The Bumpy Ride of Our Flight 93

There is a scene in the first episode of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster series that bears on the current presidential election. Bertie Wooster, at the direction of his Aunt Agatha, has motored down to Ditteredge Hall, seat of Sir Roderick and Lady Glossop, to cozy up to their hearty daughter Honoria. The former head-girl at Girton is not keen on the match: “He doesn’t shoot, he doesn’t hunt, . . . he doesn’t work even.” But Lady Glossop points out that Honoria will be twenty-four the following week. “He is not all your father and I would have hoped for you, I agree, but . . .”

But consider the alternative.

Regular readers know that I have not been part of the Donald Trump Cheerleading Cavalcade. I first wrote about him a year ago July. After saying that I didn’t think he would be the candidate, I concluded with this advisory:

He has raised some issues that the high and mighty dispensers of conventional wisdom would do well to ponder. Moreover, he has done it in a way that, though terribly, terribly vulgar, is catapulting Trump to first place in the polls. What does that tell us?  That the people are stupid and need to be guided by the suits in Washington?  If you believe that, I submit, you are going to be profoundly disappointed come November 2016.

Well, as Samuel Goldwyn remarked in another context, we’ve passed a lot of water under the bridge since then.

Back in June, Donald Rumsfeld summed up the position that, in subsequent weeks, many (not all) anti-Trump conservatives have come to adopt. Reprising his famous epistemological mot that distinguished between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” Rumsfeld said that, of course he was voting for Trump. Trump was an “unknown known,” perhaps dubious in some ways, but all the world knew exactly what Hillary Clinton represented.

This was the essential point made in a more colorful way in the most remarkable essay I have read in some time, “The Flight 93 Election,” which appeared a few days back in that indispensable journal, the Claremont Review of Books. I have no idea who “Publius Decius Mus”—the putative author—really is, though I speculate on stylistic and philological grounds that he is not unacquainted with the works of Leo Strauss.  The historical Decius Mus was a Roman consul during the first Samnite and Latin wars. In 340BC, he sacrificed himself at the Battle of Vesuvius in order to secure a great victory for the Romans. That story, for those who are interested in such things, is told in Book 8 of Livy’s The History of Rome.

Presumably, Claremont’s Publius adopted the name of that self-sacrificing Roman in order to remind his readers of the existential stakes in this election (as well as, of course, concealing his real identity from the wrath of NeverTrump vigilantes). Publius reworks Donald Rumsfeld’s point with a metaphor—with two, in fact: “2016,” he begins, “is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.”

You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.

Here’s the second metaphor:

a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

I think this is about right—or, rather, I used to think this about right.  I’ll come to my second thoughts in a moment. First, let me quote a bit more from this sinewy and intelligent essay. Publius begins by noting some of the contradictions that beleaguer contemporary American conservative thought. On the one hand, conservatives have a long list of dire diagnoses that, if accurate, spell doom. If, says Publius, conservatives are right about the national debt, about the fabric of society, about national security threats, and on and on, then “they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.”

But—and here’s the “on the other hand”—it is quite clear that they believe no such thing. On the principle that actions speak louder than words, what they actually believe is that things will putter along more or less they way they always have.

Well, which is it?

To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.

Which brings us to this uncomfortable observation:

If you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

What do you think? I think that #3 is indisputable, as is # 2, and that the protasis of #1 is mistaken: things cannot go as they have without fundamental change, ergo we need not admit, on this argument, that conservatism is wrong about human nature, politics, etc., etc.