We knew full well he was a snake

I suggested soon after the 2016 elections that something big was happening, though I’d barely began to understand it. It feels timely to take another look now.

Trump has co-opted “movement conservatism” almost completely. Former “never Trump” conservatives in many cases have become his sycophants. The three Republicans who want to replace moderate Democrat Senator Joe Donnelly in Indiana are generally trying to out-Trumpify one another (here, here and here). To speak any criticism of Trump, howsoever true (e.g., he’s a lout sexually), is to invite boos and hisses, as Mona Charen learned at CPAC last week.

I detest the media’s reckless use of the term “far right,” but a telltale sign that “far right” may indeed be what’s happening to movement conservatism is that CPAC invited Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. As Mona Charen later noted, Mademoiselle LePen holds no public office or particular prominence in France, but her aunt Marine and grandfather Jean-Marie are, respectively, far-right secularists and extreme far-right, even crypto-Nazi. In short, she was invited for the far-right frisson of her family name, like inviting Milo to your campus only with genuinely sinister undertones instead of just mindless iconoclasm.

UPDATE: I intended to acknowledge that CPAC almost certainly got more than it bargained for from LePen, who did not dish up a racist anti-immigration rant and actually pushed some conservative themes that few American conservatives are ready to hear sympathetically. Rod Dreher discusses this well enough that I’ll link to his blog and quote this:

Do not take me as endorsing Marion Maréchal-Le Pen! I honestly don’t know enough about her to do such a thing, and I certainly condemn the racism and anti-Semitism of her grandfather — and, if she espouses it, then her own racism and anti-Semitism. However, I generally don’t trust the US media’s reporting on her, or on the European anti-liberal right.

And Trump himself gave a CPAC speech that included a poem (actually song lyrics), based on one of Aesop’s fables, which I didn’t know had become part of his schtick. He explicitly makes immigrants the treacherous snake in the doggerel.

During the campaign,

Trump left the stage soon after finishing “The Snake” — and it acted as a sort of lens through which the evening’s hatred and xenophobia and racism could be focused and made clear. Those howls of approval? That’s the sound of thousands of hateful worldviews being confirmed all at once by a single work of art.

(Paul Constant, What Donald Trump’s favorite poem tells us about Donald Trump)

Do you miss mere “dog whistles” yet, progressive Americans?

But Constant continues, elaborating what hit me when I heard Trump read that poem:

Recently, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who worked on Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, pointed out that the key to understanding Trump is this: when he tosses around insults, he is really talking about himself. With this insight in mind, you can see all Trump’s insecurities swirl to the surface in his attacks: he’s called Hillary Clinton “a lose [sic] cannon with extraordinarily bad judgement [sic] & insticts [sic],” he’s labeled Elizabeth Warren a “racist,” said President Obama “doesn’t have a clue,” and he loves to call the press “dishonest.” It’s like he’s performing advanced psychotherapy on himself by projecting his self-loathing onto the world.

And so with that discovery in mind, consider what Trump might find so compelling about “The Snake.” Audiences seem to interpret the poem as a charge against kindness. Trump supporters like to say that we can no longer afford to accept immigrants because our generosity has been taken advantage of again and again. The implication is that we need to get our house in order before we open our doors again. But that’s a misreading of “The Snake.” Instead, “The Snake” is about believing against all evidence to the contrary that someone’s nature will change in different circumstances.

For the last few months, Republican leaders have tried to assure the electorate that Trump would pivot during the election, that he would start calming down and presenting as a more reasonable candidate when we got closer to the general election. Trump himself has said that he would act presidential if he won the election. We have repeatedly been told — by Trump’s family at the Republican National Convention, by Trump himself, by Trump’s running mate — that we are not seeing the real Donald Trump.

But what Trump is telling us with “The Snake” is that he is the snake in that story, and that he will never stop spreading his poison. Trump’s whole pitch is that he’s been an asshole his entire life, and that he’s willing to be the asshole on our behalf for a change. He’s proud of his bankruptcies, his tax-dodging, his dishonorable business practices. Many of his followers argue that he’s just the kind of monster we need to even the playing field with international competitors. But in his speeches, Trump himself keeps urging us to believe the evidence before our eyes: we know damn well he is a snake, so why would we take him in?

(Emphasis added) There’s plenty of other commentary on Trump and this poem, too.

Yet the Democrats thus far will not moderate to seize disaffected conservatives, now read out of their former party and movement. The near-term future thus looks as polarized or even more polarized (“paralyzed,” I typed initially in a Freudian slip) than the present.

In my post-election suggestion of big ferment, I quoted Michael Lind of Politico that what we were seeing was actually the end of a partisan realignment:

The partisan coalitions that defined the Democratic and Republican parties for decades in the middle of the twentieth century broke apart long ago; over the past half century, their component voting blocs — ideological, demographic, economic, geographic, cultural — have reshuffled. The reassembling of new Democratic and Republican coalitions is nearly finished.

What we’re seeing this year is the beginning of a policy realignment, when those new partisan coalitions decide which ideas and beliefs they stand for — when, in essence, the party platforms catch up to the shift in party voters that has already happened … The future is being built before our eyes, with far-reaching consequences for every facet of American politics.

That still rings very true to me, and I am coming to detest the ideas and beliefs of the new Republican party as much as I’ve long detested the deal-killer abortion stance of the Democrats. Maybe, pace Lind, the increasing frank and unapologetic racism of the GOP is the eventuality of the “dog whistles” of which progressive America complained: the kennel’s full now, and the occupants nominated the snake.

But it’s not all bad.

  1. Neal Gorsuch.
  2. The death of Zombie Reaganism as the GOP’s mantra. (Unfortunately, Living Trumpism is far worse than Zombie Reaganism.)

Seriously, within the last two years or so, I’ve affiliated with the American Solidarity Party. Its platform is far enough out of the current mainstream that it feels utopian. In some ways, it’s my ideological placeholder: “not Republican, not Democrat, but flirting with this kind of Christian vision for our common life.”

Over the weekend, I discovered, subscribed to, and delighted in American Affairs, a journal explicitly founded because “the conventional partisan platforms are no longer relevant to the the most pressing challenges facing our country.”

In short, I don’t yet see any place for me emerging from either the Republicans or the Democrats, and I think the interesting discussions are happening in places like American Affairs, with its welcoming conservative atmosphere but no dogmatic positions that I’ve seen.

I’m still not quite sure what’s up, but I’m seeing glimmers that it actually might not be some “rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born.” But maybe that’s just the sunshine and hints of Spring deceiving me.

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Toxins and antidotes

I encountered one of this quotes before and may have shared it, but now I’ve read the whole article:

When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation. But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens—power—and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Now that I have thoroughly depressed you, let me end with a few rays of hope and some thoughts about what can be done. I began this lecture with a discussion of the fine-tuned liberal democracy, which is the hypothesis that human beings are unsuited for life in large diverse secular democracies, unless we can get certain settings finely adjusted. I think this hypothesis is true, and I have tried to show that we have stumbled into some very bad settings. I am pessimistic about our future, but let me state clearly that I have low confidence in my pessimism. It has always been wrong to bet against America, and it is probably wrong to do so now …

[I]f you want more hope, let me tell you why I think things are going to start to improve on university campuses, beginning in the fall of 2018: because as things get worse on campus, more people are beginning to stand up, and more people are searching for solutions. Some college presidents are starting to stand up. They all know they are sitting on a powder keg, and they want to defuse it. Also, they are generally liberal scholars, deeply opposed to illiberalism …

Professors are starting to stand up, too. At Heterodox Academy, we started with 25 members two years ago; now we have over 1,400, evenly balanced between left and right. We got a big surge of members after the violence at Middlebury because that was a tipping point. Professors are overwhelmingly on the left, but they are mostly liberal Left, not illiberal. My field—social psychology—for example, is quite sane. I have been raising the alarm about political imbalance and orthodoxy since 2011, and so far nothing bad has happened to me …

And most importantly, some students are beginning to stand up. At Reed College, one of the most politically orthodox schools in the country, social-justice activists had been protesting and disrupting the first-year humanities course for more than a year. They called the course an act of white supremacy because it focused on dead white authors. They said the course was traumatizing to non-white students. They brought their signs and chants into the classroom every day, making it hard for professors to teach or for students to learn. Many Reed students and professors objected, but none dared to do so publicly, lest they be called racist themselves. Finally, this fall, several Asian students stood up, criticized the protesters, and asked them to stop interfering with their education. Once these students stood up, support for the protesters collapsed. Many people had been going along out of fear, rather than conviction.

(Jonathan Haidt) This edited transcript of Haidt’s Wriston Lecture for the Manhattan Institute, delivered on November 15 has much more of worth than I have quoted, including analysis of how we got so polarized. A hint: I left the GOP in 2005, but there was handwriting on the walls ten years earlier (which I did not notice.)

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.