The George Costanza Presidency

It sometimes seems to me that Trump’s seeming successes are of a piece with his election.  That is, they’re not so much a matter of his own vision as they are a photographic negative of the failures of the elite consensus pre-2016.

Trump’s successes remind me of one particularly memorable moment on the sitcom Seinfeld involving Seinfeld’s friend George Costanza.  George told his friends, “It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong.  My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be.  Every instinct I have, in every of life, be it something to wear, something to eat… It’s all been wrong.”

After some interplay, his friend Jerry Seinfeld says he should do the reverse of his instincts.  “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

“Yes!”  George appears to have an epiphany.  “I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!”

Basically, that appears to me to be Trump’s approach.  He won the Presidency by being the opposite of everything elites have been assuming and offering the country for the past several decades.  And his administrative policy is more or less to be the opposite of most pieces of conventional wisdom about policy and public opinion and elections for that time, also.

What his administration is, more than anything, is an indictment of the particular virtue of elites and elite values and opinions.  I stress “particular” because I do not mean that elites and their values and opinions are worthless.  Or worth less.  Trump does not demonstrate that.  I mean that those values and opinions leave certain valuable things behind, or minimize or backburner them.  Over time, those things add up and come to seem disproportionately attractive.

Did the real estate developer in the White House realize that those ideas and values left behind were like great houses left behind in a deteriorating neighborhood, which become more and more of a potential bargain over time as their prices drop?  I don’t know.  I don’t know what he really believes.  For all I know he blundered across it by simply “doing the opposite” like George Costanza, and had cunning enough to sense it.  But I do think the past couple years have been very much like the sudden gentrification of an intellectual neighborhood.

2016: the two types of issue

In which I continue to try to parse the significance of 2016.  (I hope they come up with a standard term for the events of the past couple years, because Trump-and-Brexit-and-Europeans-revolt-against-the-elite is clunky.)

Megan McArdle has on more than one occasion talked about “Washington issues”:

A Washington Issue is something that sounds terrible, has little meaningful impact on more than a handful of people, and most importantly, allows you to pretend that you are addressing a different, very difficult issue that would impact a large number of people if you actually tried to make meaningful change — people who might get angry and do something rash, such as voting for your opponent.

This is clearly correct, it seems to me.  How does 2016 play in?  Well, on that particular subject area of political science, let me theorize a bit.

As I see it, there are two basic types of issue.  There are “retail” issues, and there are “luxury” issues.

Retail issues are the sort that the public really cares about.  They tend to be fairly simple and easy to explain, and they tend to touch many people’s emotions.   Jobs.  Taxes.  Defense.  Football.  The Left appears to me to imagine that their issues are mostly retail.  The administrative state?  Meritocracy and mandarinism?  They seem to think these are all things the public is really on their side about, and are shocked and mystified when evidence to the contrary appears.  (Washington Issues are a kind of retail issue that is high-margin, in business terms: high payoff, low cost in terms of tradeoffs.  They’re the sweet spot for politicians, so long as people are fooled into thinking they mean anything.)

Luxury issues, on the other hand, are the kind that only particular interest groups and politicians care about.  They don’t swing elections by themselves.  They’re the kind of thing that you can use to put together coalitions, because the interest groups care intensely about their particular issue or issues, but they’re not things whose presence or absence sways the public as a whole.

And, of course, these are not fixed points, anode and cathode.  They are points on a spectrum.  People can sometimes be gotten to care more about a particular issue, and in fact that’s the nexus between the media and politics.  Any time a politician says something like “let’s get a national conversation going about X issue”, the real meaning is, let’s try to move this issue from the luxury side of the spectrum to the retail side.  This can sometimes be done, but if it is not maintained, it may slide backwards once the victory is gained and the policy enacted.  And some things that were once inherently retail drift to the side of luxury issues by the operation of the entropy of public disillusionment with them.  Public education is an example of this.  People ostensibly care about it, but large amounts of money spent uselessly on it, together with a public perception that it’s been captured by administrators and teachers’ unions and run chiefly for their own benefit, has been causing it to drift in the direction of a luxury issue.

2016 demonstrates that the Left, and the global elite as a whole, has confused the two.   The public as a whole doesn’t care about the components of the administrative state.  The less able distrust meritocracy, a dynamic in which they are the losers, and non-elites as a whole dislike the identity politics of meritocracy, which is what we call elitism.  The Democrats, in fact, resemble nothing so much as the character of Martin Prince on The Simpsons, who gets pushed down by Bart, to laughter from the other children, and says in shock, “They laugh at me? I’d always considered myself rather popular… My speed with numbers? My years of service as a hall monitor? My prize winning dioramas? These things mean nothing to them?”  And he gets pushed over again, again to general laughter.

Unlike Martin, though, who responds, “You have made your point”, the Democrats have yet to acknowledge the point made by Trump when he pushed them over.  They still think the bureaucrats of the Hall Monitor Agency and the diorama-building of the National Endowment for the Arts, are things with genuine and deep popular support.

How does Trump actually compare with Hitler?

Donald Trump is not Hitler.

Lots and lots of people on the Left go on and on about how he is Hitler, about how fighting Trump is as righteous as fighting Hitler, about how he’s fascist, about how he’s a white supremacist, yada yada yada.  Sorry, no.  Not even close.

Hitler published a book of his intentions before coming to power in which he said what he was going to do, and by and large it was a good guide for what he tried to do.  Donald Trump has a couple of mediocre and probably ghostwritten books about business, which talk chiefly about dealmaking.  If you were going to try to find the least Hitleresque approach to forming relationships that there is, “negotiation” would surely have to be up there at the top.  Can you imagine Hitler writing a book titled The Art of the Deal?  No, it was the narcissistic “My Struggle” (that’s what Mein Kampf means).  Can you imagine Hitler negotiating with Mexico?  No, sir– he took over weak neighbors.  The only negotiating he did was with strong ones, like Russia or England.

Hitler made German law more or less whatever he willed, becoming supreme dictator.  Donald Trump has done nothing at all to take away the power of Congress or state and local governments.  Hitler militarized Germany and created new secret police loyal to him.  Trump can’t even control the FBI.  Hitler otherized Jews, gay people, Gypsies, Christian Scientists and so on, took their property away, took their rights away, had them rounded up and put in concentration camps, and butchered them in vast numbers.  Trump kissed black babies, put a gay-pride banner on his lectern, loves Mexican food, and so on.  (Try imagining Hitler doing that to the people least like himself in 1930s Germany.)  Trump has done absolutely nothing to persecute Americans.  True, he has pushed for the Wall and urged a strong stance on illegal immigration, but that’s pretty mainstream, to the point where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were urging it not that long ago.  (Both voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, establishing a physical barrier along hundreds of miles of our border with Mexico.)  Sure, his government has separated illegal-immigrant families temporarily, but there aren’t many, it caused a scandal, and at that rate he’ll only catch up to Hitler in a couple hundred years.

The ironic thing is that in the thing that has caused all this hyperbole– a superficial extrapolation of the historical situation that led to his rise– there is a valid parallel: the degree of populist rage with the powerful.

Even in the years leading up to the 2016 election you could see that sort of thing in the rise of Occupy Wall Street on the Left and the Tea Party on the Right, though it shocked a lot of people that it would go as far as Brexit or Trump’s election.  (Nor do we now know how far it will go.)  In shock, 2016 itself resembled nothing so much as the Great Peasants’ Revolt that followed the Reformation, though thankfully without violence.  Released by Martin Luther’s fracture of the Catholic Church from hundreds of years’ worth of tension created by “a corrupt Latin-droning popery”, as Herman Wouk put it, hundreds of thousands of German peasants rioted and pillaged, before being put down violently.  “Only Luther, before Hitler,” wrote Wouk, “ever so wholly spoke with the national voice to release plugged-up national rage”.  But today, instead of raging against some modern-day analogue to the perennial scapegoats of Europe, the Jews, who were demonized by both Luther and Hitler, or some analogue to the victors of World War I, who had imposed swingeing reparations requirements on Germany in punishment for the first war, the Trumpist rebels were revolting against the rulers of their own country: corrupt -ism-spouting Mandarins imposing both a morality artificial and alien to many ordinary Americans, and self-serving economic arrangements on a country that in a two-party system captured by elites had never really had the opportunity to vote in a referendum about either.  Popular culture managed to sell this arrangement for a while, but could not maintain it in the face of technological change and the Left’s neverending ambition.

Predictions

Trump himself will pass from the scene in one way or another, but the Overton Window is well and truly broken, and the elites will not be able to fix it any time soon.  Including at some point among people on the Left who despise and oppose Trump, America will be on its guard against attempts to steer talk away from “undiscussable” issues.  The Left’s best chance to recapture the cultural hegemony it enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century will be by influencing companies like Google or Facebook– but there is already pushback against their influence there.  The Democrats will return to power at some point, because that’s just the way it works.  But, as is always the case in democratic history, the real question will be “who won the arguments?”

Reheating a soufflé

One thing I am sure of.  Even if the Democrats get their way somehow and get Trump out, regardless of how, there’s not going to be peace so long as the core issues that led to his election remain not satisfactorily addressed.

I do think that if that were to happen, Trump’s supporters would try to find a neo-Trump.  A replacement.  That would be a mistake.  Trump was the right man at the right time for them in 2016, and you can’t just recreate that, like reheating a soufflé.  That’s both the strongest and the weakest part of Trumpism– its ad hoc quality.  It means it’s hard to plan for and hard to know how to defeat, but it’s also a power difficult to focus so as to accomplish precise goals– and it would be hard, if not impossible, to recreate.

The meaning of Trumpism

The meaning of Trumpism is clear.  It’s a paradigm fight.  (How’s that for an unburied lede?)

Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans have been agog and aghast at the degree of enthusiasm generally displayed for Donald Trump by a huge percentage of Americans, and have been mystified by it.  How, they think, apart from mass psychosis, could it be possible that people they thought they knew could so strongly support someone so repulsive on so many levels?  Poor, rural,  working-class voters hailed as one of their own an arrogant New York multimillionaire and hard-edged businessman, a boss.  Evangelicals showed up en masse to strongly support their Satan.   Horses rode men and grass ate cows and cats were chased into holes by the mouse.

Trump’s unique fractal chaos is their desire.  A brutally honest policy platform of theirs might go something like this: “Nothing else can cut apart the Horsemen of our Apocalypse: the cozy political modus vivendi; the rotten previous political parties; the administrative ossification; the Deep State; the self-dealing by elites; the liberal ratchet and the Left’s gleichschaltung over higher education, the media and Hollywood.”  This description does not imply agreement or disagreement by me.  But into their lives, through the rent that 2016 tore in the American polity, the sweet air of ambition has swept.  It’s not only the ambition to decimate the foregoing supposed catalog of the elite paradigm, but the ambition for ambitions of their own.

If you think about it, that’s something the grassroots Right hasn’t had, hasn’t gotten to have, in a long, long time.  The last real ambition I remember them having is school prayer, which is a hope (of theirs, not mine) which hasn’t existed in a long time.  The Left would respond, “But what about tax cuts, regulation cuts and wars?”  Those are things which aren’t actually that conservative, from a grass-roots point of view.  They’re things favored by the Republican leadership, as influenced by Madison Avenue.  Anger at the Republican leadership for having allowed major donors to suck off most of the political capital is, I think, one of the reasons Trump won the nomination, and it took someone as heedless of political donations as Trump to defeat the influence of those donors over Republican policy.  You could argue abortion– but that’s a rollback of the Left’s achieved ambition, and mainly resurgent in the set of “this might actually happen” as a result of the same wave that shattered the previous Overton Window and brought Trump into the Oval Office.

Will they get their ambitions?  Hard to say.  Despite its power Trumpism is an amorphous cloud of discontent, not a precise policy tool.  (As a paradigm it’s no more coherent than he is.)  Some, probably.  Trumpism does have an effect of reversion to the mean, which means the Left will lose (and has lost) some ground.  Nothing, however, is controlling which issues it’ll lose on, or how much.  Entropy may be the Democrats’ friend, as the energy of Trumpist discontent spins off into the Void.

Blue Tribe

The Founders wouldn’t want Kavanaugh’s nomination to continue,” argues Laurence Tribe.  Briefly, his argument runs that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh might, if confirmed, be called upon to help decide about evidentiary matters that might affect whether Trump is, if impeached, convicted.

This is a weak argument for several reasons.

First, a hypothetical U.S. v. Trump case that a Justice Kavanaugh would have to help judge relies on the veracity of the claims of someone who sounds pretty untrustworthy to begin with, who is under pressure from prosecutors and likely to be opportunistic.  And let’s be frank: campaign finance violations or paying off women to keep silent (Trump has been paying people off to keep quiet for ages) are a snooze, regardless of the legal technicalities surrounding them.  To most people, the ostensible beneficiaries of the public trust, they are malum prohibitum, in contrast to the malum in se of conniving in the burglary of an opponent’s campaign headquarters.  Is the disconnect not obvious?  Trump had already won the nomination by shocking actions that flew in the face of all the laws of modern politics.  How likely is it that he’d have started thinking these particular women’s stories would derail his election, such that he needed to go out of his usual silence-buying ways to make extra certain they keep quiet?  Buying their silence was probably force of habit.

To return to Tribe’s argument, though, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that Trump could seriously influence a Supreme Court decision with a particular nomination.  Even if Trump managed to choose from a long-established list of extraordinarily well-qualified candidates the one judge most likely to rule in his favor (which would be amazing sophistication for someone as stupid as Trump’s opponents say he is), it is only one vote.  What if otherwise the votes are 4-4?  Well, as in the 2000 and 2016 Presidential elections, your real problem is having it be that close a decision in the first place.  One wonders what Chief Justice Roberts would say to his old law school professor, Laurence Tribe.

It also seems clear that Supreme Court justices feel, if anything, a need to avoid the appearance of partiality toward the Presidents who appointed them.  In the leadup to Nixon’s impeachment, Tribe admits, three of Richard Nixon’s appointees on the Supreme Court voted with their colleagues, 8-0, to force Nixon to surrender the “subpoenaed tapes and documents” making his impeachment more likely, and his fourth appointee, Rehnquist, recused himself.

But that’s different, says Tribe, because politics have gotten so polarized that a similar case today surely would not be unanimous.  Coupled with his argument that the Senate should not take up Kavanaugh’s nomination, that’s tantamount to saying that polarization should actually have Constitutional or legislative significance in itself.  In any case, the country had already gotten pretty polarized by 1994, the year of the “Contract with America“, when Bill Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer eleven days after Paula Jones filed her sexual-harassment lawsuit against him.  At that time there was a decent chance that a serious lawsuit against the President could wind up in the Supreme Court.  Of course, Clinton didn’t think he’d be impeached over his tomcatting, but the point is that neither this appointment nor his previous one (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) made any difference at all to the 1997 Supreme Court decision against him.  Clinton lost, 9-0.

That, in fact, is quite a common result in the Supreme Court, whether involving Presidents or not, and more common, not less, in recent years.  Max Bloom pointed out last year, “The most recent term, in fact, was the least partisan since the middle of the 20th century. Over half of the cases were unanimous, and only 14 percent were decided by a 5–3 or 5–4 split.”  Supreme Court justices are in fact famous for unpredictability and uncontrollability by the Presidents that appoint them, going back at least as far as Eisenhower’s remark that he’d made only two errors as President and both of them were on the Supreme Court.  In terms of precision tools, Supreme Court nominations make boycotts look like laser scalpels.

Furthermore, implying that things ought to be different because they have gotten so polarized begs the question.  Polarization is why Trump is in the White House to begin with, elected by an American public having full knowledge in advance that (in Salena Zito’s words) he has “the morals of an alley cat”.  (Is the policy basis for impeachment the removal of a President that the electorate didn’t intend?)  And if polarization is the bugaboo, how did we reach this sorry state?  To name one reason, because Harvard Law School professors and their logic have very little to do with most Americans these days.

It takes a special brand of Rube Goldberg thinking to go from conjecture to might to possibility to strained argument, though I suppose logical contortions and circumbendibi are an occupational hazard even for law professors who don’t share conspiracy theories about Trump.  Perhaps Tribe should have eschewed his strained logic and simply quoted the Supreme Court justice he clerked for: “I know it when I see it.

Trumpthiness

The media continue to point out the things Trump says which are provably not true, and, bizarrely, seem to continue to think that sooner or later some shit will finally stick, and ruin him.  A few look beyond; in the New York Post, Salena Zito recently wrote, “These voters knew who Trump was going in, they knew he was a thrice-married, Playmate-dating, Howard Stern regular who had the morals of an alley cat.”

What political and media elites seem persistently to misunderstand is that Trump’s voters don’t care whether or not what he says is true. He’s not their teacher, or their boss. Even if they care about the thing Trump is talking about, they believe that his words have no power to affect whether or not it’s true. Trump’s voters care about him doing what they want, which all the people now going on and on spent decades using both facts and “facts” to rationalize denying them.

Most vitally, though, Trump is not their pastor.  For elites, there is still a quality of moral leadership, of pontifex maximus, to the Presidency.  To them, the President is “the first man among us”, setting the tone and preaching to inspire America, while for non-elites, he has become only “the first man among elites”.  Rare elite leaders sometimes can talk to non-elites so easily that they transcend the two; Bill Clinton, whatever one thinks of his morals or his policies, was like that.  (A defining moment of his wife’s 2016 campaign was when Bill Clinton wanted to go out and talk with ordinary people in places where it was thought Hillary had no chance, and he was told no.)  But Barack Obama, for all his oratory and erudition, never could do it.

The really interesting thing, of course, is whether this is going to change politics itself.  Trump will one way or another be gone some day.  When that happens– or even before– will other American politicians do it?  I predict yes, if only as a function of the extremism brought on by self-segregation.

The Judgments of the Lord are True and Righteous Altogether

People put up with a lot.

They put up with slavery and Southern arrogance. They put up with Nazi aggression. They put up with Soviet bullshit. They put up with the Inquisition.

And they put up with the modern Left. Not that the thumbscrew and the peine forte et dure are the favorite tortures of Social Justice Warriors, but pro ratamutatis mutandis– the comparison holds.

Until one day they don’t put up with it any more.

It’s true that the Left today still doesn’t get it, but then again, America is still pissed at them and they still have no idea why, so we can expect this to go on for a while.

Looking farther ahead, though, Russia will sooner or later be made to scream with pain for having fucked with us.  Ironically, I doubt they caused all that much.  They might have been the catalyst for the timing of recent events; they might have provoked buried tensions to burst out in 2016, but they didn’t create the tensions.  The Left’s fantasies about how different their form of organized morality was from that of the Moral Majority did that.

Notwithstanding which, I predict that Russia is going to pay a serious, serious price for its actions.  The only questions are, when? and what will the collateral damage be?

Donald Trump

No one can write a political blog these days without addressing our era’s most salient political personality.

I am not a fan of Trump personally, though I will say I find it difficult to figure out what goes on in his head.  In turn that makes it harder for me to be completely confident in judging him.  I always try to get beneath the surface of things, the better to encompass the world and sharpen my philosophy, but he confounds me that way.

Unlike a vast number of people on the Left, though, I have no problem distinguishing what I think of him from what I think of his actions as President so far, or from what I think of the 2016 election and what it means.  Of which, more anon.  It speaks volumes of the Left’s worldview that they can’t differentiate the two– that they personalize the Presidency so much that having Trump in it is like having their finger stuck in an electrical outlet.  Is being able to care that much about a President’s personal characteristics an effect of the cultural and political hegemony they’ve enjoyed for some decades now?  Political wealth leads to political luxury, I guess– and a redefinition of political poverty.