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Between a Louse and a Flea

Back in January, I asked: “Why the Sudden Love Among Establishment Republicans for Donald Trump?” “It has," I wrote, “been quite an experience -- half amusing, half alarming -- to behold the sudden transformation of Donald Trump from pariah to desperate hope of the Republican Party.”

In the weeks that have followed, more and more GOP-friendly pundits, functionaries, factota, courtiers, lackeys, lobbyists, consultants, and eminences grises have boarded the Trump Express. They explain, if pressed, that: a) Trump is inevitable and one has to get with the program; and/or b) the only alternative is Hillary Clinton, and you wouldn’t want that, would you?

I confess that I don’t find either rejoinder particularly convincing. In the first place, it is worth noting how frequently what we were assured was inevitable turns out to have been merely contingent, and being merely contingent, how often it fails to happen.

Trump may be the nominee. It is not, however, inevitable. I am not even convinced that it is likely.

And speaking of unlikely things, it is not at all clear to me that Hillary will be the nominee, either. Her supporters might not care that she blamed Benghazi on an internet video or that she endangered American national security by her cavalier disregard of communication protocols while secretary of state, but the FBI seems to be taking a different view of the matter. There is also the cognate issue of the pay-to-play processes of the Clinton Foundation, which have also attracted the FBI’s attention.

Then there is the sudden transformation of Bill Clinton from coquette into an aging Miss Havisham, who -- like Dickens’ original -- looks more and more like a cross between a “waxwork and a skeleton.”

But I digress. If many GOP-friendly observers have edged towards supporting Donald Trump, another portion of the commentariat has adopted the #NeverTrump hashtag, even, in some cases, to the point of threatening to endorse Hillary if she is the only alternative.

A couple of observations. First, it is a sad irony that many Trumpeters seem to believe that he represents an alternative to the corrupt, inbred Washington establishment. In fact, he is merely the impish, bad-mannered Id of the Washington establishment. What his supporters hate, Trump embodies.

As Kevin Williamson pointed out in "The Case Against Trump," Trump “spent most of his life as a progressive Democrat, a patron of Charles Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Rodham Clinton”:

He is a lifelong crony capitalist who boasts of using his wealth to buy political favors to make himself wealthier still. He is a proponent of the thieving Kelo eminent-domain regime and has attempted to suborn local governments into using eminent domain to seize properties in order to clear the way for his casino developments. He was until the day before yesterday as absolutist a pro-abortion advocate as any you’ll find at an Emily’s List meeting.

He has proposed daft, confiscatory wealth taxes and remains in accord with Warren Buffet and Elizabeth Warren on taxation. His views on trade and immigration are much more like those of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, than they are anything that might plausibly be described as “conservative” in the American context. He is apparently incapable of stringing together three complete English sentences, lies reflexively and instinctively, and contradicts his own pronouncements at every turn. On the verge of his seventieth birthday, his mind remains unsettled about the most elementary issues of our time.

Everyone tells me that none of this matters, that Trump’s supporters do not care that he is a progressive in wolf’s clothing, or moreover, that he is a failed entrepreneur and dishonest businessman who has gulled a credulous public into believing that his rhinestone rubbish-world is somehow glamorous.

Just the other day my friend Michael Goodwin, besides whom a more sensible commentator would be hard to find, wrote a guarded pro-Trump piece for the New York Post. Michael acknowledges that Trump is “weird, erratic and I have no idea what he will say or do next. His nasty put-downs of rivals and journalists, especially Megyn Kelly, diminish him. His policies are as detailed as bumper stickers and his lack of knowledge about complex issues scares me.”

Yet. Nevertheless. Still. However.

Trump is on the side of Everyman (“working-class whites”), and he is “leading a political revolution that is long overdue.”

Maybe. But one of the things that has impressed me about the crowd of Trumpeters is how intoxicated and thin-skinned is their enthusiasm. On the one hand they swoon, they skirl, they act like pubescent females at a Beatles concert circa 1963. On the other hand, they react to criticism of their god with a viciousness and irrationality I have not encountered outside certain partisans of Ayn Rand.

You might say that argues for the intensity of their commitment. I think it underscores its tenuousness and uncertainty.

Also, although I think Michael is correct that a revolution in Washington is “long overdue” among the GOP just as much as among Democrats, I don’t believe that Donald Trump is leading it -- for working-class whites (for whom he has nothing but lip service and contempt) or anyone else. On the contrary, he is cynically exploiting their anguish and disgust for his own benefit.

Yes, as Andy McCarthy argued this weekend:

What needs changing, desperately, is the Republican party. The establishment needs to make itself acceptable to supporters of these candidates, not the other way around.

Like Andy, I believe that the one candidate in a position to effect that change is Ted Cruz. We'll know in just a few weeks whether the voters will give him that opportunity.

I come, finally, at the end of this column to the thought that inspired it but that I have yet to mention. It is often, and rightly, said that part of the essence of conservative wisdom is the melancholy appreciation of the fact that in the real world the choices we face are often not between good and better but between bad and worse. This is particularly true in the messy world of politics where compromise, self-interest, and the desire for power and prerogative insinuate themselves into the tapestry of our alternatives.

Part of the existential superiority of the conservative view is its immunization against the blandishments of utopian solutions.

Some such consideration stands behind the principled  endorsement (as distinct from the other sorts) of Donald Trump by conservatives. They survey the field and they see only Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Both are bad. But which is worse?

To be honest, I am not sure we have instruments robust enough to tell. Asked who was worse, Rousseau or Voltaire, Dr. Johnson is said (at least apocryphally) to have replied: “Sir, it is not for me to apportion the degree of iniquity between a louse and a flea.” I think it’s pretty much the same regarding Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Both are utterly unfit to be president of the United States. They are equally bad, though in different ways. Trump, not yet having access to the levers of power, has so far shown himself to be personally and professionally disreputable. Hillary, first as the appendage, latterly as the prop of her once-charismatic husband, has been a boil on the countenance of the public for decades. Either would be a disaster for the country.

But I suspect that those who insist that our only choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are short-sighted. The great James Burnham once observed that where there is no alternative there is no problem. Notwithstanding the bulletins of many of our disillusioned Cassandras, that is not quite, not yet, our situation.

As of March 21, 2016, we still have a real alternative in Ted Cruz.

Tomorrow’s vote in Arizona will narrow, though not yet extinguish, our options if the vote goes against the Texas senator. If Cruz wins, you'll hear whole new choruses from the punditocracy explaining how they knew all along that Cruz could win. I think the pollsters may be surprised by the outcome. We’ll see. There will be time enough to invoke Burnham’s Tenth Law come July.