Coarse Correction: The Real Significance of the 2016 Election

By | 2017-07-12T14:57:18+00:00 June 30th, 2017|
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About a year ago, the respected Harvard political theorist, Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., wrote an op-ed about Donald Trump for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Donald Trump Is No Gentleman.” Mansfield made the case that the appellation “gentleman” is one used so rarely these days that we forget, even, to note its opposite.  

He also wrote:

The outstanding person in this election is Donald Trump, in that he attracts the most attention, but the outstanding fact is the voters behind him who excuse Mr. Trump for his ungentlemanly behavior….

Incapable as he is of appreciating the gentleman, Mr. Trump earns the disdain of the promoters of gender neutrality. Mr. Trump’s resistance to political correctness, however, has the coarseness of a male [this months  before the Access Hollywood tape]. Or what used to be the coarseness of a male. Now that women are practicing to swear like sailors, Mr. Trump is a reminder of male superiority in the department of vulgarity. Surely no woman would have run his campaign.

Mansfield’s essay, then, invites consideration of the coarseness of his female opponent. She was after all the embodiment of vulgar pandering to sex preference. In fact, his penetrating essay implied that Trump had a good chance of beating Hillary Clinton precisely because he was willing to be crude and in that contest, he could outmatch even her.

The subhead of Mansfield’s article tells the tale in more detail: “Like Machiavelli, [Trump] makes clear that winning dishonorably is better than losing honorably.” Can a citizen survey the field of honorable candidates, losers or near-losers, all—be his name Romney, McCain, or Bush—without revulsion and fear for the future of republican government? Could any of 2016’s supposed gentlemen candidates have beaten Clinton by flipping those Midwestern states and Pennsylvania?

Two weeks after Mansfield’s article appeared, Trump named Kellyanne Conway his campaign manager. In that sense a woman did run (and win) Trump’s campaign. It seems that the coarse candidate made the very course correction that Mansfield implied was impossible: the Machiavellian candidate’s truthfulness about political correctness needed political protection (not to speak of wisdom) in Conway’s form.

How did Trump stump the smartest campaign masterminds and conquer Lady Fortune? For one thing, he delighted more than conservative voters with his skewering of media figures and intellectuals. His keen insight was that Americans, whatever else they may think, do not like to be told what to think. And as his recent tweeting shows, the all-important proxy war with the media as the front for intellectuals continues into his presidency with Trump standing in as the unlikely champion of the people.

In this light, consider anti-Trump pundit George Will’s onetime praise of Trump who, Will then noted, “believes that excess can be a virtue” and in that belief “is as American as Manhattan’s skyline…. Brashness, zeal and elan are part of this country’s character” (quoted in The Art of the Deal, 1987). That was then. But the Will of the Trump era not only renounced Trump but the Republican Party that embraced him as well.

Mansfield narrows Trump’s attack on political correctness to questions having to do with women, but Trump included racial and ethnic identity politics as well.

Haven’t all card-carrying conservative intellectuals at some point denounced affirmative action and identity politics as corrosive of the souls of citizens and of the common good? After all, how does a judge in San Diego even get a case about a New York-based Trump University? More to the point, how did this adherent to a policy of favoring one identity group over others become a judge in the first place?  Why isn’t calling out a “Mexican judge” turnabout as fair play? It’s not as though he hit a girl.

If a candidate won’t defend his own interests, using all weapons at his command, why should the public think he will zealously defend their common interests, especially against pseudo-aristocratic racial/ethnic claims of privilege? It is scarcely egomania, let alone “white nationalism,” to defend oneself from fire coming at one from a safe space. Why are low blows and insults tolerated when they are directed at Republicans, but “unpresidential” and “beneath the dignity of the office” when they are repulsed in equal measure? In fact, Aristotle makes it clear that permitting an injustice to oneself is a vice.    

With these things in mind, I turn now to a book written by three distinguished conservative intellectuals who again combine their talents to produce what may well be the most insightful book written on the 2016 election. In Defying the Odds: The 2016 Elections and American Politics, James Ceaser (University of Virginia), Andrew Busch (Claremont McKenna), and John Pitney (Claremont McKenna) resume their quadrennial series on American presidential elections, going back to 1992 (Pitney having first joined for the previous book).

As I wrote of the 2012 edition, their latest deploys witty prose in combining “the best in political journalism with the most relevant political science scholarship—in other words, a citizen’s perspective but with statistical and empirical support and, above all, historical . . .” background.  Their focus on progressive striving to overcome natural rights and conservative gestures at defending those rights is surely unique in contemporary political science on campaigns.

Not coincidentally, a former student of the two Claremont coauthors, Heidi Cruz, emerged the most impressive spouse in the campaign.

But for all their seriousness and the seriousness with which they attempt to take Trump (and pro-Trump sources such as the Journal of American Greatness and its successor, American Greatness, “Flight 93” author Publius Decius Mus, and Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams) they end up missing Trump’s significance for American politics.  

Review of James Ceaser, Andrew Busch, and John Pitney, Jr., Defying the Odds: the 2016 Elections and American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 216 pages, $29.95)

Ceaser’s concluding paragraph (he stands in for all three authors) epitomizes the book’s strengths and weaknesses: “No one . . .  had been more of an outsider. No one had disrupted his own party and the conventions of politics more. No one had, in a single election, laid low the reigning dynasties of both his own party (the Bushes) and the other party (the Clintons).” Just before this, however, they write, “Although it was clear what Trump was against, it was never quite clear what he was for.”

They were unsure, for example, whether Trump would bring about a new form of identity politics, “white nationalism,” or instead call for a new emphasis on “citizenship and the nation.”

In a similar vein, Ceaser sometimes lapses into a kind of moral equivalence between Trump and Clinton—considering both anti-constitutionalist and “authoritarian.” Certainly, these authors should understand that the rise of intellectual elites (e.g., the Clintons with their Yale law degrees  and Obama as the first president with both parents holding Ph.D.s) distorted recent politics.

Trump’s ‘Political Friendship’

While Machiavelli always enlightens, Aristotle provides even better insight into the Trump campaign. Aristotle (Politics V.6) explains, “Oligarchies change most often in two most obvious ways. One occurs when they treat the multitude unjustly, for then any champion is sufficient, especially when it turns out that the leader comes from the oligarchy itself….”

Moreover, though neither Ceaser nor Trump uses this language, the America of failed promises we are now presented with is properly labelled a majority faction, which threatens individual rights and the common good, as seen in the constitutionally dubious waging of futile wars, promoting of illegal immigration, and preference for globalist policy over American interests. With the threat of yet another Bush or Clinton, prime causes of their current discontents, Americans turned as in 1860 to the unlikely candidate most likely to throw off “the slave power,” as the Decius once put it.

Thus Trump opposes identity politics, not by singling out groups, but instead by showing how an American identity is superior to all others (and especially to divisive sub-groupings of Americans). Trump’s patriotism is what Aristotle called political friendship, a kind of friendship of virtue. It is the unity of purpose, individual and national, that Lincoln described in the Gettysburg Address.

Thus Trump opposes identity politics, not by singling out groups, but instead by showing how an American identity is superior to all others (and especially to divisive sub-groupings of Americans). Trump’s patriotism is what Aristotle called political friendship, a kind of friendship of virtue. 

Far from being its enemy, such a “populism” becomes essential to preserve constitutional government, just as clearly as identity politics destroys it. It promotes a higher identity that unites rather than divisive sub-identities that set us against each other. And this is why the political correctness of identity politics is a necessary step to build that enduring faction known as the administrative state. That kind of authoritarianism and anti-constitutionalism is wholly assumed by Clinton. Quite the opposite with Trump.

Ceaser’s characterization of Trump as “post-ideological” misses that Trump is in fact pre-ideological—he thinks in terms of the whole American nation, not in terms of the groups that comprise it. Trump is more like Lincoln at Gettysburg than Madison in Federalist 10.

In a similar way, Trump was clearly the strongest candidate of a weak (not strong, as the conventional wisdom held) Republican field. His serious opponents were pretty much either parochial governors, callow senators, or yet another Bush. The man with “New York values” was, ironically, the only national candidate.

With this Trump in mind, I make my own observations about 2016, including a few major differences with Ceaser:

  • Their comparison of 1992 and 2016 doesn’t work, because George H.W. Bush ran away from Reagan, and Pat Buchanan despises Lincoln.
  • Modifying  the charge that 2016 was “perhaps the most uncivil, vulgar, scandal-flecked campaign in living memory” one should recall the impeachment and trial of Bill Clinton, the political attacks in the anti-Goldwater campaign of 1964, and the Truman campaign of 1948.  
  • A Clinton television ad featured young kids in front of a TV watching Trump at various campaign moments. That played two ways.  I saw the way liberals treat their kids: Dump them in front of a TV without adult supervision.
  • Trump proved himself the best Catholic in attendance at the Cardinal Dolan-hosted Al Smith dinner, speaking truth to power by launching an impolitic attack on Hillary Clinton for her support of abortion rights, to the boos of the assembled audience. Trump won the Catholic vote.
  • Choosing Mormon Evan McMullin as a possible anti-Trump spoiler in Utah was itself a form of low identity politics, showing how corrupted and anti-American their partisan opposition to Trump had become.
  • Making America great again requires a stronger military, so no one should have been surprised by his cabinet and National Security Council adviser picks.
  • Besides demolishing the leading members of party establishments, Trump would redefine the Republican Party as the workers’ party, and welcome back black men as Republican voters (they cast 13 percent of their votes for Trump).
  • Finally, there is the matter of FBI Director James Comey’s various interventions or non-interventions, which continue to reverberate. Our authors write,

If third parties, FBI directors, Russians, and racists are not really satisfactory explanations for Trump’s win, can anything else be offered to help understand this surprising election? An alternative story might be built around world trends, rioters, a weak president, and rampaging progressives.

While there is much in that, the real alternative story of 2016 is Comey as a representative of the administrative state, which Nixon had made his concern. We still don’t know the extent of Comey’s attempts to go well beyond his investigatory obligations to exercise political influence.

Just as the left makes every attack on the administrative state an attack on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, so every Republican Administration becomes for the media and Democrats a replay of Nixon and Watergate. Nixon tried to rollback the Democrats’ successor to the New Deal, the Great Society.  Republicans still haven’t learned the meaning of Watergate, which was far more a political crisis engineered by partisan Democrats than a constitutional crisis brought about by Nixon. Republicans have yet to recognize that their Machiavellian enemies in the bureaucracy, media, and politics brought about Nixon’s demise. Trump has seen that crisis early on in his presidency, embodied in James Comey, and is gamely fighting it..

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About the Author:

Ken Masugi
Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, as well as for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of seven books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.