Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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The Con of Mephistopheles

“I am aware, in a way that many Americans whose families have been here longer are not, of how fragile a thing American exceptionalism is. Of how remarkable a moment in world history it was when this country was founded on principles of government and Constitution rather than a tribe. Like Ronald Reagan said, ‘Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.’” –Inez Feltscher 

Long ago, a doomed priest desperately admonished the proud lords of Ilium: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. His words, like the cries of captive Cassandra, were all in vain. The Trojans took the horse as a sign of their enemies’ defeat and decided unanimously to let it stand inside their impenetrable walls as a monument to their greatness. So the glory that was Troy ended with a con that her people voted upon themselves.

It was neither the first nor the last time a people or individual fell grasping at poison in the guise of hope.

Donald Trump promises many things that he sums up in a mantra that is somehow simultaneously gleeful and indignant: Make America Great Again. Most Americans, even zealous fans of the incumbent administration, reasonably believe the country to be on the wrong track and, as that metaphor suggests, to desperately need a course correction. What is curious is the degree to which this national craving has evolved beyond content into a visceral campaign for The One who reassures, as forcefully and cryptically as modern electioneering will allow, “We can be safe still.”

There was a widespread myth, peddled by the likes of Trump and court eunuch Reek Chris Christie (R-Dreadfort), that the promising Marco Rubio was essentially the Republican version of Obama—young, charismatic, and light on substance. Ironically, Rubio’s painfully doomed campaign (of which, full disclosure, I was an enthusiastic supporter) was profoundly heavier on policy and lethally lighter on electioneering fundamentals, which is why he lost the GOP nomination despite seeming to have everything going for him. The actual paradigmatic heir to Obama ’08 is indeed neither of the freshman Senators with ethnic minority backgrounds—or either of the Democrats—but instead Donald J. Trump.

Barack Obama campaigned eight years ago on the revivalist fervor of “Hope and Change.” Endless words were spilled, from rival Democrats to perceptive journalists to incredulous Republicans, about the mercurial projections of a candidate who managed to seem and promise and all things to all people through precious little substance. The vitality and promise were above all the message, and in the backdrop of the failures and fear of the Bush era, this proved enough to upend the political order that was.

As a young Obama supporter said of the future president in December 2007, “He presents a hope for our country and that sets him apart. He’s not afraid to tell it how it is.”

Now, dissatisfaction with the Obama era has brought an illusion of clarity to what is to be Hoped for and how things are to Change: America is in decline, and it must be Made Great Again. As before, the promise—which includes that reverberating echo of transcendent political vitality Obama so yearned to represent—is the message. But the Trump song is for those who believe the cultural, social, and economic trends of the day have left them behind while the Obama coalition of spoiled special interests seems poised to inherit the Earth.

Put another way, the hardened Trumpists, like the Obamaniacs of old, are bound to their candidate by a visceral sense of aspiration that transcends policy positions and blatant hypocrisy to the point of rejecting that entire category of ideological criticism. (See: Scandal-addict Ann Coulter, starved for the diminishing return of her next degrading media hit, going pro-abortion for Trump.) That such flagrant indifference to a candidate’s ignorance and hostility to truth seems impossible to square with praising the candidate for being unafraid “to tell it like it is” is a feature, not a bug.

When loyalty to an office-seeker transcends issue substance into the ream of cultural appeal and aspiration, what some might call a cult of personality, blatant contradictions cease to be liabilities and instead bolster rather than undermine the candidate’s credibility through the desultory mythology of “authenticity.” The supporters’ aspirational devotion evolves into an amaranthine barrier of unfalsifiable intertia that does not allow for new information to trigger apostasy.

Consider this characteristic description of Obama’s support in April 2008:

Obama is unusual, however. He attracts supporters who not only disagree with his stated positions but assume he does too. They project their own views onto him and figure he is just saying what other, less discerning voters want to hear. So when Obama’s chief economic adviser supposedly told a Canadian official that, contrary to campaign rhetoric, the candidate didn’t want to revise NAFTA, reporters found the story credible. After all, nobody that thoughtful and sophisticated could really oppose free trade.

Compare this to the appreciably broad amalgam of contemporary Trump supporters who are proving impervious to fact-based attack ads, as in the people who are happy to discriminate against innocent Muslims and cast aspersions against Mexican immigrants but get outraged when a private landlord in Colorado opts to deny them the respect they wish to deny others. Or the following example of a guy who denounces globalism and jobs going overseas only to hand-wave the subject away upon learning that Trump sends jobs overseas:

That Trump shares his supporters’ knack for what could charitably be called inconsistency, or more accurately described as incoherence, surprises nobody anymore. Still, it’s worth noting that he did just give a speech at AIPAC where he vowed to somehow reject the Iran deal:

“My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”

And enforce it:

“We must enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable, and we will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced, people—believe me.”

Trump’s strong positions doubtlessly followed extensive consultation with his top foreign policy adviser. In any case, as the New Yorker himself stated publicly, he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and [he] wouldn’t lose any voters.” His supporters agree:

“There’s nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren — there is nothing and nobody that’s going to dissuade me from voting for Trump.”

Insofar as Trumpism is the monstrous heir—or, at least, reductio ad absurdum—to Obamamania, even the Obamaniacal Chris Matthews seemed less, well, maniacal with his infamous leg thrills. That said, Trump has enjoyed servile media promotion, most shamefully captured in Breitbart’s descent into a Trumpist MSNBC, and so the new mania spreads as the old one did. This time, however, a lot more of the “mainstream” sees the farce for what it is.

Beyond the flip-flopping and stultifying mix of arrogance and ignorance, the weakness and dangerous opportunism of Trump’s policy scheme, where it approaches coherence, has been spelled out elsewhere, so I’ll refer those in need of a handy refresher to Eugene Volokh’s detailed summary:

Trump openly advocates massacring innocent civilians. He wants to use bogus lawsuits and FCC censorship to suppress the speech of his critics, and recently pined for the “old days” when his supporters would have been allowed to beat protestors to the point where they “have to carried out on a stretcher.” He has lobbied for the government to condemn a widow’s home so he could use it to build a casino parking lot. He has utter contempt for constitutional property rights, and other constitutional limitations on government power. He wants to deport millions of people to lives of Third World poverty and oppression,including hundreds of thousands of children born in the United States, who have never known any other home. And he would engage in massive discrimination on the basis of religion.

A man who advocates such things must not be elected president of the most powerful nation in the world, and he must not be allowed to become the nominee of a major party. Blocking him is far more important than ensuring the victory of any one other candidate that we might happen to prefer. The differences between the other viable candidates are modest compared to the evil represented by Trump. Trump many not really believe or want to act on some rhetoric. But it would be dangerous to take that chance. Even if it is all an act, a triumphant Trump might well be conclude that the script that got him in the White House will also help him stay there and consolidate his power.

To that latter point, about the common refrain among the many reasonable and thoughtful people who support Trump and assume he cannot mean the worst of his words, my friend Michael Estève, a young Republican city councilman in Maryland, adds:

So, after conversations with a handful of Trump supporters, it basically boils down to (for some) a bet that Trump isn’t serious, doesn’t mean most of what he says, and is just using the media to mobilize an enthusiastic base and troll the establishment. And that may very well be the case. But is it *really* worth the risk that he does, in fact, want to open libel laws to target the press? Bring back torture worse than waterboarding, inspired by “the middle ages”? Kill the families and friends of suspected terrorists in violation of international law? Build a wall, which, I assume, will be paid for with import tariffs on a country with less than 1.5 trillion dollars of GDP? Allow Social Security and Medicare to continue to crowd out federal spending without even modest reforms? And, more importantly, introduce religious tests to immigration, law enforcement, and surveillance? I get liking a successful troll, but the gamble that he’s self-aware and benign is fairly high-stakes given the potential harm to innocent people.

But set aside, for a moment, the matter of Trump’s disqualifying contempt for the brave troops in our American military, weakness on policy, and establishment-style propensity to lie to his supporters with pathological abandon. Even if you’re well aware of the many good reasons Trump’s campaign is terrible and inclined to support him anyway to achieve nihilistic catharsis in burning down the world, consider the preliminary smoke signals from the Trump phenomenon’s early embers.

In the heartland, white high school students chanted “Build a wall” at a basketball game against a school with mostly lower-income American kids of Hispanic heritage. They held up a poster of Trump as they did so. This event echoes a crowd of adult Trump supporters chanting “USA” as they assaulted nonviolent Latino protesters at a Trump rally. Trump encouraged them. Even among white Republicans, Trumpism inspires the kind of existential terror that seems more suited to the Middle East or Soviet-era Eastern bloc than 21st-century America.

This is insane. Trump is running nakedly as the kind of lawless, unprincipled autocrat that his supporters and opponents alike find damning in Obama. But again, he promises greatness, strength, and Putin-style “leadership,” so all sort of people who really should know better are willing to dance with the Donald for the small price of everything they claimed to value in the idea of America and basic decency.

Jon Gabriel’s lamentation of the Trump campaign captures well the Mephistophelean choice the would-be strongman of the United States has offered to the polity, which too many are willing to accept:

The Strong Man on the white horse will save us — not through Congress, the courts, or the Constitution, but merely by willing it. And the price is cheap: All we have to do is admit that the American Experiment is dead. Our Founding Fathers were wrong about that individual liberty nonsense and we should bow to our new king. America will be so great your head will spin.

In reflecting on the barbarisms of the French Revolution—a campaign to make that country so great the heads were literally spinning—conservative thinker Edmund Burke timelessly inveighed:

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever… It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

In a very raw sense, these are the stakes, even as Europe today is but a castellated shadow of her former majesty. There is nothing ennobled by the illusory “strength” of Donald Trump, not his spectacular business failures, Trump University victims, exploited illegal foreign labor, targets of racial discrimination, right-wing enablers, or legion of trusting voters who enable his threats to take by violence what he cannot win legitimately at the ballot box. Everything Trump touches he degrades, including the goals, aspirations, and energy of the voters who comprise the Trump coalition.

It’s not even true that Trump cannot, as he and his supporters oft repeat, “be bought.” Trump’s most prominent business ventures are funded by the same moneyed special interests that “buy” other politicians, including notorious liberal mega-donor George Soros. That’s the same George Soros who bankrolls candidates and causes—like open borders and bringing Syrian refugees into the United States, which Trump also supported—that are supposedly anathema to Trump supporters.

But of course, as noted earlier, Trump loyalists necessarily apathetic to matters of principle or values will not care. Political candidates taking $160 million dollars from special interests only matters when non-Trump politicians do it. Case in point:

Whether or not you see heavy-handed notes of unabashed fascism, murderous nihilism, or other forms of authoritarianism in Trump’s explicit comments, or subscribe to #NeverTrump, the would-be strongman’s beguiling rise undercuts the legitimacy of and ability to resolve the very grievances he seeks to embody. To highlight just a few critical notes the Trump campaign cedes irrevocably to its opponents, left and right, as helpfully compiled by a known enemy of the GOP establishment: the cult of personality and lawlessness that has enabled Obama (as mentioned above, Trump runs on such fuel); the corrupt worldview that produced the escalating disaster of Obamacare (Trump endorses it); political corruption (Trump profits from and promises more of it); nasty, identity-politicking, and election-losing portrayals of the American Right (Trump’s campaign is the apotheosis of them all); grotesque mistreatment of our troops and veterans (also touched on above); and, perhaps most saliently, weakness and betrayal from GOP elites (if God is the embodiment of love, Trump is treachery incarnate).

If you care about any of those issues, Trump is your gleeful, cantankerous enemy who will destroy everything you love along with some—though not all—of the things you hate. Because that is the essential truth that Trump, like Mephistopheles, hopes his supporters, like Faust, won’t think too much about: The only way he could break and burn the system is to immolate and consume the hope and anger of his supporters until only dust and haunted votes remain.

For conservatives, the only viable option left to defeat Trump—a candidate so odious he would lose to either Democrat for president in deepest of deep-red Utah—and put our best foot forward against the not-indicted Clinton machine in November is to unite in support of the candidacy of Ted Cruz. In case it need be said, John Kasich has no viable path to the White House, or even the GOP nomination. Frankly, even if he did, the governor’s economic record in Ohio is atrocious. Kasich has the worst fiscal record of any of the supermajority of the nation’s Republican governors, including the absolute worst record on spending of any governor of any party in any state.  That’s setting aside whatever he meant by a “Department of Judeo-Christian Affairs” and his contemptuous end-run around his own legislature to expand the protean quagmire that is Obamacare.

I can understand why many folks—particularly more centrist or establishment-leaning Republicans and voters reasonably concerned about what Cruz’s election would mean for gay people—want to support Kasich, and I respect those sentiments. But John Kasich has no path to the White House and is more likely to enable Donald Trump than stop him. By contrast, Ted Cruz has a viable path to both the nomination—through toppling Trump—and the presidency. It is perfectly reasonable to hold Cruz to task for legitimate points of concern and disagreement, and I expect all of us to do that. And may we all, including Cruz, emerge the better for it.

Ultimately, the Senator from Texas is the best shot we have to point the Republican Party and the American Republic toward the right direction. He may well fail in July or fall in November, but at least with him conservatives can unite in the embrace of a broad set of principles we mostly agree with (or at least recognize), rather than despair between the Scylla of Hillary and the Charybdis of Trump in November. With Cruz, we will take the nomination and the White House, or we will come back on our shields, having fallen for a cause we know and believe to be resolutely superior than everything else on the table.

When the fall is all there is, it matters.”

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