The Devil You Know

The most baffling aspect of President Trump’s election and administration, to most observers, is the apparent inconsistency of his behavior with the proclaimed values of much of his voting base.  The only people not apparently puzzled by this are the most dedicated of those supporters and those of his opponents who were already prepared to write off those supporters as backward, ignorant, or villainous.  It was in some measure easier to explain immediately after the 2016 presidential election, when the Democratic field had – with rumored corruptions of its own – narrowed itself down to nominating Hilary Clinton, who ran an unimaginative (and it turned out, lazy) campaign leading to an election whose candidates in the public mind were “not Trump” and “not Clinton”.  While few outside his die-hard coterie expected great things from a Trump presidency, very few of any political stripe appear to have anticipated the chaotic nature of his administration or Trump’s own inability and indifference with regard to limiting his pursuit of personal goals or grudges.

Despite these problems, Trump’s popularity – relative to what’s necessary to run a reasonable campaign – does not appear to have gone anywhere, and the Republican party appears as firmly supportive of Trump as the Democratic party appears likely to be of its final choice this year.  One might have supposed a year or so ago that the Republicans would conclude that, having avoided Hilary, they could quietly drop Trump – or at least go through the motions of holding a regular primary election, a practice which the party holding the White House has avoided in recent years but which could have quieted some concerns about legitimacy.  Conservative commentators, while disappointed, are at least familiar enough with the Republican party to follow the electoral logic; progressive pundits remain consternated – particularly after a party-line impeachment process failed to remove Trump from the presidency.  (The impeachment aired quite a bit of Trump’s own disregard for legal procedures, and Republicans failed to argue convincingly – which was their best defense – that the process instigated by Democrats had been just as flawed procedurally.  However, Republican arguments to that effect from both congressmen and conservative media were roundly ignored or dismissed, generally without rebuttal, in most outlets.)

I suggest that Trump retains support for much the same reasons the Democratic party retains support throughout many of our cities suffering from flawed if not outright corrupt planning and administration – a fact which has baffled some conservatives for at least as long as I’ve been paying attention to politics: Trump makes gestures towards the things his base considers important, while his opponents have either a history or a declared intention of ignoring or even attacking those things.

It’s enlightening to approach the question by asking what items Trump’s administration has been most adamant about.  I count four general items: support for the pro-life movment; appointment of judges committed to law; appreciation for the role played by and sacrifices of American servicemen (whatever one may think of the dangers his policy exacerbates); and distrust of immigrants.  The first two are the most important basics of American conservatism to the extent it exists as a principled political program.  The third is an American universal – though it indicates on reflection, as Chesterton said of English pride in their empire a century ago, that America may not have much else to be proud of.

The last in the abstract is baffling.  Christianity requires hospitality to the traveler, foreigner, persecuted, and dispossessed: from Abraham to Ruth to Christ himself those forced or called from their homes have played integral parts in salvation.  However, in the current context it can be explained at least three ways.  The most charitable is to recall concerns about law, and the fact that American law is not currently hospitable to strangers.  This is an argument for changing the law: but in the meantime, most conservative Christians would be inclined to say that laws which do not demand actual sin should be followed, and illegal immigrants are therefore lawbreakers.  The fact that not many actually care to change the laws can be laid either to other concerns – or to ignorance of the severity of the laws, which are rather convoluted as well as unforgiving.

The least charitable explanation is that Republicans have attracted the majority of America’s remaining racists.  This is largely, I suspect, true, because the Democratic party has made it fairly clear that the only racism allowed in its ranks is antisemitism.  However, I am not convinced it applies to more than a minority – and not a very sizeable one – within Republican ranks.  In between the principled and the wicked, I suspect, stands the majority distrust of foreigners, living here or not: a feeling that there is something very insecure about the American identity right now, and that bringing in more and more persons fiercely (it is assumed) attached to their own identities, without attempting to instruct them in The American Way, is tantamount to cultural suicide.  Pragmatism does not justify immorality: it does, however explain why an unexamined stance on the matter may not produce guilt.  The obvious thing to do is hard to examine fairly to see if it might be wrong.

And the fact of the matter is that in contrast to these four positions, the views advocated by Trump’s opponents are certifiably insane.  The Democratic party has all but ostracized all pro-life advocates from its ranks.  The progressive theorists for the last century, from Wilson and those who inspired him to today’s activist judges who keep trying to sideline Trump’s legal – if morally dubious – orders, treat law as merely an expression of common will that loses its force – not just its practical force, which is a truism, but its authority – if that will is understood to have changed: and then take it on themselves to interpret the so-called “common” will.  The military – as mentioned above – goes largely uncriticized, but the few who admirably do dare to criticize it tend not just to villify particular excesses but to treat the American military as one of today’s great collections of villains.  And, finally, Democratic politicians praise all variety of different cultures – being particularly, um, tactful about Islamic ones – while treating America’s Christian and European heritage with contempt and suggestions of legal repressions to come, in the name of coddling and preferring just about any vice, but especially the sexual ones.

Trump’s actions are not the actions of a responsible candidate.  His character before election should have disqualified him to the public mind for office: his attitudes in office have been self-aggrandizing, insecure, and intemperate.  Apart from likely misuses of his official prerogatives, his pardoning of war criminals – one not even tried yet – is inexcusable.  And yet – especially when throughout their attempts to bring these charges home his opponents have badly muddied the procedural waters – since Trump retains a consistent message on these pieties of his base, and his opponents are determined that most if not all of those values are incorrect, this is why Trump retains the support he does.  Trump’s personal foibles and misdeeds will continue not to count for much when balanced against the promise to institute a regime that disdains all of the values Trump claims he will protect.

Election Status: August 1 – Presidency

I may update my opinions as the election draws nearer, especially if debates reveal anything useful.  I will also be writing a section at some point containing thoughts on Congressional and local races, together with some analysis of Maryland races once I do some research.  For now, the Presidency:

At the moment, there are four candidates who could be elected to the the office of President of the United States under normal circumstances: Hilary Clinton (Democratic), Gary Johnson (Libertarian), Jill Stein (Green), or Donald Trump (Republican).  Due to vagaries of the system, these people are recognized more by their party’s ballot access than direct possibility of voting for them: as a result, Stein’s candidacy would take a strange coalition to succeed; additionally, Johnson and the Libertarian party are, as of this date, lacking access in several states – most importantly New York and Ohio.  I do not know whether with three months to go this can or will still be changed – and if so, in which states.

In addition, numerous small parties or independent candidates have some ballot access but not enough to secure the Presidency under normal circumstances.  There are, it seems to me, a great many problems with how elections are structured – but as the system currently tends to benefit the two largest parties, I have small hope of seeing the changes I might hope to be made.  In fact I will not even spend time on Stein’s candidacy: I do not believe she is at all likely to win or even poll particularly well.  Additionally, I have very little agreement with the Green party’s positions.

This leaves three candidates: Clinton, Johnson, and Trump.  If I were to guess, I would guess that Trump is likely to win the race.  In the first place, his candidacy for the Republican party seemed to show some support – judging by open primary states – from normally Democratic voters, suggesting a cross-party appeal.  In the second place, he reflects far too closely what I see day to day – especially on the internet – as the typical American political discourse: insults, angry sound-bites, sexual irresponsibility, vulgarity, and distrust of anyone not in one’s own personal “group”.  I see these habits in people claiming all sorts of different ideological positions.  I suspect his tone therefore resonates strongly with those who more or less agree with his positions (such as they are), and I doubt those opposed to him will be able to mount effective criticism when they tend to indulge in the very kind of nonsense they want to criticize him for.

When I say I think Trump will win, I do not mean that he ought to win, except perhaps in a “get what we deserve” sense.  His presence is angry, immature, and destabilizing.  His policies are not always consistence and as plans incoherent.  Apart from his ability to seize attention, he has very little to recommend him in office.  There are, I think, only two reasons to vote for Trump.  One is that he does seem to care about a certain kind of often-ignored citizen – the relatively poorly off working class, especially if white.  Reintroducing their concerns into political decision-making can hardly be a bad thing: except I still do not see Trump as the person to address those concerns competently.

The other reason would be if the alternatives are worse.  When comparing Trump with Clinton, I am honestly not sure who is more dangerous to the state of the republic.  Trump is a public disgrace: Clinton appears to be competent, but her stated goals are to push us further down an immoral and unConstitutional track, and I very much doubt her political integrity.  By this I mean that – much like President Obama, or perhaps more accurately Senator Reid – she is prepared to use any method, however questionable, which she can get away with to implement policies which she believes will work.  I do not much like being told what to do on quite a number of matters Clinton thinks are public business, and moreover I do not like what she seems likely to try to tell me to do.  I am not sure it is much of a defense to say she “means well”, though I believe that somewhat nebulous phrase does apply: I do not think she is interested (only) in personal aggrandizement as Trump is.

I am not content with the concept of voting for “the lesser of two evils”.  Even considered as “the most possible good”, there seem to be cases where it is hard to find any meaningful distinctions.  If in fact there were no moral distinctions to be made, and both options are bad, a moral person is justified – I am tempted to say required – to choose neither, even if this means abstaining.  Of Clinton and Trump, Clinton is more likely to be a responsible President, but Trump is less likely to impede whatever good policy comes from Congress.  How to choose?

In the event, I currently find Johnson preferable to either.  His basic legal principles and record are superior.  He has not to my knowledge either been involved in any scandal or made an idiot of himself nationally.  I do however have reservations, because on two key points he seems entirely in tune with today’s dangerous tendencies.  He has indicated, in the first place, that he is comfortable using executive orders to achieve good policy – to what extent I am not sure as no interviewer (to my knowledge) has questioned him seriously about this.  He also is unwilling to face down the Supreme Court, especially on abortion: he sounds on the subject just like any other Court supremacist.  (He is, however, far more likely than Clinton – who would pick a probably radical progressive – or Trump – who would likely pick a crony – to make solid appointments to the courts.)

If the election were tomorrow, I would as of now vote for Johnson.  I do not want to make this an endorsement, because the drawbacks of his positions are nearly as big as the advantages.  At the same time, I see – especially in comparison – virtually nothing but drawbacks to either of the other candidates.

The Trump Thing

According to my observations, there are four primary groups active in American politics today: there are a large number of people who would like to return to the ’60s and somehow combine the air of rebelliousness with the idea of doing something important; there is another large group – I would guess larger – but one generally less vocal, which would like to return to the ’50s and a (mostly idealized in memory) unquestioned American security and prosperity; there is a smaller number of people dedicated to a mostly coherent progressive liberalism constructed on the primacy of human choice and self-definition; and there is another small number, I’d guess smaller, dedicated to a consistent adherence to traditional legal and social principles which follow from natural law, whether supernaturally affirmed or rationally considered axiomatic.

To understand Trump’s lasting popularity (so far) when three of those groups despise him – the two idealist factions for being a hack, a liar, and proudly anti-intellectual in tone, the ’60sists for personifying The Man – you have to understand that Trump’s rhetoric and sloganeering appeals to that second group, that group that wants things to be “the way they were”.  Much as President Obama’s campaign energized the liberal-leaning bloc with the idea of “Hope and Change” and a black man in high office as an important symbol, Trump’s “Make America Great” appeals to this conservative-leaning bloc.  That is to say, Trump has managed to do what a great number of people were wondering how the Republican party would ever accomplish – energize the politically unmotivated.  A great many people are saying, “Yes, this guy speaks my language.”

Liberal critics are ascribing this mainly to racist motives, while conservative critics are mostly just baffled.  The first is – at best – an oversimplification, while the latter betrays an unfamiliarity with a great many people’s concerns.  The conservative-leaning bloc is not mostly concerned with the issues of legality and precedent which vex conservative idealists: these Trump supporters resent liberal social revolutionism, but generally on social, habitual, or strictly religious grounds, rather than the legal ones (or reasoned socio-ethical ones) an idealist writes thousands of words about.  And they are accustomed to the idea of an all-powerful Federal government – Social Security, Medicare, a military modeled on the old British “next two most powerful” principle: and the association of America with unquestionable rightness.  Liberal critics are not entirely incorrect in considering this vaguely fascist or tending that way, though very slow to realize or admit this attitude could be traced essentially straight to FDR (if not Teddy and Wilson), and to generations taught to revere him (or them).

Of course, the Republican party has relied on these voters for years.  In a sense Trump is both a caricature and the logical endpoint of the pro-military, pro-spending, God-insisting-on, opponent-bashing rhetoric Republican candidates (though Democrats have their own shibboleths) have spouted to the point it’s become mindless.  (And for this very reason, I’m not convinced Trump in office would necessarily be any worse an official, or be actually less conservative, than many of these talking-point-parroting GOPers have turned out to be.)

Trump has collected as a base several groups which one or the other or both party establishments have alienated for years, either by mocking as hypocritical rubes or by paying lip-service to while ignoring their concerns.  Trump is as insincere as they come – but America all but expects its politicians to be insincere.  One can’t attack his policies, because he has no serious policy suggestions.  Sanders has gained an immense following, and the respect even of his opponents, by appearing to buck that trend.  Trump is taking the easier path – and success despite no respect – taking advantage of expectations.

Why I Will Not Vote for Bernie Sanders

That I am not going to vote for Sanders should not surprise anyone who knows anything about my political, social, or religious views.  In fact, this post might appropriately have been titled, “Why I Will Not Vote for a Democrat”, as Sanders is by far the most compelling candidate, in terms of clarity of vision and personal integrity, that the Democratic party has put forward in several decades – and he is absolutely committed to the Progressive vision associated with the party, much more so than the majority of its politicians, who are perfectly happy with the current situation of favor-trading and mutual government-corporate (to say nothing of the unions) backscratching, whatever they may avow on the campaign trail.  Of the primary candidates, Sanders would clearly be the superior nominee for the Democratic party.

In fact, while his agenda is nothing more than an exaggerated version of our current President’s own desires, I am not convinced that a Sanders presidency would be quite the same failure – at least, if he were forced to govern opposite a Republican legislature.  Sanders, despite the problems with his proposed policies, appears to work in good faith, something that cannot be said of President Obama (or at least of his spokesmen – henchmen?).  The danger here would be a slightly different one: that Republicans would continue to play party politics only, rather than taking to opportunity to put forward their own good-faith ideas.  Many of the issues Sanders claims are issues that not only liberals but many conservatives – that is to say, everyone – cares about: and of course, reform of many of the policies implemented under Obama would also have to be done soberly, and carefully even when wholesale repeal is necessary.

Were the Democratic party in power in Congress – that would be a disaster, as I doubt Sanders would commit to using his veto power to prevent the standard cronyism if his own party were responsible.  I could be wrong, but any resulting “reforms” would be as loophole-ridden, favor-granting, and conscience-insulting as Obama’s championed “Affordable Care Act”.

So much for prognostication.  In the following paragraphs, I will outline several specific reasons Sanders is not a candidate I can vote for.  The primary one is moral: he explicitly endorses abortion.  Despite his claims to be on the side of those abused by society, he has put himself against the smallest and most helpless members of this society, and tolerates their murder.  This acceptance of the taking of innocent life is a blow to the roots of any reasoned and reasonable ethics and morality.  For me to ever support, endorse, or vote for a candidate who believes abortion is not only acceptable but talks about it in terms of rights would require circumstances I am not really interested even in considering at the moment.

I am also not a fan of his other proposed policies.  Sanders does identify correctly many of the problems facing the United States today.  Rising costs of education and healthcare, dysfunction in those areas and in many others, collusion between elected officials and those private persons who have supported them – these are all issues that must be dealt with.  Similarly, problems both of inefficiency and injustice in immigration, criminal sentencing, and other government responsibilities must be corrected.  Very few people take significant issue with Sanders’ identification of the problems facing the government (though many disagree with his ideals for society).  What conservatives, including myself, vehemently oppose is the conceit of thinking that the government can correct all of these ills by itself.  Sanders’ avowed commitment to socialism (to be sure, “democratic socialism” on the modern European model; he does not take for his goal the statist socialism of the 20th century dictators) is an indication he is not prepared to actually correct the ills he sees assailing the country.

There are three main reasons to object to socialism – especially at the Federal level – in the United States.  I will take them in order of increasing importance.  The first is that there are serious doubts whether socialistic policies – that is, policies enacted on the axiom that the government should at least potentially own, control, or regulate any industry and capital – actually work, especially in the long term.  Many of our own programs and policies which have socialist underpinnings, from Social Security to gasoline regulations, are financially untenable, demonstrably impractical, or have had massive unintended consequences.  If Sanders were to take office, his first priority ought to be returning those programs to viability or replacing them: but he seems as likely to ignore the faults and instead – much like President Obama who would have then been before him – champion his own pet projects instead.  Even on Sanders’ own terms, the practical results look suspect – and then we remember he would have to work with Congress.

The second concern is the ethical state of the country.  Many conservatives are fond of denouncing socialism due to its tragic, catastrophic failures in the hands of dictators.  Many liberals champion socialism, in its modern guise of “democratic socialism”, for its relative success in Northern Europe.  Few on either side spend much time on the collapse of socialized states in the Mediterranean and South America – but I believe our governing bodies are much closer to this last group than to either the demons or the pragmatists.  Many city governments in the United States are openly corrupt or bankrupt.  Many state governments are, relatively unnoticed, much the same (especially the bankrupt part).  Millions of people, likely a majority, distrust all national politicians except their own favored few – and this distrust has largely been earned.  Sanders’ own personal integrity appears unimpeachable, but with whom would he be governing?

(It is true that no other candidate is much better prepared to address these problems.  Rand Paul, had his campaign proved viable, would have tried.  Ted Cruz I think might have the will: but given his personality I suspect a Cruz presidency would turn out a mirror of Obama’s: several striking successes followed by stonewalling on all sides.  Kasich or Rubio I think are “managers”, which may be better than nothing, and might stabilize the situation for several years, but would not likely produce any real reform.  Trump and Clinton are obviously both as corrupt as they come.)

The third, and most important reason, to reject Sanders’ socialism is that it is illegal for the Federal government.  This has not stopped much of anyone for the last hundred years at least (the precise number I believe is greater, but the hundred years is more or less undeniable).  That is not an excuse for perpetuating disregard for law, even if it may make reforming the accumulated detritus that much more difficult.  The Constitution laid down certain powers for the central government, implying and then by amendment specifically stating that all others – which can be generally summarized as the power to regulate day-to-day business and life – were to remain prerogatives of the State governments or the people.  Justified by the farces of “living constitutionalism” and (especially modern interpretations of) “substantive due process”, we as a nation have grown accustomed to ignoring what the laws say – including this Constitution and its carefully set limits – in favor of whatever we want right now.

Sanders’ campaign doubles down on this principle.  He is at least honest enough to say what he wants, and (more shockingly still) honest enough to say upfront that his programs would cost significant amounts of money not to be found without higher taxes.  However, personal honesty is no justification for governing dishonestly.  He would like the United States to be a neatly run country on a basis of democratic socialistic principles.  To do that, even assuming it were a realistic goal as above I argued it is not, he would have to – though this is a trait he shares with most of our current politicians as they pursue their pet projects – ignore the law.  Nowhere in Sanders’ platform that I am aware of does he call for amendments to authorize all the powers that would accrue to Washington even beyond its current usurpations.  Sanders’ presidency itself might proceed placidly.  But with the corruption, the debt, and the cronyism that characterize our current rulers; with the ideological and social divides crossing the populace; the eroded bases of State and popular power to resist actual tyranny: is there any reason to think these projects which Sanders pursues would end well in the long term?