Tyrannos

A tweet from this morning:

Here’s the video I’m talking about:

The biggest howler comes right at the beginning, when he says that Plato’s Republic is “the first book about politics ever written.” In fact, The Republic wasn’t even Plato’s first book about politics, never mind the first one ever written. That’s an ironic mistake, since the passage of the Republic summarized in this video includes a significant reworking of material from a political tract that predates the Republic by at least 40 and more probably 60 years, the so-called “Constitution of the Athenians” by an unknown author who may or may not have been named Xenophon (though he certainly was not the famous Xenophon, as once was thought.)  The text and its author are customarily referred to as “the Old Oligarch.” The Old Oligarch is very probably oldest surviving specimen of Greek prose, though even it is very unlikely to be “the first book about politics ever written”- the vast majority of written works produced in the mid-fifth century BCE must have been lost sometime before the fourth century BCE. The likelihood that any given work written in those days would survive until 2017 CE is trivial.

At any rate, the Old Oligarch is a quick read; it takes about 10-15 minutes to read the whole thing. When I was in school, my Greek professors were at something of a loss to think of a contemporary critic of democracy with whom they could compare him, someone who combined his extreme opposition to popular government with his concise and witty writing. They usually ended up going back several decades and comparing him to H. L. Mencken.  Nowadays the internet has brought us the anti-democratic bloggers who call themselves “Neoreactionaries” or “the Dark Enlightenment”; those writers may sometimes be witty, but they are rarely concise.  And frankly, few of them have much to say that the Old Oligarch didn’t say in those 15 minutes sometime around 445 BCE.

 

Those who saw it coming, those who fear its leaving

Some observers of the US political scene did predict the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election with some success. That shouldn’t be surprising; the polls consistently predicted that the national popular vote would be close, which it was, that Hillary Clinton would win it by a narrow margin, which she did, that the vote would be even closer in states including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which it was, and that the vote in those states would determine the winner of the Electoral College and therefore of the presidency, which it did. So, making a right prediction required only that one take the polls at face value, disregarding historical analogies and political science models which suggested that someone like Donald J. Trump (alias Don John of Astoria) could not possibly be elected US president.

Among those who can fairly claim to have shown real prescience in connection with this election, pride of place should go to Steve Sailer, who has spent the last 16 years describing how a Republican candidate running on a pledge to restrict immigration could precipitate ethnic bloc voting among whites and thereby win a national election. He’s been reposting some of his old stuff lately, for example this 2000 piece in which he first laid out “the Sailer Strategy.” Mr Sailer has been remarkably restrained with his I-Told-You-So’s; in hundreds of pieces over the years, he has outlined scenarios that have played out in 2016. As a longtime reader of Mr Sailer’s blog, I do find it a bit jarring that he, so long a voice far removed from the ins and outs of Washington politics, is now mentioning people whom he apparently knows personally as potential appointees to senior positions on the White House staff.

Scott Adams, the guy behind the “Dilbert” comic strip, has attracted a great deal of attention for predicting a Trump win; in several posts lately he’s been focused on responses to the election as illustrations of the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Mr Sailer is a Trump supporter, and Mr Adams is not a Trump adversary. Liberals, leftists, and others who strongly oppose Don John have been searching for explanations as to what went wrong Tuesday. Some of these reflections focus on the shortcomings of the sort of people who voted for Mr Trump; these could be summed up in this cinematic moment:

Some reactions have been more interesting. Quartz classifies political parties around the world as “populist” or “liberal,” and finds the populists riding a wave. The more I look at their lists, the more the “populist” and “liberal” labels look like big grab-bags of organizations that have very little in common, but there are some neat maps, and I do think they are onto something.

Atrios is angry with Hillary Clinton and her supporters for managing somehow to lose to Donald Trump, and with the elites in the USA more generally for the way they have of failing upward.

Malak Chabkoun sees in Don John’s election a case of chickens coming home to roost from the violence the USA has inflicted on the rest of the world, and in the panicked reactions of many who opposed him a political immaturity based in ignorance of what America’s empire truly is.

On Twitter, Freddie deBoer allows himself an I-Told-You-So:

While Zach Weinersmith talked about the weather election night:

Meanwhile, political scientist Allan Lichtman takes advantage of the moment in the spotlight that his successful prediction of Don John of Astoria’s election has earned him to publicize a further prediction, that he will be impeached. It’s much easier for me to imagine that Don John will warrant impeachment than it was for me to imagine, or indeed than it is for me to believe, that he will be president. So I’m inclined to believe Professor Lichtman. Professor George Hawley of the University of Alabama also predicted the elections results successfully, in his case calling 48 of 50 states correctly; he may yet see that record improve, since Michigan and New Hampshire, the two states where his forecast did not agree with the current reports, are so closely divided that their results are not yet final.

Michael Kazin, writing in The Wall Street Journal, of all publications, traces the rise of Trump to the decline of organized labor.

Jonathan Haidt is always worth reading, and his latest piece is no exception. Asking “In what kind of world can globalists and nationalists live together in peace?,” he has to make statements that sound rather obvious to anyone who reads old books or otherwise cultivates the memory of times before the 2010’s, such as the following:

Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. This is a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry. Some nationalists do believe that their country is better than all others, and some nationalisms are plainly illiberal and overtly racist. But as many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others. Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.

It may be difficult for some to imagine that there are people in the world who actually need to be reminded of this, but as an American academic who lives in a liberal college town I can attest that there are many, enough of them that they may well have influenced the Democrats to adopt losing campaign strategies this year.

Former New York Times reporter Michael Cieply may not have seen the election result coming, but he isn’t surprised that his old paper was so far off in its expectations. He describes how, unlike typical newsrooms in which editors ask reporters what information they’ve picked up and try to figure out what’s going on based on that, Times editors openly devise a framework and craft the news to buttress that framework.

Glenn Greenwald blames liberals for refusing to learn the lessons of Brexit, lessons which he finds stated clearly both in his own writings and in a note by Vincent Bevins of the Los Angeles Times. Writing from a perspective very different from Mr Greenwald’s, Peter Hitchens made similar points. Mr Hitchens opposes British membership in the European Union, but thought the referendum was a disastrously bad way of trying to achieve exit; he also opposes mass immigration from the Islamic world to the West, but clearly does not see in Don John of Astoria a successor to Don John of Austria or other historical defenders of Christendom whom he might be prepared to admire.

Professor Charles Camosy writes that left-of-center academics, and to some extent even college graduates working outside the academy, have so effectively insulated themselves from those to their right that they have become all but incapable of hearing what they have to say. What Professor Camosy sees in general, Professor Stephen Bainbridge sees in a particular event at the University of California at Los Angeles.

And of course there has been some post-election scrambling for personal vindication within what was once the Hillary Clinton campaign. Some of the stories that have made their way into print show surprising people seeming to try to distance themselves from her loss. Notably, Bill Clinton is named as one who advocated a strategy that would have reached out to non-college educated whites in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the voters who put Barack Obama over the top in 2012 and who swung to Donald Trump this year. Perhaps Mr Clinton did not personally authorize this leak- perhaps others within Clintonworld are trying to refurbish his image as a political wizard in order to boost the chances that Chelsea Clinton will be able to start a political career of her own soon.

Post-election wrap-up

Welp, not all of my predictions about the 2016 US presidential election turned out to be 100% correct. The Republicans did not nominate Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for president, Bernie Sanders did not lose every caucus and primary he entered, Donald John Trump did not run out of money and disappear from the race before voting took place, and Hillary Clinton was not elected president. Worst of all, the nickname which I gave Mr Trump,”Don John of Astoria,” which should be truly hilarious to anyone who knows the historical significance of Don John of Austria and the ambivalence in Mr Trump’s relationship to the Astoria district of Queens, has yet to catch on.

So I have not proven to be much of a seer regarding this year’s events. Even so, perhaps some might be interested in my recommendation of two books as illuminating about the events of this electoral year. Both were originally published in 1958, so neither includes any attempts at specific predictions of the sort I kept making.

The first was The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033, by Michael Young. Young coined the word “meritocracy” in this book, written in the voice of a complacent functionary of a regime which, in the year 2033, has turned Britain into a society where all the good things of life have been turned into prizes to be awarded by competitive examination. The narrator is mystified that the regime is now encountering stiff resistance; after all, it has been so successful that the schools for the more talented children no longer need to send their pupils home at holidays, heralding the final dissolution of that old nuisance, family life.  In later life, Young was horrified that the label he devised for his dystopian nightmare had been adopted without irony as a rallying cry for elites and their defenders.

I do think that one of the secondary contributors to Don John’s rise to the presidency is a revolt against meritocracy. Hillary Clinton went to the right schools, held high-ranking positions that made her a central figure in two of the last three presidential administrations and a leader of the congressional opposition to the other, assembled an impressive campaign organization and staffed it with the most highly-qualified professionals in the business, and consistently presented herself to the public as a competent and well-informed policy expert with a reassuring leaderly presence.  Don John had no experience in government, showed no knowledge of or interest in any aspect of public policy, did not bother to put together a professional campaign organization in the modern style, and said whatever popped into his head at any given moment, often including obscenities. By the standards of meritocracy, it would be inconceivable that any voter anywhere would support him over her.

Therefore, Trump voters’ behavior cannot be explained as an attempt to apply meritocratic standards. Rather, they supported him as a revolt against such standards. This revolt may be rational even in a narrowly bureaucratic definition of rationality, since the schooling, certifications, licensing, and standards of personal presentation that make up the qualifications to rise through the ranks of meritocratic institutions in the USA may not in fact be very closely correlated with the characteristics that make a person likely to succeed in the work that the leaders of those institutions are supposed to do. There is a good deal of “failing upward,” in which people who have held important jobs are promoted to still-more important jobs even though they haven’t done especially well in their previous positions.

Not to kick a person when she’s down, but HRC is a prime example of failing upward. After graduation from Yale Law School, she was unable to pass the District of Columbia Bar Exam, but was assigned as a staff aide to the Senate Watergate Committee anyway. As First Lady of Arkansas she was a key part of efforts to keep the Democratic Party of Arkansas as the major force in the state’s politics; the outcome of those efforts could be seen on Tuesday, when Don John beat her in Arkansas by a vote of 60% to 34%. She then became First Lady of the United States, and in that capacity led the Clinton administration’s attempt to reform the US health care system, an attempt which not only failed to produce any legislation whatever but which also demoralized Democratic voters so thoroughly that the party lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Then she became US Senator from New York, voting for the invasion of Iraq, the USA-PATRIOT Act, and any number of other initiatives that have spread death throughout the world and empowered the US security services to do as they please to citizens who attract their attentions for any reason or no reason. That tenure led to her 2008 presidential campaign, in which she began with the overwhelming support of the party’s major donors and other elites, and wound up losing to Barack Hussein Obama, who is of course an exceptionally talented political operator, but is also a black man named Hussein and was, as such, someone laboring under a heavy disadvantage in a US presidential contest.  Mr O made her Secretary of State, in which capacity her most notable achievement was pushing for the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, an act of unprovoked aggression which has turned Libya into a hell on earth and brought chaos to the whole of North Africa, but which HRC defends to this day as “smart power at its best.” If our meritocratic institutions can foster a career that has proceeded from failure to failure, with steadily more dire consequences for an ever-widening circle of victims, then there may be some wisdom in deciding that all the academic degrees, resume entries, and interview skills that their members can claim are of little value.

The other 1958 book that shed light for me on the 2016 election was C. Wright Mills’ The Causes of World War Three. (I actually read the second edition, which was published in 1960, but it’s still a 1958 book.)  I was aware of that book’s discussion of “crackpot realism,” the confident assurance of those in charge that policies which can lead only to collective suicide are the only policies worth taking seriously. I hadn’t read the whole thing until this Tuesday, election day, and there were sections which seemed directly relevant to what was going on around me.

Most notably, on pages 36-47 of the 1960 paperback edition, in the chapters titled “The High and the Mighty,” “The Semiorganized Stalemate,” and “The Great American Public,” Mills argued that the USA’s political culture had undergone a profound change in the years following the Second World War. No longer did the middle class form a link between the upper and lower classes; instead, at the top could be found a Power Elite of corporate executives, senior military officers, and politicians, at the bottom a lumpenproletariat with ever less engagement in civic life or sense of investment in the country’s future, and in between a variety of classes disconnected from either the top or the bottom. No longer were the chief questions of politics, matters of war and peace, of fiscal policy and industrial policy on a grand scale, of civil liberties and the power of the security services, decided in open forums characterized by formal checks and balances and the informal competition of interest groups; instead, the Power Elite decides those matters in ways that bear no resemblance at all to the processes described in the civics textbooks, while the middle classes still have their civic organizations, labor unions, local elections, and so on, where they can decide smaller questions in more or less the traditional ways. The people at the bottom are left to go along for the ride.

That image does sum up something important about contemporary American politics.  The USA is currently fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. There was no substantive discussion of any of these conflicts in the presidential campaign. Virtually the only references to Libya to make any impression on the US public were to “Benghazi,” an incident in which four Americans were killed. That always made me think of the old joke about The Boston Globe, that it was such an insular newspaper that if New York City were destroyed by a nuclear bomb and only one Bostonian happened to be in town that day, the headline would be “Hub Man Killed in Atom Blast.” We have murdered a nation, inflicted chaos on half a continent, and the whole matter is reduced to the fate of the four Americans among the dead. But why should it be different? If the only people with a say in where the bombs fall are the handful whom Mills would identify as the Power Elite, why should the rest of us pay attention to anything other than little stories of human interest about gallant public servants who gave their lives in frightening circumstances in an exotic land?

And if the major questions are to be decided outside the sphere of voting and public discussion, why not spend a presidential campaign season arguing about whether a former Miss Universe is more than her tabloid image, or whether an octogenarian senator followed the POW Code of Conduct while in enemy hands decades ago, or what kind of email accounts high officials should use, or other minutiae?

It goes beyond minutiae and particular campaigns. If the only questions decided within the sphere of voting and public discussion are secondary, why not organize parties based solely on those issues? If the US trade deficit is driven largely by our use of a nonrefundable corporate income tax rather than a border-adjusted value added tax and only marginally affected by trade agreements, but the tax regime is a matter for the Power Elite while trade agreements are subject to the will of the electorate, then candidates may rage against trade agreements all they like, but never mention the corporate income tax or propose a border-adjusted value added tax.

 

Once as tragedy, once as farce

The recent announcement that the New York State Attorney General’s office is looking into the Trump Foundation, one of Don John of Astoria’s more dubious enterprises, reminds me of Marx’s famous dictum that historical situations occur twice, once as tragedy, once as farce. The Clinton Foundation is tragic; it has done a great deal of good, but as a project of people who are planning to return to the White House has also become a lobbying venue. Not only do its connections to the State Department during HRC’s tenure as Secretary raise eyebrows, but its practice of running its own projects rather than distributing money to established charities and the substantial amounts it has spent on luxurious gatherings of its super-rich donors are red flags.

The Trump Foundation, by contrast, lacks the grandeur of scale and the mixture of heroic achievement with moral ambiguity that are essential components of tragedy. It is simply farcical, a scam that has enabled Mr Trump to obscure the fact that he does not give nearly as much money to charity as a person who is as rich as he claims to be typically would.

The same could be said of the Trump and Clinton campaigns respective practice regarding information about the health of their candidates. Since cellphone video surfaced of HRC having some kind of medical episode the other day, the Clinton campaign’s unwavering insistence that any questions about her health are signs of derangement on the part of those asking them has become laughable, but I would still say that her apparent physical decline and her refusal to level with the public about it do attain to the dignity of the tragic. HRC is a major figure in the last quarter-century of history, and that she and Bill Clinton were as youthful as they were when they first appeared on the world stage did mark a transition from the Cold War era to the present time. That Clinton-world obdurately insists that she is still in her prime therefore represents, not an individual shortcoming on her part, but the difficulty with which the entire Baby Boom generation admits that the sun is setting on the period of history in which leadership rightfully belongs in its hands.  So the tragic scale of HRC’s pretense that nothing is the matter with her health comes not only from the threat of another presidency, like that of Franklin Roosevelt in 1944-1945 or Woodrow Wilson in 1919-1920 or Chester Arthur in 1883-1885, in which the White House palace guard refuses to admit that the president is gravely ill and thereby creates uncertainty as to who is really in charge, but also from her place in history.

As for Mr Trump, what he has made available to the public about his health is a statement from a guy who looks like this:

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As the man said, once as tragedy, once as farce.

The two foundations and the candidates’ health are in the news today. If we cast our minds back a few weeks, we will recall Mr Trump saying that as president, HRC would appoint left-of-center federal judges, and that no one could stop it- “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know- but I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.” There was a great deal of parsing and analyzing this remark, though it seemed clear to me that it started in Mr Trump’s head as a joke about political assassination from which he recoiled when he heard it (“that will be a horrible day.”) Mr Trump’s opponents rightly expressed dismay at a potential US president making jokes about political assassinations.

Mr Trump’s tendency to say whatever pops into his head is suitable for a character in a low farce, not for a US president, and this joke about political assassination shows why. But what of HRC? She also has publicly joked about political assassination. Although in her case, it was not the hypothetical assassination of an opponent, but an already-accomplished assassination which she was instrumental in bringing about:

Considering the lack of provocation for the intervention that overthrew the Gadhafi regime and the catastrophic consequences of the Libyan war for the whole of North Africa, to say nothing of the gruesome manner of Colonel Gadhafi’s death, it is difficult to watch this gleeful boast without revulsion.

Still, low and coarse as HRC’s behavior might have been in this moment, it still qualifies as tragic. A phrase like “war crimes,” as in “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,” does betray a certain lack of imagination. “Crime” names something inescapably small and grubby, and death as the result of crime is an unworthy end to one bearing the dignity of a human being.  War is the greatest of evils, but there is a greatness even in its evil. Thomas Aquinas developed a concept which he called “the law of the fomes of sin,” that even the darkest sin mimics the law-governed structure of God’s living creation. Nowhere is the law of the fomes more compellingly demonstrated than in the spectacle and efficiency, the awe-inspiring scale and undeniable bravery, with which even the most unjust of wars is waged. Responsibility for an unjust war is, therefore, a tragic guilt, not a farcical one.

The Old Right’s New World

This Labor Day weekend, I made an attempt to catch up on the magazines that have been accumulating around here for the last couple of years. I did come upon some things I wanted to note.

For example, in both a column about his personal evolution on questions of immigration policy the July 2016 issue of Chronicles and an article about the electoral prospects of the Libertarian Party in the July/ August 2016 issue of The American Conservative writer Justin Raimondo presents the same quote from Murray Rothbard’s speech to the 1992 meeting of the John Randolph Club:

The proper strategy for the right wing must be what we can call “right-wing populism”: exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often-shell-shocked right-wing intellectual cadre as well. And in this era where the intellectual and media elites are all establishment liberal-conservatives, all in a deep sense one variety or another of social democrat, all bitterly hostile to a genuine Right, we need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.

I don’t fault Mr Raimondo for presenting this excerpt twice, not only because the pieces are quite different from each other, but also because it is so uncannily like what he and other admirers of Mr Don-John Trump seem to see in their presidential candidate. I am an undisguised social democrat, and do not see much evidence that a tacit commitment to social democracy characterizes the policy-making of either the Democratic or Republican Parties in the USA.

Nor do I think that Mr Trump’s campaign represents a particularly strong challenge to the elites where they are in consensus; on immigration, the one issue where Mr Trump’s position has been fairly consistent and sharply at odds with the leadership of the Republican Party, I tend to agree with those observers, ranging from Slate magazine on the ultra-relaxationist left to John Derbyshire on the ultra-restrictionist right who say that the likeliest outcome of a Trump campaign is an electoral defeat that will push restrictionism to the margins for years to come. I grant it is possible, indeed rather likely, that Hillary Clinton will be such a shockingly bad president, leading the USA into pointless wars and so on, that the Republicans will win a huge landslide in 2020. That would give the Trumpians just enough time to establish themselves as a major part of the Republican Party, and not enough time for the entrenched elites to push them back out.  In that case, the president who follows the Clinton Restoration may have little choice but to throw a sop to the restrictionists every now and then. However, that’s a long way from the kind of epochal change Rothbard prophesied and for which Mr Raimondo hopes.

There are some other interesting bits in recent issues of my favorite “Old Right” reads. In the May 2016 issue of ChroniclesSrdja Trifkovic reviews Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of The Andulusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016,) which along with Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint Michel (2008) and Raphael Israeli’s Islamic Challenge in Europe (2008) represents a powerful scholarly riposte to happy-talk about Islam. Professor Trifkovic himself is rather fonder of unhappy-talk about Islam than may seem strictly necessary, but even at his angriest he is less obnoxious than are aggressively ignorant Washington figures such as Madeleine Albright and George W. Bush who have spent the last couple of decades setting themselves up as the authorities on what constitutes “true Islam.” No matter how hostile he may be to Islam, at least Professor Trifkovic doesn’t purport to speak as the arbiter of its orthodoxies.

In the June issue of Chronicles, Gerald Russello reviews Barry Alan Shain’s The Declaration of Independence in Historical Contextwhich builds on the thesis of Professor Shain’s 1996 book The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. Professor Shain argued in that book that the principal influence on American political thinking in the late eighteenth century was Calvinism, and in his new work collects documents that illustrate the extent to which the Declaration of Independence is a Calvinist tract. That thesis may sound familiar to readers of this blog, though I have so far been only vaguely aware of Professor Shain’s work. That looks like a gap in my erudition that I will need to fill post haste!

The August issue of Chronicles included a remarkably charming bit of light literary writing by Derek Turner, of all people. Mr Turner discusses Samuel Johnson and James Boswell’s famous tour of the islands and Highlands of Scotland, comparing their experiences with some recent observations of his own as he visited the same areas.

The September issue of Chronicles features Aaron D. Wolf’s discussion of Don-John of Astoria. Mr Wolf theme is that the word “conservatism,” as used by Republican luminaries who attack Mr Trump for his lack of ideological formation, is an empty one; Mr Wolf appeals to the late M. E. Bradford’s critique of all ideologies, branding every attempt to discover a totalizing set of political values as a reversal of history, an imposition of the present on the past in order to justify whatever one’s favorite political movement happens to be doing at the moment. Like Bradford, Mr Wolf values an attitude of respect for the particular, for particular places, particular times, particular customs, particular people, as an antidote to the brutality that so regularly finds a cloak for itself in the abstract and general language of ideology. Bradford could describe himself as “conservative” because that attitude of respect led him to want to conserve things, not because the word named a program that he was committed to carrying out though the heavens fall.

Don-John of Astoria is no more a conservative in the Bradfordian sense than he is in any of the ideological senses that the recent leaders of the Republican Party have tried to attach to the term, and Mr Wolf does not try to claim that he is. But he does close his column by finding a redeeming quality in the rise of Mr Trump:

Trump’s statement [that “if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country”] resonated with a great many of the American people, whose impulse is conservative (regardless of party and ideological affiliation,) and who had to be convinced by ideologues of both political parties that their impulse is immoral and contrary to “conservative” values.

Given that milieu, it’s no wonder that the only candidate who could break through with an argument for immigration sanity was a man of Trump’s character, whose narcissism makes him immune to their ideological attacks.

So it is precisely in the characteristic that would most have horrified Don John of Austria that Don-John of Astoria makes his contribution to the latter-day Battle of Lepanto to which the anti-Islamic writers of Chronicles imagine the West to be heading, rallying the forces of Christendom by throwing a series of self-aggrandizing tantrums.

The July/ August issue of The American Conservative includes not only the Justin Raimondo piece mentioned above,  but also an essay by David Cowan about economist Frank Knight, a pioneer in the study of uncertainty as the precondition for innovation and growth. Along with that is an excerpt from Knight’s work.

The September/ October issue of The American Conservative features Samuel Goldman’s review of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatismby George Hawley. Professor Goldman’s review is full of gems; I’ll quote these four short paragraphs from the middle of the piece, since they seem to form the heart of his case:

Hawley begins with the observation that the historic pillars of the American conservative movement—limited government, an assertively anti-communist foreign policy, and quasi-Christian moralism—have no necessary connection. Beginning in the early ’50s, these elements were packaged together by a group of intellectuals and activists led by William F. Buckley. The story is often told as a process of addition, in which disparate constituencies were brought into a grand coalition. Hawley emphasizes that it was also a process of exclusion, as unsuitable ideas and characters were driven out.

All students of the conservative movement know about the marginalization of Robert Welch and other leaders of the John Birch Society. Hawley reminds readers that the purges did not begin there. National Review was established partly to distance conservatism from the anti-Semitism that bedeviled the Old Right. Its founding manifesto was also a statement of protest against so-called New Conservatives of the 1950s who accepted the New Deal. Secular-minded anticommunists like Max Eastman were theoretically welcome in conservative circles but found their ostentatiously pious tone intolerable. In its first decade, the conservative movement was defined as much by who was out as who was in.

This process of self-definition did not end with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the first movement conservative to seek the presidency. Since then, Southern nostalgists, critics of the U.S.-Israel alliance, opponents of the Iraq War, and offenders against the movement’s code of racial etiquette have all been treated to quasi-official denunciations. Skeptics of supply-side economics have also been encouraged to make their homes elsewhere. This magazine has its origin in some of those disputes.

One result of this boundary-policing is a “true” conservatism of striking narrowness and rigidity. Its less recognized corollary is the development of a diverse ecology of ideas outside the movement’s ever shrinking tent. Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.

“Some of these uncultivated growths are bitter and even poisonous. Others might contain the tonic that the right needs to recover its relevance.” Indeed, many of those the bitter and even poisonous growths flourish in and around Chronicles magazine, and the attention I’ve paid to that magazine so far in this post should suffice to show that I believe that healing tonics may sometimes be distilled from bitter and even poisonous growths.

In the May/June issue of The American ConservativeAlan Mendenhall reviews Paul Gottfried’s Fascism: The Career of a Conceptin which Professor Gottfried neither neglects fascism’s connections to the political left nor denies that it was, after all, a creature of the far right.  That may not sound like much, but lesser writers do often resort to sleight of hand to disassociate labels they accept (and Professor Gottfried does accept the label “rightist”) from odious labels (and no label is more odious than “fascism.”)

The March/April issue of The American Conservative includes Richard Gamble’s review of John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.  Evidently Professor Wilsey argues that the USA should let go of religious ideas that incline it to militaristic enterprises around the globe, but adopt religious ideas that will incline it to humanitarian enterprises around the globe. As a student of the thought of Irving Babbitt, Professor Gamble recognizes in this proposal an exchange of one indulgence of the expansive temperament for another, and sees in the apparently benevolent expansive humanitarianism the barely-concealed potential for warfare. He calls instead for what Babbitt endorsed, a truly humble policy that is founded in self-restraint and self-denial.

 

More guesses about how the 2016 US presidential race will turn out

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Out of the starting gate

Since I’ve been so brilliantly successful at forecasting the progress of the US presidential campaign so far, I’ve decided to share more predictions.

At Five Thirty Eight, Nate Silver sees “Four Roads Out of Iowa for the Republicans.”  I also see four sets of outcomes for tomorrow’s Iowa caucuses, but not quite the same four Mr Silver sees.

I see four possible winners. Loudmouth landlord Don-John Trump is leading the polls among Republican voters in Iowa and most other states.  If he wins the first contest, (let’s say he has a 35% chance of doing that,) his odds of winning everywhere else likely increase.  However, it has several times happened that the winner of the Iowa caucuses has gone on to receive a smaller percentage of the vote in the next contest, the New Hampshire primary, than the New Hampshire polls had suggested before that Iowa win. George H. W. Bush in 1980, George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008 can all be cited as examples of that sort of anti-momentum. A highly unconventional candidate like Mr Trump might be especially vulnerable to anti-momentum.  New Hampshire voters might be leery of giving him wins in both of the first two contests, thereby putting him in a commanding position in the rest of the primary season.  If they do desert him, the likeliest candidate to benefit would be Ohio governor John Kasich. Mr Kasich is rising in the New Hampshire polls, drawing big crowds at events in the state, and dominating the airwaves there. So if Iowa goes to Mr Trump, I would put the chances of New Hampshire also voting for him at about 70%, and of it turning to Mr Kasich at about 20%.

Texas senator Ted Cruz is also strong in the Iowa polls, and his voters do seem likelier to turn out for the caucuses. So I’d give him a 50% chance of winning Iowa. If he beats Mr Trump by a narrow margin, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone; Mr Trump’s chances of winning New Hampshire would probably be at least 70% in that case. On the other hand, if Mr Cruz wins by a wider than expected margin, that would put Mr Trump on the defensive, and again Mr Kasich comes into the picture as a possible winner in New Hampshire. Maybe his chances would rise as high as 40% in that case, with a 50% likelihood Mr Trump would win New Hampshire.

Florida senator Marco Rubio has consistently stood in third place in the Iowa polls, and is the only conventional Republican candidate making a stand there.  Mr Cruz and Mr Trump have been feuding with each other in recent weeks; Iowa caucus-goers don’t like that sort of fighting, as witness the Democratic race in 2004, when frontrunners Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt spent weeks filling Iowa television and radio with attacks on each other, then neither finished in the top two on the night.  It’s possible Mr Rubio could pull the kind of upset this year that John Kerry pulled on the Democratic side in 2004.  If that happens, Mr Rubio will eclipse Mr Kasich, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, former Florida governor John Ellis Bush, and onetime tech CEO Carly Fiorina to become the default candidate of those looking for a conventional Republican candidate. That will likely guarantee him a win in New Hampshire, and probably make him unbeatable down the road to the nomination. If he doesn’t win Iowa, Mr Rubio won’t win anywhere; he’s been static in the polls, fundraising, and organization for months and months, and simply is not very good at connecting with Republican voters.  If he does win in Iowa, though, he’s the nominee.  (Unless something embarrassing bubbles up from his past, or something else unforeseeable happens.)  On the other hand, that Iowa win, is pretty unlikely, I’d say about a 5% chance. So let’s say that translates to a 4% chance of a Rubio nomination.

Retired brain surgeon Ben Carson, briefly a frontrunner in the polls last year, is now polling at about 10% in Iowa.  However, the final polls before the 2012 Republican Iowa caucuses showed former Pennsylvania senator Richard Santorum with about that same level of support, and he won. Mr Santorum’s people were the hardcore religious conservatives, the group that is far likelier than any other to show up and take an active part in the Republican caucus meetings. Dr Carson draws his support from the same bloc, and he has been a familiar figure among them for decades. While Mr Cruz may have made sufficient inroads with the religious right that Dr Carson is unlikely to emerge tomorrow night as the big winner, it would be foolish to discount his chances altogether.  I would guess that he has about a 10% chance of winning Iowa. If he manages that, Mr Trump and Mr Cruz will both be seriously damaged, and Mr Kasich is virtually certain to win New Hampshire.

If Mr Trump comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire looking like winner, he’ll have to knock all of his opponents out of the race quickly, lest his poverty choke his campaign before he can clinch the nomination. If he wins Iowa, Dr Carson will probably back out of the race; if he wins it by a wide margin, Mr Cruz may see his candidacy collapse.  If he wins New Hampshire, he’ll knock Mr Kasich, Mr Christie, Mr Rubio, Ms Fiorina, and Kentucky senator Randall “Rand” Paul out of the race.  Mr Bush has enough money in the bank and enough institutional support that he can continue his campaign indefinitely.  He will likely spend many millions of dollars trying to win the primary in South Carolina regardless of the results of the first two contests. If Mr Cruz is still in contention at that point, as it seems virtually certain he will be, then the outcome of the South Carolina primary will be quite unpredictable.

If Mr Kasich wins the New Hampshire primary, he may slip through the Trump/ Cruz/ Bush scrum to win South Carolina as well.  Even if he doesn’t manage that feat, a win in New Hampshire would give him the mainstream default candidate status Mr Rubio could gain by winning Iowa.  That in turn would take him to March 15, when the first states hold primaries in which the winner takes all of that state’s convention delegates, instead of giving each candidate a share of delegates proportional to his or her percentage of the vote. The two biggest of these states are Ohio, which Mr Kasich will certainly win if he is a viable candidate, and Florida, which is also likely to favor a candidate more conventional than Mr Trump or Mr Cruz. If he wins those two states, Mr Kasich will be all but unbeatable in the later stages of the nomination contest.  But he has to win New Hampshire; he stands so low in the polls nationally and has so little organization or institutional support that anything less than a first-place finish there will force him out of the race.

Of all the Republican candidates, Mr Kasich sounds the most like a president; no less an an observer than the late Richard M. Nixon has declared that he is his party’s most, and indeed only, electable candidate.  I would rather not see a Republican elected president, so I suppose I should hope they nominate Dr Carson or Mr Bush or Mr Cruz, each of whom, for his own particular reasons, would probably drive well over 50% of the electorate to oppose him unalterably.

 

Former colonial power considers censuring nationalist demagogue

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Donald Trump admires a typical resident of the UK

There was a debate today in the Palace of Westminster on a proposal to urge the Home Secretary to ban Donald Trump from entering the United Kingdom. Mr Trump is a demagogic politician whose support in his bid to become US president is based primarily on nationalistic resentment. Therefore, it would be difficult to imagine a development more perfectly calculated to increase his support and to improve his odds of becoming his party’s nominee for that office than a formal censure of him by the former colonial power, especially if that censure is delivered a few days before the voting begins in the first electoral contests.

This much is so obvious that one cannot suppress a cynical curiosity as to the true motives of those sponsoring the proposal. The foremost advocates of the recommendation represent predominantly Muslim constituencies. Why would members of parliament representing people towards whom Mr Trump has shown such extraordinary hostility embrace a proposal that would do more than anything else in their power to help him become president of the United States? Well, in the first place, it is unlikely the Home Secretary will actually take any such action. So they can go home and tell their constituents that they did something to express their alarm at the rise of so objectionable a figure, without triggering any real-world consequences.

If by some odd chance Mr Trump actually were banned from entering the UK, his resulting surge of support in the USA would certainly bode ill for British Muslims, especially if it were to take him all the way to the White House. But it might not harm Muslim M.P.s.  On the contrary, they would be able to invoke fear of him and of the USA to consolidate support for themselves as a last line of defense for British Muslims in an openly hostile West.

Moreover, a President Trump, taking office after the UK government had taken a stand against him in so dramatic a fashion, would be in a position to inflict almost unlimited humiliations on that government. If you wonder how that would play out, just think of the consequences of John Major’s decision to actively promote George H. W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 1992.  In the period from 20 January 1993 to 1 May 1997, John Major’s life took on an almost nightmarish quality as Bill Clinton demonstrated time and again just how severely an American president can punish a British prime minister who displeases him. Mr Clinton did all of that out of the public eye, as a purely private vendetta. Imagine what Mr Trump could do with the full force of US public opinion behind him. The sponsors of this recommendation, in a world where the news is daily showing the prime minister, the cabinet, the Queen, and all of the other nominal leaders of the UK crawling on their bellies and begging the US president to relent from his wrath against them, might even attract support from non-Muslim Britons disgusted by that desperate tableau. They might emerge as symbols of patriotic defiance against the power that was grinding Britain into the dust and exposing its leaders as gormless sycophants.

Donald Trump is too poor to run for president

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That barrel is terrific

The winning candidates in each of the last few US presidential races have headed campaigns in the course of which about $1,000,000,000 was spent. There is no reason to suppose that the winner of the 2016 race will ride any smaller a wave of money.

Donald Trump claims to possess a personal fortune of $10,000,000,000. This claim is unlikely to be true. More to the point, whatever the true scale of Mr Trump’s wealth, very few businesspeople are in a position to liquidate 10% of their holdings in order to finance one personal project. Mr Trump’s debts and other commitments are such that he is surely not at liberty to do that. Estimates of Mr Trump’s cash on hand range from $70,000,000 to $250,000,000, far short of the amount that is typically spent even on winning a major party’s nomination, let alone competing against the nominee of the other major party in the general election.

Mr Trump continues to assert that he has enough money to self-finance.  His refusal to solicit campaign donations is so essential to his appeal that it is unclear how he could start asking for money without dynamiting his base of support.

That creates two problems. First, Mr Trump’s campaign expenditures thus far have been quite modest. He has received so much coverage free of charge from cable news and other media outlets (all the way down to this blog post, apparently) that he hasn’t needed to buy advertising. The only way he can keep gaining that free coverage is to make news, and the only way he can make news is by making remarks that are more shocking than any he has made before. Unless conditions turn so bad that the electorate starts looking for an out-and-out revolution, that’s a one-way street that leads directly to a brick wall.

If Mr Trump somehow manages to be elected president, he would face a second problem. Assume that the net worth of all of his assets really were as high as $10,000,000,000. And assume that he was able to sell them all at their full value, despite the fact that every potential buyer would know that that he was under pressure to sell them. Assume all that. A US president is effective only to the extent that s/he is the leader of an effective party. If Mr Trump has $10,000,000,000, it might conceivably be possible for him to spend $1,000,000,000 of that and finance a successful campaign for the presidency. But even $10,000,0000,000 would not be enough to finance the entire Republican Party for four to eight years. Presidents help their parties raise money. They are expected to do it. If Mr Trump should refuse to do that, he would quickly lost the support of his party and with it any chance he might have of enacting his platform.

It’s more than you did

When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I assumed I would join the US military, probably the army.  All of us at my high school who expected that of ourselves were deeply interested in stories about US servicemen who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam.  We read and reread books about their time in captivity, followed the postwar careers of ex-POWs like Admirals Jeremiah Denton and James Stockdale, and even developed our own tap codes to communicate with each other at odd moments around school.

One day my father asked me why we were so hung up on those guys.  “They’re heroes!” I exclaimed.  “What makes them heroes?”  he asked.  “Well, they were, uh, captured, and, uh, they, well, they held up pretty well under torture, some of them.”  My father explained that when he was in the army in the 1940s, they used a working definition of “hero” that included taking enemy troops prisoner, but did not include allowing oneself to be taken prisoner.  The clip from The Simpsons embedded above (in Portuguese) reminded me of that conversation.  Speaking of Timmy O’Toole, whom they believe to be a boy trapped in a well, Homer says “That little Timmy is a real hero.”  “How do you figure?” asks Lisa.  “He fell into a well and now he… can’t get out.”  “How does that make him a hero?”  “It’s more than you did!”

Anyway, in the USA in the post-Vietnam era, conventional military heroism, of the sort that actually involves engaging the enemy and destroying him, was heavily problematized.  It was already that way in the later years of the USA’s war in Vietnam, which may explain why public statements from the Nixon administration about the criteria that a peace deal would have to satisfy focused so heavily on the status of American POWs that critics claimed that an observer whose knowledge of events in Southeast Asia came entirely from those statements would conclude that the war began when North Vietnam attacked the USA and abducted a number of American military personnel.  That focus distracted both from humanitarian objections to the manner in which the USA was waging war in Vietnam, and to broader objections to the fact that the USA was waging war in Vietnam.  By turning attention to the evidence that the North Vietnamese were mistreating American POWs, the administration stirred Americans’ sympathy for their imprisoned countrymen, a sympathy which had the effect, for many Americans, of pushing aside the concern that objectors to the war had expressed for the sufferings that US actions were inflicting on the Vietnamese people.

The idea that the USA was fighting in Vietnam to rescue the Americans who had been taken prisoner in Vietnam while the USA was fighting in Vietnam, unintelligible though it may seem now, was still pretty strong in the popular culture of the 1980s.  So in those years Hollywood released a whole slew of hit movies about fictional missions to extract American POWs from Vietnam, movies with titles like Rambo: First Blood Part Two and  Missing in Action.  Those particular movies traded on the idea that the Hanoi regime so intensely craved the presence of American POWs that it kept a bunch of them around after the war was over.  This may be another idea that is unintelligible to people who did not spend the years from 1970 to 1990 in the USA, but I assure you it was everywhere in this country in those years.  The “MIA flag,” symbolizing this belief, is still prominently displayed in many parts of the USA.

This is an actual picture of the MIA flag over the White House taken in September of 2011

All of this is to explain that Americans in general tend to have strong feelings about those of their countrymen who were held as prisoners of war in Vietnam, and that these feelings are precisely contrary to those which would be prescribed by the usual code of warriors throughout the ages, who have regarded it as their duty to fight to the death rather than offer their surrender to the enemy.  I teach Latin and Greek in a university deep in the interior of the USA; I used to assign my students Horace‘s Ode 3.5, in which the Roman general Regulus, captured by the Carthaginians, advises the Senate to refuse to make any deal to secure his return or that of his men, saying that it would be a disgrace to give up any of the gains Roman arms had won to ransom men who had forever lost their manliness by allowing themselves to be taken prisoner.  My students were shocked by Horace’s disdain for prisoners of war, and by the fact that with this disdain he was expressing the standard Roman view of the matter.  They often exclaimed that prisoners of war are heroes.  “How do you figure?” I would ask, and an interesting, unpredictable conversation would always follow their attempts to answer.

What brings all this to mind are some recent remarks by New York real estate heir turned presidential candidate Don-John “Donald” Trump.*  Mr Trump said that John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war does not in fact qualify him as a war hero.

This statement has attracted a great deal of criticism.  One difficulty Mr Trump would face, were he to try to retract it, is that he might then have to explain why being captured makes a warrior a hero.  Another difficulty is that Mr McCain’s record is not in all respects comparable to that of a hardcore resister like Jeremiah Denton or James Stockdale.  Some of the less appealing sides of Mr McCain’s record can be found delineated here, here, and here.  I don’t want to dwell on these matters, because I know myself well enough to find it impossible to be sure that I would have acted any better than Mr McCain did were I subjected to the same pressures, but I do think that, on the one hand, respect for those personnel whose conduct did in fact meet a higher standard and, on the other hand, a habit of the accurate use of language prohibits calling Mr McCain a “war hero.”

*In fact, Mr Trump’s legal name is and always has been “Donald John Trump,” but his campaign is a means by which he has been enjoying himself hugely while being grossly unfair to other people.  So I choose to enjoy myself slightly by being mildly unfair to him.  “Don-John” it is!