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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The Silence of the Elephants

“Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” – Job 38:11

Is it still a majority if most folks disagree?

“I value your votes and vote your values. What more is there to say?”

Sometime last month, I was at a party full of energetic young conservatives from various parts of the country. The topic of the recent government shutdown arose. Everybody agreed that Obamacare is a nightmare and that the general public would soon come to see that liberal pipe-dream-big-government reforms are dark and full of terrors. But as the government was, at the moment, shut down, we all felt obliged to comment on that particular tactic.

In order to avoid a tedious dispute over the merits (or lack thereof) of either side—and to resist the enduring conflation of anecdotes with data—I will elide the conclusions we reached in favor of a simpler observation. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke for nigh a full day to make his grand stand against the Democrats’ not-so-affordable-or-caring reform. In the process, he was joined or supported by many Republicans eager to signal their willingness to die on the hill of opposition to a bad law before God and man.

I point this out not because I mean to argue whether Cruz and his supporters accomplished anything substantial in all those 21 hours. I point it out only to compare it to Ted Cruz’s words on the Senate floor on Monday defending his opposition to a bill that would outlaw discrimination against LGBT Americans.

He said nothing.

It is remarkable to think that not even a decade ago, a bipartisan coalition opposed gay rights loudly and often in an era where prohibitions on gay unions were passed from Oregon to Virginia. Today, however, Ken Cuccinelli seems poised to lose a winnable election in a swing state with a marriage ban primarily because of his extremist reputation on “social issues” (including an inconveniently relevant attempt to eliminate LGBT employment protections at Virginia universities). And yesterday, not one of 30 Republicans who voted against cloture used floor time to speak against the Employee Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate.

Ted Cruz said nothing. Mike Lee said nothing. Marco Rubio said nothing. Jeff Sessions said nothing.

This isn’t to say that no Republicans spoke on the matter. To the contrary, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois gave his first floor speech in the two years since his stroke to urge support for the bill. He was joined in his affirmation by other Republicans including moderate Susan Collins, staunch red-state conservative Orrin Hatch, and Tea Party favorites Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey (former president of the notoriously primary-challenging Club for Growth)—none of whom, for what it’s worth, have expressed support for gay marriage.

Contrast this to the House, where Speaker Boehner joined his peculiarly silent Senate colleagues by announcing his opposition to ENDA through a spokesman. While the Ohioan did not step in front of a camera to explain why the law doesn’t deserve a vote, he did take pains to lie about whether current federal law already protects an American worker from being fired for being gay, as many people think it does. (It does not.)

If one weren’t careful, one might think there was no argument to be made as to why LGBT Americans should be subject to unjust discrimination.

Of course, there are plenty of actors willing to say a great deal about why ENDA is supposedly bad law. Some are sensible. Others, less so. And I suspect at least a few Senate opponents will find their tongues, if only for a moment, before the final votes are cast. The duo from Kentucky is even offering an amendment to attach right-to-work protections to the bill. Imagine that: with the passage of a single law, American workers could be free from unjust discrimination for being who they are or for refusing union coercion. (While I do dare to dream, I won’t hold my breath on that one.) But whether or not Boehner eventually yields to a position favored by a majority of voters in every state, it is time to take stock of how the tides have broadly shifted on social politics.

If any prominent elected official is willing to make a fiery denunciation of anti-discrimination protections for our neighbors and loved ones, let them do so openly and proudly. If there are sound objections to be heard, let us hear them in both chambers, and allow the American people to reach their conclusions. Opponents of gay rights will certainly find some wizened applause in certain quarters. Those understandably leery of anti-discrimination laws more broadly will have to weigh the options and effects. But whatever happens, allies of gay Americans may at least take some solace in watching how the remnant of anti-gay politics whimpers into a resentful and weakening crouch as a new generation of conservatives moves on to modern challenges worthy of our energy and effort.

The era of anti-gay political dominance—or even parity—in the national scene is over. The silence on the floor of the ENDA opposition merely shows that, finally, everybody knows it.


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Right Quick: The Gun Bills

In the midst of the many hot-button issues facing America right now, the gun control debate is still producing its fair share of interesting developments. We’ve had Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s disturbing attempt to publically infringe upon the rights of private corporations that refused to bow to the liberal political agenda. We’ve also had freshman Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s winning response against government bullying. Meanwhile, Vice President Biden has tripled and quadrupled down on his peculiar insistence on shotguns being more easily handled than more popular AR-15s.

The last few months have seen much left-of-center focus on having fewer guns forms and a right-of-center focus on the many problems with “reasonable, common sense” fixes that fix little or nothing. As I’ve already written quite a bit on this topic, I won’t rehash old arguments. Rather, as more liberal-leaning media outlets take pains to highlight protests for gun control, it seems expedient to note a development unlikely to receive much attention in the mainstream media. Namely, victims of gun violence—like law enforcement officers—do not uniformly back the full package of the Obama-Feinstein proposals.

Since witnessing her parents’ death in a Texas mass shooting in 1991, Dr. Suzanna Hupp has been advocating for gun rights around the country. She considers herself a victim not of “gun violence” but of legislative malpractice. In Connecticut, grieving Newtown father Mark Mattioli testified that new gun laws are not the answer to the kind of tragedies his family suffered. Most recently, Columbine survivor Evan M. Todd penned an open letter to President Obama rejecting the administration’s gun control push.

He argues in part:

“Gun ownership is at an all time high. And although tragedies like Columbine and Newtown are exploited by ideologues and special-interest lobbying groups, crime is at an all time low. The people have spoken. Gun store shelves have been emptied. Gun shows are breaking attendance records. Gun manufacturers are sold out and back ordered. Shortages on ammo and firearms are countrywide. The American people have spoken and are telling you that our Second Amendment shall not be infringed.

Virginia Tech was the site of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. Seung-Hui Cho used two of the smallest caliber hand guns manufactured and a handful of ten round magazines. There are no substantial facts that prove that limited magazines would make any difference at all.

Mr. President, in theory, your initiatives and proposals sound warm and fuzzy — but in reality they are far from what we need. Your initiatives seem to punish law-abiding American citizens and enable the murderers, thugs, and other lowlifes who wish to do harm to others.

Let me be clear: These ideas are the worst possible initiatives if you seriously care about saving lives and also upholding your oath of office.”

Whether you agree with everything these different people have to say, it would certainly add some useful substance to the gun control debate to hear more from the inconvenient holders of perspectives unfashionable in various “mainstream” quarters. As the Senate opts to split its key proposals into separate bills for separate votes, let’s hope sound policy and good governance prevail in the end.


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Right Quick: Grand Old Demographics

Much of the commentary and analysis on the last election has focused on how Republicans are losing big among the young, minorities, women, etc. and what the GOP can and should do to change this. Many on the Left predictably want Republicans to “moderate” and some on the hard right want the Party lambaste Romney as a bad candidate and prescribe the panacea of doubling down on ideological purity. Bracketing that discussion for a moment, I want to focus on three relatively overlooked features of the Sixth of November.

First, Romney won 1 out of every 5 votes cast by black men aged 18-29 (my demographic). For comparison, the last Republican to crest 20% of the overall black vote was Richard Nixon in 1960 (32%), and no recent Republican has yet beat Gerald Ford’s 16% showing in 1976.

Second, Romney outperformed Republican U.S. Senate candidates across the country, from Virginia to Wisconsin to Florida to Texas. (Yes, more Texans voted for Mitt Romney than Ted Cruz. Think about that for a minute.)

Third, and the observation that inspired this post, non-Romney Republicans underperformed supposedly safe demographics where it mattered. Whatever the reasons for the mixed message in the Midwest, The American Conservative reminds us to keep an eye on the plains:

“Relative to the rest of the country, the “Big Sky” region is old and white; the percentage of young voters actually decreased by 7% in Montana between 2008 and 2012. Such factors would seem to work in Republicans’ favor.

Neither Berg nor Rehberg held particularly “extreme” views by his state’s standards, and neither were unexpected victors in heated primary contests, i.e. Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock. Rehberg, who lost to Tester, had represented Montana’s at-large House district since 2001; Berg had represented North Dakota’s at-large House district since 2011–both were the “establishment” choices. Neither candidate attracted national attention for controversial remarks i.e. Akin or Mourdock, and were known commodities in their state.

And yet Berg underperformed Romney by 9.2%, while Rehberg underperformed Romney by 10.5%. Thus, a significant portion of voters in these states “pulled a switcheroo,” opting for Romney plus a Democratic senate candidate.

Where even the rainbows want divided government

However the GOP opts to modernize its message and expand the conservative appeal, I hope new leaders make a concerted effort to reach people everywhere. Voters are complex animals with complicated beliefs and motivations. We can’t afford to take any of them for granted.