Random Reflections On American Politics

The heirs of Frankfurt. — The American left’s intellectual strategists have long believed that the way to break the country’s resistance to progressivism was to forge ahead, with their vanguard fringes displayed in bright colors, in open defiance of the popular consensus, precisely because those fringes would be perceived by the “silent majority” as too much, too extreme, too immoderate and anti-American. The aim was and remains to drive mainstream Americans into a fury, and hence into the apoplectic distraction of desperation, as everything they believed in and trusted seemed to be evaporating before their eyes. Thus the mainstream, or at least its most vocal and potentially effective element, would be marginalized by being gradually denuded of its reason and restraint, reducing itself to a collective temper tantrum which may then be publicly held up as exemplary of the mainstream resistance, while being dismissed as reactionary, hateful people who, to recall the words of one of the vanguard’s most effective hood ornaments, Barack Obama, “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Your slip is showing.– If the Republican Party establishment allows Donald Trump to become its presidential candidate in 2024, I believe we will be able to say with certainty that they want Joe Biden, or Biden’s taxidermist, to win a second term — just as they chose Trump in 2016 because they wanted or at least assumed that Hillary Clinton was going to win. Donald Trump is the GOP’s concession candidate. But although the party brass may not have understood, back in 2016, how much they were actually conceding by allowing Trump to build his soul-sucking personality cult behind the veil of political legitimacy, they would have no such excuse this time. That is to say, their nefarious goal of putting up the weakest possible resistance to the Democratic presidential candidate would be far too obvious this time.

The so-called populists.– I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but one of my earliest memories of rational doubt and analytical detachment came when, as a teenager, I started comparing the mass media hyperbole about the universal popularity of certain highly-rated television programs or million-selling music albums to the actual numbers. For example, when people said, “Everyone knows and loves The Cosby Show,” I would habitually submit this sort of statement to the simple scrutiny of assessing its most extreme Nielson rating (let’s say 40% of the audience on a peak performance), combined with the fact that this rating only represented households which were watching television at all during that hour, and thus concluding that in fact fewer than a third of households were tuned into that show even on its biggest night, and further that within those households there would be many individuals who were doing other things and not watching the TV, not to mention many more who were not even at home while some other family member happened to be watching The Cosby Show — and hence that in truth an overwhelming majority of Americans, regardless of age, were not watching the show, and had probably never seen it. And yet it was, in its day, undeniably the most popular show on television.

Many people observing modern American politics seem to believe, or at least act on a perceived interest in pretending they believe, that the politician with the biggest audience is the likeliest winner. False. It may be true that twenty to thirty percent of committed American voters would still vote for Donald Trump even if the other party’s ticket were comprised of Jesus Christ and George Washington. But that leaves seventy to eighty percent of committed voters whose minds have not been locked in the Trump dungeon, and are therefore free to choose whether or not to support an increasingly ridiculous and compromised blowhard who looks and sounds more and more like a parody of his own formerly half-parodic self, boringly pitching yesterday’s lies and empty promises as though these hadn’t already been exposed a hundred times over — and as though their purveyor had not been defeated in the popular vote in two consecutive elections, by the two weakest candidates the Democratic Party has ever run.

It’s not only the economy, stupid.– Thomas Sowell, one of the giants of modern American conservatism, and for my money a much greater and more important thinker than his more influential mentor, Milton Friedman, sadly proves the immortal value of the Socratic conclusion that it is better to remain an “ignorant” generalist open to the whole, than to embrace the life of a specialist, which, though imbuing a kind of genuine knowledge, also narrows the mind in such a way as to prevent it from grasping the wider context from which all specialized knowledge derives its true significance as a practically useful but problematically limiting perspective. 

During the 2016 election year, Sowell was one of the few serious American conservatives with a public voice who kept his head about him, while so many around him — all far lesser lights, of course — were gradually falling in line with the “necessity” of supporting the GOP’s eventual candidate, Donald Trump. He took this principled position even at the price of incurring the vows of “dead to me now” eternal wrath from a Republican grassroots that was quickly reducing itself to a rabble engaged in an ever-noisier pitchfork march against everyone, no matter how distinguished and superior, who dared to doubt Trump’s worthiness as a man or a candidate. This, incidentally, was the season that precipitated my own happy departure from the world of popular “conservative media” writing, so you can perhaps imagine how emotionally satisfying it was for me to see the one modern American conservative with whom I was always most humbled and flattered to be compared by an occasional kind reader, sitting on my increasingly lonely side of the river.

In late 2018, however, Sowell’s long-time friend and fellow economist Walter Williams — and I emphasize fellow economist — wrote that in spite of Trump’s poor character and “misguided international trade policies,” he has in fact “turned out to be a good president.” Asked for his response to this assessment, Sowell offered the following, in his typically measured and unhypocritical manner:

I highlight the following observation from the video:

I go by the consequences. I mean, he hasn’t produced the right rhetoric. But the fact is that unemployment among low-income people, blacks and Hispanics included, is at a level that is far lower than it’s been in decades. The economy is booming in a way that no one had predicted…. The economy hit new highs. But there are so many people among the intelligentsia, especially, who are absolutely immune to facts. It’s as if they took their anti-fact shots every year, and the facts will just not affect them.

The consequences. The facts. By which Sowell means, manifestly and all too conveniently, the economic consequences and facts of the given moment. 

He says that progressive intellectuals, ignoring the economic results of the Trump presidency (such as they were), are “immune to facts,” and have taken “their anti-fact shots every year.” “The facts,” he claims, “will just not affect them.”

But, I have to ask today, just as I asked myself when first I saw this video, and as I asked of any lesser light who espoused this same argument to defend Trump’s presidency, are there not some other facts about Trump and his presidency against which one must immunize oneself in order to wax so dreamily about these particular economic facts? Or has the economist in Sowell, along with the economist in Williams and others, simply done what specialists naturally and inevitably do, namely reduce everything to their own area of primary knowledge, such that the very word “facts” effectively becomes coextensive with “economic facts.”

In hindsight, were there not — are there not today — other relevant facts about Trump’s effect on America, on his party, on “the conservative movement,” and on the near future of civilization, which might outweigh the economic facts that, taken in careful isolation, might have seemed to speak in favor of his presidency? 

Back in my American Thinker days, I once asked, rhetorically, whether Marxism would suddenly become a good and justifiable political theory if in fact it happened to lead to better economic results than “capitalism.” Wouldn’t it still be the political theory of tyranny, of envy and weakness, of mob control, of the loss of individual liberty, of the denial of self-determination, human dignity, and decency? If we were to take Thomas Sowell at his word here, and just “go by the consequences,” meaning exclusively the economic consequences, then I guess we would have to say that Marxism was the best political arrangement in that case.

I am not persuaded that Thomas Sowell would accept that conclusion. But it is the conclusion that follows from the logic he himself used to defend the Trump presidency, after having stood on principle against it previously — and having stood against it for exactly the factual reasons that he suddenly decided to ignore in 2018, namely Trump’s hideous lack of character, intelligence, and respectability. His original non-selective overview of all the facts has proved to be the true and noble position on the Trump presidency and its legacy. Too bad even the great Thomas Sowell himself could not hold out against the temptations of inclusion. Or against the inherent intellectual limitations of specialization. A parable for our times, and not a hopeful one. If even Sowell could not overcome the narrow view in favor of the truer big picture understanding of “the consequences,” then where is the American mind who can?

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