It has been a long time since I tried to write a book review, and I’m not sure I ever really knew how.
New Year’s Eve’s eve, I undertook to read Frank Buckley’s The Republican Workers Party, which my son thoughtfully bought for me, intuiting that I might like it because it was my wish list.
Clever lad. Good amygdala.
I wanted to read it because Buckley (no known relation to William F.) is a smart guy, not an elected hack, and I thought I might gain more insight into how Trump got elected, and why “it was just what we needed,” as the subtitle has it.
I finished it the next day, mission accomplished.
The book struck me as uneven, and as mostly a platform for Buckley to advance his pet theories, with Trump as a convenient if implausible icon of his impending triumph.
Nevertheless, I was impressed by a couple of what I considered key insights:
First, what everyone knows but tends to forget as Trump makes his own oafishness so prominent: Trump was not Hillary Clinton.
I thought that Hillary Clinton was vastly more mean-spirited and less principled than Obama, and more vindictive than Richard Nixon; that as president she would happily use all the tools at her disposal to silence dissent, and that the progressive media would cheer her on as she did so.
Page 10. That is exactly right. Had my state been in play, I feared I would need to vote for the corrupt but stable Hillary, with exactly such consequences when she won (as she surely would, right?).
The social conservative awakening that helped elect Trump came when voters realize that the liberal agenda amounted to something more than a shield to protect sexual minorities. It was also a sword to be used against social conservatives. The trump voters might have grumbled about the 2015 Supreme Court Obergefell decision that recognized the right to same-sex marriage. But that didn’t pick anyone’s pocket and no great political protest followed. It was a different story when homosexual activists employed there newly one right to put religious believers out of business.
Page 57 (italics added). Here, I hope he’s right. We could really use a backlash in this area, and Hillary would have resisted that backlash.
In our culture wars, in Hillary’s condemnation of the deplorables, the religious voter experience to reverse Sally Fields moment: “You dislike me! You really dislike me!“
Page 58. Again, pitch perfect. I took some solace in the perception after the election that at least Trump did not hate people like me, and that he had enough supporters of a sort for which he likely would mistake me, that I would remain Not A Target in a Trump regime. So far, so good on that.
While Hillary Clinton ignored Catholics, Trump went out of his way to court them. It didn’t happen overnight. Early in the campaign he picked a stupid quarrel with Pope Francis. But by the end he was persuaded to grant a lengthy interview to the Catholic EWTN television network and to tweet his happiness at the canonization of mother Theresa. The mainstream media didn’t notice any of this, but Catholics dead. They were seven-plus for Trump, and white Catholics were +23 for him, providing him with the winning margin in the crucial rust belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. And that was the election.
Add a dinner party, I told all this to a New York Times reporter. “What’s EWTN?” he asked me.
Page 59. Insularity is not a flyover country exclusive. Or as Jonathan Haidt has noted, conservatives grok liberals better than vice-versa.
Second, social immobility has become a real problem. Chapter 6, Where Did the Dream Go?, focuses on our loss of social mobility in the United States, both absolute and relative to other nations. Canada vastly outstrips us in social mobility, and people will suffer a lot of deprivation stoically until they think their children will have it no better.
Immobility matters more to us than inequality. Only three things will last to the end of time, God‘s promise to Abraham; the Church; and the selfish gene.
P 44. Very nice line.
The American dream isn’t dead; it just migrated to Canada, and the other countries that are more mobile than us. In what we wrongly take to be the land of opportunity, a bicoastal aristocracy, smug, self congratulatory and disdainful of the Trump deplorables in the heartland, has cleaved itself off. Because of this we are living in what Marxists call an objectively revolutionary society.
Page 45. This is a severe problem, even if putative billionaire Trump, who got his money by a mixture of gift, inheritance and tax fraud, is a dubious avatar of renewed social mobility.
Third, in chapter 8, Nationalism, the author compares the Republican Workers Party to the Christian Democrats of Europe. If I could buy that, it could be very welcome news, and I sort of half buy it.
Before you laugh derisively, remember that he’s describing the Republican Workers Party, not your father’s Republican party, and that we’re in the midst of a big political realignment. Allow me—a notional member (my state doesn’t register party affiliation) of the American Solidarity Party, which is pretty explicitly Christian Democrat—at least to be hopeful.
On nationalism versus “white nationalism,” a nice quip at page 68:
There isn’t much room for white nationalism in American culture. For alongside baseball and apple pie, it includes Langston Hughes and Amy Tan, Tex-Mex food and Norah Jones. You can be an American if you don’t enjoy them, but you might be a wee bit more American if you do.
Fourth, Chapter 9, How to Bring Back Our Mojo, includes an discussion of the importance of school choice, which Trump supposedly made central to his campaign. I don’t recall that and I haven’t seen Betsy DeVos do anything about it.
There will be many roadblocks and lawsuits if DeVos tries to reform primary and secondary education, and I’m not sure how well we (as opposed to nations who’ve long enjoyed school choice) would execute school choice after having a substantial monopoly by government schools for so long.
But the educational statistics are horrible. Let’s just say that America is #1 only in unearned self-esteem, and in the teens or lower far too often. And the excuses are lamer than Buckley at his lamest.
Speaking of which, Chapter 9 is also one of Buckley’s most deeply uncharitable chapters, imputing to the New Class (his derisive term) all kinds of nasty, self-serving motives, reminding me of the John Birchers who thought that every misstep was ipso facto part of a conscious Communist conspiracy. He makes many solid points about educational choice and about the folly of our immigration laws, but to me they were sullied by those sleazy and demagogic imputations.
Shame on him. The points could have stood without creepy theories about his ideological adversaries, and probably would have been more forceful.
Fifth, Chapter 11, Draining the Swamp, includes a proposal for a truly radical slashing away at regulations, through appointment of a Commission to eliminate duplicate or anti-competitive regulations, cutting the Code of Federal Regulations by something more than 50% (I think it was closer to 90%). He cites a Napoleonic project along those lines.
Though this vastly ambitious idea has some appeal, I don’t trust any administration to do it without checks, even if the APA itself might be too cumbersome a check. Verdict: not remotely ready for Prime Time.
Chapter 11 also includes the author’s most disingenuous point, among several, that taxing large college endowments “would serve to focus them on their educational mission.” Surely he knows better, and after his book went to press, it emerged that this proposal, now enacted, will cause collateral damage to religious friends of the administration. Insofar as they supported the tax as a way to punish liberal educational foundations, I’m feelin’ the schadenfreude burn.
Buckley is not entirely unaware of Trump’s shortcomings, and takes at least token notice of a few:
At the White House, we’ve been treated to a succession of feckless amateurs, flaming egomaniacs and shady hustlers.
Every time things have turned his way, Trump has made an equal and opposite gaffe. Firmness and prudence, energy and tact, were not given to him in equal measure, and the man who wrote The Art of the Deal now finds himself obliged to deal with people who can scarcely hide their contempt for him.
In the passage that I thought was most counterproductive to the author’s aims, he discusses a theory that the amygdala correlates to empathy. He seems to assume that Donald Trump is empathetic, but he left me wondering:
- How big is Trump’s amygdala?
- What’s his cunning/empathy ratio?
At its worst, which worst spanned several chapters, Buckley’s “argument” reminded me of the opening anecdote in Tucker Carlson‘s early Politico piece about Trump:
About 15 years ago, I said something nasty on CNN about Donald Trump’s hair. I can’t now remember the context, assuming there was one.
In any case, Trump saw it and left a message the next day. “It’s true you have better hair than I do,” Trump said matter-of-factly. “But I get more pussy than you do.” Click.
At the time, I’d never met Trump and I remember feeling amused but also surprised he’d say something like that. Now the pattern seems entirely familiar. The message had all the hallmarks of a Trump attack: shocking, vulgar and indisputably true.
Trump’s response wasn’t much beneath Carlson’s original snarky remark. But “We won, so suck it up” (i.e., “I get more pussy than you do”), even if tacit, really isn’t really an satisfactory response to many (or most) of the criticisms of Trump.
Yet that was Buckley’s tone, I thought, as he made a number of implausible and pro forma arguments about how Trump does this or intends that. See, for instance, “amygdala,” above.
Verdict: Worth reading, especially if you are still baffled and disoriented about how Trump could happen, but keep your critical thinking at about Defcon 2.
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