One Cheer For Anti-Anti-Trumpism

[Note: I wrote the following before the big story dropped about Pres. Trump allegedly revealing highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador.  As the story remains as yet unresolved, it’s probably good to take Sean Connery’s advice.  And what I wrote before the story broke remains relevant now, maybe more so.]

I really didn’t want to spend a third posting on the argument about anti-anti-Trumpism; I have been trying to work though bigger issues here at the blog.  But it turns out there’s at least three more points to cover and it’s better to address them while it’s still a current topic.

Responding to Charlie Sykes, Dan McLaughlin argues: “We shouldn’t be only anti-anti-Trump, but there is nothing wrong with being anti-anti-Trump, because politics didn’t begin with Trump, it doesn’t consist solely of Trump today, and it won’t end with him, either.”

I generally agree that Trump’s presidency should not preclude criticism of the Left (including the establishment media).  But in claiming that Sykes was painting with a broad brush in critiquing “much of the conservative news media,” McLaughlin overlooks that Sykes named names — arguably the loudest voices in “conservative” media.  Sykes wrote:

“In a lamentably overlooked monologue this month, [Rush] Limbaugh embraced the new reality in which conservative ideas and principles had been displaced by anti-liberalism. For years, Mr. Limbaugh ran what he called the ‘Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.’  But in the Trump era, he told his audience, he has changed that to the ‘Institute for Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies.’ “

Sykes also singled out Tucker Carlson, who happens to have the flagship program of Fox News Channel’s primetime lineup.  He further identified Sean Hannity — FNC’s cleanup batter and America’s No. 2 “conservative” radio talker — as a self-abasing Trump sycophant.

Should Sykes also have run a statistical study of how often Breitbart News is critical of Trump?  Should he have noted that Bret Stephens almost certainly left the Wall Street Journal for the New York Times in large part due to the WSJ’s Trumpian editorial shift?  Should he have skewered some of the smaller-time talking heads on Fox by name?

I’ll grant you that other outlets present diverse views on Trump and his actions, but the largest “conservative” outlets with the largest audiences lean (or lurch) anti-anti-Trump at a minimum.

I don’t think it was necessary for Sykes to go into all of that on a granular level.  If anything, the response I have received over the past few days (both public and private) suggests to me that anyone who cares about the topic knows exactly to whom Sykes is referring.

Another objection I have seen is that labeling some people on the right as anti-anti-Trump (or NeverTrump for that matter) smacks of an ad hominem attack on some level.

I do not agree with this entirely.  An ad hominem attack is directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.  Attacking the newfound position of someone like Limbaugh is — on the surface, anyway — close to the opposite of ad hominem.

Beneath the surface, it could be argued that pointing out there are some who seem to be trimming its sails to some degree implies an attack on the character of people within the bloc.  I am not sure that it does, so let’s explore this a bit.

In my world, the true anti-anti-Trumpist would be someone who is often privately not a fan of Trump on a character level or on a policy level (in those cases where he deviates from various forms of traditional conservatism), but publicly spends 80-90% of his or her time complaining about Trump’s opponents, even in those cases of private doubt.

When such people are mostly in the public sphere for the audience and the money, e.g., as I tend to think most of the radio talkers are, it can be argued that there’s no character issue involved.  If you accept politics as tribalism, serving the audience is arguably no more a vice than a criminal defense lawyer working even for the guilty.

OTOH, the more someone is in the arena for more than an audience, more than a smallest-c conservative tribal advantage, the more of a conscience issue emerges.

Conservatives ostensibly believe in personal responsibility; true anti-anti-Trumpism will tend to avoid questions of personal responsibility for the most powerful.  Also, conservatives ostensibly value personal character; if the President already has paid defenders, the ethical question of volunteering to deflect from actions you may believe to be wrong could present itself over time.

Lastly, there is that one cheer for anti-anti-Trumpists mentioned in the title.  It’s entirely possible that some members of this bloc believe the Trump skeptics or the “balls-and-strikes” conservatives to be false on some level, given the recent history of the GOP.

It is possible to look at the degree to which conservatives signed onto George W. Bush’s big-government conservatism (or largely dropped/muted their objections thereto) and wonder if there isn’t a bit of a double standard at work.  Or to look at conservatarians who defended the Obama-era GOP Congress on the ground that they were better than a Democratic Congress and wonder why the same rationale isn’t just as good for defending Trump.

My response to this line of thinking is to admit that I probably did cut the Bush administration too much slack and to agree that the Obama-era GOP Congress probably could have been a more effective opposition (had they been, the sort of problems they have had with the Cruz/Freedom Caucus faction might have been reduced).  But then the question becomes whether (or what) we want to learn from those mistakes.

I would submit that one reason many Trump skeptics and “balls-and-strikes” conservatives become frustrated with Trump is because they hoped — consciously or otherwise –a victory in 2016 would allow them to not only learn from, but also correct, some of those mistakes.  Instead, the Right now has a unified government but is often getting the circus of reality television instead.

Not all of this is Trump’s fault.  The trainwreck of how the GOP House initially addressed the healthcare reform bill is mostly on the House and exposed an essential lack of seriousness concealed for the prior seven years.  And of course the Left does what the Left does.  But Trump is responsible for much of this year’s meshugas as well.

It ought to be alright for all of this to be discussed in public, off the backchannels.  But tribes gotta tribe.  So here we are.

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William Jefferson Trump

It turned out I wasn’t the only one critical on Friday of the reflexive anti-anti-Trump response to Pres. Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.  Charlie SykesChris Stirewalt and Amanda Carpenter struck a similar theme, and more (including Jonah Goldberg) did throughout the weekend.

I’m glad that sort of conservative criticism is getting wider circulation, if only because the Left is going to convince itself that opinion doesn’t exist.  But I remind myself that it likely won’t matter.

Almost three months ago, I wrote about the Trump-era GOP playing out The Bill Clinton scenario.

“Bill ran for President as a heterodox, more centrist figure in his party.  He won despite the way he treated women.  Nicknamed “Slick Willie” as far back as 1980, his relationship with the truth was as casual as his relationship with the opposite sex.  He lied about things large and small; parsing his lawyerly evasions became a cottage industry for his critics.

“Bill Clinton, his Administration, and his associates became mired in a swamp of scandals of varying import.  He was impeached (though not convicted) and disbarred from practicing law in Arkansas and in front of the Supreme Court over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“Despite the scandals, triangulations and losing control of Congress to the GOP for the first time in 40 years (indeed, perhaps in part because of the latter), Democrats ultimately stood by their man like Tammy Wynette.  *** Bill rallied the party faithful by expertly playing the victim of what Hillary Clinton would infamously dub as a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

And here we are.  You can argue that a continuing oppo campaign against Trump from former Obama officials and perhaps the “deep state” represent an escalation, but every Presidency faces an opposition that is somewhat organized (in the form of a political party) or naturally gravitating toward certain lines of attack (as from an ideological opponent).

Moreover, like Bill Clinton, Trump has a flair for throwing suspicion on himself even when an underlying scandal is ultimately revealed to be slim or tangential.

So far, as during the Clinton era, the impact on Trump’s presidency has been minimal.  Public opinion is largely echoing the preexisting partisan opinions about Trump.

Conservatives who were long critical of Comey will convince themselves Trump always agreed with them, even though Trump’s public comments, actions and tweets suggest he initially approved of Comey but tired of hearing about the Russia investigations.

Or they will pretend that if Comey was in their opinion incompetent, it doesn’t matter that Trump’s apparent actual motive was sketchy at best.  Many of the same people will recognize it’s wrong for the Supreme Court to elevate politics above the law in opinions that make the pretext evident, but miss that the President should avoid a political motive when it comes to the FBI, whose director has a 10-year term for a reason.

After all, if the evidence leads us to conclude Trump fired Comey to express his displeasure with the Russia investigations and media coverage thereof, it would be hard for even longer-term Comey critics to downplay the reaction to the firing as partisan and hypocritical.

Thus, it is not shocking that the story of Comey’s firing has received little traction so far.  Of course, political junkies like anyone reading this should consider that perhaps the story will sink in with casual viewers more over time, or take on greater weight if other shoes drop regarding the Russia investigations (I still don’t expect any Shaq-size shoes to drop here).

OTOH, the Comey story may not move the needle much, if at all.  It could be that the hysteria with which the Democrats and their media react to every Trump story has created an environment in which the casual viewer does not see the Comey story as standing out from a dozen others.

Furthermore, note that Clinton’s reflexive defenders, including those who blamed the VRWC (largely conservative media) for Bill’s woes generally didn’t ruin their careers over it, even after the Lewinsky scandal.  Similarly, those who entertained all the darkest speculation about every Clinton scandal didn’t ruin their careers over the number of those scandals that turned out to be weak beer in the final analysis.

Why?  Again, it has something to do with both tribalism and institutions.  If a party or movement circles the wagons (or goes on an attack) and objectively winds up looking foolish in hindsight, there is a sort of collective guilt that goes unspoken publicly.  This may be part of why trust in institutions is so low now, but the coastal elites aren’t going to surrender or destroy careers to keep institutions cleaner.  This may also be why the tribes do not reward heresy, especially if the heresy turns out to be correct.

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Trump Fired Comey? I Blame the Media, Obviously.

This is pretty much where I’m at.  Although I think Shapiro is specifically addressing Pres. Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, some version of this should be more broadly applicable.

Much of the anti-anti-Trump crowd, however, can only get halfway there.  Or, if they find any fault with the White House, they’re not saying.

I’ve already explained why I’m trying to avoid falling into the anti-anti-Trump camp; no need to rehash it here.  Instead, I’ll focus on how Shapiro’s tweet sparked am additional clarifying moment for me.

In recent weeks, I have been writing about culture as an amalgamation of institutions.  I have also been suggesting conservatives should be revisiting our predeliction for preserving institutions, at least in cases where the Left has already succeeded in effectively crippling or subverting them through infiltration or external political pressure.

I have been slowly and incrementally working through such questions against the backdrop of a century of progressive successes in marching through our culture’s non-governmental institutions, including the media.

Consequently, Shapiro’s tweet jumped out at me for a point that can be made about institutions.

As previously noted, I have largely written off the establishment media as being amenable to reform anytime in the foreseeable future.  The establishment media is largely a broken institution.  It can be said that their hysterical reaction to Trump represents an escalation, but the same could have been said of any incoming GOP administration (particularly that of George W. Bush who — like Trump — managed an Electoral College victory without winning the popular vote).

It is not as though the Right — and conservative media in particular — has not escalated in the ferocity of its attitude towards Democrats and their administrations.  They hit us, so we hit them back.  Bada-bap, bada-boop, bada-beep.

Maybe our government is also a broken institution (though I would not rate it as broken as our media).  That perception, ironically, is part of How We Got Trump.

But unlike the establishment media, our government is a public institution and one defined by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  Citizens therefore can and should demand better of our government, even if the media’s private status makes it more durable than any given administration.

Indeed, if you view or justify Trump’s election as a rebuke to Beltway politics as usual, there should be less tolerance for his administration misleading us (at best) regarding why Trump, by his own account, fired the FBI Director.  That Trump has the Constitutional authority to dismiss him, or that we might agree with the pretext for the decision, in no way excuses our government from honestly accounting for the decision.

[Regarding the pretext: While most of the dishonesty here came from Trump’s employees, Trump himself now claims Comey did a bad job after praising him before the election and asking him to stay on in January.  Yesterday, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified at a Senate hearing that Comey “enjoyed broad support” within the FBI.  Thomas O’Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association, called that support overwhelming.  A March Harvard-Harris poll showed Comey had bad approval numbers, but only 35 percent had an unfavorable view of him; a large number of voters had no opinion.]

I would find it much easier to focus on attacking the media for their obsession over unproven accusations linking Trump campaign associates with Russia if we did not have a President who had it in mind when he fired Comey.  Many conservatives (myself included) may tend to think that because there is no evidence of Trump’s culpability in this matter, the firing was essentially a fit of pique over the media hysteria.

But assuming such to be the case, it is fairly obvious that the impulse to try to shut down negative media coverage by firing a top law enforcement official was at a minimum counter-productive (and foreseeably so).  At worst, it reflects an intolerance for the sort of political and media hysteria faced by many presidents, and the sort of temperament that leads a President to make larger mistakes later.

If you’re mentally dismissing the above by joking to yourself that this is who we elected, take a moment to consider that’s an admission, not a defense.

Lastly, if you’re the sort who really enjoys loathing the establishment media, note that the Trump administration’s disingenuous handling of this major decision will only be seen by the media as justifying their hysteria.  They won’t be entirely wrong about that, regardless of whether you choose to minimize the administration’s dishonesty.

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The Comeyashi Maru Scenario

I was quite occupied yesterday, so pardon me if someone else already has offered this piping hot take on Pres. Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey.  My quick Googling suggested people were less foolish than this.

At the outset, I note that my actual opinion is in the ballpark of the conventional wisdom.  There was a solid argument that Trump had cause to fire Comey, though he would have been better off doing so in January.  The timing — and the general unbelievability that Trump axed Comey for being unfair to Hillary Clinton — is at the least a PR problem.

I also have read that Comey and his ego personally rubbed many people the wrong way and that he courted controversy a bit too much (“Donald, we are not so different you and I…”), though I don’t have personal knowledge of this.

Despite all of the above, allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a few paragraphs (while not chewing the scenery through the finale like Al Pacino).

Most of the tale of Comey’s firing flows back to his July 5, 2016 presser not recommending charges against Hillary.  But what were Comey’s options here?  Let’s take a moment to game them out.

Comey ideally would have liked to keep the FBI out of politics, but the Democrats nominated someone under FBI investigation for the Presidency.  That is, to paraphrase then-VP Joe Biden, a BFD.  This isn’t a mayoralty, a governorship, or a seat in Congress or even the Senate.  It’s the White House.

Then, prior to the presser, Pres. Obama’s AG, Loretta Lynch, met with Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac, raising an appearance of a conflict of interest (and from the GOP perspective, far worse).  Indeed, if we’re to believe some of the news reports, Comey wasn’t overflowing with confidence in how the Obama DoJ was handling the Clinton investigation.

So Lynch, wanting a piece of Schrödinger’s cake, gave the appearance of leaving the charging decision to Comey, while really retaining that power for herself.  Lynch has the cake and eats the cake, leaving Comey to eat something else.

In this situation, rather than give the presser he did explaining his decision, the Trump administration now suggests (in full-on troll mode) that Comey simply should have announced the investigation was completed and and provided his recommendation privately to Lynch.

Had he done this, one of two scenarios would have played out.  First, someone in the Obama DoJ likely would have leaked Comey’s recommendation to help Hillary.  The GOP Congress would have been outraged and demanded information, resulting in a sequence of events similar to what actually happened.  Result: a firestorm and a black eye for the FBI.

Alternatively, in the unlikely event the Obama DoJ kept a lid on Comey’s recommendation, Hillary would have remained under a cloud through the campaign.  Trump likely would have won as he did.  At some later point, Comey’s recommendation would have become public.  Democrats’ heads would have exploded in a way that would make David Cronenberg blush.  Result: a firestorm and a black eye for the FBI.

You probably don’t need to be Joshua, with all the processing power of the WOPR, to see the pattern here is not unlike tic-tac-toe or Global Thermonuclear War.  But Comey didn’t have the option of not playing the game.

Thus, James B. Comey, choosing transparency in an unorthodox and arguably improper manner, attempted to change the conditions of the situation.  Unlike Starfleet, a White House driven by the wrath of Trump did not give Comey a commendation for original thinking.

Although it is reasonable to argue that Comey exacerbated his problems related to the 2016 election, those problems were also to some degree thrust upon him by an electorate than nominated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  Comey may not have met the test in an ideal manner, but let’s not exonerate the electorate and the Obama administration for presenting him with a no-win scenario.

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Why Can’t We Get Over 2016?

“Why Can’t We Get Over 2016?” is ostensibly the question Matthew Continetti sets out to answer in “The Never-Ending 2016 Election.”  And he’s quite the tease, taking almost the entirety of the column discussing the refusal of Pres. Trump, Hillary Clinton, FBI Director James Comey and others to move on, waiting almost to the end to venture answers to the question.  So let’s skip down to paragraph seven of nine:

Better to dwell on the past than look to the future. Reading the entrails of 2016, arguing over campaign strategy and tactics, and spinning conspiracy theories is a far more pleasant, more comforting activity for the parties than facing reality. And there are many parties. We have not two but three of them: the GOP, the Democrats, and Trump. Though global politics may be increasingly defined by nationalism and identity, the Republican Party in Congress is as committed to the Reagan agenda as ever: limited government, deregulation, tax cuts, defense spending, and internationalist foreign policy. But that might not be enough to maintain the allegiance of their new base of working-class populists; the Republicans could well lose the Congress in 2018. ”

Continetti also discusses the Democrats and Trump, but most of his focus is on the GOP.  Fair enough, given his likely audience.

First, if Continetti asked why I keep coming back to the 2016 election, it’s in part because even smart people like Continetti assume that Trump’s victory means the GOP has a “new base of working-class populists.”  In reality, most GOP Representatives and Senators outpolled Trump by appealing to their traditional, Reaganite base.  If Continetti wants to convince Congress to jump on the Trump Train, he’ll have to explain to them why getting fewer votes is better for them.

Second, there aren’t three parties; there are four.  The Democrats may be unified in their current opposition, but from 2008 onward, it should be apparent that the party’s base is split between the more neoliberal, crony capitalist faction largely represented by Hillary and the more socialist, identity-politics driven New New Left faction largely represented by Pres. Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders (yes, I’m oversimplifying, but we’re discussing a spectrum).

Third, at the risk of starting a family feud (which was never as good after Richard Dawson, tbh), if Continetti wants another answer to his question, he might ask his father-in-law.  Bill Kristol, in a recent conversation with Sen. Ben Sasse, suggested he holds to his argument that the 2016 election resembled a Third World election:

We have three candidates still standing: a self-righteous socialist who’s learned nothing in 50 years except how to rally the economically illiterate and uninformed; an heir to wealth who’s done nothing impressive in 50 years except to hone his skills as a self-promoter and demagogue; and an insider who’s climbed the greasy pole alongside her husband, enriching herself and her family through 50 years of ‘public service.’ … Welcome to the United States of Argentina.

You may consider that a bit hyperbolic; I know I do.  One could make a less hyperbolic argument that the 2017 French election is a funhouse, mix-and-match version of our 2016 edition — the hardcore socialist, the less-socialist technocrat, the scandal-burdened “centrist,” the nationalist welfare statist, etc.

Maybe you find even the French analogy a bit much.  But it’s not like you can’t see how we get there from here.

Continetti concludes:

His daily presence is an accusation, a rebuke, an admonishment, a reminder that the country we thought we lived in might not have actually existed. The shocks of deindustrialization and the financial crisis, of unchecked immigration, multiculturalism, and the transgender revolution, of digital and social media, of inconclusive decades-long wars, of rampant heroin addiction seem to have made large parts of the country unrecognizable to those of us living in coastal cities and their affluent suburbs. Is our country really this divided, our politics this polarized, and our culture this degraded? Was 2016 not a fluke but a warning? What of?

No one wants to answer that last question; no one knows the answer. The question itself, though, may be an answer. Why can’t we let go of 2016? Because we’re too afraid of what might happen next.

I think Continetti intends this as a rebuke to his colleagues in the Acela corridor, even if it also reads as a very Acela-based depiction of inland America as the documentary version of the Mad Max franchise.  But I’ve just supplied one possible answer to his question.  And in fairness, the fact that major party politics served up the nominees and presidency it did point to failures extending far beyond the Acela corridor.

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Trump vs Macron: We Are Not So Different, You and I…

After yesterday’s posting from 30,000 feet, I thought I’d be done with the French election.  But The Federalist’s Ben Domenech pulls me back in for something more of-the-moment and forward-looking:

What Ben gets right here is that Macron’s lack of experience (and lack of a political base, for that matter) could prove catastrophic.  And if Macron’s tenure goes badly, France could find itself in even deeper turmoil a few years from now.

Of course, much the same could be said of Pres. Trump.  Granted, Trump has more experience leading an organization, but Macron has more experience and facility with public policy.  The Donald has every bit as much potential to discredit nationalism as a political force as Macron does for globalism, perhaps more so.

In my observation, however, making that a focus of analyzing the Trump administration tends to get one dismissed as Dylan’s Mr. Jones at best, or labeled as an Enemy of the Party at worst.

What Ben’s tweets leave out (perhaps because tweeting is necessarily reductive) is another similarity between Macron and Trump: Both beat weak competition.

Had events conspired to keep Marine Le Pen out of the top two finishers in the initial round of the French election, there is no guarantee Macron would be President today.

Similarly, despite the Trump triumphalism heard in some quarters, there were many reasons other than nationalism for his election. One bit of 2016 campaign CW that holds up is that no matter who won, it could be argued that the winner could only have beaten the loser.

As it stands, even small changes in relatively small events might have tipped the election to Hillary Clinton.  This is part of how we ended up here:

Indeed, as Ben mentions Napoleon, note that Waterloo also turned on small, but key incompetence.

Conservatives generally reject the vaguely Marxist claim that there is a “right side of history.”  Punditry about the big tidal forces can be sexy, but the devil is often in the details.

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French Politics: The Fruit of Welfare Statism

You have probably already been served a stack of hottakes on the French Presidential election taller than a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s.  Unlike most of those people, I won’t pretend to be an expert on the current state of French politics.  But I will note that it is yet another product of welfare statism.

As I have observed on several previous occasions, the prosperity that makes a nation think welfare statism is workable is such that the people see it as a replacement for the creation of human capital.  The resulting declining birth rates endanger the welfare state.  The political response is to import or encourage the inflow of human capital from other nations to make up the difference.

These problems are more acute in Europe than America because they got more socialist more quickly.  In addition, rightly or wrongly, they feel a greater moral responsibility regarding refugees (most likely due to their experiences in WWII).  Also, the nature of the largely lower-skilled Muslim immigration presented unanticipated risks.

Ironically, the supposed elites of Europe likely rationalized their immigration policies by looking to the United States.  “Look at how the Americans managed to assimilate waves of mass immigration,” they thought.  “If those bozos can do it, we advanced civilizations should be able to pull it off.  Sure, America has some racial problems, but they seem manageable enough.”

What Europe’s so-called elites did not realize is that immigration was always a tougher issue for Americans than we like to remember.  Moreover, while the much WASPier America of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries looked upon the Irish and southern Europeans as The Other, these immigrants were able to assimilate over the course of a couple of generations in large part because they were ultimately fairly similar outside of their Catholicism.

European Jews had their own problems migrating to and being welcomed America.  But the Jewish people historically expect this and have a wealth of experience and cultural tools for dealing with it.  And ultimately, the New Testament natives in America knew and respected the Old Testament as a common foundation.

What modern Europe did not notice, for all of their smarts, was that the earlier waves of immigrants to America largely did not convert to Protestantism.  To be sure, the descendants of Catholic and Jewish immigrants often became less devout or more secular, just like the descendants of the Protestants.  But there was never any mass conversion.

They further failed to notice that their robust welfare states, particularly their stultifying labor market regulations, would create barriers to the economic opportunities that would help Muslim immigrants assimilate into their new host countries.

This dynamic has been exacerbated as: (1) no elites fully comprehended the shocks of entering a post-industrial economy; (2) they did not anticipate that the end of the Cold War might erode the sorts of political consensus regarding issues like nationalism; and (3) Europe has taken in a large influx of refugees at the same time the developed world has been struggling to recover what was lost in the Great Recession.

In short, Europe, including France, has welcomed or accepted a large influx of immigration from Africa, a cohort further apart in race and religion from the native population than generally has been the case in America (even the Africans brought to America as slaves became Christian).  They have much more traditional nationalism than America, which was founded more on certain political ideals.  And the economic conditions in Europe if anything are causing new generations of the Muslim population there to become more devoted to Islam, not less, with all of the associated social friction (of which terrorism is only the most extreme expression).

These problems are born not only of welfare state mathematics and demographics.  They are also a product of the welfare state ideology that ostensibly meritocratic elites possess the knowledge, wisdom and foresight to manage national economies  — and if that means tuning out the voices of the proletariat, so be it.  The resulting populist eruptions can be seen in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Milton Friedman once famously opined that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.  He may not have fully understood how the latter creates a demand for the former.

The result is that the populace begins to have a love/hate relationship with the government, and the governing class in particular.  People demand a welfare state, but many of them do not like the methods politicians find necessary to provide it.

But don’t scoff at France, or Europe generally, too much for this.  We have a version of the same problem, albeit in a milder form.

Obligatory Note: This posting is based on my perception of what was and is, not what should be. Indeed, I wish this note wasn’t de facto obligatory.

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Is Politics Really Downstream From Culture?

The idea that politics is downstream from culture was popularized by Andrew Breitbart, though I’m old enough to vaguely recall others expressing this idea with less virality.  As an axiom, it obtained that virality because it does succinctly capture an important facet of political theory.  As you know, it has been quite influential, particularly among (but by no means limited to) the segment of the Right that is attracted to the “But he FIGHTS!” mentality and Alinskyite tactics — a faction that has been the focus of some of my recent posts.

Of course, as with most things, the reality is more complex, as an aside in a column by Mike Sabo in The Federalist recently reminded me.  Sabo wrote:

Contra Andrew Breitbart and most commentators on politics today, politics in its highest sense is not downstream from culture. ‘To know whether a culture is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, liberating or oppressive,’ Charles Kesler once remarked, ‘one has to be able to look at it from outside or above the culture.’ That is, in the founders’ view culture should conform to principles of political justice that are true for all men everywhere.”

I have two riffs based on this observation.

The first, shorter, riff is that this observation may shed some light on the lingering “nationalism vs. patriotism/exceptionalism” debate on the Right.  If you slot in “nationalism” for “culture” and “the founders’ view of political justice” for “patriotism,” that debate might advance further than it has to date.

The second, slightly longer riff has to do with a darker version of Sabo’s point that I thought I already wrote, but of course cannot seem to find now that I need it.

My darker version begins with the premise that the current political moment revolves to a significant degree around the creeping totalitarianism being popularized by the New New Left.  Quite beyond the Maoists on campus, there is the SJW critique of, well, everything (that’s what makes it totalitarian).   Sports events and highlights shows must be political.  Standup comedy must be political.  Comic books must be political.  Baking wedding cakes must be political.  Bathroom and locker room use must be political.  Etc., etc.

What this totalitarianism represents is the effort to subsume culture into politics.  It represents a reversal of Breitbart’s stream, or perhaps a crossing of streams Dr. Egon Spengler would advise against.

More seriously, it represents what has been called the Left’s “long march through the institutions.”  And that point leads me to note that the “politics is downstream from culture” discussion generally does not define “culture.”  Breitbart, and those running with his axiom, generally seem to mean popular culture, which is only one part of culture.

Basic sociology would suggest culture includes a number of institutions, usually including: family; education; religion; labor; government; media/art; and healthcare.

Long before the emergence of the New New Left, it is fairly easy to observe that — whether intentionally or instinctively — the Left’s agenda typically seeks to expand the government’s role at the expense of these other institutions (or failing that, to occupy and ideologically dominate said institutions).  But the stream can flow both directions within these other institutions.

An obvious example this week would be the House’s passage of legislation restructuring the health insurance market and Medicaid  — the second major piece of legislation in the past decade  affecting the institution of healthcare.  Yet healthcare is capable of affecting the culture and therefore politics, as the invention of The Pill affected the sexual revolution and the invention of the sonogram affected public attitudes about abortion.

I am not an expert on rivers and streams, but my experience is that they generally do not flow in different directions simultaneously.  So perhaps we need a better metaphor for the interaction of culture and politics, particularly while navigating today’s troubled political seas (ouch).

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The Right Isn’t Heartless, Just a Bit Clueless Sometimes

On Monday, I suggested that the establishment Right often debate certain political tactics without considering whether they serve a larger vision.  On Tuesday, I suggested that “conservatarians may have to consider the usefulness of more provocative activism, not only to defend and conserve those aspects of institutions and systems we revere, but also to expose where the budding totalitarians of the New New Left have already crashed Chesterton’s gates and (in some cases) burned them to the ground.”

On Wednesday, Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman took up a closely related topic, arguing “The Right Needs Better Storytellers.”  His springboard was late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional monologue concerning his newborn son’s congenital cardiac condition, which Kimmel used to laud Obamacare’s requirement that health insurers cover pre-existing conditions.

Rothman observed:

[Republicans] clearly do not know how to respond. The right’s most unapologetically caustic communicators were devoid of compassion for Kimmel’s circumstances. More empathetic conservatives shared the ABC host’s pain but criticized his judgment. Point, Democrats.

Republicans will always find it difficult to counter poignant and affecting storytelling with reasoned logic. That’s not to say logic is entirely ineffective. If stories move the needle of public opinion, and they often do, Republicans need to tell a better story. It’s not as though they lack for material.

Rothman then recounted the stories of people who suffered under Obamacare, before noting that the law’s architects tended to mislead people about the scope of the pre-existing conditions problem and that GOP reformers have better ideas for addressing it.

But Rothman concluded in part that “[a]ll that wonkish claptrap is difficult to relate to when the interlocutor is a new father like Kimmel, scared to death for the life of his newborn son.”

He is correct, in large part because the real political argument isn’t about pre-existing conditions per se, or whether the House passes a healthcare bill today.  Rather, it is the zillionth iteration of the “debate” that goes like this: “Republicans/Conservatives are heartless — The End.”

It’s not just those on the right attacking Kimmel personally that are walking into the trap.  When the real question under discussion is “Are Conservatives Heartless?,” coldly retreating to the data like Mr. Spock answers the question in the affirmative.

Fuming about this, as Rich Lowry does, won’t change a thing, as I’d bet he knows.  I don’t know whether Lowry was responsible for his headline, “The Phrase ‘Pre-Existing Conditions’ Leads to the Suspension of All Thought,” but I’ll note that politics is about making friends and influencing people.  Insults generally do not accomplish either goal, especially if the insult is accurate.

One conservative doing it right (as usual) is Mary Katharine Ham, who has not only written about her awful Obamacare experiences, but also discussed them frequently on CNN.  From that chair,  she is not preaching to the choir, if the howling progressives that fill her Twitter mentions following such appearances are any indication.

I would also note that when I listened to a recent episode of The Federalist Radio Hour, it was sponsored by Think Freely Media, which seems to be based on the idea of advancing individual freedom and free enterprise through storytelling.  Since I write for The Federalist, I should add that’s not a plug of any kind. I have no idea whether they execute the idea effectively.  But at least they have a good idea.

As I previously wrote in a slightly different context:

I would urge people to abandon their reliance on narratives, but this would be as silly as people urging the abandonment of religion, or nationalism, or any number of things that are part of the human experience.  It would be profoundly unconservative to ignore human nature in that way.

“People love telling and hearing stories.  We love it in politics as an agent of influence.  We love it in media because we understand our attraction to drama.  We love it in life because stories help us understand and organize a complex and often chaotic world.” (Emphasis added.)

Conservatives generally pride themselves on their realism and their understanding of the fallen nature of mankind.  So perhaps when considering how to promote the right agenda and attack the wrong one, our tactics should account for people as we find them outside the insular world of political junkies — not always cool and rational, and not particularly fond of wonkery.

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No, the GOP is Not the Trump Party (Not Yet, Anyway).

I want to thank R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, for his New York Times op-ed “Republicans Are Now the ‘America First’ Party.”

You really should RTWT, as it is an instant classic in the burgeoning genre of “Donald Trump is a Political Colossus” punditry.  As such, it is an excellent example to dissect.

Reno wrote of his fellow Reagan-era GOPers “We are, by now, the establishment — the senators, governors, think-tank presidents and columnists who, until Mr. Trump came along, got to define what “Republican” and “conservative” meant. My cohort simply cannot accept that Mr. Trump has taken away that coveted role and revolutionized not just our party, but also the very terms of the American political divide.”

He added, in some regally purple prose: “It is obvious to all but the most blinkered Republicans that with or without Mr. Trump, the Reagan era is over. The conservative-donor and think-tank consensus has been exploded. The next smart, ambitious young Republican politician with national aspirations will not adopt Ted Cruz’s strategy of trying to revive the rotting flesh of Reaganism. He will read out of Mr. Trump’s playbook, attacking globalism rather than big government. And he’ll win, because he’ll be talking about what worries voters.”

And at the risk of pushing the envelope on the fair use doctrine, these are perhaps the core grafs of the piece:

Most commentators struggle to explain Mr. Trump’s electoral success, because they assume he has no coherent political philosophy. This is myopic. As a public figure, Mr. Trump has articulated a consistent message that speaks to a fundamental political challenge facing the 21st-century West: We must affirm nationalism and fight globalism.

“This basic political message is dramatized by his populist rhetoric. At his campaign rallies he did not get cheers for denouncing government waste or championing tax cuts. His applause lines spoke of building a wall, deporting illegal immigrants, renegotiating trade deals and bringing back jobs. The America First, antiglobalist themes won him the election, not freedom-oriented, anti-government ones.”

Reno is correct about a few things.  The GOP has in many ways failed to adjust to its Reagan-era successes.  Winning the Cold War dissipated the basic Republican anti-Soviet foreign policy consensus.  Reagan-era tax reforms removed so many Americans from the tax rolls that marginal rate cuts are not the tangible benefit to middle-class workers that they were in the 1980s.  Further cuts also may fall on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve.

He is also correct that nationalism is currently a rising political force in America, as it has been elsewhere in the world.  Trump did not run on a freedom agenda.  Moreover, Trump’s rhetoric on issues like immigration and trade helped rally white working class voters — many of them former Obama voters — to his side, probably providing his margin of victory in the Rust Belt and the Upper Midwest.

At the risk of being dismissed as blinkered or myopic (easily proved by a glance through my prescription lenses), I submit that those correct observations do not lead inexorably to the conclusion that Trump has redefined conservatism or even the GOP, let alone “the very terms of the American political divide.”

As I have previously noted, there were a host of factors having little or nothing to do with nationalism that helped boost Trump to the White House.  It was an open seat election.  GDP growth was below two percent.  Pres. Obama’s foreign and natsec policies were empowering enemies like Iran and creating a Middle East vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State.

Battleground states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan had been trending toward the GOP for years below the Presidential level, and had unified Republican state governments before the 2016 election.

Hillary Clinton was an awful candidate.  She had and has all the charisma of a piece of plywood.  She did not appeal to the key demos of the so-called Emerging Democratic Majority in the way Obama did.  She managed to make septuagenarian socialist Bernie Sanders look exciting by comparison (his strength was an omen of her weakness, which she ignored).

She was under FBI investigation for her secretive mishandling of classified information.  Her personal negatives would have been a record, but for Trump having marginally worse ratings.

Clinton was the nominee of a party which had been shedding white working class voters since 1992, but she chose to ignore the Upper Midwest after her nomination.

While Clinton was a terrible candidate for the Democrats, she was an excellent one for the GOP.  Trump’s supporters successfully pushed the argument that a Clinton victory would be the end of America As We Know It.

Remember when the pitch for Trump to typical Republicans was that Clinton winning would be like letting al-Qaeda crash an airliner into the White House or the Capital?  Or that voting for Trump was like taking some skeevy cancer cure in Mexico rather than accept certain death?  Pepperidge Farm remembers, and so do I.

Those pitches were not an argument for Trump’s economic nationalism.  They were an argument against the Apocalypse.  The would-be Horsewoman-in-Chief turned out to be too lazy and arrogant to bring it.

The “binary choice” sentiment is clearly seen in the exit polling.  The more people voted against the other candidate, the better Trump did.  He overwhelmingly beat Hillary among those who thought the most important candidate quality was “can bring needed change.”

The more important SCOTUS appointments were to voters, the better Trump did.

He also cleaned up with the majority that thought the fight against the Islamic State was going badly.  This latter figure is significant because more voters cared about terrorism than immigration (and both of these fell well behind the economy in general — an issue Trump lost, btw).

Meanwhile, Trump was outpolled by most GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate.  In key states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Trump won blue-collar areas, but tended to run behind his fellow Republican candidates in white middle-class suburbs that previously backed GOP presidential candidates.

To emphasize the point: The man claimed to have transformed American politics ran behind conventional Republicans appealing to conventional Republicans in most states and districts.

While some may think Trump is the New Hotness, every one of those Representatives and Senators who is more popular than Trump knows they are.  Perhaps this is why the Colossus seems to have such difficulty getting his own party to move his agenda — or any major legislation — through Congress.

Lest it go to the legislators’ heads, it must be added that it’s not too difficult to be more popular than Donald Trump these days.  The current job approval numbers for this towering, transformational nationalist are below those of every other President since Harry Truman.

Similarly, the polling numbers for Trump’s immigration policies are generally bad.  His signature border wall is opposed by a large margin (and roughly the same margin among independents).  What immigration hawks (including myself) would call an amnesty generally enjoys roughly 60 percent support.

According to Gallup, support for foreign trade is at record levels, crossing party lines.  In fairness, some of the shifts in earlier polling on trade appear to be driven by partisanship — but this only underscores that it may be premature to claim that any effect Trump has had will last.

Finally, Trump has already flip-flopped on a number of issues, including some related to NATO and China’s alleged currency manipulation.  The current bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year does not fund Trump’s wall or spending cuts for “sanctuary cities,” though the White House is declaring victory anyway.

The Transformer-In-Chief may wind up less nationalist than some of the commentariat believes.  So far, Trump voters seem less concerned about it than Trump’s would-be theoreticians.

Could Trump remake the GOP?  Sure.  A good politician forges and maintains an electoral majority, though note that historically, national parties tend to start bleeding support once they achieve a unified government.

It might also help if Trump becomes a successful President, but even that is no guarantee he will transform the Republican Party.  The examples of past heterodox Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are again instructive.

Jimmy was a failure; Bubba was in many ways a success (though much of this was due to the end of the Cold War and the start of the Internet Age).  But Bill Clinton did not transform his party into New Democrats for any significant length of time (in fact, Congressional Dems drifted leftward even during his tenure).

In sum, whether Trump will turn out to transform the GOP, let alone all of American politics, remains very much an open question. The Republican base could turn nationalist or, like the Democrats, continue to simply move further from the center on a traditional left/right axis.

If the first 100 days of the Trump administration are any indication, one could argue the supposed Colossus is equally likely to discredit economic nationalism in America as he is to make it a dominant movement.

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