by Dave Maier
I haven’t commented on politics since the election, not least because I have no special expertise. But like lots of people, I spend too much time on the internet. When I fire up my iPad, it gives me several headlines. The Washington Post sends me a daily email with dozens of links. And I have a few blogs and other sites I check every day. All that stuff gets me thinking; so I find myself, as have many here over the past few months, with some opinions to share.
I’ve also been reading a book called What We Do Now: Standing Up For Your Values in Trump’s America (Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, eds.). Most of the many short selections in this volume seem to have been written (or delivered: some are speeches) in the immediate wake of November’s existential shock to the lefty system, so they have titles like “Thoughts for the Horrified” (Paul Krugman), “Welcome to the Resistance!” (Gloria Steinem), and “How Our Fear Can Be Turned Into a Powerful Movement” (M. Dove Kent, executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice). One editor’s introduction sets the tone with decidedly purple prose:
Somehow, the United States has always averted a takeover from the far right. It was something that made our country great. … Americans have always, ultimately, resisted the call to calamity by listening, instead, to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
It was such a long spell—nearly a century—that we were all perhaps too secure in the idea that “it can’t happen here.”
But now it has. It has happened here.
And so on. Again, I can forgive this sort of heavy breathing coming in November (the book itself was first published in January). But as the months drag on, it seems to me to be getting a bit stale. I should say that not all of the book maintains this apocalyptic tone, and many of the suggestions for action are perfectly sensible (e.g. “recognize we all have a role to play”). Others, not so much (“boycott all Trump products”). In any case, I’d say it’s time for a reset.
So since lists of things to do seem to be a thing, here’s mine. I’m happy to report that nothing here is particularly original and that even many of the writers at the New York Times are saying some of these same things (never thought I’d nod in agreement while reading a Ross Douthat column!), but I think they bear repeating. They are directed mostly at Democrats, but sometimes more narrowly at lefties or more broadly at anyone who does not own a cap that says “MAGA” on it.
No, it hasn’t “happened here.” If the past five months have shown anything, it’s that President Trump (a phrase it might help to start using) is much more like a typical Republican (cut taxes on rich people domestically, macho bluster abroad) than a fascist or any other ideologue. Bannon’s not the president, Trump is; and Trump clearly cares a lot more about Trump than he does, well, anything else, let alone The Cause. (“La cause, c’est moi.”)
Also, get used to the idea that there will be no quick fixes or do-overs, and that Trump will be President until 2021 (or 2025, unless you get your act(s) together). As I write this, the latest wisp of Russia-collusion smoke is the “back channel” that Jared Kushner apparently requested from the Russian ambassador. I’m not sure what to make of that; but even if it does turn out to be something bad, we remain, even now, many, many leagues from the “high crimes and misdemeanors” Trump would have to be shown – and shown convincingly, so that even his supporters could not deny the plain facts – to have committed in order for him to be impeached and removed. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen it asserted that all that needs to happen for congressional Republicans to agree to get rid of Trump (by impeachment, presumably) is for them to see him as more of an impediment to their political agenda than as helping to further it, and hey presto! President Pence is taking the oath. Not gonna happen, at least not like that.
Also not gonna happen is it being determined by all who would need to that the President is mentally unfit for office and can thus be removed by the procedure set down in the 25th Amendment. This is even less likely than impeachment. Trump is certainly “mentally unfit” for the office, by my lights, in one specific sense: he’s a self-centered, arrogant, ignorant dipshit. But “dipshit” is not a psychological term of art. The sense of “unfit”, that is, that applies here is one that shows only that one should not vote (have voted) him into office. The Amendment, on the other hand, is clearly for cases in which the President has a stroke or something and simply can’t continue. It’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise, and it’s appalling to see even professional psychologists and politicians do so; they should cut it out.
2. Stop finger-pointing.
It’s natural and appropriate for Democrats to ask “why did we lose?”. Most of the answers given so far, however, are of the form: we lost because ________, and those who did this/didn’t see this are to blame: shame on them! Different people put different things in the blank, and then argue with others who disagree with their choice. That very phenomenon, though, tells us what the answer really is: it was a very close election, decided by razor-thin margins in a handful of states, and there were any number of causal factors jointly responsible for the result. Yes, some of them invite accusatory fingers: Comey! The Russians! Vote suppression! The Electoral College! Pissed-off “Bernie Bros”! But there are many others, at every level of abstraction, from failing to campaign in (what turned out to be) the key states, to arrogance, confirmation bias, and every other cognitive ill to which we frail human beings are inevitably subject. Address each in turn, but without making it the whole story, thus implying that there’s one big moral, because it wasn’t, and there isn’t.
One particular direction I think it pointless to aim our fingers is toward Republicans who (shock, horror) voted for the candidate of their party instead of – of all people – Hillary Clinton. Recent polls show that if the election were to be held again today, the vast majority of Republican voters would vote again for Trump over Clinton, even after seeing Trump’s early performance. Why is anyone surprised by this? And how could anyone right enough of center to be willing to call oneself Republican be thought amenable to voting for Hillary Clinton over, say, seppuku? I’m not condoning the attitude – and there were in fact a couple of high-profile Republicans who did, perhaps self-servingly or petulantly, buck that trend – but what did you expect? Compared to the last two Republican presidents, George H. W. Bush looks like a paragon of statesmanship, and I doubt I’d even shake Bill Clinton’s hand – but even so I hardly regret my 1992 vote for the latter and would do it again in a second. And I’m not even a Democrat. So cut Republican-voting Republicans some slack.
3. Pick your battles.
One problem with construing one’s political opposition to the party in power as a Moral Crusade Against Unimaginable Evil is that not only does compromise become treason, but even simply recognizing political reality becomes moral cowardice. (This is easy to see when it’s Republicans doing it, as of course they do all the time.) Being in the political minority, though, means that your options are limited and you are likely to lose more battles than you win. You can’t spend your limited resources, of whatever sort, like the proverbial drunken sailor. Save them up for where they’ll do the most good.
It’s admittedly not obvious how to unpack this metaphor. But take the Gorsuch nomination, for example. Gorsuch is of course a conservative, and thus not Democrats’ idea of a judicial good time. However, he’s clearly experienced and competent (so not like Harriet Miers, if you remember who that is) and not an ideological extremist (so not like Robert Bork). Yes, he’s conservative, and yes, he’s made rulings that sound terrible (and yes, it’s galling that the Republicans got away with not giving Judge Garland a hearing, and that their Hail Mary worked); but Gorsuch was appointed by a Republican president to replace a conservative justice. What, again, did you expect?
My own idiosyncratic rule (which is mine, and belongs to me) is: The President may replace conservative justices with conservatives or moderates; moderates with conservatives, moderates, or liberals; and liberals with moderates or liberals. The only reasons to object are: replacing liberals with conservatives or conservatives with liberals – or, of course, incompetent or overly partisan justices of any stripe. Other than that, the Senate should just accept whomever the President appoints. That whole ridiculous dance with the filibuster and the “nuclear option” was painful to watch, and for what? As Barack Obama himself said: elections have consequences, and this is one of them. Don’t like it? Win the next one.
That doesn’t mean Democrats should lie back (bend over, whatever) and let the right wing do whatever it wants; but grandstanding and showboating aren’t worth the effort (I’m looking at you, Cory Booker, whom I used to like), and piss off more people than they energize. I bet there are plenty of constructive things you can do if you don’t waste your bullets on battles you can’t win. Try harder to seek them out.
4. Mend fences and seek out allies.
Naturally the victorious right is claiming that the election results show that progressivism (which is equivalent to communism, fascism, political correctness, and gay Sharia law) is dead, and that everyone who wants to win elections in the future must realize that conservatism has been proved correct by the wisdom of the American electorate. Closer to home, others call for the left to “reach out” to this or that subgroup (e.g. white working class) who aren’t already sufficiently enlightened to vote blue.
If that latter means something like “make sure your plan helps everyone rather than just those who already think like you do,” then that sounds good to me. But I’d put a different spin on the idea of “reaching out.” I wouldn’t worry, for example, about reaching people who aren’t going to listen to you no matter what you say. Still, you don’t know who these people are. No matter what group you name, there are some people within it who might give your ideas a hearing if you weren’t such jerks about it. So when I say “mend fences” I mean something like “present a smaller target.”
One thing specifically I would like to see is for the left elite to get used to the idea that intelligent people can be religious believers. This isn’t the same thing as noting something else which is also true, which is that plenty of religious believers are left of center politically. Some lefty religious believers are kooks, not because they believe metaphysical woo, but because their idea of effective political action is making thousands of paper cranes or breaking into the Pentagon to pour blood on military blueprints. On the other hand, some right-wing religious believers are perfectly intelligent people with a different take on things than yours – which of course doesn’t mean they’re right. It does mean, however, that you’ll never make any headway with them (or they with you) if you can’t learn to talk to each other constructively.
This means not using terms like “Jebus” or “invisible sky fairy” or “Wholly Babble”. Some words, like “Christofascist,” might have some specialized uses (say, analogous to “radical Islamic terrorism”, the term right-wingers are so determined to have us use), but I’d say to use them sparingly. More generally, stop using words like “Republitard,” “Rethuglican”, and of course the many inventive names for the President: “Trumpigula,” “Mango Mussolini”, “Orange Shitgibbon”, or “Dolt 45”. What’s the point of that? It just distracts from whatever your point is, and brings you down to the level of those maddening right-wing trolls who refer, for example, to Michelle Obama as “Michael” (she’s a man, you see, and Barack Obama is a gay Muslim atheist … never mind). If I tell such a person to “stay classy, Republicans,” I want that to mean something. And stop using self-serving terms like “Resistance”. Disagree, organize, fight back even, but save the pointless rhetorical flourishes for, well, never.
I might have put this next bit under point #1 (“Chill”): stop pitching fits about every last thing Trump does, whether it’s yet another bizarrely testy tweet or hypocritical behavior or whatever, as if this next one will do what all of the other ones haven’t: make his supporters realize they’ve been duped. Either they a) don’t care, because all they want is those sweet, sweet tax cuts; b) don’t care, because all they want is those sweet, sweet libtard tears; or (you didn’t think I was denying this subgroup, I hope) c) have drunk deeply of the Kool-aid and would indeed, as candidate Trump himself noted, in public no less, cheer him wildly even if he shot someone in broad daylight. All your wails of outrage at, e.g. Trump seeming not to know who Frederick Douglass was, are either a) annoying them; b) gratifying them; or c) water off a duck’s back. I suggest that we ourselves cultivate attitude (c) here (albeit for different reasons).
5. Work on fundamentals.
This is related to #4, but it’s positive instead of negative. A lot of lefties pride themselves on their rationality and openness to empirical refutation, as opposed to those lizard-brained tribalists simply reacting emotionally. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a false equivalency here, even though there is indeed some tribalism on this side as well. My point instead is that if openness to refutation is a value for you, that should mean seeking out the best to be said in opposition to your own views, and learning from it. This could mean making concessions; but it could also mean seeing the best angle for effectively refuting or flipping your opponent.
The aim, that is, is not simply to be fair (although that too has something to be said for it). If you want we can think of it as purely tactical debate prep. If I make an opponent’s point for myself, not only do I get to construe (okay, spin) it the way I want, but I take away from him what would otherwise be a weapon used against me. This doesn’t mean reading Dinesh D’Souza or Michael Savage, or websites like World Net Daily. You already believe right-wing writers are facile, self-promoting scoundrels; the point is not to confirm that attitude but instead to learn that many, past and present, are not, and that you can learn something from them.
We all have our favorites, but I myself have been reading John Gray, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, Roger Scruton, and the writers at First Things, The New Criterion, and Commentary (some of whom, I admit, are occasionally insufferable, even to me). More philosophically, some Counter-Enlightenment thinkers are – not so much coming back into fashion, as turning out to be not simply, well, unenlightened (Hamann, Jacobi, De Maistre); and I suppose I’d throw Burke and Hayek in there as well (see, for example, how the right can go wrong in taking Hayek to be entirely on their team). And I’ve already mentioned how I’m gaining respect (up, that is, from hardly any) for such conservative pundits as Ross Douthat (I’d add George Will and even, gulp, David Brooks here). If something makes you crazy and you can’t bear to read it, try something else. There’s a whole lot out there.
There, I have revealed the truth to you. Hear and obey! (Or not.)