Tuesday, May 10, 2016

This is the guy your Founding Fathers tried to warn you about

The only ray of amusement to be found so far in Trump's political ascendancy has been supplied by those conservative thinkers and Republican Party leaders who are now frantically trying to disavow responsibility for the fact that "The Party of Lincoln," as they always reverently call it whenever it has done something particularly awful or embarrassing, is about to nominate for President of the United States a man with no experience in government, diplomacy, or military affairs; a complete disdain for knowledge about foreign or domestic policy; an appalling record of ethical bankruptcy, manipulative narcissism, and the invention of false and character-assassinating accusations in his personal and business dealings; a refusal to ever take responsibility for his errors and failures; and a crude worship of thuggery, intimidation, and even violence in pursuit of his own ends.

I'm still trying to figure out what it means when New Hampshire Republican senator Kelly Ayotte says she will "support" but not "endorse" Trump: does that mean she will vote for him, but does not think anyone else should? It brings back fond memories of comedian David Frye's famous parody of Nixon, explaining his role in Watergate: "As the man in charge, I must accept full responsibility, but not the blame. Let me explain the difference. People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are responsible do not."

Meanwhile, some conservative opinion writers have been busy issuing pseudo–mea culpas in which they confess their failure to have understood or properly appreciated the "anger" and "populism" that drives the phenomenon of "Trumpism," as if it were all some mysterious and spontaneous natural force.

In case we have forgotten, these are the same people who for years have been shamelessly attacking the very foundations of democracy whenever they saw a partisan advantage in so doing: Trump is no more than the inevitable outcome of a culture on the right that has for years been willing to go places that would have horrified the Founding Fathers (whom they so piously profess to revere).

The framers of the Constitution saw one of the greatest threats to the survival of a republic in the rise of demagogues who, playing on the "passions" of the masses, could all too readily amass totalitarian power. The great question they wrestled with was how a government of the people could secure the services of disinterested men of seriousness, learning, wisdom, and experience to lead their nation.

They had no illusions about the fragility of the democratic "experiment," as Americans frequently referred to their young nation in its first century of existence. The framers had all studied the history of Greece and Rome, of monarchies and republics; they knew that there was an inevitable tension between the rough and tumble of democratic politics and the seriousness of governance and policymaking; and while they tried to incorporate into the Constitution mechanisms to dampen down the expression of popular passions and limit the powers of would-be tyrants, they knew that ultimately the success of self-government — especially in a large and diverse society — depended on a tenuous social compact of self-restraint, a free press to provide a check on the truth, a body of leaders and statesmen who made government and diplomacy their sober profession, and a generally agreed respect for the legitimacy of the electoral process and for the rights, views, and common humanity of the other side.

Each one of these cornerstones of democracy has been systematically undermined by the American conservative movement in recent years.

Decency and self-restraint. The issue is not "civility," a kind of namby-pamby word that implies politicians just aren't balancing tea cups on their knees properly. The issue is that earlier generations of American political leaders — and most ordinary Americans, too — never forgot the nearness of the abyss, and the role of society's leaders in steering their own followers away from it; they understood the special duty of Americans as members of the world's greatest democracy to uphold what we used to quaintly call "American values"— which meant fair play, respect for the views of others, and renunciation of the street-brawling tactics of extremism. The only reason Trump can say and do things that would have instantly disqualified any presidential candidate of a generation ago — inciting violence and ugly ethnic hatreds, mocking critics for their physical disabilities or lack of female pulchritude, calling anyone who disagrees with him "morons," "dummies," "sick," or suggesting they should be "fired like dogs" — is that this kind of talk has become absolutely routine in place of serious political argument on the right. To listen to talk radio or conservative bloggers, the  other side is not just wrong: they have "taken over" or are "destroying" the country; they are an alien force whose election victories are not just a disappointment, but illegitimate. Huey Long, the next closest thing to a would-be dictator in American political history, knew that you didn't need policies to win elections if you just riled people up. Riling is just about all that the conservative movement has done for the last decades, desensitizing and coarsening the language of politics while undermining the values that are the sine qua non of electoral democracy — including the rather basic requirement to accept the fact that one's side is not going to win 100% of all elections or get 100% of what it always wants.

Qualifications and expertise. The same conservative apparatchiks who are now appalled by Trump brought us Sarah Palin, the most spectacularly uninformed and unqualified candidate for vice president in the nation's history; have spent years deriding as "elitist" anyone who brings any real knowledge or expertise to government; and have succeeded beyond perhaps their wildest expectations in tarnishing government service altogether (while glorifying the making of money in business, not coincidentally). We've seen for years the hypocritical spectacle of Republican career politicians running as "Washington outsiders"; Trump is simply the logical end point of a process that has systematically derided the idea that you need to know anything, possess any relevant experience, or even be competent to serve in government.

Respect for the rule of law and the commonweal. It used to be called patriotism to put the interests of the nation ahead of personal or partisan gain. Harry Truman did not hesitate to incur the wrath of organized labor by calling out the army to seize control of railroads and steel mills shut down by union strikes; Dwight Eisenhower did not hesitate to incur the wrath of social conservatives by calling out the army to quell resistance to the court-ordered end to school segregation. By contrast tea party Republicans in Congress, Ted Cruz most spectacularly, have been willing to risk destroying even the financial credit and global standing of the United States to gain political attention and stir up party zealotry. Several Republican congressmen have expressed support and sympathy for acts of violence against the IRS and federal land managers. They have all been deliberately playing with fire, inciting blind anger above respect for democratic institutions and the working of government, irrationality and impossible goals above realism and compromise. Trump's supporters who express glee at the idea of their candidate's "blowing everything up" in Washington are again just following this line of abysmally irresponsible politics to its logical consequence.

An independent press. I was amused — well not amused; appalled at the combination of historical ignorance and ideological zealotry — seeing recently the advertisement for a Texas gun show that featured a picture of a gun and a Bible and words to the effect that these were the first two things that totalitarian governments come for. In fact, the first two things totalitarian governments come for are absolutely invariable: an independent press, and intellectuals. The reason is simple: you can't succeed in brainwashing the public with nonsensical propaganda if a bunch of smarty-pants journalists and professors are around to point out your foolishness. A generation or two ago, a candidate so full of contradictions, half-baked ideas, and flat-out ridiculous proposals as Trump would have been reduced to a laughing stock by objectively critical reporting in the press. The digital media age has of course done its share of diluting the influence of the serious media, but the conservative movement's cynically calculating vilification of the "mainstream media" would make any dictator proud in the results it has achieved, freeing them from the pesky problem of being held to account for their words and actions. Trump has exploited this to a tee, parading the reporters covering his rallies as veritable perpetrators to be booed and derided by the crowd, ensuring that his followers shrug off anything unfavorable that is reported about him, no matter how true, as simply another instance of media "bias."

The laws of arithmetic. The "establishment" Republican Party has not only largely eliminated the need to worry about the press pointing out the absurdity of its proposals, notably its manifestly false claim that tax cuts do not increase the deficit; it has also largely freed itself from having to take the laws of arithmetic seriously, either. The accounting tricks that have become routine in its budget proposals (such as not even bothering to count tax cuts in calculating officially projected budget figures) have so corroded the integrity of the policymaking process that reality itself has become a fungible political commodity. It's been awfully hard for Paul Ryan to criticize the fantastical unreality of Trump's bald assertion that he will pay off the entire national debt of $14 trillion in ten years while cutting taxes by $10 trillion over the same period and dramatically increasing military spending, when Ryan's own "serious" congressional budgets are full of arithmetical solipsisms of their own.

To date, anti-Trump conservatives have blamed Trump's rise on (I am not making any of these up), Barack Obama's coolness and nuance; a conspiracy by the media; liberal political correctness and elitism; dissolute hillbillies who are addicted to prescription painkillers, for which they have only themselves to blame; "anger" (that's a useful catch all); the erosion of social values that liberals and the 1960s are, of course, responsible for; and the refusal of leftists to use the term "Islamic terrorism." It could not, of course, be Republicans who are responsible for Trump being the Republican nominee, could it? Perish the thought.