Trump and Prudence: A Reply to Decius

By | 2016-09-20T15:29:30+00:00 September 20th, 2016|Tags: , , |
Paolo Veronese's "Prudence and Manly Virtue."

Paolo Veronese’s “Prudence and Manly Virtue” (ca. 1560-61)

Editor’s note: We find plenty to disagree with William Voegeli’s argument here, but we want our readers to see the full debate over Decius’s “Flight 93 Election” essay and this is one of the more compelling responses. (Reposted by permission of the Claremont Review of Books.)

If conservatives in 2016 are like airline passengers hijacked by terrorists on a suicide mission, then reckless, desperate actions to thwart them are decidedly preferable to meekly accepting certain death.

OK…but only if. If not, then such actions are just reckless, desperate…and indefensible. Storming the cockpit to take control of the plane, in the hope that one of the passengers can somehow land it safely, is a catastrophic mistake if the pilot isn’t a terrorist, just a bad aviator headed to a destination many on board dislike.

Furthermore, if it’s far from clear whether suicidal terrorists have in fact seized control of the plane, then conservatives who oppose taking it over and running the attendant risks are not beaten dogs or defeatists. They aren’t the Washington Generals of American politics, pathetically amenable to showing up, suffering one lopsided defeat after another, and collecting their paychecks. They, too, want to live, and for their party and country to live. They’re just people who have arrived at an assessment of the situation quite different from the one held by those certain the clock is ticking toward catastrophe.

As always, shrewd, discerning judgments about where we are, and whither we are tending, are necessary to judge what to do, and how to do it. If we face an imminent cataclysm, then fierce spiritedness is indispensable in a situation that provides little scope for prudence. But, again, only if.

Thus, if there’s even a reasonable possibility that conservatism’s situation in 2016 is not so dire that there’s nothing to be lost and only glory to gain, then prudent assessments of the situation and best way forward remain valuable and necessary. To that end:

1) The conservative prospect is, in many ways, grim, but that state of affairs is the rule, not the exception. No one joins Team Conservative in the belief it’s an easy path to foreordained victory. Those who designate themselves “conservatives” strongly imply by that choice an abiding sense of precariousness and difficulty, of the need to defend legacies unlikely to prevail or endure without constant support.

But the situation, like nearly every situation, is not simple. Nor do the facts all point in one direction, justifying one and only one conclusion. There are good reasons to think that conservatives in 2016 have quite a lot to lose, rather than nothing. The proportion of GOP state legislators is the highest in over 80 years. Likewise, the U.S. House of Representatives has more Republican members than at any time since the New Deal. Republicans have held House majorities for 18 of the 22 years since 1994, and Senate majorities for just over half that period. The modest conservative accomplishments secured by these majorities result more from a lack of skill than a lack of will. In many cases, such as ill-judged, counterproductive government shutdowns, the defect is too much rather than too little zeal. These problems won’t be fixed easily…but they won’t be fixed at all by a strategic miscalculation that consigns the GOP to the minority status it endured on Capitol Hill for the six decades before 1994.

Nor is it clear that present political trends compel conservatives to make now-or-never choices. The co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002) has come to see an “emerging Republican advantage.” Not only are whites with college degrees—a large, important swing group—increasingly likely to vote Republican, but demographic extrapolations that assume a less white America must become a more liberal one are anything but sure bets. As another Democratic analyst recently cautioned, it’s possible over coming decades that “as Latinos assimilate and intermarry, they will move from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, following a trail blazed in the past by many ‘white ethnic’ voters of European descent, including Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans.”

In short, there’s no compelling reason to stop making the normal judgments about how many votes are likely to be gained or lost by a particular candidate or proposal. The usual imperatives remain: to make the best determinations about incomplete, ambiguous facts; to consider short-term and long-term concerns; to weigh rewards against risks.

2) And the risks to conservatism posed by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign are considerable, especially if he wins in November. As Ross Douthat argued in response to “The Flight 93 Election,” a failed, unpopular president can harm his party in ways beyond the capacities of its most determined political opponents. Chances are, there will be a United States of America for some time after the 2016 elections, and there will still be elections for conservatives to wage and win in 2018, 2020, and beyond. And chances are that President Trump will be as volatile and vindictive, as lightly informed and unjustifiably self-assured, as the novice politician we have marveled and cringed at during the past year. The scenario makes policy and political defeats more likely than victories. “What’ve you got to lose?” is always put forward as a rhetorical question, but often turns out to be a real one, with specific, serious answers. (Read Decius’s response to Ross Douthat.)

3) Meanwhile, Trump’s offsetting benefits to conservatism are uncertain. Decius offers a long, plausible list of the republic’s afflictions. America suffers from declining “virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, [and] character,” the breakdown of “societal norms and public order,” the loss of “initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift.” Our people are beset by “paternalistic Big Government.” We confront “inanities like 32 ‘genders,’ elective bathrooms, single-payer, Iran sycophancy, ‘Islamophobia,’ and Black Lives Matter.”

Stipulating all that for the sake of the argument does nothing to clarify how a Trump presidency remedies the afflictions catalogued in this sprawling diagnosis. Indeed, since many items on the list are social trends or crackpot ideas, it’s not clear how any president can reverse the damage being done. “How small, of all that human hearts endure,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith, “that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” Conservatives invoke this axiom to rebuke liberal social planners, but it also calls into question whether political activity can effect moral and social regeneration. And to whatever extent Americans still look to presidents to lead and inspire through word and deed, Trump’s capacity to advance such causes as virtue, morality, religious faith, and stability is exceptionally doubtful.

4) Connecting Trump’s emergence to adverse social trends does, however, inadvertently clarify this political year’s remarkable trajectory. The long campaign became a vehicle for expressing dissatisfactions neither presidential nor even governmental. In particular, there is a noteworthy symmetry between the Black Lives Matter movement, which succeeded in cowing Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic contest, and Trump populism, which fueled an intra-Republican coup d’état. Explicit in the former, implicit in the latter, has been the emphatic rejection of “respectability politics.”

The term, always wielded scornfully, repudiates being on one’s best behavior as a precondition for full participation in social and political life. In this view, disruptive, confrontational, and “transgressive” postures are worthwhile in themselves, even if such conduct is unconnected to any policy agenda, does nothing to advance one, or actually weakens the prospects for enacting one. Malcolm X, the guiding spirit of Black Lives Matter, did not become a hero due to any seven-point policy proposals, but because his rhetoric and bearing validated defiant indifference to whites’ expectations of blacks, and whites’ assumptions that they’re entitled to impose such expectations.

The Trump populists, in the same way, had no objection to their candidate’s hazy, half-baked, sometimes contradictory policy proposals. What mattered was that he was the walking antithesis of the most recent Republican presidential nominee, the ultra-respectable Mitt Romney, and of a conservatism reluctant to incur liberals’ disapproval. The Trump populists understood that the self-appointed arbiters of respectability, our century’s reigning Legion of Decency, was running a scam. Before the 2012 election, for example, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman described Romney as a “charlatan” who was “completely amoral,” a “dangerous fool,” and “ignorant as well as uncaring.” In June 2016, three months after writing that Trump was no worse, really, than such GOP opponents as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, Krugman complained that Republicans were rallying around Donald Trump “just as if he were a normal candidate.” Only now, when liberals have run out of thesaurus entries that would convey, “No, this time we really mean it,” has a Democratic operative who worked on the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign regretted formerly castigating Republicans with language that was “hyperbolic and inappropriate and cheap.”

In short, liberals’ operative understanding of “respectable conservatism” is that it either means nothing, being a contradiction in terms, or means something…namely, a political disposition indistinguishable from liberalism. Such blatant, self-serving inconsistency is of a piece with the larger character of our era’s liberalism: activists and intellectuals’ tender consciences are so lacerated by social wrongs that they stay up night after night, devising the necessary sacrifices and atonements to be discharged by other people.

This morally bankrupt fusion of the self-righteous and the self-serving finds its consummate avatar in Hillary Clinton, who gets up “every single day” to fight for working people. Somedays these fights require giving a speech at Goldman Sachs for $225,000. Other times they involve learning about the problems of working people from her daughter Chelsea, whose prodigious journalistic accomplishments and skills landed her a $600,000-a-year, part-time job at NBC News.

5) The search for a non-heroic, merely prudent argument to vote for Donald Trump this November comes, then, to the inevitable destination: Hillary Clinton. More specifically, it comes to the realization that: a) Mrs. Clinton is likely to be the next president, despite her resourceful, determined efforts to lose a race said to be hers to lose; and b) she is even likelier, if elected, to be a very bad president.

There’s no prudential requirement to disregard Donald Trump’s shortcomings (or deny his strengths). The statesmanship incumbent upon a republic’s citizens calls for choosing, even—especially—when the choices are between bad and worse. Elections, in other words, are not occasions for refining and publicizing one’s moral hygiene.

Some “NeverTrump” conservatives have forthrightly endorsed Hillary Clinton as the less bad alternative. Others, however, are dodgier. Peter Wehner recently offered a long essay responding to conservatives who believe Trump is less “deeply flawed” than Clinton. What ensued was a “Comprehensive Case Against Donald Trump” that exhaustively catalogued the reasons he’s “manifestly unfit to be president.” But Wehner’s cryptic, parenthetical coda to his “overwhelming case” against Trump is that there’s also an overwhelming case against Clinton, “who is an ethical wreck, untrustworthy and a woman of the left who has amassed a record of failure over her career.” If both nominees are manifestly unfit, the question—left unanswered—is which overwhelming case is more overwhelming.

6) Prudence compels reflection on an additional consideration: your vote isn’t going to decide this year’s contest, and neither is mine. 131 million Americans cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, and 129 million did in 2012. Donald Trump’s defeat, or victory, will unfold regardless of how many people read this article, or those by Decius, or any of the thousands of other assessments and rants offered by the conservative opinion industry.

The realization of our small powers in this big country is deflating, perhaps, but also liberating. None of us has any reason to be tormented by the thought that our votes, words, or donations of time and money will make us responsible for a manifestly unfit occupant in the Oval Office. The pertinent question is not about which nominee would be the better or worse president, a collective decision beyond any of our powers to alter, but about the faint message conveyed by our solitary voice and vote.

Expecting a Clinton victory, I’ll vote for her opponent in the hope that placing my grain of sand on his dune rather than hers will, however slightly, chasten rather than incite her administration. For this purpose, Trump’s unpleasantness is actually advantageous: narrowly defeating a reviled alternative is more humiliating than winning by the same margin against a respected one.

In the unlikely but not incomprehensible event that Trump wins the presidency, I’ll take comfort from the knowledge that my blame for any attendant unpleasantness over the ensuing four years will be infinitesimal compared to hers. Any and all of President Trump’s scandals and blunders will remind Americans that the Democrats of 2016 saw fit to nominate the one politician so false, abrasive, and inept that she could lose a general election to that opponent.

Finally, despite the wide applicability of Raymond Aron’s rule—“What passes for optimism is most often the effect of an intellectual error”—it is also possible that President Trump’s successes will outnumber his failures. My crystal ball about what he might actually do in office is as opaque as the next fortune-teller’s, but the shock of his election could have some salutary effects on the nation’s angry but stagnant debates. Conservatives will know things about their coalition that, as recently as 2015, they did not. A conservative brief concerned less with “makers and takers” and more with “the protected and the unprotected” could herald moral, intellectual, and political progress. Liberals, by the same token, might interpret the success Trump achieved as a fierce detractor of political correctness to be a strong hint that the country is completely sick of leftist sanctimony and hectoring. Should both developments occur, Trump’s election will deliver some of what Barack Obama’s promised but couldn’t: a United States of America that transcends and envelopes a red America and a blue America.

About the Author:

William Voegeli
William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State (Encounter Books). A visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center, his work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, City Journal, the Los Angeles Times, National Review, The New Criterion, and other publication. Mr. Voegeli received his Ph.D. in political science from Loyola University in Chicago and worked as a program officer for the John M. Olin Foundation from 1988 to 2003.
  • Bill Kristollnacht

    The GOPe are a bunch of crooks and need to be cast off into oblivion…FULL STOP.

    If Trump wins the establishment goes bye, bye. Good enough for me.

    It will be a lesson to all future “conservatives” that if you don’t listen you’ll be fired.

  • QET

    I evaluated this in the Sanctimony post. This is an uncharacteristic whiff that tends to prove the point Decius has been making since JAG launched back in February. Voegeli’s taking comfort in the opinings of some “political experts” (that is how they are described on the Amazon page) that there is an “emerging Republican advantage” sounds like Hitler’s fantasies in the bunker about the imminent superweapons that would destroy the Red Army and/or the imminent peace with the Western Allies as they finally recognized that the USSR was the common enemy. It is also a ridiculous point to make seeing that there was a Republican Majority in Being, not merely Becoming, not so very long ago, which achieved exactly nothing in the way of decommissioning the federal administrative state. So Voegeli’s optimism regarding GOP chances post 2016 is entirely beside the point, as there is absolutely no reason to believe that those GOP victories would accomplish what the GOP victories in the 2000s did not even attempt to accomplish.

    I see nothing “compelling” in this response whatsoever. Counseling timidity, it is the very antithesis of compelling. I don’t think Voegeli has understood Decius’s arguments any more than Douthat has.

  • Halidryn San

    For Decius:
    “They, too, want to live, and for their party and country to live.”
    Even if you think she was a fool, you know what she’d say. They don’t.

  • Severn

    What an incoherent and rambling screed that was. Nowhere do the words” trade” or “immigration” appear in it – and they are the defining policy issues of the 2016 election. How can can anyone pretend to discuss this election and Trump and not even mention them?

    As for the things Voegeli does say, he glibly conflates “conservatives” with “the Republican Party”. Most likely there will indeed by a Republican Party twenty years from now, regardless of the results of elections between now and then. That is because the system is set in in such a fashion as to all but require the existence of two (and only two) parties. If current trends continue under a President Clinton then that GOP of 2036 is likely to be more liberal than the Democratic Party of 2016 – just as the GOP of 2016 is more liberal than the Democratic Party of 1996.

    There is nothing half-baked, hazy, or contradictory about Trump’s policy proposals – proposals which Voegeli seems to go to great pains to avoid discussing. I’ve noticed that’s the preferred tack of the neverTrumpers – sneer at the man, and don’t ever bother to address the ideas which have propelled him to the brink of the presidency.

    Here’s a good discussion of Trump’s ideas.

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/donald-trump-ideas-2016-214244

    If you listen closely to Trump, you’ll hear a direct repudiation of the
    system of globalization and identity politics that has defined the world
    order since the Cold War. There are, in fact, six specific ideas that
    he has either blurted out or thinly buried in his rhetoric: (1) borders
    matter; (2) immigration policy matters; (3) national interests, not
    so-called universal interests, matter; (4) entrepreneurship matters; (5)
    decentralization matters; (6) PC speech—without which identity politics
    is inconceivable—must be repudiated.

  • Severn

    As another Democratic analyst recently cautioned,
    it’s possible over coming decades that “as Latinos assimilate and
    intermarry, they will move from the Democratic Party to the Republican
    Party, following a trail blazed in the past by many ‘white ethnic’
    voters of European descent, including Irish-Americans and
    Italian-Americans.”

    So we’re supposed to “don’t worry, be happy” based on the mere possibility that in eighty years or so (about what it took for the Irish and Italians) Latino’s may start to vote Republican? That does not sound to me like sensible, cautious, prudential conservatism. It sounds like whistling past the graveyard.

    • And How to Get It

      I have heard that insane rationalization for years. I live and am from Houston. That rationalization is a pipe dream, and has been proven so many times over. Jeez…what do they think, “But at least 30% will vote for us!” So lets let in 100 million and watch them get 70 million….what morons.

  • Brother John

    We’re supposed to change our tone on immigration, and wait several generations for assimilation to remove the threat that Latinos, Middle Easterners, et al constitute, in the teeth of forces working toward what Derb calls absimilation? Sorry, but the time for that was 80 years ago.

    I also see lots of concern for the fate of the GOP and for “conservatism.” So, so weak, and might as well just be a fart in Decius’ hurricane. What on earth is left that’s worth conserving? Who cares for the state of a party that for 80 years has said little more than, “Us too, just not as much”?

  • ricocat1

    Considering current trends, what is so unlikely about a Donald Trump victory? And just having Trump appointing conservatives to the judiciary would make Trump a far better choice than Hillary. I fail to see any reason for hesitancy in fully supporting Donald Trump by anyone who calls themselves ‘conservative’.

  • jack dobson

    ” if it’s far from clear whether suicidal terrorists have in fact seized control of the plane”

    I should have stopped there, but, alas…

    “As another Democratic analyst recently cautioned, it’s possible over coming decades that “as Latinos assimilate and intermarry, they will move from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, following a trail blazed in the past by many ‘white ethnic’ voters of European descent, including Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans.”’

    The unhinged remnants of Big Conservatism, Inc., are reluctant to give up their delusions. No, Hispanics are not natural conservatives, which may be to their credit.

    “Chances are, there will be a United States of America for some time after the 2016 elections, and there will still be elections for conservatives to wage and win in 2018, 2020, and beyond.”

    There will be a polity called the “United States.” The constitutional republic the author craves is dead already.

    Items three and four are too absurd to merit responses. Five was an inchoate point and thus incoherent.

    “6) Prudence compels reflection on an additional consideration: your vote isn’t going to decide this year’s contest, and neither is mine.”

    Why ever vote, then?

    “Conservatives will know things about their coalition that, as recently as 2015, they did not.”

    They knew and didn’t care.

    “A conservative brief concerned less with “makers and takers” and more with “the protected and the unprotected” could herald moral, intellectual, and political progress. Liberals, by the same token, might interpret the success Trump achieved as a fierce detractor of political correctness to be a strong hint that the country is completely sick of leftist sanctimony and hectoring. Should both developments occur, Trump’s election will deliver some of what Barack Obama’s promised but couldn’t: a United States of America that transcends and envelopes a red America and a blue America.”

    Agreed. There may be some hope here but it wasn’t worth the effort to read all that preceded it.

  • Gassius Maximus

    What a bunch of horse pucky!

    And the line about “respectability politics!” Ha. As if the RNC or any RINO serving gave a crap. The DemocRATs have earned a Doctorate in the opposite and no one has stood up to them. Same as Obozo and his anti-Constitutional Scholarly Executive Orders. He pisses on us and tells us it is raining … while he works on his golf handicap. And then tells us we need the rain to wash away our American image of exceptionalism.

    Get out of your ivory tower and go, like Trump, and talk to the regular folks.

  • Michael Schwenk

    Basically, Voegeli dislikes Trump because he is vulgar and unsophisticated. That is not “principle” – it is simple style preference.

    • BurkeanMama

      I see this in all my NeverTrump Republican friends, they never argue issues, just aesthetics. The irony of course is for decades it was always the Republicans who talked issues, while Democrats talked about how a candidate makes them feel. Now the NeverTrump Republicans are sitting there singing the “Feelings”

  • They’re just people who have arrived at an assessment of the situation quite different from the one held by those certain the clock is ticking toward catastrophe.

    I’m 51, Lutheran, a father of 5 grown children, who received a BA in PolySci 30 years ago. Since those undergrad days I have been reading conservatives tell us how bad things are and where the culture is going, screaming their warnings about the decline of Judeo-Christians values, disintegration of the family, death of both virtue and outrage, hijacking of the universities, long marches through the institutions.

    I could start typing the titles from my bookshelves and not stop for an hour. And I don’t mean talk radio and Breitbart. I mean you and Clairmont and Jaffa, and First Things and Stephen Carter (on religious freedom) and Sowell (and race and culture) and National Interest and Alan Jacobs and Peter Kreeft and Touchstone Magazine and Alasdair MacIntyre and The New Criterion and Phillip Blond and on and on and on.

    Now you would have us believe it’s really not so bad? I’m not buying. I watched it go from parenting within a culture of my childhood to parenting against a culture while raising my own kids.

    • jack dobson

      Odd how that worked, wasn’t it?

    • And How to Get It

      Ditto, ditto and ditto!

  • MatrixHater

    Nothing would be worse than a Hillary Clinton Presidency. Nothing. Period. End of statement.
    Reading this article was a waste of my time.

  • teapartydoc

    Get your head out of your butt and have a look around, Billy.

  • Stick

    My reasoning is twofold; (1) a Trump presidency guarantees a return to Constitutional Government, and (2) a Trump presidency frees the American people to laugh again. My first point is supported by the simple reason that the GOPe and DEMe would impeach Trump without pause, should he give them some lawful reason to do so. Neither of these establishments have the will to inflict Constitutional wrath on Hillary. We know this because neither had the will to confront Obama. My second point is made daily – Trump has already allowed America to laugh again. He will destroy the postmodern Puritan village that is Manhattan Privilege by mocking it. The Manhattan Media witch hunts are being seen for what they are and Trump puts their totalitarian bigotry in the spotlight daily. Shifting the center of the Universe from Manhattan and focusing on America will do the trick. Nobody likes Puritans – especially ones from Manhattan or Hollywood.

  • bassus

    As others have pointed out, the idea that Hispanics will eventually move towards Republicans like past immigrant groups is at most a fanciful hope. Such an argument/hope of course neglects to mention that the last great wave of immigration came to an end! And it didn’t end on its own; Congress and Coolidge ended it with the National Origins Quota system which produced over forty years of low-moderate, assimilation-friendly levels of immigration, which was only undone by the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act that Ted Kennedy got passed behind a series of false promises.

    This current wave has no end in sight unless Congress once again acts to end mass immigration. Even if Mexican mass immigration is over, there are clearly many more sources of mass immigration, be it further south of the border, or overseas in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Thanks to unending extended family chain migration, we are only getting started in those areas, and immigrants from those areas also favor thr Democrats! Does the author not know this?

    Significantly reducing legal immigration and brining illegal immigration mostly to a halt are the only ways to preserve a demographic future for conservatism.

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