Nick Cohen warns in the Guardian that the “new elite” for so long unchallenged is now facing its self-generated Nemesis: “the often demagogic and always deceitful nationalism … of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin.” He explains that while part of the blame must lie with orthodox leftists “who respond to the challenge of argument by screaming for the police to arrest the politically incorrect or for universities to ban speakers,” things have gone altogether too far in the other direction to ignore. “Only true liberalism can thwart the demagogues” now he writes. Otherwise the upstarts might gain power and treat the globalist elites exactly the way they treated others.
The strategy of “by any means necessary” appeals to the militants confident they possess the truth and are on the “right side of history.” For them the rules are made to be broken. They could cheat because history gave them license to. “By any means necessary is a translation of a phrase used by the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre in his play Dirty Hands. It entered the popular civil rights culture through a speech given by Malcolm X at the Organization of Afro-American Unity Founding Rally on June 28, 1964. It is generally considered to leave open all available tactics for the desired ends, including violence.”
The problem is that the strategy works when only one side employs it. When both sides employ it equally, they become locked in a race to the bottom. Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons” observed that the advantages of cheating were transitory if they ruined the whole mutually beneficial system. In one scene, More’s associates advise him to move illegally against his enemies and he refuses, arguing that by shredding the law he would in fact be depriving himself of its protection.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
The game theory equivalent of Thomas More’s dictum is the familiar incentive to cheat in a duopoly. Two firms — or political parties — that find themselves in a situation where their combined total take is at the maximum can still be tempted to cheat even though that results in the total shrinkage of the pie because they are temporarily better off cheating. One cheats and then the other responds. They give up a good thing for chimerical “gains.” They kill the goose for the sake of one more golden egg.
A short-sighted leadership will continue to cheat until both sides reach the bottom, which ironically is a stable condition because neither side has the incentive to cheat any further. Like a rock that falls to the bottom of the hill, it quits rolling and finally stops. This is arguably what is happening to American politics right now. The Obama administration’s attempts to gain a permanent majority and enlarge their constituencies at the expense of their political rivals have brought forth a symmetrical response. You lie, they lie. You insult, they insult. You take donations from foreigners, they take compliments of foreigners. Suddenly they are faced with rivals just as contemptuous of the rules as themselves.
Anne Applebaum asks which deplorable historical figure Donald Trump most resembles: suppose the answer is Hillary Clinton? This is really the problem with the email scandal, the Iran cash payments, the use of the IRS for political purposes, the declaration of sanctuary cities, and the legitimization of a private email server/foundation open to foreign donors. That was all cute until, as Nick Cohen pointed out, liberalism’s opponents threatened to do similarly outrageous things.
That worries him and he wants it to stop. What Cohen fails to grasp is that the dynamic cannot automatically be reversed by “true liberalism” simply calling for a time out on authoritarianism and everyone going back to square one. Square one’s been trampled underfoot. The whole chessboard has been altered with a new and irregular pattern. A deadly race to the bottom has been initiated and driven by an unleashed incentive to cheat which will require a real effort to undo.
This explains the curious absence of real policy debate in the 2016 elections. Neither side seems to care if America’s global standing falls or if they elect a crook or a clown because the game has changed. It’s no longer about enlarging the pie. It’s about maximizing the crumbs.
The damage done by weakening the Constitution, which Ezra Klein once described as “not a clear document … written 100 years ago,” is immense. The real tragedy is they didn’t even realize how potentially damaging it was. Like Thomas More’s tree, it kept the fierce winds from blowing unhindered. “And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”
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