Trump Till 2020: A Republican Vision

This presidency’s end stage has been talked about ever since the election results came in on that depressing ninth day of November, 2016. There has been much hopeful talk of impeachment, and of ‘the final days of the Trump presidency’ as each administration official resigns, is indicted, or is implicated in some sordid scandal or the other. The Robert Mueller Investigation grinds on as the slow wheels of justice must; and the nation has turned its lonely eyes to FBI Bob, waiting for him to bring political manna to the masses. Now, Stormy Daniels has entered the frame and talk of firing Bob Mueller has received new life thanks to the repeated invocation of that mantra by Fox and Friends. Indeed, the Stormy Daniels affair has finally lent some teeth to this embarrassingly frenzied speculation about the eviction of the current tenant of the White House. Unfortunately, such hopes and prognostications run up some unrelenting political and cultural realities.

First, as Iran-Contra reminds us, as Americans, we are too embarrassed to punish the truly powerful; it would be too déclassé, too sordid, in excessively poor taste. It would be a reminder that our judgment was flawed, that we were wrong to trust the rich and the powerful, that we had once again, mistakenly put our faith in the powerful, trusting that their ‘magic’ would rub off on us. For us to punish the powerful would be to punish ourselves; after all, we have ambitions of becoming powerful too, one day, and we do not want to set a bad precedent. Our tastes run more to punishing lackeys and assistants, the ones who usually take the fall and then mumble, hopefully publicly, some words of contrition and repentance.

There will be no premature end to the Trump presidency; he will serve out his term till the 2020 electoral season, during which at some point, he will dramatically declare that with all his work ‘done’ he will now retire to spend more time with his family. (That is, he will seamlessly and smoothly move on to a new television talk show, the lecture circuit, and a ginormous advance from the trade house ‘lucky’ enough to publish his memoir. This is a classic American tale and it will only get better in the retelling.)

Why is this so? Because little has changed in the American political landscape–despite the air of mounting scandal and electoral disaster. The Republicans will not impeach him as long as they control the House of Representatives, for reasons too often made to bear repeating there. The Democrats, for their part, remain unlikely to launch impeachment proceedings even if they come to power; they will be too easily distracted by talk of how they should ‘move on,’ not deepen the ‘partisan divide,’ not practice a ‘destructive politics,’ or ‘give the appearance of being vindictive.’ The electoral calculus predominates here as it has always; despite prognostications of a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, the President’s own approval ratings remain solid. No matter how his brand may affect others, his own remains relatively pristine.  The best, least damaging electoral strategy, one that minimizes their losses, is for the Republicans to keep Trump in power in return for a quiet promise that he will not seek re-election in 2020. This is something Trump can be easily persuaded to do; he will have spent enough time in the limelight to ensure himself a quiet retirement, and ensured enough money to secure his children’s future. He will also have realized that the presidency can be an unpleasant business.

The legal ground has been prepared for such a move. The presidential pardon has been tested and found to be adequate; it has been used on undesirables like Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby; there has been no opposition to its use; Trump now knows he can line up a few lackeys to take the fall for him, once they have had the  prospect of a presidential pardon held out for them. No revelation from the Stormy Daniels case, other than a good to honest legal indictment, will trouble Trump even remotely; his ‘base’ already thinks he has acquired baller status for having slept with a porn star–no matter what came afterwards. Trump’s legal advisers will undoubtedly put him on notice that his legal jeopardy is greater with him outside the Oval office than inside it; and Republican Party pollsters will support them in this claim by noting that no matter how bad the defeat in 2018 in the House, they will not lose by too big a margin thanks to Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression efforts. This is a party whose main platform is ‘stick it to the liberals!’; this party will not expel the man who won them the 2016 elections on this platform.

One response to such a claim is that the electoral and political calculus has changed over the course of the Trump presidency: the main tax bill has been passed, the Obamacare mandate has been rolled back, electoral losses in ‘red districts’ indicates the famous ‘blue wave’ – and so Trump is expendable, to be replaced by the doltish Mike Pence. This response does not add up; the Republicans might be facing a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, but they know that: a) the ‘blue wave’ is more swell, less tsunami and b) that the ‘blue wave’ they face in 2018 will be nothing compared the massive abandonment they will face from Republican voters in 2020 if Trump is made to resign or impeached. To hand a victory to the progressives, the libtards, the alt-left, the bleeding hearts, the Democrats, the left, liberals is political suicide. The many surprising electoral wins for Democrats in recent months, indeed, ever since Trump came to power, are less the result of Republicans abandoning Trump or suddenly developing a conscience or some compassion; rather, it is because energized Democrats have turned out in greater numbers. There is no indication that any Republican ‘defection’ has taken place.

America is stuck with the Trump presidency; it will be stuck with the Republican Party much longer.

Antonin Scalia And His Incoherent, Hierarchy-Loving, Theory Of Constitutional Interpretation

I taught Antonin Scalia‘s writings–as found in his court opinions–on three occasions in my philosophy of law class. His theory of constitutional interpretation–originalism–was incoherent. His aggressive rhetoric, directed at those who would dare petition the highest court of the land for redress, was tasteless. He was a bully, and a blowhard. Like Christopher Hitchens, he will be revered by many whose taste runs to the skillful deployment of language for the belittling of others. Among the most frequent targets of scorn were his colleagues on the Supreme Court, who were always unfailingly polite to him, and were rewarded with ample sarcasm and invective. His judgments frequently crushed the weak, denied hope to the condemned (I suspect nothing made Scalia quite as tumescent as denying a stay of execution for someone on death row), and scorned the cries for justice issuing from those who had found themselves on the wrong side of the power equations Scalia found written into the US Constitution.

Because that, in a nutshell, mostly, was Scalia’s theory of constitutional interpretation. Originalism, “the theory of constitutional interpretation that seeks to apply the understanding of those who drafted and ratified the Constitution,” relies on a wholly imaginary “original understanding”–the attempt to determine and ascertain it convinces, all too soon, those who would so try, that the effort is futile. The best analysis of the futility of such a determination may be found in Paul Brest‘s analysis in  The Misconceived Quest for the Original Understanding. Hint: Whose understanding? Do ratification votes capture ‘understanding’ or do they point to clumsy off-stage power negotiations? And so on.

Originalism, as a political theory of legal interpretation, is generally chosen by those who would like to preserve very particular power relations, those present at the time of the drafting of the US constitution. An ‘originalist’ is a fancy term used to describe those who would prefer the world of 1787, and all the limited political and moral understandings that underwrote its legal arrangements. Those original relations, which did not acknowledge or recognize slavery or the political rights of women, eminently suit the continued maintenance and perpetuation of very particular hierarchies of power.

Those are the ones Antonin Scalia wanted to preserve. He was a true-blue conservative, a hierarchy-loving reactionary who shivered when he contemplated the masses rising up –in any shape, form, or fashion. He was no champion of the people; his writings reeked with contempt for them. (I can remember him caring about the voice of the people when pro-life protesters tried to infringe on the constitutional rights of those who wanted to have an abortion.) When all the fancy dressing of the elaborate rhetoric that Scalia deployed was stripped away–in cases that most starkly brought the legally dispossessed into conflict with those well entrenched in power, corporate or state-what always stood revealed was a veneration of power and fury at those who had dared challenge it.

It’s perfectly alright to speak ill of the dead when they were public figures. Scalia sent many to their deaths, he scorned the struggles of those claiming their legal and political rights; I am not upset his tenure on this earth is over.

Road-Tripping With Rush Limbaugh And Glenn Beck

Yesterday, I drove up to Albany to meet an old friend. After spending the night, I returned this afternoon to Brooklyn. While driving, I sought entertainment through radio. The usual fare of FM was hard to snare: reception was often spotty–for whatever reason, the selections were uninspiring–a little too much emphasis on the Eagles methinks, and as usual, there were way too many commercials. After entertaining myself for a little while with the Hudson Valley’s WPDH, as I got closer to Albany, I found WGY on FM 103.1, ” a radio station licensed to Schenectady, New York and owned by iHeartMedia, Inc., broadcasting a news and conservative talk radio format.” On it, I heard Rush Limbaugh yesterday afternoon, and Glenn Beck this morning. It was, as might be expected, an edifying experience.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Rush Limbaugh is most accurately analogized to an angry, blustering, bully, who imagines himself the leader of an insurrection; his broadcasting booth is the balcony of his palace. Glenn Beck imagines himself a deeply religious libertarian scholar of the constitution, one deeply steeped in the history of this nation, this “republic” (which might be his favorite word of all time), who also happens to be leading a folk movement to take back political power.
  2. Donald Trump is scared of no one but Rush Limbaugh. With great glee, Limbaugh played an “audio bite” of Trump responding to a reporter’s question about Limbaugh having described him as not being “a true conservative.” Trump’s response went roughly as follows: “I’ve heard that, and I just want to say that I respect Rush; he’s been great to me, and I have a lot of respect for him. I love him and I think he’s been great to me.” That’s all. Limbaugh played this clip at least four times, chortling on each occasion.
  3. Glenn Beck speaks with many, many, pauses for dramatic effect, all the better to let the portentousness of his pronouncements about “the republic,” the Constitution, “this nation’s founding fathers,” “self-evident truths,” and liberty sink in. This is a man who clearly thinks he is saying Very Important Things.
  4. Both Limbaugh and Beck agree, roughly, that this nation “is hanging by a thread,” that there is “a state of cultural decay,” that “we are headed for a dictatorship.” They also agree that the disdain of the Republican Party for the Trump candidacy is proof positive that the Trump is doing something right, that he, as Beck put it, might be “the one we’ve been waiting for.” (They both also breathe heavily into their microphones.)
  5. Limbaugh is definitely the more paranoid of the two: the Bernie Sanders candidacy is a conspiracy, stage managed by the Democrats to show that Hillary Clinton is a tough candidate, capable of riding out a tough primary challenge, and of dispelling any notions that she is merely placing the crown on her head. (Rush also thinks Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith are bigots and racists for suggesting a boycott of this year’s Oscars.)

I did not just listen to a couple of radio shows; I traveled to distant lands. Sorry to sound like an anthropologist, but my sense of having encountered a distinct cultural formation was very acute.


Ann Althouse on Rush Limbaugh: ‘Smart People’ Offer Weak Tea

Some nineteen years ago, I was working at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, surrounded by a host of seemingly very intelligent men and women. Name the best technical schools in the country and the chances were you would find a graduate from most of them in any average corridor in the five-storied building of the Middletown location. All around me, over-qualified, high-achieving, electrical engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians, did their best to make sure I acquired a gigantic inferiority complex, equipped as I was with merely a puny masters degree in computer and information science from a small technical school in Newark.

Then, one day, suddenly, I didn’t feel like an intellectual midget any more. During my lunch break, as I partook of my three-times-a-week run in the surrounding environs, a car pulled up next to me, and a colleague of mine, one of those absurdly, over-qualified graduates from one of the nation’s best technical schools, popped his head out to ask what I was up to. As we exchanged pleasantries, I could hear Rush Limbaugh on his radio. Puzzled, I asked, “You listen to Limbaugh?”  He replied, “Yeah, he’s great; you should check him out sometime. He’s got lots of smart things to say. Makes a lot of sense.” And then, my colleague drove off, my expression of puzzlement still writ large on my face. But I felt strangely pleased too.  I might not have gone to the schools that these guys had, but by golly, I was smarter than them!

Flash forward. A couple of days ago, Ann Althouse, law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, NYU Law School graduate, and considered a ‘conservative intellectual’, offered a critique of Limbaugh, which includes: First, the the usual, quaking-at-the-knees qualifier that any ‘critic’ of Limbaugh from the right feels compelled to offer (in Althouse’s case: “I like Rush Limbaugh, and I get his concept of media tweaking, and I get that he’s lampooning government regulation”) and then, after unpacking the various misrepresentations in his analysis, the following:

Quite aside from the lack of a factual basis for his humor, it’s just mean to aim words like “slut” and “prostitute” at a woman, especially a young woman, even if the metaphor is apt. Even when you get the joke and agree with the criticism of the policy she’s advocating, it feels ugly. The humor backfires.

“Even if the metaphor is apt”? If the “metaphor is apt” then why does it feel “ugly”? And why does Althouse then say “Even when you get the joke and agree with the criticism of the policy she’s advocating…The humor backfires.”? What was the joke in there? If I call Althouse a “retard” for liking Rush Limbaugh, is that a joke? No, its a polemical broadside. And why is someone who agrees with Sandra Fluke’s criticism find themselves in a position where they think the non-existent “metaphor” used to describe her is “apt” and “get” the non-existent “joke”?

Really, if Althouse was worried about Limbaugh going after her, or that she would lose her legions of feral commenters, she shouldn’t have bothered writing her post.

Update: I owe a hat-tip to David Auerbach, who directed me to Althouse’s post.

Provincialism’s Easy Allure Or, Writing Outward From The American Academy

In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin writes,

As sophisticated as the recent literature about conservatism is, however it suffers from three weaknesses. The first is a lack of comparative perspective. Scholars of the American right rarely examine the movement in relation to its European counterpart. Indeed, among many writers it seems to be an article of faith that, like all things American, conservatism is exceptional.

Robin then goes on to point out continuities between American and European conservatism before going to to provide a rich intellectual history of conservatism, one that aims to show it to be a dynamic force of reaction and counter-revolution through the ages, one implacably opposed, not to change per se, but to a change in the hierarchies of political ordering and power.

My intention here is not to dispute or examine this analysis; for that we have a faculty study group at Brooklyn College. Rather I was struck, as I read Robin’s listing of weaknesses in recent scholarship on conservatism, by the presence of a similar lack of comparative perspective in Robin’s work, by its only-partial expansion of the analytical lens to focus on American and European conservatism alone. From the taxonomy constructed above, it would appear that conservatism as a political entity, an intellectual movement or body of work, or as force of reaction and counter-revolution is confined to Europe and the United States. To be sure, its impress might be felt elsewhere–after all, the counter-revolutionary governments of the United States and Europe have acted to resist revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America–but as a political and intellectual force it originates in those spheres alone. (The index of authors in Robin’s work does not list African, Latin American or Asian conservative political theorists, or polemicists.)

Now, conservatism as reaction does not appear to be confined to these spheres; the long, bitter, disputed histories of these continents is ample evidence for that claim; reaction here, must have found its grounding too, in patterns of thought and theory articulated by, among others, intellectuals, writers, journalists, and party hacks. (Here I am not identifying “conservatism” with a named political movement or party, but rather, in accordance with Robin’s thesis, as the forces of reaction that have resisted movements of resistance aimed at upending established hierarchies of order, using a variety of polemical, political and rhetorical strategies, including, most recently a genuine populism that seeks to include previously oppressed classes in the spoils of power.) Perhaps examining conservative thought more broadly–geographically speaking, at least–might have enabled an engagement with questions like: Are Mario Vargas Llosa and Olavo de Carvalho conservatives in Robin’s sense? Are the South African theoreticians of apartheid to be understood as conservative? Where do the theoreticians of the Indian caste system fit into a taxonomy of conservative thought? And so on.

In pointing this out, I am doing no more than indicating the blindingly obvious, and a scholar as accomplished as Robin would be the first to note this himself. (It might be that I missed in my reading, a stipulation that “conservatism” was to be understood as identifying a particularly Anglo-American-European ideology.)

Then why the lack of the “comparative perspective” in Robin’s work? Besides the straightforward one that one writes about what one knows best, I think the blind spot also exists for the same reason that in my recent book on legal theory I concentrated on American common law first, with European civil law a distant second, and do not investigate in any adequate sense, Latin American, African or Asian scholarship in the relevant domains: to write from the vantage point of the American academy is to all too easily take it to be the center of the academic and intellectual universe. This is not because one assumes a mantle of superiority but rather that that is the seat that we are pointed to, the position we assume, and it seems, are almost required to take ex-officio. In this tacit assumption of centrality, even the most allegedly cosmopolitan amongst us are reminded of the enduring and persistent allure of provincialism.