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.

Outrage appropriation

David Freedlander writes in Politico about unexpected results in that NYC election in which the socialist Ocasio-Cortez shockingly defeated a 10-term Congressman in the real contest there, the Democratic primary:

Ocasio-Cortez’s best precincts were places like the neighborhood where Bonthius and his friends live: highly educated, whiter and richer than the district as a whole. In those neighborhoods, Ocasio-Cortez clobbered Crowley by 70 percent or more. Crowley’s best precincts, meanwhile, were the working-class African-American enclave of LeFrak City, where he got more than 60 percent of the vote, and portions of heavily Hispanic Corona. He pulled some of his best numbers in Ocasio-Cortez’s heavily Latino and African-American neighborhood of Parkchester, in the Bronx—beating her by more than 25 points on her home turf.

Actual minorities there bewailed the loss of the incumbent’s seniority, which translates into influence and Federal money for their district.

When coupled with the desperation of people like Elizabeth Warren or Rachel Dolezal to identify as the socially privileged among Democrats, along with things like the poll results of American Indians about their opinions of the Washington Redskins team name (91% either liked it or didn’t care), these results seem to make it clear that identity politics has gone from a retail issue for ethnic minorities to a luxury issue for rich, white elites.  (Or perhaps a retail issue for the latter, since their identity narrative seems to be the main thing they want.)

The latter yammer on and on about “cultural appropriation”, but this must be a form of projection, because they themselves are doing the real appropriating– of the right to be outraged at some usually tiny alleged form of racism, homophobia, or what have you.  Actual minorities, these election results make clear, are ironically like Trump’s voters in being far more transactional, far more practical, in their priorities.

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?”

Swedish democracy

Quillette, which is a publication I’m increasingly fond of for its quality journalism, has published a new piece on Sweden’s election turmoil by one Paulina Neuding.

Basically, the social turmoil that began earlier this decade begot, surprise surprise, an anti-EU and anti-immigrant party called the Sweden Democrats.  As seems to have happened everywhere, the cosmopolitan elite was initially appalled.  The left-wing party, the Social Democrats and the center-right party, the Moderates, are the other two parties there.  Amazingly, what they did in response to a populist but democratic uprising based around ideas that the elites had connived to keep down and out of discussability was…to connive further to keep them out of power.  “The largest of the two minority blocs,” Neuding wrote, “would get to form a government with the passive support of the opposition. [The Sweden Democrats] would thus be kept from influence.”

What the hell are elites thinking?  That all this populism is some sort of temporary spasm, surely– an aberration that will soon go away.  That would be a relief to them.  It’s attractive for other reasons, too.  It would mean that they were right all along, and that they don’t have to change, and it means that they’ll soon get to continue to be ambitious in terraforming Western societies into something that could be approved by your average Women’s Studies program.

There is no evidence that this is anything but 190-proof wishful thinking.  Mismanaged reactions to the grievances of a minority of a population have historically driven unaffiliated people in the population to the other side.  Tories and moderates during the American Revolution were shocked to discover that George III and the elites in his government did not think of them as the Englishmen they considered themselves to be, with all the rights of Englishmen.  They were instead painted with the same brush as the rebels, and were told to shut up and be grateful.  We took the side of the corrupt South Vietnamese government, and lost to a guerrilla movement that could not have operated if ordinary people hadn’t supported it.  Elites today seem to be hosing around “Nazi” and “white supremacist” labels, and that will surely not end well.

The Swedish governing agreement described above was an attempt to disenfranchise a large section of people, instead of compromising with them, and it seems to have shocked more and more people into realizing that there’s some serious substance to the complaints about the elites by the populists.  The Moderates went along with the Social Democrats’ socialist policies.  And outraged conservative Swedes began defecting…to the Sweden Democrats.

Somehow I get the feeling that what the 1950s are to economic liberals– a supposed golden era that will surely never return– the 2000s will be to social liberals.

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.