We are very far from a politics of ideological purity and high character.
Many have weighed in on whether Donald Trump’s agendas — to the extent that they are different from what are now ratified Republican policies — are crackpot, unworkable, or radical: e.g., building a wall to enhance border enforcement (“And make Mexico pay for it!”), renegotiating trade deals with China, promoting Jacksonian nationalism rather than ecumenical internationalism, suspending immigration from Middle East war zones (after Trump dropped his call for complete Muslim exclusion), and disparaging an Eastern-corridor elite that derives privilege from the intersection of big politics, money, and the media.
No doubt, some of Trump’s flamboyant invective is isolationist, nativist, and protectionist. Certainly, we are in the strangest campaign of the last half-century, in which members of Trump’s own party are among his fiercest critics. In contrast, the ABC/NBC/CBS Sunday-morning liberal pundits feel no need to adopt NeverHillary advocacy. They apparently share little “Not in my name” compunction over “owning” her two decades of serial lying, her violations of basic ethical and legal protocols as secretary of state, her investment in what can be fairly termed a vast Clinton pay-to-play influence-peddling syndicate, and the general corruption of the Democratic primary process.
Amid the anguish over the Trump candidacy, we often forget that the present age of Obama is already more radical than most of what even Trump has blustered about. We live in a country for all practical purposes without an enforceable southern border. Over 300 local and state jurisdictions have declared themselves immune from federal immigration laws — all without much consequence and without worry that a similar principle of nullification was the basis of the American Civil War or that other, more conservative cities could in theory follow their lead and declare themselves exempt from EPA jurisdiction or federal gun-registration laws. Confederate nullification is accepted as the new normal, and, strangely, its antithesis of border enforcement and adherence to settled law is deemed xenophobic, nativist, and racist.
The president of the United States, on matters from immigration to his own health-care act, often has declined to enforce federal laws — sometimes because it was felt that to do so would have been injurious to his 2012 reelection bid. The reputations of agencies such as the IRS and the VA no longer really exist; we concede that they are politicized, corrupt, or hopelessly inept. An attorney general being found in contempt of Congress raises no more of an eyebrow than that same chief law-enforcement officer referring to African Americans as “my people” or writing off Americans in general as a “nation of cowards.”
On cultural matters, I too was disappointed at the plagiarism of lines in Melania Trump’s convention speech and thought her speechwriter should at least have been summarily fired. But I am afraid that ethical high horse also long ago left the barn. The new normal regarding intellectual theft was apparently established by the likes of Stephen Ambrose, Joe Biden, Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Maureen Dowd, all of whom suffered few, if any, lasting professional consequences for their outright larcenies of others’ work.
Quite a while ago, too, we entered the age of postmodern fabulism, in which representatives of the president of the United States casually admitted, in response to criticism, that large segments of Obama’s best-selling autobiography were simply “composites,” a sort of euphemism for making stuff up. From Brian Williams’s pseudo-combat reporting to Hillary Clinton’s dodging bullets in the Balkans, we are now what we say we are — without much consequence any more for flat-out lying. Does any public commentator worry much that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s entire trajectory to Harvard was predicated on her abject and comical lie that she was a rare and sought-after Native American law professor?
I am worried about Trump’s flamboyance and about his sloppy and dangerous references to NATO and U.S. foreign commitments. But from the reaction to his ad hoc and sometimes incoherent musings, one would think that the next president was inheriting a time of peace and stability — not one in which the entire Middle East has imploded, reset with Putin has become a nightmare of Russian expansionism not seen since the Soviet period, “jayvee” and “on-the-run” terrorists are insidiously destroying the calm of the entire international order, and China is creating artificial islands with commensurate “sovereign” air and sea space. If there is one region in the world that is safer and more stable than it was in 2008, would someone please identify it? Iraq? Syria? Ukraine? Libya? North Korea? France? Baton Rouge? For now I am worried about what was and is rather than what might be. Are there any traditional U.S. allies that feel more secure in their partnership with us? Israel? Japan? France?
It is a fair wager that a supposedly isolationist President Trump would be more likely to attend an anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the liberation of Auschwitz than would a supposedly internationalist President Obama — or for that matter a European unity rally after horrific terrorist bombings. If Trump were to find time for GloZell for an interview, no doubt we would hear that it was confirmation of his shallowness.
We have already seen the shoot-from-the-hip Trump back down on his idiotic idea of denying all Muslims entry into the U.S. (as opposed to those seeking to emigrate from war zones and terrorist-rife nations of the Middle East). So far, we’ve seen no impulse on the part of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to simply employ the terms jihadist, radical Islamist, or Islamic terrorist the next time dozens of Americans are blown up or mowed down by someone shouting Allahu akbar!
Is Trump’s threatened “isolationism” worse than the present “lead from behind” or the empty step-over lines, deadlines, and red lines of the last seven years? Or than refusing to increase security at Benghazi and creating fables to hide the dereliction? I often hear the question: “Who knows what Trump might do?” I hear it much more often, in fact, than I hear anyone recall “We came, we saw, he [Qaddafi] died” or “What difference does it make?” The point is not to excuse Trump with “you too” moral equivalence, or to cynically race to the bottom of low-bar politics, but again to remind our ethicists that we live in an age characterized by Petronius’s Satyricon, not the elder Cato’s moral republic — and if they object to that fact, there were plenty of occasions to voice their outrage long before Donald J. Trump left The Apprentice. Trump may well be Trimalchio, but neither Clinton nor Obama is a Scipio (more likely a Catiline, Clodius, or Milo).
I would prefer Trump to be more socially conservative, but compared with what? We have gone from Democratic opposition to gay marriage in 2008 to a new normal in 2016 of slandering those who oppose the idea of transgender restrooms in primary schools. There is a degree of racial polarization not seen since the 1960s, one in which activists invited to the Oval Office include people, like Al Sharpton and Black Lives Matter leaders, who either have advocated the shooting of police officers or have been affiliated with marches that have chanted such threats.
I agree that Trump is capable of reckless talk and symbolism, but heedlessness is also the new normal when the president of the United States praises the album To Pimp a Butterfly, whose cover features the corpse of an eye-less white judge, his apparently violent demise celebrated by hipsters on the White House lawn.
When the IRS is sicced on political opponents, AP journalists’ communications are tapped by the administration, and an obscure videomaker is jailed on trumped-up parole violations to cement a lying narrative about Benghazi, and all this is greeted by relative somnolence, then the currency of outrage has been drastically cheapened.
The difference between a reckless Trump, Clinton, and Obama is not necessarily one of temperament, sobriety, or judgment, but often one of delivery and assumed establishmentarianism: For some reason Ivy League accents, government résumés, and liberal fides are supposed to repackage outrageousness as a mere slip, an aberration, rather than a window into a dark soul. A much-reviled Trump eliminated his primary opponents through invective and character assassination in open debate; a much-praised sober and judicious Clinton eliminated Bernie Sanders, in part, according to WikiLeaks, through her control of a biased and corrupt Democratic National Committee.
Put “corpse-man” or a cruel joke about the Special Olympics into the mouth of Trump, and we easily would find additional proof of his ignorance and callousness; from the silver tongue of Obama they are either minor gaffes or perhaps proof of the stress he endures on our behalf. There really is a Clinton mirror-image of Trump University; but whereas Trump went through the crude motions of offering real-estate training, it is hard to know how exactly Laureate Universities’ “chancellor” Bill Clinton became the highest annually paid academic official in the history of higher education. And what exactly bothered Bill about Laureate in 2015 to cause him suddenly to surrender his chancellor duties that had not bothered him from 2011 to 2014?
Despite the selective moral outrage, the election is about just two things. First, is Trump’s agenda more conservative than Clinton’s, or, inversely, is Clinton’s more liberal than Trump’s? And, second, is either Clinton or Trump so morally flawed, so incompetent, or so inexperienced as to render their policies and platforms irrelevant to their own followers?
Reasonable people can disagree and do, but I think most Americans of all persuasions will conclude that Trump’s positions on the whole are far more conservative than Clinton’s. Tally up Trump’s likely Supreme Court appointments and potential Cabinet choices and collate them with Clinton’s, and there will likely appear an ideological divide that represents traditional conservative/liberal antitheses. Obama raised income taxes and slashed defense spending, and we still will likely have a deficit of $600 billion this year; Hillary’s answer to that paradox is to raise taxes higher. NeverTrump advocates are rightly worried about Trump’s excesses, and for the next four months they will seek to cement the case — even as Hillary’s scandals mount — that Trump’s agenda is no more conservative in toto than Hillary’s, and/or that Trump’s incompetence, corruption, and potential dereliction as president are perhaps far beyond what we have seen in the actual government tenures of Clinton and Obama.
While Trump is loud, reckless, and without political experience (he would be the first president of the republic who had not served in the military or held an elected or appointed federal office), both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have done quite a lot of damage by speaking softly, acting deliberately, and drawing on plenty of political experience. I seriously doubt that many Democrats will swear not to sully themselves by voting for a prevaricator and incompetent, and, likewise, I expect by November most Republicans will be ready to “hold their nose” and vote for Trump.
If a “transformative” and “historic” president with an Ivy League law degree, an enthralled media, and “lower the seas and cool the planet” confidence has left us with a world on fire, the veritable destruction of immigration law, $10 trillion in new debt, a wrecked health-care system, a hollowed-out military, racial conflagration, an ossified economy, and near permanent zero interest rates — to the general approval of half the country — then it is hard to get riled up that a more conservative Trump represents something uniquely dangerous.
Like it or not, this election is about degree, relative political agendas, and comparative hazard, not about marrying ideological purity and consistency with sobriety and character — a sad fact that did not enter our politics with Donald J. Trump.