The main difference between Trump and his predecessors is that the professional class / deep state / neoliberal order / whatever-you-want-to-call-it is fluent in a language that imposes a kind of regulative fiction on that chaos. Their fluency gives them a patina of legitimacy and not a little power over the less fluent, which comforts some normies but also drives conspiratorial thinking. Trump and a lot of the people around him lack this fluency and have no interest in cultivating it.
Mark Hemingway, quoting an unnamed friend.
I came across this via Wall Street Journal’s “Notable & Quotable.” I don’t regularly visit Federalist.com (not affiliated with the Federalist Society; I’d be worried for the Society if it were), but this column from there really is very good because:
- It gives me a plausible version of why 40% of my countrymen are adamant Trump voters without inviting me to despise them.
- It articulates my suspicions about the brokenness of our system being hidden by one aspect of what Hemingway’s friend calls “regulative fiction.”
- In so doing, it clarifies the stakes in the 2020 Election.
I mean all of that sincerely.
But there are big problems when you sit with the column a while.
First, Hemingway too easily elides our system’s brokenness into corruption. Then he compares the pre-Trump system’s brokenness to Trump’s corruption, though I think the two are incommensurable. And he poses a false dichotomy intended to favor Trump (or at least to muddy the waters about his awfulness).
Hemingway puts the choice in 2020 thusly (and this is some of what the Wall Street Journal quoted):
So then, do we live with Trump, who lays bare all the problems with what happens when naked self-interest collides with power? Or do we tell ourselves some “regulative fiction” that pretends those who populate our sprawling administrative state are somehow above their own selfish impulses and can be counted on to act in the best interests of voters, when that is plainly untrue? …
If you’re wondering how Trump voters can continue to ignore Trump’s issues, it’s not even obvious to lots of voters that Trump opponents and D.C. institutionalists … are an obvious contrast to Trump even as a matter of personal corruption.
Q: “Lays bare all the problems with what happens when naked self-interest collides with power” has the (sole?) virtue of avoiding the passive voice, but what does its odd active voice actually mean?
A: It means that Trump is nakedly using his power to advance his own self-interest. “Nakedly” turns it into a relative virtue, I guess.
Q: Why must I tell myself some “regulative fiction” if I reject Trump?
A: I need not. I can (I did it before, and can do it again) allow that corruption happens even when a toxic narcissist sociopath fraudster isn’t in the White House.
The only alternative to “no government corruption” ultimately is “no government,” and Hemingway must learn the craft of distractive hand-waving much better if he wants to make me forget that.
In a similar vein, Victor Davis Hanson played whataboutism with Democrat sexual misbehavior to distract us from Trumpian sexual, financial and political corruption:
Again, why the unadulterated hatred? For the small number of NeverTrumpers, of course, Trump’s crudity in speech and crassness in manner nullify his accomplishments: the unattractive messenger has fouled an otherwise tolerable message.
While they recognize in the abstract that the randy JFK, the repugnant LBJ, and the horny Bill Clinton during their White House tenures were far grosser in conduct than has been Donald Trump, they either assume presidential ethics should have evolved or they were not always around to know of past bad behavior first hand, or believe Trump’s crude language is worse than prior presidents’ crude behavior in office.
“Nullify his accomplishments?” I think not. I’m grateful for Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and many lower-court Federal judicial appointments as well, and I regard the good economic news the same way I regard it under other Presidents who get lucky.
And it’s not crude language versus crude behavior; it’s crude language and crude behavior versus crude behavior.
Oh: Plus the matter of open versus secret.
- JFK didn’t commit adultery with Marilyn Monroe on national television. Bill Clinton had Ms. Lewinsky service him in private, and hotly denied sexual relations with her until a now-famous blue dress exposed his hair-splitting. Both louts conducted themselves in public with a modicum of dignity.
- I am relatively un-scandalized by our leaders discreetly enriching themselves and their family members. I am appalled when a leader brazenly announces that the G-7 Summit will be hosted at his resort, or claims that a smoking gun phone conversation transcript was “beautiful,” or “perfect,” or whatever terms he used to gaslight us.
This world is fallen. Our rulers are flawed (as are we). The adulteries and corruption are inevitable, but I do not consider it good to have my nose (and everyone else’s) rubbed in dirty realities by a sociopathic narcissist. It is not better to put them on open, defiant, norm-shattering display. “Regulative fiction” seems like a fairly benign way of saying “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” or “hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”
I prefer a flawed ruler who feigns virtue to one who blatantly makes a virtue of vice and brags that he has never asked God for forgiveness because he hasn’t done anything wrong enough to need forgiving.
If you think brazenness makes vice more virtuous, you’re not my idea of a conservative. You’re a bomb-thrower — a tearer-down of what millennia have built up.
Thanks for helping me clarify that, Mark.
Of course we do still face the prospect that the alternative to Trump will be the furthest Left President we’ve ever elected, with all that entails (including the execrable “Equality Act,” which has legitimately become a factor to weigh seriously). But if politics is downstream of culture, the Hemingway and Hanson whataboutisms fall short of making Democrats sound culturally worse than Donald Trump.
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The Lord is King, be the peoples never so impatient; He that sitteth upon the Cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet.
(Psalm 98:1, Adapted from the Miles Coverdale Translation, from A Psalter for Prayer)
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