Thucydides on Donald Trump & 'New York Values'

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Reno Ballroom and Museum in Reno, Nevada, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Lance Iversen)

Jack.  He seems to have expressed a desire to be buried in Paris.
Rev. Chasuble.  In Paris!  [Shakes his head.]  I fear that hardly points to any very serious state of mind at the last. 


It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Donald Trump has not transferred himself, Zelig-like, into this bit of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. How dare the Rev. Chasuble besmirch the reputation of the “City of Light”! All those brave people over the centuries, fighting the Paynim foe, “all for one an one for all,” etc., etc.  It’s “very insulting.” The Rev. C. should “never have said it,” people were “disgusted,” etc., etc.

As of this morning, anyway, it was OK to talk about Paris, also the Chicago Way, meaning the sewer of political corruption that has come to define salient aspects of that great city at least since the Democratic machine arrived in force with the first Mayor Daley.

But as every denizen of New York knows by now, it is not OK to talk critically of the “New York Way,” i.e., “New York Values.”


It’s important to understand that it is not because Ted Cruz criticized Donald Trump for being tainted by “New York Values” last week. Everyone knew what he meant and most conservatives, if they had thought about it at all, would have agreed.

No, the reason that “New York Values” — the scare quotes are necessary — are an issue is because Donald Trump made them an issue at the January 14 debate.  In a typical demonstration of rhetorical ju-jitsu, he pretended to be outraged by Cruz’s phrase. He wrapped the mantle of 9/11 around himself and paraded around the stage, and then the talk shows, claiming to be shocked, shocked! that a U.S. senator — who, by the way, was born in Canada — should have sunk so low as to besmirch the bravery and heroism of the New York fire fighters who risked, and often lost, life and limb on 9/11.


Rudy Giuliani chimed in demanding that Cruz should “apologize to New York,” and other pundits — even ones who repudiated Trump categorically a few months ago — rallied round to claim that because of his remark “Mr. Cruz is disqualified for being president. Disqualified. Disqualified. Hang it up,” etc., etc. It was even suggested that “New York Values” might be a reference to ethnics, you know, code for “Jews.”  No-one, I think, actually believed that, but it was a good illustration of the principle that once people start throwing garbage, they’ll throw anything they have at hand.

The firestorm of calumny and loathing that Ted Cruz’s utterance of that dread phrase unleashed underscores the potency of Donald Trump’s rhetorical black magic. His remark that Jeb Bush was “low energy” stuck like a burr and will probably lead to Jeb’s early retirement.  His response to Hillary Clinton’s charge that he was “sexist” effectively spayed Bill Clinton, transforming him overnight from an important asset into a blubbering appendage.

Did Donald Trump do the same thing to Ted Cruz?  I don’t know. I doubt it. But who can say?

In situations like this, if you have to explain, you’ve already lost.  It will do no good for Ted Cruz to point out that he admires the heroism of New York’s police and firemen, and indeed, the heroism and leadership of Rudy Giuliani and countless other denizens of Gotham in the aftermath of 9/11.


9/11 was not what he meant by “New York Values.” Donald Trump knows it. Rudy Giuliani certainly ought to know it. And the media attacking Cruz might or might not know it but could not care less. It’s a story: who cares about the truth?

Cruz has had some good responses, including a clever video “apology.”  “It is amusing,” he said, “seeing the media elite in New York and D.C. run around with their hair on fire wondering, ‘What on earth are New York values?’ I’ll tell you and the rest of the country, people understand exactly what that is. In South Carolina when I was there, the people there certainly understand it.”

Cruz also posted a video of Donald Trump explaining why he supports “partial-birth abortion” (that’s New Yorkese for “infanticide”) and other liberal causes because, after all, he was born and raised in New York, not some Hicksville place like Iowa.

Actually, it might have been Governor Cuomo who best explained what “New York Values” meant when he said that conservatives who are pro-life or pro-Second Amendment “have no place in the state of New York.” There was a lot of conservative outrage about Cuomo’s remark (though not from Donald Trump, who had donated $84,000 to Cuomo), which is interesting since it was functionally equivalent to what Cruz said.

It’s too early to predict exactly how this little drama will play out.  But already we can draw a couple useful lessons from the spectacle.


1. A large part of Donald Trump’s appeal has been his insouciant, not to say outrageous, flouting of the canons of political correctness.  Who else could have gotten away with describing the plump porcine Rosie O’Donnell as a “fat pig”?

But it is critical to realize that Donald Trump is not so much the anti-PC candidate as the candidate who redefines the boundaries of what counts as politically correct.  It’s open season on adipose actresses, height-challenged politicians, and former military personnel who had the grave misfortune to be captured by the Viet Cong. (I can remember when some pundits, disgusted by that remark, confidently declared Trump finished. But that was in another country, and besides . . .) But say something provocative that is critical of D. Trump: wham! The dudgeon is suddenly as high as his horse. It’s a fascinating performance, or phenomenon, and I don’t know that anyone has really fully explained it.  Many  who might have done so are too busy falling under the spell of Donald Trump’s circus routine to opine.

2. This is where the Greek historian Thucydides comes in.  In a famous passage from book III of his  history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides notes that in periods of revolution words, in order to respond to dramatic changes in events, had “to change their usual meaning.”


Reckless audacity [Thucydides wrote] came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party. . . .

I have never, it is true, entertained the names “Thucydides” and “Donald Trump” in the same thought before. But as I endeavor to wrap my mind around the metabolism of this electoral season, I believe that the old Athenian’s analysis of the semantic depredations wrought by revolutionary situations reveals something important about our unsettled times. We are not, thank God, in a state of civil war as were Sparta and Athens. Yet the political and social consensus that has defined America since 1945 seems to be unraveling, shattering. Exactly what will replace it is anyone’s guess. But Barack Obama’s promise (or was it a threat?) to “fundamentally transform the United States of America” seems to be coming true.  Whether people will like the new dispensation that is forming all around is another question.  Now more than ever, we need leaders who understand what made — what makes — the United States exceptional and who have the wit and force of character to nurture those values. I believe that Ted Cruz is such an individual. Whether his voice will be heard through the Trumpery of this election is another matter. The next couple of months will tell.



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