Trump, Sullivan and Caesarism

The 83rd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.


[EDITORS’ NOTE: This post began as a reply/rebuttal to Andrew Sullivan’s massive recent think-piece on the fragility of democracy.  It then grew in the writing, like a Neolithic campfire tale that grows in the telling, into the present behemoth that is two-thirds the length of the piece it criticizes.  We offer it without apology, but with this TL;DR summary: Sullivan is wrong in his interpretation of theory and wrong in his practical assertion that Trump aspires to tyranny; there is a non-trivial difference between Caesarism and tyranny and if Trump represents either, it is the former, though we doubt that too; the only way to bypass or at least stave off the apparent inevitability of Caesarism is to reassert the will of the people over that of the administrative state and our ruling oligarchy; and Trump is the only political figure not just in this cycle but in at least a generation even to make the attempt.]

When New York Magazine announced the return of Andrew Sullivan, we thought (hoped?)—given the date—that it might be an April Fool’s joke. No such luck.

 

Sullivan’s first post-hiatus effort is an enormous beast—so long that the usual blogosphere exhortation to read the whole thing must be counted as sadism. Yet we managed to do it. We started because Sullivan begins with one of our interests, Plato’s observations on political decay. We kept reading, even though Sullivan botched that part, because toward the middle he started to say sensible things. We finished it because … we’re not really sure. Must have been in the grip of thesunk-cost fallacy.

 

We debated whether to comment on it at all. Two factors convinced us, reluctantly, to weigh in. First, the piece has already been shared more than 150,000 times. That’s shared, not read. We doubt all of JAG has been read that many times. Clearly, Sullivan maintains a wide audience. Second, he’s influential not just with the masses but with other influentials. Rod Dreher quotes the piece uncritically; Ross Douthat suggests some correctives but not nearly enough, nor the right ones. No doubt there are others we missed. Since Sullivan gets so much wrong, and since so many people—some important—read him, someone should refute him. We’re perfectly capable of doing so, and obviously have no aversion to investing large blocks of time in quasi-futility, so it may as well be us.

The first thing to note (gloat) is that we were here first. We’ve warned about the possibility of tyranny—or, more precisely, of Caesarism—almost since the inception of this journal. Sullivan is just following us.

But badly. We (almost) hate to say this, since Sullivan’s great teacher is one of our intellectual heroes, but we’re not sure he (Sullivan) learned all that he could or quite grasped what he was supposed to learn. His interpretation of Republic VIII(begins on p. 221)—on which his whole piece hangs—is wanting.

 

What Plato (or his Socrates) describes in the passage Sullivan summarizes is nothing other than that old JAG warhorse, the cycle of regimes. Sullivan gets at least one thing right. Plato’s description of late democratic rot and self-indulgence does indeed fit our times to a “T.”

 

But from there, he goes astray. He interprets the passage as being about usurpation when really it’s about inevitability. According to classical political theory, the fundamental question inherent to every regime is: Who rules? The basic possibilities are: one, a few, or the many—each element with its own partisan bent. Better, more stable and more long-lived is the rule of a mixture of these, but that’s less common than the rule of one element alone.  Which, however well such rule starts out, inevitably degenerates, as the ruling element increasingly prefers its own partisan good to the common good.  Which preference eventually causes the ruling class’s own downfall.

 

Plato’s political science, as depicted in Republic VIII, while fundamentally similar to the classic (and much soberer) account in Polybius which we’ve explained before, differs in important respects. Plato posits five regime types: the best, or the rule of philosopher kings; timocracy, or rule of the lovers of honor; oligarchy, rule of the lovers of money; democracy, rule of the lovers of freedom; and finally, tyranny—rule of one who loves only himself. In this account, the trajectory is all down, all the time. There is no “cycle” strictly speaking because unlike in Polybius’ account, Plato’s cycle never starts over.

 

Sullivan, first, misses the inevitability of this. He presents tyranny as a danger that can be avoided whereas Plato presents it as a certainty. The downward drift is an immutable law of politics. Complaining about it is like complaining about erosion. It’s going to happen. Cope.

 

Thus, contra Sullivan, Plato’s tyrant is not so much a usurper as a consequence—an outcome. Not a good outcome, to be sure. Not one choice-worthy for its own sake. But in a way a deserved and even necessary outcome.

 

There is another distinction that Plato does not make here, for reasons Leo Strauss explains in On Tyranny (p. 180): the distinction between tyranny and Caesarism. (Yes, we know that’s anachronistic, but we mean Caesarism as a permanent possibility, not the specific historical occurrence.)

 

Caesar is not truly a usurper. A formal act of usurpation may—and may have to—cement his coming to power. (Although in the case of actual Caesar, it didn’t.) But the deeper point is that Caesar is a necessity whereas the tyrant is not. Caesarism is a specific type of absolute monarchy—one that succeeds a formerly republican or democratic government when all possibility of self-rule is lost. The tyrant, by contrast, actively seeks power and so subverts whatever form of government he finds in order to achieve his end.  This is what the famous tyrants of the ancient world—Agathocles, Hiero, Pisistratus, etc.—did.  It is not, at least not exactly, what Caesar did.  Tyrants don’t always, or even mostly, succeed democracies.  They can also overthrow aristocracies, oligarchies and monarchies and perhaps most often result from the degeneration of a monarchy, as in Polybius’ account.

 

Sullivan also does not take into account either the dialogue’s dramatic setting or the flaws in the argument that he examines.  As to the setting (broadly understood), it’s important to remember that Socrates is here speaking to Glaucon and Adeimantus, two noble and spirited youths—and thus potential tyrants.  Socrates wishes to avoid the unfortunate outcome of his earlier attempts to educate Alcibiades and Critias, which he already understood to have been a failure and which would later bear disastrous fruit.  His remarks to Glaucon and Adeimantus are thus specifically calculated to produce a specific outcome in their souls. Viz., he wants to convince them not to want to be tyrants.  So Socrates puts the worst possible gloss on tyranny and completely elides the distinction between tyranny and Caesarism.  To admit that such a thing as Caesarism exists is to lend legitimacy to, and thus to encourage, tyranny—that is, the seizure of absolute power when such is not absolutely required by the direness of the situation.

 

Which brings us to Sullivan’s more directly textual errors.  Something he should have learned in graduate school (and which we have no doubt his teacher tried to teach him) was that one cannot take everything Plato puts into Socrates’ mouth to be Plato’s last word.  Socrates is famous for his “irony”—that is, he says different things to different people, depending on their level of competence and the state of their souls.  He is not above using faulty arguments to further his rhetorical aims, and he does so in this passage.  We shall point out two such instances which are directly relevant to Sullivan’s own faulty (but presumably not intentionally so) argument.

 

First, there is an implicit contradiction between Socrates’s explicit claim that a tyrant will seize power from a “late-stage democracy” (Sullivan’s phrase) and the picture that Socrates paints of that democracy.  Does not every sordid detail he provides impel those who think them through to conclude that absolute rule was not merely inevitable but necessary?  This is how Plato sneaks n the topic of Caesarism, as distinct from tyranny, “between the lines.”  Sullivan wants to blame the tyrant, and to a lesser extent the people, but Plato blames no one, except perhaps nature itself.

 

Second, as noted, Socrates goes out of his way to describe the tyrant in the worst possible light, a slave to every imaginable vice.  The deck is stacked so overwhelmingly that our suspicious must be aroused.  Anyone with knowledge of history would know that some—even many—tyrants have been supremely capable men and not particularly vulgar, self-indulgent or cruel.  Athens’ own Pisistratus fits that bill (Aristotle says of him that he ruled almost constitutionally;Constitution of Athens 16) as does Caesar himself.  Again, this exaggeration is owing to Socrates’ pedagogical intention with respect to Glaucon and Adeimantus.  He doesn’t want to say a single positive thing about tyranny as a phenomenon or about any actual tyrants.  The argument is therefore “ironic,” which is to say, not wholly serious.

 

All of that said, we repeat that Sullivan is on to something.  And so, before we hit him again, we offer a few further words of non-ironic praise.  In the sensible middle of the piece, Sullivan accurately analyzes some of the fuel driving the Trump train:
Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well. A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege” by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain. These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in Hoffer’s words, “disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.”

Emphasis ours. Sullivan, despite being white and male, is at least not straight.  He therefore has sufficient victimization pokemon points to say baldly what any straight white man would be hung for saying.  Still, kudos to him for saying it.  He didn’t have to and he could easily have gotten away with denying it.

This was part of the emotional force of the tea party: not just the advancement of racial minorities, gays, and women but the simultaneous demonization of the white working-class world, its culture and way of life. Obama never intended this, but he became a symbol to many of this cultural marginalization. The Black Lives Matter left stoked the fires still further; so did the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes.

This passage is considerably more problematic.  Sullivan accepts uncritically that the Tea Party was somehow “racist,” despite the facts that all their rhetoric was about spending and debt, and that repeated attempts to bait them into saying, doing, or endorsing “racist” things all failed.  His claim that “Obama never intended this” is risible; only someone still in the throes of 2008 unrequited love could possibly be so daft.  But at least Sullivan—virtually alone on the left—acknowledges the extent to which the left’s endless and merciless persecution of its enemies is provoking an entirely predictable backlash.

Now, back to our criticism.  Sullivan’s main intention is to argue that Trump is a would-be tyrant.  He ends with the grandiosely absurd claim that a Trump election would be “an extinction level event”—if not for America, at least for American democracy.

The evidence for Trump’s tyrannical aspirations is weak, if not exactly non-existent.  But first let’s consider the two core definitions of “tyrant.”  The first, as noted, is usurper.  Trump is using the legitimate electoral process to gain power.  That of course is also no bar to tyranny.  Many tyrants do exactly this.  But typically with the aim of staying in power forever.  Exceptions are rare.  Of the top of our head we can think of Sulla and Pinochet (the former of whom was arguably not a tyrant, and the latter of whom did not use a legitimate process to gain the tyranny) and not many others.

Does Trump intend to stay in power for life—and possibly make his tyranny hereditary?  So far from indicating anything of the kind, he’s even dropped hints that he may serve only one term.  He’s also said (in comments I can’t now find, but clearly remember) that maybe the times call for a leader like him right now, but the times will change and he intends not to be the stage when they do.

These are not the words of a would-be tyrant.  Now, of course it’s possible he’s lying.  Tyrants do tend to lie, after all.  Who can know for sure?  But that would be inconsistent with another anti-Trump meme: that he really doesn’t want this at all, he’s just enjoying the attention.  Whatever else one may say about tyrants, they really do want it.

Moreover, what is the real difference between presidencies-for-life (to which, again, it does not appear that Trump aspires) and America’s emerging dynastic politics?  It’s already semi-embarrassing that the son of a president seceded his father with only one intervening administration.  Now we face the prospect of a president’s wife doing so after two?  There’s talk of Michelle Obama, Chelsea Clinton, the Obama girls, George P. Bush, etc., all running for office someday.  The Kennedy dynasty eventually ran out of steam but the impulse remains—and it is yet another sure sign of a corrupt people.  Do we also think that a Hillary administration will not, in the decisive sense, be a Bill administration?  In the same way that the Bill administration was also a Hillary administration?  Her election may satisfy the letter of the 22ndAmendment, but its spirit?  In this as in so many other dreary ways, modern America resembles nothing so much as the “banana republics” Americans once confidently ridiculed.

So we’re quite doubtful that Trump is a would-be tyrant in this, the more precise sense.  But what about the other sense—the abuse of power?  Here we’re a little more wary.  Trump has said disturbing things, in particular about free speech.  His critics have seized on these as “proof” that Trump is dangerous and unfit for the Presidency.  That may be, but these few off-the-cuff comments are at most hints in that direction, not proof.  Trump is not exactly disciplined from the stump.  He shoots his mouth off a lot and probably says many things he doesn’t really mean and makes many threats for the sake of rhetorical bluster.  We may be wrong about that, and we will duly apologize if President Trump begins serially persecuting his political enemies.  When will Sullivan apologize for his support of Obama’s tyrannical measures?

However, let’s think this issue through for a moment.  What the anti-Trumpites are really saying is that they have no faith in the effectiveness of American institutions, in the separation of powers, in the integrity of the other branches of government, or in the American people themselves to check a lawless president.  And why should they, given not just the last seven-and-a-half years but the last twenty?  Or thirty?  Our government hasn’t functioned as is it supposed to do—as its “parchment barriers” say it must—in a generation at least.  The reasons are deep and complex and we once again refer you back to Cato the Elder’s analyses of the administrative state.  But the idea that Trump is some unique danger strikes us as a joke.

Shall we go through Hillary’s tyrannical instincts and abuses of power one more time?  What is likely to come from a second Clinton Administration?  Do we need to go into detail?  Or is it sufficient to say: every Obama-era left0wing cause and more.  Every fresh enthusiasm will be pressed to the max.  She will govern at least as lawlessly—and probably much more so, given that Obama has paid absolutely no price for his lawlessness, and therefore she will be emboldened to press the pedal to the floor.  Congress either doesn’t care or is ineffectual (both, really) and the judiciary is on their side.

Still and all, we hold no grudge against those who say they simply cannot vote for Trump.  We hold conscience sacred and cherish the fact that (for now) we all still live in a polity that allows for such principled stands.

We do, however, find their reasoning beyond faulty.  We’ve explained why in this post and elsewhere on this blog.  Indeed, to explain why may be said to be the purpose of this blog.  We now turn to a reason we’ve not yet explicitly explored, because it is depressing.  But given the direction the Trump conversation is going, it can no longer be avoided.

Sullivan was far from the first to argue that Trump is (or wants to be) a tyrant.  That’s been a staple of leftist rhetoric for at least six months—since it became clear that Trump’s candidacy was not a joke, that he might win the Republican nomination and even the Presidency.  We’re not among those who take seriously Sullivan’s claim to be a “conservative.”  But he is more honest than the actual conservatives.  Their complaints about Trump’s unfitness imply the same conclusion that Sullivan states openly: they seen in Trump a potential tyrant.

We return to the non-trivial distinction between tyranny and Caesarism.  We think Trump is neither.  But if he is one, he is certainly a Caesar and not a tyrant.  America is already post-Constitutional and has been for a long time.  Obama’s signal accomplishment has been to make that abundantly clear.  While we would attack many of George W. Bush’s decisions on policy grounds, we find the claim of his anti-Constitutionality to be overblown.  But just to show that we are non-partisan and broadminded: the fact that the United States Congress has not declared war since 1941, despite fighting in every region of the globe, almost without a break, since that date, is the single-strongest proof that the Constitution is no longer the supreme law of our land.

Historical parallels are rarely exact and real life never unfolds exactly as even the greatest works of political philosophy predict they will.  2016 America is some respects a late-stage democracy but in others it is more decisively an oligarchy.  If the American people are not thoroughly corrupt—not all of them—a big enough plurality is, and they serve as shock troops and foot soldiers for the ruling oligarchy.  The Corrupt Bargain: High+Low v. Middle.  And the middle is not nearly so strong—or, we must concede—so virtuous as it used to be.

To those on the “right” most appalled by Donald Trump, ask yourselves: would an incorrupt republic have elected Barack Obama?  Twice?  Especially after his manifestly dismal first term?  Would an incorrupt republic have settled for the only-slightly-above-average son of a former president—for no greater reason than that he was the son of a former president?  Would an incorrupt republic have looked past all of Bill Clinton’s manifest sordidness and elected him over a decent, if uninspiring, steward of American dignity?

The third leg in the ruling triad—replacing, you might say, Ronald Reagan’s three-legged stool—is the administrative state.  It was built by the ruling oligarchy and their allies in government and the intelligentsia.  It is to our governing arrangements what the drive-train is to an automobile.  The oligarchy drives.  The lower masses and the middle and upper fringes both go along for the ride and get to influence the direction and some of the stops.  The administrative state makes it all work—but also, like KITT the talking car, has a will of its own.  It allows itself to be driven, but only to destinations it approves, and—crucially—resists when anyone tries to take the car off road or turn it around.

Our fondest hope for Trump is that he can take control of the car and make it once again respond to popular will.  That sounds difficult—and the reality is much more difficult than it sounds.  For there is no single popular will any more, or anything close.  The country is more divided—fractured—than it has ever been, and yes, that includes the run-up to the Civil War.  Lincoln was dead right when he wrote to Alexander Stephens that North and South were divided by only one substantial difference.
Today, our differences are myriad and vast.  Some substantial number of the people living within America’s borders do not identify as American in any meaningful sense, including most of its Davoisie, no matter their formal “citizenship,” a concept we’ve allowed to cheapen into insignificance.  And among those of us who self-identify as Americans, we are not merely divided between liberals and conservatives—indeed, that old distinction hardly matters any more, if it even still materially exists.  The real division is between the oligarchs, their armies, and the mandarins of the administrative state on the one hand—and everyone else.  Neither side is particularly united in and of itself.  The former is by nature a fractious collation of competing interests: rich and poor, elite and underclass, white and “other”, other v. other, and so in in ways too numerous to count.  But each little part knows what it wants and it knows that it can only get that, or some of it, if all stick together.
The other side mostly wants to be left alone to live as they always have.  And since they mostly live similarly, this side is more naturally united.  But, being too preponderantly white, they cannot say so or act on their common interests without arousing Nazism charges, which they’ve internalized to the point that even the possibility that someone on the left might call them “racist” causes the brain immediately to seize up and change the subject.
Mostly, both sides are united in their opposition to, and dislike—even hatred—of the other.  In ancient terms, there is in our polis no “like-mindedness” (homonoia), which Aristotle equates with “political friendship” (Nicomachean Ethics IX 6) and which the Romans called “concord.”  The plebs and patricians of ancient Rome were often at each other’s throats, too, some might point out—as a way of shrugging plus ҫa change.  But the “orders” of Rome did not disagree on the good life, on the content of goodness itself.  They each, and equally, loved their fatherland and contended with each other over the distribution of offices and honors.  They understood the necessity of concord—they made it a goddess and built her atemple—even as they so often fell short of her mandate.
Contrast that with modern America, a country in which Al Gore mistranslates e pluribus unum as “Out of one, many” and in his error is actually more accurate to the spirit of our times.  With a result Aristotle predicted:
When people do not keep watch over the commons, it is destroyed.  It results, then, that they fall into civil factions, compelling one another by force and not wishing to do what is just themselves (1167b13-16).

Is the magnitude of the challenge beginning to sink in?

Here’s the really depressing part.  Recall the point above about Caesarism and inevitability.  If Sullivan (looking past his errors) and the “conservatives” (in spite of their prissiness) are right, then not only does America deserve Caesarism, there’s not really anything we could do to stop it.  Neither Sullivan nor the conservatives could possibly admit that but the internal logic of their arguments demand it.  If it’s true, then we have a very difficult matter to think through.

The historical Caesar led the party of the people, i.e., in the context of that time, the lower orders or the “left.”  That’s roughly analogous to what Steve Sailer calls our “Coalition of the Fringes.”  Our “right” is the historic American majority, and those who self-identify with its interests and/or desire to be a part of it.  This division is not nearly so neat as optimati v. populari in ancient Rome, as (for instance) the richest Americans tend to be on our “left” while our “right” tends to be significantly poorer than the blue city upper middle class and also rejects many tenets of “conservative” policy orthodoxy.  No wonder conservative pundits have had such a hard time understanding what is going on.  Although if they spent any time studying history, they might recognize that such patterns are rarely neat.  Even in Rome, many nominal patricians were by the time of the Civil Wars dirt poor, many of the leading optimati were homines novi, and Ceasar himself was an equestrian.

At any rate, the point here is that just because the “left” “won” and claimed the curile chair for itself that time, that doesn’t mean it will always do so.  Even though the cycle of regimes, on the downslope, shifts inexorably leftward, a left-wing Caesar is not inevitable.  The optimate Sulla, after all, won the first round and later relinquished power in a surprising act of forbearance.  Caesar defeated Pompey only because of the latter’s foolishness at Pharsalus.  Like the Battle of Waterloo, that was a near-run thing and could have gone either way.

All of this is to say: if we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be?  One of theirs?  Or one of yours (ours)?  We may return to this dismal theme later.  But for now, let us leave it covered with the veil by which it is justly covered.

For things may not have sunk quite so far just quite yet.  Despite all of America’s wretched fractures and self-inflicted wounds, there is still—we believe, for now—an American majority broadly united by American interests.  We caused immeasurable harm to our country via post-1965 mass immigration and the strip-mining of our industrial base.  Those who say “we can never go back” are certainly right, but their insistence on continuing “forward” is perverse.  Trump is the first major political to come along and say “Let’s stop digging!”

We doubt that America will ever be able to assimilate the current plethora of immigrants to the same admirable extent that we assimilated the giant Ellis Island cohort.  But we can surely do better than we’re doing now.  And even to try will require Trump’s wall and much else.  So let’s get on with it.

Similarly, we’re fairly confident—for myriad reasons—that America’s manufacturing sectors will never return to their full mid-20th century glory.  But the recent “insourcing” trend has proved that Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” need not always and forever suck only in an outwardly direction.  So why not adopt industrial policies that further this salutary, pro-American trend?

And the two go together.  Getting control of immigration and setting sound industrial policy will, together, improve the economic prospects of the lower half of our workforce to a greater extent than either would in isolation.  This will in turn at least partially unify their currently disparate interests.  Common economic interests can serve as the foundation for common cultural and political interests.  The result—someday—may not be exactly an idealized Concordia.  But it would be much better than what we have now—and much, much, much better than the future we’ll devolve to if we don’t radically change course.

Just because we can’t time travel back to 1965 doesn’t mean we must continue to hurtle toward a 2065 in which America is third-rate and Third World—and no longer meaningfully American, culturally, nationally or in its principles.
The foregoing may be the most optimistic thing I will ever write.  Don’t ask me if I believe it.  I do, however, know this: none of it—none—is possible unless we can get control of the administrative state.  Trump is the only candidate who offers even a glimmer of hope on that score.  We at JAG have received friendly criticism along the lines of “What you say about the administrative state makes sense, but there’s no way in hell Trump consciously understands himself as acting toward that goal.”

OK.  So what?  Trump doesn’t have to have read Kojeve to see that something is very wrong in American politics.  That not only are majority interests ignored, the popular will is similarly and routinely thwarted.  The people have repeatedly said “no” to more immigration, “no” to more free trade, and—after a brief post-9/11 enthusiasm—“no” to war without end or purpose in the Middle East.  But the administrative state, as noted, will not allow itself to be driven in a direction it does not want to go.

 

It therefore must be broken.  Only Trump has promised even to try.  Not in those terms, to be sure.  But he knows that the will of the people is not being heeded by our ostensibly “democratic” institutions.  This is another point that Sullivan gets wrong.  2016 America is “democratic” only its late-republican cultural rot.  It is certainly not “democratic” in the precise sense of “rule of the demos,” or the people—in the sense that popular will as expressed through votes controls the government.  The government rather controls us.  And it is certainly not “democratic” in the sense of offering “maximal freedom” or “full license to do ‘whatever one wants’,” as Sullivan claims.  In an observation that should be remembered but mostly is not, Mark Steyn noted almost seven years ago that:
At some point we will come to see that the developed world’s massive expansion of personal sexual liberty has provided a useful cover for the shrivelling of almost every other kind. Free speech, property rights, economic liberty and the right to self-defence are under continuous assault by Big Government. But who cares when Big Government lets you shag anything that moves and every city in North America hosts a grand parade to celebrate your right to do so?
“We,” collectively, have not quite yet reached this predicted point of recognition.  Sullivan certainly hasn’t.  He conflates one freedom—arguably the least important for human flourishing—with the whole of freedom and then blames freedom for our problems.
That’s not to say that all we need is more freedom—the go-to, knee-jerk response of every “conservative.”  Different times pose different challenges that call for different remedies.  Right now, what’s needed most is reassertion of the primacy of the political, of the people’s sovereignty, of their natural right to rule themselves over and against the wishes of the Davoisie and the dictates of the administrative state.  That will probably require, for the time being at least, more control and less freedom in certain areas.  It will certainly require more control over the borders, more control over our hiring and employment practices, and less economic freedom.
“Conservatives” may shriek.  But those whose mission and hope are to conserve the actual American nation rather than policy abstractions will see the necessity.  Similarly, we hope that those whose dearest wish is to conserve and restore the“abstract truth” at the heart of American principles will also see the necessity.  There is no saving America’s creed without saving America itself—the actual, physical America with its land and its people.  When and if that is accomplished, and the grip of the administrative state smashed or weakened, we can get back to the project of expanding and restoring our other freedoms.  But to focus on the latter now to the exclusion of the former is to fiddle while Rome burns.

 

—Decius

Everything Was Awesome

The 82nd post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.


[Editorial note: If you’ve been reading the commentary since Tuesday evening, you might have noticed that Trump’s impending nomination ruined an otherwise vibrant Republican Party and has hastened the fall of the Republic itself. And that’s without even mentioning his toxic contribution to an otherwise cheerful political scene. Things were working so great, we were inspired to imagine the world as seen by the Prophets of Trumpian Doom. —MANLIUS CAPITOLINUS]

BEFORE THE TRUMP TRAIN barreled through the Northeast Corridor this year, everything was awesome. The revival of America’s economy in the late 1990s culminated in spectacular, society-wide participation in the stock market, rising steadily since 1997. Day-trading was a simple remedy for bourgeois boredom, and the very same equities mutual funds bought in 1999 are paying steady dividends today, buttressed by the solid performance of mortgage-backed securities. The low price-to-earnings ratios of the Dow Jones and NASDAQ components make them the desire of value investors throughout the world. Suggestions that the dollar could be replaced as the world’s reserve currency have steadily dwindled. Earlier efforts by oil-producing nations as well as China and Russia to settle transactions outside the dollar have lost their traction.

The American public’s interest in negotiating advantageous trade deals was evident in the broad popular push for NAFTA in 1994. The Economist was incorporated into high school reading lists as part of the Republican Party’s national curriculum standards. So great was popular interest in NAFTA that details of the negotiations were public from the beginning, setting the stage for the nationwide TPP discussion in 2015. American popular participation in hammering out otherwise complex legal instruments became an example for the possibilities of democratic government. Periodic efforts by China to undercut American industries were met with stiff resistance by the WTO, which operated under a strictly constitutional arrangement with regular reporting and collaboration requirements as well as congressional oversight. When Iraq voluntarily adopted the U.S. Constitution in 2003, emissaries from the Project for a New American Century pointed to Americans’ understanding of trade agreements as proof that democracy works.

Prior to Trump’s fascistic oratorical style, American political discourse was also awesome. The revival of Firing Line by National Review‘s editors was part of a broader shift toward civil discourse in American public life begun by Roger Ailes. Town halls across New England played host to weekly Crossfire-like public debates, where a rotating group of citizens would calmly engage in reasoned discourse about the major issues of the day—discussions that often carried over to social media, where the 140-character minimum was practically unnecessary. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign carefully avoided the bombastic style some of his backers initially expected of it. Obama opted instead for a revival of the style of the fireside chat, disowning any suggestions of the historic nature of his campaign.

The additional funding first provided by the Bush Administration to the Immigration and Nationalization Service was also part of a wider program to standardize the education of immigrants in the principles of American political practice. But the administration’s democracy-exportation business was so awesome that applications for H-1Bs, permanent residency and naturalization gradually began to fall.

Amid a solidly rising housing market and the awesome domestic computer industry, American manufacturing kept its place as an honorable profession. Though poor bets by the car industry led to a brief decline in domestic automobile manufacturing, electronics manufacturing more than picked up the slack. Layoffs among the car manufacturers simply freed up labor to be put to work by Apple, whose network of small components manufacturers in Wisconsin and Michigan became a model for widely distributed manufacturing. Everything worked exactly as the Wall Street Journal said it would.

Everything was going to be awesome. But all was not well.

THE NEW GILDED AGE had its dangers just beneath the surface. As the Agenda of American Greatness was implemented first by Clinton and then Bush, the conservative Lumpencommentariat had been left behind. They still plied their trade, dutifully sending in paeans to the Reagan Revolution and attending reformism conferences in the dilapidated offices of D.C. think tanks. The hot money had long since left the D.C. area, the Acela Express had stopped running, and newly minted graduates were returning to their home states rather than living in the coastal company towns that had drawn so many Millennials before them.

It was an awesome time for those who mattered—for the trendy, sooty-cheeked Pennsylvania coal miners with their hipster affectations, for Detroit’s computer electronics factory workers and their First World pay standards, for those who accommodated themselves to the nation-state and shamelessly disregarded Principled Conservatism™.

We should have known that the Lumpencommentariat would fall for Donald Trump. His fifth-grade rhetorical ploys were right at home in the Twittersphere—in their home. They were but blank slates to be written upon by Trump’s call for “free trade, Uber, GMOs, fracking, and … driverless cars.” “Free markets must generate material inequalities,” he would shout. “It’s how life should work.”

Trump’s constant self-contradiction was no obstacle for the Thinkpiece-Industrial Complex. Though he defended material inequalities in one breath, in the next he was all “free trade not for the sake of the few but … the many“!—beguiling crowds with his made-for-TV non-sequiturs like “the economic program of nationalism is socialism.” Only those living inside the Rust Beltway could afford the wax needed to fill their ears from such Trumpian allurements.

Trump has nothing to offer of his own. A picture-perfect example of “nationalism is socialism” cronyism, he has systematically avoided building a property empire in the United States. His preference for liquid wealth over so-called real estate solidified his appeal to the class-interests of Manhattanites and political consultants.

Nothing needs to explain the appeal of Trump other than shared class interests. His constant volleys at the complacency of the Neo-Industrial Midwest, sitting squat in the middle of the country as the edges frayed, were perfectly calibrated to take advantage of the commentariat’s bitterness.

But there is nothing to him. The GOP’s success in 2008 and 2012, capped off by its efficient reforms to the health care system and its resistance to regulatory overreach, makes the coastal Trumpist class safe to ignore. Trump’s appeal to the white writing class is a small bump in the road of America’s continuing awesomeness, assuming we don’t let him ruin the show.

Paul Ryan was right to announce the non-announcement of his non-endorsement of the not-yet-nominee, just as he had done in 2012 with a similarly imperfect GOP candidate. No need to endorse someone who will surely lose. Hillary’s sonorous rhetoric will be a safe path through the vagaries of the general election.

Everything will be just ffff—Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. We are now crossing Flyover Territory. Please return to your seats and keep your seat belts fastened.

#NeverClue

The 81st post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.


George W. Bush destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other. He did this on spending, the size of government, war, the ability to prosecute war, immigration and other issues.

Were there other causes? Yes, of course. But there was an immediate and essential cause.

And this needs saying, because if you don’t know what broke the elephant you can’t put it together again. The party cannot re-find itself if it can’t trace back the moment at which it became lost. It cannot heal an illness whose origin is kept obscure.

Pretty fresh.  “Ripped from the headlines,” you might say.  And of course, accurate.

Who is this pundit with the trenchant insight?  Peggy Noonan—more than eight years ago.  Yet nearly a decade later, all the “principled conservatives” still don’t know who broke the elephant, or how they helped.  They #NeverWill.

—Decius

Guest Post from the Future by Thomas L. Friedman

The 80th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.


[Editors’ note: we can’t help but notice that conventional wisdom on certain Trumpian topics seems to be shifting of late, however slowly.  The following draft of a 2018 Tom Friedman column (yes, he writes his columns several years in advance–are you really surprised?) was recently made available to JAG by a dissident within the New York Times editorial board.  Reprinted in its entirety. — Plautus

The American Spring: Why Donald Trump’s America First Strategy Is Really a Twofer

by Thomas L. Friedman

The first rule of holes is, when you’re in one, stop digging.  When you’re in three, you need a lot more than a bunch of shovels—you need a bulldozer.  That’s what Donald Trump gets that others don’t.  Donald Trump has taken a bulldozer to our policy graveyard.

So how did we get here?

Three years ago I shared a cab in Dar es Salaam with a young entrepreneur named Goodluck.  Goodluck owned a growing manufacturing business.  He told me that just a few years earlier, he was a cafeteria worker for a giant Chinese conglomerate, making a few shillings a day.  He never would have dreamed of starting his own business, because it would have been impossible to compete with a glut of cheap imports.  Thanks to new trade policies designed to favor local businesses, however, he now runs three plants and is building a fourth, employing hundreds of Tanzanian workers.

I could not help thinking to myself, why can’t this happen in America?

 

We all know the answers: political gridlock between parties more concerned with ideological litmus tests than working together; a wasteful and chaotic foreign policy chewing up resources and dividing the country; a detached intellectual elite whose loopy globalist fantasies obscure real solutions to problems here at home.  Too many politicians; not enough dealmakers.

Back in New York, I happened to be having lunch with my old friend Corey Lewandowski.  We started talking about what might be done to make America great again.  I told him about my experience in Tanzania.  Then I picked up a napkin and drew a line across it.  “Do you know what that is, Corey?” I said.  “It’s a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.”

Yes, it really is that simple.

Fast forward to the present.  I just landed at the new airport in Pittsburgh, rebuilt under President Trump’s infrastructure plan, and am about to meet an old friend, Morry ‘theGrizz’ Taylor.  Morry ran for president in 1996 and now is the CEO of a major wheel manufacturing company.  He is one of a new breed of innovative CEOs like GE’s Jeff Immelt.  Both are returning to their industrial roots to grow their companies here in the USA.

Morry tells me business has never been better.  Now that we’ve straightened out our trade policies, he says, profits are way up.  He’s hired hundreds of workers and relocated supply chains closer to home.  As Larry Summers has written recently, productivity, wages and consumer spending are also on the upswing.  Just as I predicted in that lunch two years ago, Trump’s America First Strategy is a win-win-win for the domestic economy.

But then Morry’s tone changes.  “What do you think of Mike Bloomberg’s new Technocrat party and their free trade platform?” he asks me, “I’m concerned they might pick up seats in the midterms.”

“Morry,” I told him, “I don’t think about it.  You know what, sir?  I wrote a column opposing it, and I don’t even know what’s in it.  I just heard two words: ‘free trade,’ and I know that whoever says that doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Frankly, it’s embarrassing that, in 2018, we still have a major political party in this country that is running on the Manchester Liberalism of the 1800s.  America needs a responsible opposition party.  But the demagoguery of zealots like Mike Bloomberg is not governing liberalism.  It may work with the downwardly mobile, low-information voters in the DC suburbs, but out here in Pittsburgh, people see it for what it is: irresponsible scaremongering.

Morry is also excited about our improved relationships with foreign powers and the newly independent Kurdistan.  I agree.  Since the United states started basing its foreign policy on concrete national interests, we’re safer at home and more respected abroad.  Like I told my friend Michael Mandelbaum, professor of foreign policy at SAIS, the undirected foreign adventurism of the Bush and Obama administrations wasn’t win-win-win.  It was lose-lose-lose.  He calls it mission failure.  I call it failure to even have a mission.

But those days are over.  President Trump understands that we need to use hard power, soft power, and smart power.  It’s what I like to call very smart power.  It’s a Geo-Red-White-and-Blue policy for the 21st century.

That’s what people in the sunny uplands of a renewed middle America understand that too often escapes the inside-the-box crowd trapped in the cramped conference rooms of Davos.  Putting America first is really a twofer.

Globalism may have been a larger than usual blip on the news cycle radar screen, but today it belongs in the recycle bin of history.  Tomorrow belongs to the nation-state.

 

David Brooks is off today.

Leverage v. “Should” Diplomacy

The 79th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.


An old joke about American foreign policy mandarins holds that every S/P memo offers three alternatives: all-out nuclear attack, preemptive surrender, or the continuation of present policies. We were reminded of that by the consistent criticism that Trump is out of touchout of his depthall wrong—about China.  The only way forward in our relations with China is to keep doing exactly what we’re now doing.  There is no other way!  And why need there be, since it’s all working out for the best?  And even if it weren’t, there’s nothing we could do.

Of course, it’s not all working out for the best.  Only a blinkered (blinky?) ideologue could deny that at this point.

But that’s not the important part of the above formula.  More interesting is the implicit fait-accomplism.  Is it really true that there’s nothing we can do?

We’ve criticized before the typical American approach to diplomacy over the past 25 years or so, in which our side tells some other side that it “should” or even “must” do this or that.  It’s in your interest!  You need to be a stakeholder in the international system!  If you do this, everybody wins—you most of all!

No country has heard this tired speech more than China.  Its officials have endured it so many times they could recite it drunk.  I sometimes imagine Chinse diplomats blowing off steam after a long day at the MoFA, hitting a Sanlitun bar, knocking back a few and seeing who can best capture the cadence of Deputy Assistant Secretary Worthington C. Ebbinghausen as he reaches the peroration of the American “You Should” speech.  It must at the very least be difficult to keep to keep a straight face in actual meetings when Mr. Ebbinghausen begins his wind-up once more.

The bigger joke, of course, is our relentless naivety.  It must sound incredibly funny to hear us tell them what their interests are.  Like the leaders of any country, the ChiComs are pretty sure that they have a better idea of their own interests than we (or any foreigners) do.  They also have the good sense to pursue those interests through policy, negotiation and much else.  The fact that we don’t behave similarly with regard to our interests must strike them as insane—if also as an instance of their great good fortune.

Let’s hope that in a Trump Administration, Foggy Bottom, USTR, the NSC, and the rest of the sclerotic foreign policy bureaucracy will tear up that speech, forever bury “Should” Diplomacy, and send Mr. Ebbinghausen packing to CSIS.

The touchpoint of any foreign policy negotiation with an adversary is leverage.  To be effective, rather than exhorting the other side about what they should do, we need to explain what we wantthem to do—and then bluntly tell them what we are going to do if they don’t.  If you don’t have leverage, the whole point of the conservation is moot.  The discussion itself is worse than useless.

Does America have leverage over China?  Of course we do!  Two yuuuuge leverage points: we owe them a lot of money, and their economy is utterly dependent on access to our market.

I can hear the wise and good yelp as I type.  What are you suggesting?  That we default?  Destroy our credit and currency?  Start a trade war?  (Any suggested deviation from the Davos-quo is always denounced as the opening salvo in a “trade war.”)

Not exactly.  You know the old saw: if you owe the bank $100,000, you have a problem; if you owe the bank $100 million, the bank has a problem.  We owe China something above $1 trillion.  That’s a big problem—for them.

We’re far from being experts on Chinese industrial espionage and intellectual property theft.  But we do know that they are also big problems—for us.  There would seem to be a potential connection, no?  If you lent $100 to someone who then stole $50 from you, would you pay him back the full $100?  Maybe, if you’re a chump—which, as Trump points out, the last thee administrations at least have been.

Oh, sure, our officials acknowledge that it’s a problem.  They put it on the agenda at various summits, ministerials, bilats, trilats, multilats and other international fora.  The Chinese listen silently—and then do nothing, confident that everything will go on as before.  Because it always has. Because our side believes it has no leverage—at least none that it is willing to use—and that any deviation from the present course will bring on Armageddon.

Here’s an idea.  Get together some of the best intellectual property experts in the world.  Canvas industry and government for their stories.  Hire the best accountants you can find.  Commission the mother of all studies.  Put together a report longer than the ObamaCare law.

Then, at the next meeting with the ChiComs—when they’re sweetening their French Roasts in order to stay awake through yet another “You Should” speech, which they’re sure is coming—drop the report on the table with a loud thud.  And then surprise them with this speech:

Great to see you.

Here’s the executive summary of this report.  Over the last 37 years, you’ve stolen from us $750 billion in intellectual property [numbers made up for now, of course].  It’s all detailed in the report.  If you want to see the underlying analytics, we’ll upload them to a file locker of your choosing.  It’s 25 terabytes.  Yes, you’ve stolen that much—that we can account for.  We promise no viruses—we really want you to read this.

Our view is that all this theft amounts to in-kind contributions that cancel our debt on a dollar-for-dollar basis.  We’re happy to leave it at that—that is, in terms of what’s past.

Going forward, we obviously cannot continue to allow what’s taken place to continue.  Further such espionage will be met not merely with further debt cancellations, but also with tariffs, up to and including restrictions and even closures to given markets.  Our preference would be to restrict such closures to sectors directly related to those you target.  We try to be fair.  But we can’t promise anything.

If you’d like to talk about any of this—maybe make some gestures of goodwill to show us that you’ve gotten the message—we’re open to that.  Go ahead with your gestures—we’re happy to wait and see.  But not for long.  Say, sixty days.  Then the cancellations—which is to say, stopping service payments on debt that these figures show we’ve already paid in full—will begin.  And you can forget about a return of principal on maturity.

If you want to borrow further from us, that would be fine—just know that going forward, the same calculation will apply in perpetuity.  Whatever you get away with stealing, we count that as repayment.  Otherwise, we fully understand if you’d like to park your sovereign wealth somewhere else.  That could be tricky, given that we’re the only safe haven not currently charging negative interest.  But that’s really none of our business, and good luck to you.

Of course this can’t be done.  It just … can’t’!  Deputy Secretary Ebbinghausen is appalled at the mere suggestion!  Everyone would dump US debt.  Treasuries would be worthless.  The dollar would be finished as a reserve currency.  And so on.

Certainly there is risk in such a course.  But as to threats to our currency’s status, so long as our analysis is credible and rigorous, we can make the case to other borrowers that this move doesn’t apply to them.  Unless they too are thieves.

Ah, but sovereign debt is fungible.  What’s to stop the Chinese from dumping Treasuries?  Well, nothing—except that’s just another way for them not to get paid back.  Once we make the policy known (should it come to that; the threat might be the beginning of a fruitful new phase of our relationship and could be kept private), we can make it known to everyone else that, so long as they hold our debt, interest payments will be honored.  That would effectively freeze Treasury trading for a time, reducing its value as a liquid asset.  But the effect would be temporary—and worth it.

The alternative is to give in to the Ebbinghausens and fatalistically do nothing.  Or, rather, to consider “action” to be endless ineffectual complaints about Chinese stealing.  How’s that been working out for us?

This new approach might not work.  It might have unintended consequences.  But we’re going broke as it is.  We owe a quasi-hostile power more than 5% of our GDP—all the while, that power steals from us with impunity.  To refer once again back to JAG’s immortal motto: What difference, at this point, does it make?

—Decius

A Litmus Test for “New People”

The 76th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


As noted, our favorite part of Trump’s recent speech was his sensible call for “new people” to run American foreign policy.  Here’s a simple test to identify new people suitable to serve in the national security bureaucracy in a post Clinton-Bush-Obama world—new people to entrust with putting the pieces back together after what Conrad Black has called “decades of shabby and incompetent government.”

Were you against the Iraq War, but for the Surge, and against Obama’s 2011 bug-out?  That’s it.  Anyone who checks all three boxesshould be on the short list for the top jobs.

Against the Iraq War: we’re not as hard over on this point as some would like us to be.  We think there were defensible reasons to be for the war—in 2002-3.  It was not an easy call to make at the time, despite what some others insist.

However, no later than the Spring of 2004, it should have been painfully obvious to everyone that the invasion was a mistake.  Hence those who opposed it initially were right and those of us who supported it were wrong.  Since, as Thucydides taught us so long ago, the supreme quality of the statesman is foresight (pronoia; πρόνοια), the judgement of those whose foresaw the calamity and urged against it should be preferred to those who did not foresee it, or who indeed denied it.  This is just elementary common sense.

More controversial will be our position on the Surge.  Most Iraq War opponents (and, we venture to speculate, many current Trump supporters) similarly opposed the Surge—some because they are reflexively anti-war, some out of a misplaced “consistency,” and others because they saw no compelling national interest in it.

The first two reasons hardly require refutation.  As to the third, the reason to support the Surge was not out of any moral obligation to stabilize Iraq after having shattered it—Colin Powell’s so-called “Pottery Barn rule.”  We do not dismiss such moral obligations out of hand.  But rarely do moral considerations take ultimate precedence in issues of war and peace.

For the Surge: the purpose was, first and foremost, to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq, an avowed and dangerous enemy of the United States. As should be obvious by now, despite our confirmed opposition to the neocons, and whatever our sympathies with the alt-right on immigration, trade, and the foreign policy disasters of the last two decades, we do not share the view (admittedly not universal on the alt-right) that the U.S. has no interests in the Muslim world, that terrorism is an overblown neocon boogeyman, that if only we didn’t support Israel Muslims wouldn’t hate us, and so forth.  In short, where and to the extent that the alt-right starts to sound identical to the anti-American left, we part company with them and stand with Trump.

The defeat of al-Qaida in Iraq was a serious boost to American prestige after the debacle of the Iraq occupation to that point, and a serious blow to al-Qaida and Islamist radicalism* in the region and worldwide.  It stopped cold, for the time being, a movement that up to that point had been growing.  It made attacks on American interests overseas and on the American homeland much less likely.

As to the withdrawal: It does not follow from the fact that it would have been better never to have been in Iraq in the first place, that the right policy was to get out as soon as possible, on whatever terms available.  Having stabilized the country, it was in American interests to help it remain stable.  A stable Iraq would have been a bulwark against terror and a continued American presence (not nearly the 170,000 troops at the peak of the surge, but 10-20,000) would have deterred enemies and acted as a rapid response force against other threats in region.

Note that we did not say “a democratic Iraq.”  Here, though, we bump into a problem that anti-democratizers underestimate.  The American people, or a sizeable portion thereof, do not like the United States to openly prop up non-democratic regimes.  We suppose this arises from our own commitment to democracy and perhaps to our success with Germany and Japan after World War II. Whatever the reason, as we’ve seen especially since 1945, a big chunk of American public opinion does not like America to have non-democratic allies, and the more we are involved in another country’s affairs, the less they like it.  Now, we are convinced there was no way—never any way—for the U.S. to democratize Iraq.  The best we could have done is to have nudged Iraq in a less-bad direction, consistent with its own social structures, Islam, and domestic public opinion.  Which would have likely resulted in a more or less authoritarian regime with pluralistic elements that reigned in the worst impulses of such regimes.  That would have been fine with us—and should have been enough for any sane foreign policy establishment.  However, it would also have required an element of hypocrisy: that is, a consistent over-stating of how democratic this new Iraq actually was and an over-selling of America’s effort to make it even more so.  Adults can understand and accept this.  We belabor this point because it is important that said “new people” understand it and are prepared to act accordingly if America ever finds itself in a similar circumstance.  Which, we reiterate, only a stupid establishment would seek.  But sometimes empire results from necessity rather than choice.

Against the bug-out: just as the success of the Surge in defeating al-Qaida in Iraq was a big boost for America and serious loss for our enemies, the bug-out was a huge blow to American prestige and a morale windfall for our enemies.  It led, among other things, directly to the rise of ISIS and to al-Qaida’s successes in controlling territory throughout the Muslim world.

Why does this matter to us?  It is, alas, necessary in these corrupt times to re-explain elementary things.  1) Because we still need Middle Eastern oil and as long as we do, we have a vital national interest in not allowing a hostile power to control the supply or the choke point through which it must be transported.  Yeah, yeah, I know that Saudi Arabia is a quasi-hostile power, but at least these days it’s also one that is glutting the market rather than trying to starve us.  As noted earlier, it’s doing so for hostile reasons, whichthere are ways to combat.  And this is not the place to go into the Saudi role in 9/11 beyond saying that we are not complacent on this point.  At any rate, clearly America has an interest in increasing our (and Canada’s) hydrocarbon production as much as possible.  To the extent that we can accomplish that, perhaps our military role in the Middle East can be commensurately reduced.

But not eliminated, however much we may wish for that outcome.  Which brings us to reason #2.  A lot of Muslims still want to kill us. They want to blow up Manhattan and Washington again.  And much else.  We can change our policies to be less stupid—and we should; we must—but their hatred will not change in response, nor will their efforts slacken.  Of all the stupidities of the alt-right, perhaps the worst (though, again, far from omnipresent) are their apologetics on behalf of Islamic militancy, which arise (certainly in part) from Jew-hatred.  If only we ended our support of Israel, the terror threat would go away!  We don’t doubt that for many radical Muslims, America’s support for Israel is indeed a factor in their hatred.  But … so what?  We could end that support tomorrow and some of that hatred might dissipate.  But would all of it?  Most of it?  Would the most committed give up the fight?  A cursory look at their rhetoric is sufficient to settle the issue.  The question for us should be: Is the US-Israel alliance in America’s national interest? And, yes, that should include the related question: Does it cost us more than it gains us?  But the assertion that They Hate Us Because Israel is a fantasy.

We note, almost as an aside, the glaring contradiction between this—the alt-right’s weakest argument—and what is undoubtedly its strongest.  Mass Third World immigration has been a disaster for the West generally and for the U.S. specifically.  Muslim immigration is the biggest disaster within that broader disaster—a Towering Inferno within the Poseidon Adventure.  The alt-right is dead right about that.  So it’s puzzling and frustrating to read some of those same voices write so insouciantly and admiringly about innocent Muslims lambs and how American-Israeli imperialism has caused all this justified blowback.  Even if every negative thought they ever had about Israel and the Jews were correct, why does that necessarily translate to pro-Islamism?  Is it simply enemy-of-my-enemy short-sightedness?  The alt-right is quick and ruthless (and justified) in ridiculing “conservatives” who make silly concessions to the racialist left hoping they will be given credit for being “not racist!”  Why do some make the same futile gestures toward Islam?  Above all, how do they square their sensible view that mass Third World immigration undermines the West with their Islamophilia?

Yes, we’re aware that liberal Jews are guilty of a similar myopia from the opposite side.  Walls for me but not for thee; immigration is essential for the U.S. but poison for Israel; etc.  This position is, in its own way, just as dumb as the alt-right’s.  Is Muslim immigration to the West really good for the Jews?  It’s a measure of how dire circumstances are that even some of the most clearheaded dissenting voices, at least on the issues that they can see clearly, are utterly foolish on directly-related issues that they misperceive more spectacularly than Mr. Magoo.  In our darker moments, we envision a vast arena, in which the Islamophiliac anti-Semites, the pro-Muslim immigration liberal Jews, and the Muslim radicals who want to slaughter both could all … interact.  Would anyone learn anything?  The Muslims—the fox in this henhouse—would know all they need to know going in.

Delusion seems to be the most prominent common thread running through 2016.  So let’s cut the cord short of further bloodshed. Here’s one way to start.  Appoint to positions of power new people who were against the Iraq invasion, for the Surge, and against the bug-out: the only sensible position on the sad, sorry arc of American involvement in Iraq.  We would also add: people who were against the Libya intervention, against the Arab Spring (or at least honest about its baleful effects, even if there’s not much we could have done to stop it), and against the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt.  Anyone who was wrong on these issues not only has no place in a Trump Administration, but in any administration whatsoever.  Though it appears that many of them will get plum jobs in a second Clinton Administration.  One more reason to reject #NeverTrump.

—Decius

* We don’t here wish to get into the weeds of the proper terminology by which to refer to America’s Islamic enemies.  We’ve read all the arguments: “Islamist” imposes a Western ideological construct those called “Islamists” do not themselves adhere to, “radical Islam” implicitly presumes a moderate Islam which does not exist, and so on.  Call them whatever you want.  We make a fundamental distinction between those who want to kill us and those who don’t, or between those who work to kill us and those who don’t.  We stand by our argument that, whatever the general proportion of each group in broader Muslim population, Islam and the West are incompatible, that it was foolish for the West to allow Muslim immigration (beyond, perhaps, a very small number of highly educated, skilled, secular people), and that Muslim immigration to the West should be halted forthwith.

The Lion and the Lamb

The 75th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


Harry Jaffa enjoyed repeating that, like Tom Sawyer, he “never attended any religious services except under the sternest compulsion.” But every once in a while, Aunt Polly managed to drag Tom to church.  On one such occasion, Tom

was really interested for a little while. The minister made a grand and moving picture of the assembling together of the world’s hosts at the millennium when the lion and the lamb should lie down together and a little child should lead them. But the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy; he only thought of the conspicuousness of the principal character before the on-looking nations; his face lit with the thought, and he said to himself that he wished he could be that child, if it was a tame lion.

Trump, like Aslan, is not a tame lion.  Yet apparently Marco Rubio is warming to the idea of laying down with him.  We hope, at any rate, that Rubio is not the little child who shall lead them.

—Decius

Trumpian Accomplishments, Part I: The End of Big Data

The 74th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


THIS JOURNAL‘S OCCASIONAL DOUBTS about Trump’s value as a vehicle for Trumpism are not intended to detract from the real accomplishments of Trump’s campaign. First among them has been the precipitous decline and fall of Big Data in political elections. The Trump campaign demonstrates a very simple proposition. The political realm requires personal judgment. Where there is no judgment there is no politics. Where there is no politics there is no judgment.

As recently as 2012 Big Data was said to be the ticket to success in presidential elections. Sasha Issenberg’s Victory Lab heralded the role of analytical social science in remaking the presidential campaign. His September 2012 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal welcomed readers “to the modern science of politics, where voters have become lab rats in an ongoing cycle of controlled trials informed by principles from behavioral psychology.” Campaigns, he enthused, “are now awash in data and insights that allow them to act on that data.” Many further reports, including postelection analysis from Issenberg, documented Big Data efforts to study potential voters.

Hacking voters’ brains, as Issenberg called it, was a particular specialty of the Obama campaign. Crucial to this voter-hacking was that the voter-hackers should adopt the affectations of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and look somewhat hip but unconcerned, and carry around a MacBook (see Exhibit A below). “Future campaigns ignore the targeting strategy of the Obama campaign of 2012 at their peril,” The New York Times quoted Ken Goldstein as saying.

The “conservative” movement attempted to make quick study, and National Review‘s role in promoting worthless data analytics on the right should not be forgotten. “The task before the GOP now is similar to the one that confronted Democrats a decade ago,” wrote NRO’s media editor in 2014: “to effect a cultural shift within the Republican party, toward what GOP strategist Ruffini calls ‘data-driven decision making’ all the way down the ballot.”

AEI was also quite certain that Big Data would be yuuuuuuuge! “Astronomical feats of data crunching,” Mark Mills wrote in 2012, “are now affordable, enabling new and previously unimaginable services and businesses.” Big Data was Marc Thiessen’s pat explanation of the Romney loss. And AEI has held events on the innovations that could result from applying Big Data techniques in the world of federal statistics.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump had trademarked the slogan “Make America Great Again” in November 2012, without a Republican consultant, National Review writer or data analyst anywhere nearby. While the helpless political science profession writes grant proposals for research in Trump Studies, you can read our results right now. (They’re reading us, too.)

The failure of the Romney campaign’s polling-place analytics was supposed to be motivation for better “investment” in data analytics by Republican campaigns in the future. In the immediate wake of Obama’s 2012 victory, only skeptical leftish essayists warned us to “Beware the Smart Campaign.” “You should be worried,” wrote Zeynep Tufecki, “even if your candidate is—for the moment—better at these methods. Democracy should not just be about how to persuade people to vote for one candidate over another by any means necessary.”

Exhibit A. Advanced data analytics and tactics team BECAUSE SCIENCE!, Obama Campaign, circa 2012.

IN THE CURRENT CYCLE, Ted Cruz’s now-finished campaign spent on invested in Big Data analysis most of all (see Exhibit B). The campaign gave voters and potential volunteers different classifications, from “relaxed leader” to “temperamental conservative” and (eerily) “true believer.” The Washington Post even implausibly suggested that Cruz’s efforts were somehow retro, “a multimillion-dollar bet that such efforts still matter in an age of pop-culture personalities and ­social-media messaging.” A funny thing to say, since microtargeting was at the heart of Facebook-centric “social-media messaging.”

Cruz’s shamelessness in using Big Data extended all the way to his use of the clergy, a fact tending to confirm John Boehner’s judgment on the inner core of the Cruz phenomenon now past. “The campaign’s personality and issues data,” WaPo noted, “was used to determine which pastors to contact for recruitment as county ‘pastor chairs’ for Cruz.”

Exhibit B. Senator Ted Cruz surveys a large data set during his successful 2016 campaign to pimp the GOP Establishment.

After Cruz’s success in Iowa, some Big Data apologists attempted to call the defeat of Trump on the spot. Cruz had slithered his tongue in just the right way for each voter whose ear he had, while Trump had pitched his message to a multitude that did not exist. Trump’s ability to speak his mind to a large number of voters, rather than pretending to be something different to each, was suddenly proof of his evil.

Eliana Johnson, National Review‘s Big Data cheerleader, was right on cue with her endorsement of Cruz’s data savvy—further evidence of his strength in the general election. Eliana, who graduated from NR media editor to Washington editor since her earlier article, breathlessly reported that “statistical awareness permeates the culture of the [Cruz] operation from the candidate to his most junior aides.” And NR devoted an entire article of hers in summer 2015 to Cruz’s statistical prowess.

The campaign with “perhaps the most advanced, or at least the most ambitious” Big Data analysis has now flopped.

TRUMP’S USE OF THE SOCIAL MEDIA has played a role in his success, but not in the way most writers have suggested. The thinkpiece industry is incapable of identifying any political factors behind Trump’s rise. “The only thing that’s really changed between Trump’s other attempts to run for office and now,” says Vanity Fair, “is the advent of social media.” Never mind that the real actors in the social media world are the media companies themselves. Facebook’s laughable denials that it would ever, ever, no never ever seek to influence the 2016 election are contradicted even by The Atlantic.

Since Facebook’s analytical tools won’t be enough to tilt the election, Mark Zuckerberg’s only hope is to use his own media platform as a vehicle for his own anti-Trump campaign. But since the platform he is using was built to negate political action by neutralizing it through the social medium, he cannot win. He cannot be a political actor.

Meanwhile, an early examination of Trump’s website showed that it did not even have the simplest data-collection tools built into it.

Though Jonah Goldberg did throw cold water on the Big Data push, mainstream conservatives’ opposition to Trump is at odds with any doubts they might express about the use of analytics in presidential campaigns. If they conclude that analytics, microtargeting and narrowcasting are corrupting political rhetoric (which they are), then Trump is the only alternative.

Trump’s ability to halt the triumphant conquest of data also shows the particular accomplishments of Trump as a political personalityand separate from the phenomenon of Trumpism. No other candidate expressing the Agenda of American Greatness has sufficient established celebrity to parlay into the bold restoration of American political rhetoric (see Exhibit C) based on immediate personal judgment—a Trumpian accomplishment that JAG will examine later in this series.

Trump disregarded data analytics because he knew that his views genuinely represented what the silent American majority were thinking all along. His instinctive knowledge of the real though often neutralized American polity was the basis of his confidence in ignoring what poorly framed surveys claimed to reveal about the temperament of particular voters.

Trumpian data science exists in spite of the contrasts we’ve outlined between Trump’s approach and the approach Big Data facilitates. The campaign has begun a limited use of data analysis in some circumstances. “The data push,” Politico reported in January, “is focused on integrating information Trump has collected, through his campaign website and at voter rallies, on nontraditional or unregistered supporters.” The campaign’s emphasis on “nontraditional or unregistered supporters” does not serve the same antipolitical end served by Big Data analysis more generally. The core Trumpian message already resonates with those who aren’t surveyed by the usual means. Rather than seeking to neutralize political participants through microanalysis and manipulation of their preferences, Trumpian data analysis simply identifies those who are receptive to Trump’s public, personal political message.

Exhibit C. The Trump data analytics team, media operation and speechwriting studio.

IN ITS DAY, BIG DATA WAS an enemy of political judgment. By taking preference-modeling as its goal it framed politics in terms of economics. It drew the categories of its preference-modeling from psychological science, whose main accomplishment in the past year has been to reveal most of its studies as entirely baseless. Psychologists have no way of including “patriotism” as a term in their analyses, patriotism being a value-laden term. It’s safe to say that “American greatness” was never included either as a motivating independent variable in explaining voter action, nor as a dependent variable in any analysis of the outcomes produced by the American political system.

Because Big Data in politics attempts to psychologize political judgment, it works only to the extent that politics is absent. It is an extension of the managerial science this Journal opposes. And Donald Trump has brought about its demise.

The failure of Big Data proves the existence of the national political phenomenon to which Trump appeals. No politician following the cues of the data sets would have attempted the appeal which Trump decided on in the darkest days of 2012. It required a statesman who knew that the basis of real political deeds, even in 2016, lay in love of real community.

Presented with the option to side with real political rhetoric or leave it for the restoration of data science, conservative leaders have chosen the latter. Those who claim to sympathize with Trumpism but reject its current vehicle are choosing the latter, as well. The opportunity to speak about what matters is now or never.

There, political scientists. A few theses for your grant proposals. Don’t forget to cut us a check. We’ll be too busy paying attention to politics to find out who owes us for their ideas.

—MANLIUS CAPITOLINUS

Trumpian Prudence?

The 71st post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in April, 2016.


Actually, “Trumpian prudence” is a very large question which we don’t have time to explore right now.  But it would be worth examining the Trump campaign through the lens of Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI.  Weekend project, maybe.

In the meantime, read this extraordinary memo from a former Cruz operative explaining why Trump is winning/has won.  (As an aside, we repeat how counterintuitive it is that the neocon flagship and stalwart anti-Trumpite Weekly Standard remains infinitely more interesting than the competition.)

Key paragraphs:

I believe Trump ran a better campaign than Cruz for two reasons:

1)  Republican voters not only wanted an outsider candidate for president, they wanted that candidate to campaign like an outsider

2)  The conventional strategies and tactics on running in the presidential primary had become so stale that an outsider with disdain for professional politics found a new way to win using common sense 

Trump’s simple, straightforward strategy of trying to win in every state, take as much free media as possible, have an inclusion attitude toward getting voters, and appear in front of as many people as possible proved to be sledgehammer against the old way. And unlike just about every other past self-funder, Trump did not let his campaign take him for a ride.

Political professionals have gotten so much power in presidential campaigns that they have diluted the candidates of a message and put up barriers to getting votes. They convince the candidates to run from most media interviews for fear of a gaffe (making them ultimately more gaffe-prone since they get rusty), stick to a boring, limited stump speech to give their talking points more resonance (even though saying something in a new way is more potent), and slice and dice the voters so that virtually everything the candidate says is geared toward an interest group rather than the electorate per se.

Why? Being stage-managed gives more power to the consultants. It makes the candidates more dependent on staff and vendors to navigate them through the torture chamber those people make the election into. The consultants become the smart people and the candidate is a commodity. This attitude is shared by the political media, whose access to the candidates is dependent on sharing a worldview about campaigns with those consultants.

It’s giving Trump too much credit to say that he meant to expose the stupidity of professionalized politics, but that’s what he ended up doing. And he got lucky in the sense that his final primary opponent – although in just about every other way the type voters were looking for in 2016 – was somebody who leaned on that professionalism.

Preach!

The humiliation—the emperor-is-naked exposure—of political consultants is surely one of the most satisfying elements of the 2016 cycle, no matter what the eventual outcome.  For a moment, it appeared that Trump might be assimilated into the consultancy Borg.  Don’t get us wrong; we’re all for Trump professionalizing his delegate-wrangling operation, and if Manafort can accomplish that, great.  Similarly, we’re all for Trump adopting a little discipline.  Not necessarily to the Rubiot extent.  But how about, you know, not directly contradicting his own core policy agenda?

Well, apparently Trump is chafing under the new regime and wants to be Trump again.  We’re somewhat dismayed by the leaks coming out of his camp since the arrival of Manafort.  Until then, the operation had been tight-lipped.  Let’s hope they can get back to that.  Meanwhile here’s to hoping that Trump continues to resist the Borg (resistance in this case definitely NOT futile) and from here on out states his consistent support for the Greatness Agenda.

—Decius