American Greatness Managing Editor, Ben Boychuk, writes a column in the Sacramento Bee exploring the many supposed “gaffes” of the Trump campaign and begins to note in them a pattern. That is to say, Trump predictably elicits outrage from the usual quarters when he speaks. This outrage leads the news cycle. People argue, at first, about whether or not Trump ought to have said what he said and then over whether he ought to have said it in the way that he said it. But in the end, they usually get around to debating the substance of the thing he said and that thing, it turns out, is usually something about which people have long since ceased to think about in an original way. The effect is that they end up having to consider the fundamentals of the point he raises in a different way than they had been accustomed to consider it, no matter if their purpose is to condemn or to defend him. Love him or hate him, he’s forcing people to get out of their comfortable intellectual boxes and-dare I say it?-think for themselves.
Take, for example, two (possibly related) cases in point: Trump’s controversial comments about “Second Amendment people” and his alleged comments about the use of nuclear weapons. People argued he was trying to incite violence in the first case and that he was an intemperate madman in the second. But in both cases, people ended up having to rethink the fundamental question of purposes. That is to say: Why do we have a Second Amendment? What important public good is served by respecting an armed citizenry? And why does the United States have nuclear weapons? What purpose do we facilitate by maintaining a nuclear arsenal?
Boychuk notes that:
In the United States, with the exception of an unpleasant period between 1861 and 1865, we settle our political differences with ballots, not bullets. But the Second Amendment is a lot like the nuclear deterrent the Republican national security establishment worries that Trump doesn’t understand . . . Trump understands deterrence very well.
Deterrence. That’s it in a nutshell. We have a Second Amendment because, as a sovereign people, we reserve unto ourselves the right to stop tyranny. We are, after all, a nation founded in Revolution. We set things up so that we might always prevent tyranny with ballots because we understood that perpetual and persistent revolution (aka, direct democracy) is just another road to tyranny. So we put a lot of restraints on our ability to exercise that right of revolution. We made democracy representative and difficult and republican. We did not trust our own judgment so much that we thought it should be heeded in every question before the public. We established mechanisms to facilitate reflection before choice. But we weren’t suicidal in ceding so much of our decision-making powers to elected officials. We retained the franchise and sanctified certain rights in our Bill of Rights so as to keep them beyond the powers of the legislature to regulate away. Gun ownership, especially, is an ace in the hole. We maintained the right to arm ourselves not, as one wag noted, because we had an inordinate fear of deer but because we have a healthy fear of government and its tendency to abrogate power unto itself. Ballots, yes. But deterrence requires that government officials are not the only ones with bullets.
Similarly, we don’t keep nuclear weapons just to provide nuclear scientists with a jobs program.
Of course, Donald Trump might have said, “We need to have a national conversation about deterrence.” Everyone is laughing at this point in the reading here, right? Because much to the consternation of politicos right, left, and everywhere, Trump does not and, seemingly, will not talk that way. But is his way the wrong way? Scott Adams, the famous cartoonist and creator of Dilbert, doesn’t think so. He sees a kind of sly genius in the way Trump upends the chessboard. Adams suggests that Trump is appealing to the irrational part of men’s souls because he understands that people don’t make political decisions based solely (actually, he would say “at all”) on the reason.
I don’t agree with Adams when he suggests that the irrational part of the soul is the only thing worth engaging. But I do think he is on to something in noticing how it may help him win. Trump can reach people by appealing to them in ways other Republican politicians have scorned for at least a generation. It is true that at first he can be an irritant and a source of upheaval or outrage. But Trump’s long game may be that in shaking up things on an emotional level, what’s actually happening is a loosening up of the staid and settled (and also irrational) consensus surrounding too many issues of public policy. If that kind of disturbance can get people to question and think about first principles again (such as “what is the purpose of the Second Amendment or a nuclear arsenal?”) then in what sense is this method rightly called “irrational”? Might it not be, in fact, the beginning of an awakened political wisdom in the American people? Might it not be an attempt to reach for a higher form of consent, even, than mere electoral victory?