch these shows) to indulge in a shallow cynicism that perfectly suits the existing power structure. (I fear that casting Nicolas Cage in the lead may have led some critics to assume that we were aiming to do the same.)

But political entertainment that wears its (generally left-liberal) idealism on its sleeve -from “The American President” to “The West Wing” – even when they succeed as entertainment (as the foregoing certainly do, and as many humorlessly-hectoring films do not) may not be great for the electorate either. Because that idealism is also a great enabler of politicians who know how to channel it for their own ends.

The ambition of “The Runner” is to show us a portrait of the political animal as he really is – someone who believes he believes things, but who is ultimately driven by baser needs. And whose self-image depends on not figuring that out about himself. He’s an addictive personality, in other words, and whether he expresses that through drink or women or not, he most-fundamentally expresses it in the need to run.

And the film then aims to connect this kind of personality to the society that chooses him for a leader, and its own self-destructive economic addictions. And so its cynicism is more comprehensive, in the manner of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, in that it’s ultimately cynical about us as well as the people we elect. Indeed, you could read the film is a kind of Enemy of the People in which Thomas Stockmann has different self-delusions, and actually cares most about being loved – or as a film about Peter Russo from “House of Cards” in a world manipulated not by brilliant machiavels like Frank Underwood, but by interests who don’t need to be brilliant, because they have actual power.

Perhaps the season of Donald Trump’s rise is the wrong time to bring out a film that takes politics – and politicians – seriously. But hey: when the studios do stuff like that, they just call it counter-programming.

Anyway: check it out. And then you can tell me whether it succeeds in its ambitions.

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