Monday, February 22, 2016

Trump and the Myth of the Outsider

In "Path of Least Resistance" I wrote about the left and its appeal to youth, specifically the youthful desire for "big causes" and the need to struggle to "save the world", the sort of juvenile heroic fantasies that drive many -- sadly not all of them all that young1 -- and makes a fertile breeding ground for the left with its promise of struggle against the status quo. In that same essay I argued the right, with its attachment to traditional values and the established order was certainly an unlikely candidate to exert any strong attraction for the young. I suppose, in one way I was wrong in that, as there is the opportunity offered to young conservatives in a military career, which offers both a (mostly) conservative atmosphere along with the opportunity to engage in a very real struggle and possibly really save the world. But, for those on the right who do not avail themselves of this opportunity, young or old, who still feel an urge for dramatic struggles, revolution and all those other somewhat juvenile fantasies of overturning everything, there is now an alternative. Donald Trump is effectively offering the liberal dream of overturning the status quo, but for conservatives. (Well, sort of.2)

I argued before that a true "outsider" is an impossible populist dream3. And, I still stand by that argument. However, thanks to his rather massive personal wealth, Trump does have one advantage over others in that he can at least self-finance, to a degree, without needing to appease the party. Still, it is worth noting that, even with his wealth, he recognizes the need to attach himself to a party, both because his wealth is not unlimited -- while campaign needs are, and could easily leave even a man of his wealth bankrupt -- and because there simply is no possibility America will elect a third party candidate4.

But this has not stopped Trump from trying to paint himself as a "true outsider", a man destined to "tear down the establishment"5, and overturn those "fat cats" in Washington. Who will stand up to "the establishment" and enact "common sense"6 measures the entrenched power structure has ignored. In short, he has repackaged the liberal fantasy of revolt for a conservative audience, and thus attracted those on the right who, for some time, have been fantasizing of revolt to remove the left. Or, to put it in terms of Churchill, those who, despite being old enough to embrace conservatism, still lack a brain7.

Sadly, with the growth of the "angry right"8, and its juvenile fantasies which mirror those of the "angry left", with dreams of armed revolt and the sudden overturn of the "liberal establishment", this may be a winning strategy, at least in the short term. When it comes time to actually fulfill all his varied and conflicting promises, and government by a philosophy which is self-contradictory and ad hoc, he may find himself in an uncomfortable position, but, in terms of winning the election, it may be enough to be angrier than the other conservatives while keeping a distance (at least for the present9) from established politicians. The image of the outsider might be enough to carry it for him.

I hope I am wrong, and conservatives are smarter than that. At least, so far, it seems to be only about a third of voters who are going for Trump, at least among Republicans, but with such a divided field that may be enough. I can keep hoping Cruz and Rubio reach some modus viviendi and can join their supporters, while the rest recognize the futility of their efforts. Otherwise, we may end up with a Trump nomination, and, given Clinton's "charisn'tma"10, and the potential legal fiaso hanging over her head -- along with Clinton exhaustion rivaling only our Bush exhaustion11 -- we could conceivably end up with this arrogant, self-aggrandizing opportunist in a bad comb-over as president.

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1. See "Prelude to a Future Essay on Heroic Ethics and Romanticism, "Our Unique Age, A Tempting Falsehood", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events" and "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative".

2. I have written before -- in a few of  my recent essays on Trump ("The Trump Cult", "A Thought on Trump", "Yeeargh Mark 2") -- that Trump's beliefs are a hodge podge of liberal and conservative populist tropes -- from George Bush "lying" to get us into war (see "Food for Thought", "Interesting Bit of History", "259 Lies?", "Imperfect Information", "Blood for Oil", "Strange Double Standards", "Perceptions of Iraq", "Reading Comprehension" ) to his promises to his adoption of the most extreme anti-immigration rhetoric, he has embraced, willy-nilly every populist, crowd pleasing, red meat to the faithful (any faithful), belief he can, so long as it keeps his name prominent and his most rabid supporters convinced he is an outsider, man of the people. (See also "Beware Populist Deception", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Fear of Trade", "Sleight of Hand", "Government by Emotion", "Consumer Protection", "A New Look at Intervention" and "Fear of the 'Big'".) Though, oddly, he has so far not made too much of the usual populist favorite, excessively high tariffs, but we will see, as his message seems to shift with the audience.

3. See "The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True "Ousider" Candidate".

4. Even if the unthinkable happened and a third party candidate won, he would inevitably follow the course of our only (former) independent in congress, and caucus with one party or the other, as a president with no party affiliation would face almost insurmountable odds in dealing with congress to pass legislation, nominate candidates for offices and judicial appointments and so on. So even were there a viable third party candidate, in effect he would be a de facto member of one party or the other.

5. Sadly, Ted Cruz seems to be trying to coopt this rhetoric arguing that he is going to overturn the "liberal establishment". I don't think this is a smart move for Cruz, as Trump has pretty much sewn up the populist/revolt voters, so he is coming across as a weak "me too" to Trump, while possibly alienating more responsible voters who dislike revolutionary rhetoric. Which may actually explain why Rubio is gaining ground. (Then again, I never thought Obama's "inkblot" campaign strategy, being everything to everyone by using the most nebulous terms possible, would work come general election time, so take my predictions with a grain of salt.)

6. I really dislike the term "common sense" but since I hear it so often in support of populist measures, it needed to be used here. See "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "The Lunacy of 'Common Sense'", "'Seems About Right', Another Lesson in Common Sense and Its Futility", "A Look at Common Sense", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "The Shortcomings of Pragmatism", "Pragmatism Revisited", "Pragmatism Revisited, Again", "The Plural of Anecdote is Not Data", "Rules of Grammar and Pragmatism", "The Problem of the Small Picture", "Keyhole Thinking", "Impractical Pragmatists", "In Defense of Zero Tolerance, or, An Examination of Law, Common Sense and Consistency", "No Dividing Line", "The Consequences of Bad Laws" and "Questions of Law and Questions of Fact" and "The Rarity of 'Common Sense'".

7. Perhaps not entirely fair, but I find dream of revolution and sudden change are almost always juvenile fantasies even when held by old men. Recall, most of the founders were reluctant to break with England, and for good reason. Sudden, radical change is dangerous and often runs away under its own power. There are many, many sound argument for slow, stepwise and gradual change. (See  "Culture and Government", "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism", "Predictability", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Traffic Lights, Predictability and Conservatism", "Inflation and Uncertainty", "Juvenile Culture and Totalitarianism", "The Virute of Novelty and the Value of Tradition", "Chasing a Receding Goal", "In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to 'In Defense of Standards'". )

8. See "The 'Liberal Bubble' Becomes Universal" and "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord".

9. Of course, Trump has long been associated with a considerable number of establishment politicians, mostly of the left. He has even used them to his advantage, as in his efforts to use eminent domain to obtain land for his development plans. So he is far from an outsider. But, for those thirsting after a conservative white knight to "slay the Hildebeast", it might be enough to seem distant from them for a the moment, and forget about the money he previously donated to his opponent. (For my thoughts on eminent domain see "Kelo, Home Schooling and Drug Laws - Inconsistent Theories of 'Social Costs'".)

10. A term of Terry Pratchett's indicating not just dislikability but an actual antithesis of charisma. Given Clinton operates as a black hole for charm, it seems fitting.

11. Even those who would support a Jeb Bush presidency, or find it one of the least objectionable alternatives, still must admit the recent appearance of so many Bushes and Clintons in national government are a bit much. (And this comes from a descendant of the Harrisons, who also were a bit over represented for a time.)

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