Without principles, we drift. We move towards a state of suspicion, fear, and short-termism incompatible with the American dream. Left unchecked, this drift can easily spiral downward. Here’s why.
For all of America’s current strengths, it is a fragile giant. Our country is based on a leap of faith that citizens and government officials alike have the capacity to reasonably consider their broad, long-term interest in each other rather than only their narrow, short-term interest.
The best of this American ethos may be revealed on a country road and a corner vegetable stand with only produce, prices and a jar for cash. The stand works when customers consider the long term: If I want this corner stand to exist in the future, I won’t take advantage of it now. This principled mindset is what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.”
But is the unattended vegetable stand just a quaint, isolated example today? Doesn’t the “real world” work differently?
Our daily lives are a mixture: We act for the short term, but we also check our short-term impulses all the time. Americans form lines easily and orderly, for example. While seemingly trivial, this American tendency is often underappreciated (until one travels to certain foreign countries to witness the difference). Call it culture, a norm, or a principle, but, in forming lines, Americans quickly see past a narrow near-term gain and participate in a structure that benefits all. The more people are prone to act this way, the easier it is for others to follow suit.
But the converse is true as well. When enough people cut lines – and do so with impunity – the incentive for others to stand in line diminishes dramatically. Why should I check my own self-interest if others are only going to take advantage of my principled stance? As with a bank run, the change in behavior can be swift and widespread. We like to think of our principles as all our own, but we are influenced by each other too. More importantly, our political culture is not exempt from these dynamics. At some point, the steady challenge of unprincipled actors and special interests setting the wrong example (showing that “cutting the line” pays) leads to widespread capitulation.
The long-term nature of American principles
In today’s political dialogue, the very idea of a political principle is at best fuzzy, but often presented completely backwards. We frequently conflate a political principle with a specific belief, position, or even a constituency. Perversely, “standing up for one’s principles” is seen as siding with one’s own interest group, faction or tribe. But principles in general – and American political principles in particular – provide a set of guide posts for managing the conflicts that arise from narrow, near-term interest so that we can live together over the long-term even though we may be divided by personal interest, religion, race, political party, etc. The principles that unite us as Americans come at the expense of parochial interest and short-term advantage. Consider four key pillars of our liberal democracy:
Each pillar below requires forgoing some near-term advantage, some sacrifice. In this way, principled Americans commit “daily small acts of self-denial” so as “to combine their own advantage with that of their fellow citizens” in Tocqueville’s words. By contrast, communism is un-American because individuals are asked to sacrifice all. The crude libertarianism of Ayn Rand and today’s extreme Right is un-American because of its mania against government and of sacrificing nothing, thus confusing the very nature of principles and political freedom. From this vantage point, one can better appreciate why some “libertarians” and “Tea Party” Republicans on the Right today – from Peter Thiel to the Koch Brothers – end up enthusiastically backing authoritarian power (even while they think they stand for “liberty!”). If it’s all about immediate self-interest, well then game over for American liberal democracy. The logic of short-term advantage is the logic of Thomas Hobbes and a Leviathan state. The long-term perspective is better reflected in John Locke and the ideals embedded in our Constitution.
Rule of law
There is always a temptation to operate beyond the bounds of prescribed law or to think of oneself as privileged, especially for politicians and their supporters seeking to maximize power and influence in the short-term. The principled stance checks that temptation, sacrificing a near-term benefit of power and influence for the idea that no one is above the law.
A political leader or a political party can often motivate a group or its base by playing to racial fears and/or mixing religion with politics. The principled stance is to check that impulse even though it may confer a short term political advantage.
An earnest effort to discover the truth
Getting to the facts of a matter requires active effort. But, more importantly, it requires one to accept the consequences of what those facts reveal even if they work against one’s immediate interest.
A defensive, restrained and civilian led military
Countries can certainly gain near-term advantage by military adventurism. But military adventurism inevitably concentrates power in an un-American fashion. To be American, is to lead with the power of our example to the greatest extent possible – rather than the example of our power alone.
Trump, the short-term, and the play for total capitulation
The case I made in my 2016 book, The Right’s Road to Serfdom, was the American Right had already crossed the Rubicon. To stand for American principles in the Republican Party had become an overwhelming handicap. “The more consistently and earnestly one considers the principles required for a free society, the lonelier one tends to be in the GOP today” I wrote in my introduction. The best sources for my book were those who had considered themselves to be proud Republicans – thought leaders and politicians like Bruce Fein, Bruce Bartlett, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Lincoln Chafee, Brink Lindsey, Mike Lofgren, and Francis Fukuyama – but who had come to question the direction of the conservative movement. Specifically, it often appeared that it was their principles that made them impotent outliers. A critical mass of the conservative movement no longer stood for any consistent policy or principle but instead for power, factions and permanent opposition. Indeed, the elite center of the political Right had not just capitulated to special interests, it had embraced a misguided idealism and an extremism that tended directly against the long-term perspective embedded in American principles.
Following Trump’s general election win, the ease – indeed enthusiasm – with which many conservatives have backed Trump largely affirmed the thesis of a long-standing decline. At the 500 day mark of his presidency, Trump’s own party approval rating was second best in history. This stark reality has prompted additional and ongoing right-center opposition to Trump from thought leaders like Max Boot, William Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, Steve Schmidt, etc. In December, I called this burgeoning alliance “The New Alignment”. “The energy of the Democratic base is fusing with many traditional Republican opinion makers and elites in a way that we have not seen before and would have been hard to imagine a few years earlier,” I wrote. This small alliance seems to be gaining some traction as it now includes Republican donors working behind the scenes to prevent Trump and other Republicans “from capitalizing on weaknesses in the political system,” as recently reported by the New York Times.
What may not have been obvious in 2016, should be clear now. Trump’s advantage in the Republican primary contest was being in front of the capitulation that was already well underway. Once capitulation has set in, it is the shameless and unprincipled that rise to the top – and Trump’s time had come. For example, Trump’s propensity not just to lie, but to make the boldest, most lavish, most outrageous lie possible was an asset, not a handicap, as most people assumed it might be. Trump was well positioned in the primary contest because the American Right had already destroyed its “own immunity to fake news” and therefore empowered “the worst and most reckless voices on the right,” as noted by the former conservative radio host and Trump critic Charlie Sykes.
But what still hasn’t completely sunk in – even for most of Trump’s critics – is that Trump is an all or nothing force. He is relentlessly pushing for complete capitulation and doing so with a Blitzkrieg-style assault on each of the four pillars of American liberal democracy outlined above.
Most of all, as much consternation as Trump has raised, we fail to fully appreciate the logic of capitulation – a logic that is not confined to the American Right. In this way, we still mistake the nature of many of Trump’s actions and underestimate the risk to our country.
To return to our analogy about forming lines, Trump is not the type of unprincipled actor who wants to sneak to the front of the line and get away with it. Rather, he wants to cut to the front, enjoy gains from doing so, boast about his transgression, and humiliate those who continue to stand in line. In doing so, he seeks to promote the conditions in which capitulation occurs. Those standing in line – e.g. those who continue to stand up for American principles – are the suckers, “the losers,” who don’t understand how the “real world” works! The essence of Trumpism is a celebration of the short-term advantages gained at the expense of bedrock American principles.
Consider Trump’s lying, which takes at least two different forms. Sometimes he lies to deceive and/or avoid responsibility. But often, his lies are intentionally apparent. Recall during the 2016 campaign when he asked the entire press to join him at his hotel in Washington for a press conference. During the “press conference,” reporters were not allowed to ask questions and his one new comment to seemingly justify the invite was this obvious lie “Hillary Clinton and her campaign in 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it.” Though this statement may have been taken seriously by some of Trump’s cultish following, the real point of this obvious lie was not to deceive, but to humiliate the entire press as irrelevant and further undermine the belief that the truth matters at all. The lie is a clear, bold statement: “The normal rules don’t apply to me. I am restrained by nothing.” Those who laughingly dismiss Trump as a “bad liar” are naively missing the point and failing to grasp the extent to which capitulation has already set in. Such lies are intended to demonstrate that the American system we cherish no longer matters – to embolden the worst in us, and among us, and demoralize our sense that our principles are still relevant.
Trump understands – or at least intuits – that his corrosive attack on American ideals builds in a cumulative manner. The longer he remains in power flouting our bedrock principles with impunity, the less those principles really do matter. It is hard for people to care about principles in politics when those principles seem less relevant with each passing day. Moreover, the four pillars that provide a foundation for our republic are interconnected and reinforce each other in critical ways. Undermine one pillar and the rest of the foundation becomes much less stable.
For example, the opening for Trump’s current attack on the Justice Department and the rule of law is our collective inability to plainly see facts and summarily dispense with outrageous falsehood. One year in, the Mueller investigation has picked up speed and become increasingly productive with seventeen criminal indictments and five guilty pleas. There is also solid evidence that the Trump campaign illegally sought help to sway the US election not just from Russia but from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But most Americans don’t know this. In a recent survey, a full 59% of those interviewed were unaware that Mueller’s investigation had uncovered any crime at all.
Moreover, to derail the investigation that increasingly points to him, Trump has proceeded with his normal pattern of lying in the biggest and boldest way possible. Lacking facts or logic, Trump recently claimed that the entire Russia investigation began as a Clinton funded/FBI plot to entrap him and throw the election to Clinton (“bigger than Watergate!” he tweeted). In fact, we know that the Russian investigation began prior to the Steele Dossier when George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, told an Australian diplomat that Russia had political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Australian officials then alerted their American counterparts to the threat. Besides being factually inaccurate from the very start, Trump’s bogus conspiracy claim lacks a shred of logic too since the FBI kept a tight lid on its investigation of Russian meddling during the entire election even while it commented prominently on the security of Clinton’s email practices. As noted by columnist Jonathan Chait, the whole theory of a smear campaign kind of breaks down if the alleged smearer diligently keeps the smear a secret.
Even though this allegation is about as credible as Pizzagate, it has already had an impact. On these false pretenses, Trump and his House Republican henchman Devin Nunes “demanded” an investigation into the lawful, and thus far very fruitful, investigation of his campaign, his associates and foreigners. It’s a classic autocratic tactic – investigating investigators on no basis at all – and a precedent has now been set. There is a lot we still don’t know about the Mueller investigation and this latest effort by Trump to interfere with it, but former White House Council Bob Bauer nailed the essence of the recent Trump/Nunes spectacle with this comment in Lawfare:
What instead occurred here – a White House meeting between the president and senior officials of intelligence and law enforcement—was a brazen assertion of presidential authority over the investigation. It was a flaunting of Trump’s belief that even in a highly sensitive matter that bears on his own interests, Trump controls “his” department and can call it to account as he wishes. It is true that the meeting was publicly disclosed, and that the White House issued a statement after-the-fact, but this is not so much an exercise in transparency as it is a victory lap.
Obstruction of justice is a crime. But Trump is not trying to hide it, he’s trying to assert it. He’s done so repeatedly. As with blatant lying, the point is to embolden the worst in us, and among us, and demoralize our sense of principle and law as even relevant. Pushing as hard as he can on the pillars of our liberal democracy, Trump is unleashing the logic of capitulation as best he can. He has not yet won, but he’s not necessarily losing either. The blatant nature of his lying and corruption – his repeated attempts to obstruct justice by getting rid of “the Russia thing” (along with eager collaboration from some House Republicans) makes this situation far, far worse than Watergate. We should be crystal clear on what he is trying to pull off and the risk to our country. Many people doubt that Trump is capable of such destruction, but those doubts should have passed long ago. Would-be dictators need not be brilliant operators, but they must be shameless and ruthless. The path to a Trumpist autocracy is celebration of short-term advantage over principle. It is a path that is always in front of his nose and downward sloping. Trump has what it takes – if we let him get away with it.
How to thwart capitulation
If you bring up the idea that American principles are relevant to our politics with a Washington political consultant, they might look at you as if you are from a foreign country. Especially as the 2018 elections approach, they want their candidates to “stay focused” on the “real” issues that matter – day-to-day concerns like health care, gas prices, and access to affordable education. Don’t be distracted by Trump scandals, Russia, Mueller, and Stormy Daniels, let alone abstract principles. Of course, candidates need to connect on basic issues. They always do. But especially now, an exclusive focus on the mundane may be a tragic miscalculation – not just for America in the long-term, but for the upcoming election too.
In a recent piece in Vanity Fair, “‘That Is What Power Looks Like’: As Trump Prepares for 2020, Democrats Are Losing the Only Fight That Matters,” Peter Hamby makes a series of excellent points to counter the conventional wisdom. On the surface, Hamby argues, issues like healthcare, the economy, and national security, top the list of voters’ concerns. And, on the surface, Democrats have been winning in special elections for local and federal seats by talking about local issues like transportation and education. And yet:
the undercurrent to all of this Democratic energy is Trump, and it would be folly to ignore the mounting evidence of crimes by Trump’s allies and the ongoing investigation into the president’s own conduct. It is the biggest story in the world! Democrats are showing up in primaries and special elections in numbers that well outpace their performance in previous midterm elections. Talk to any Democrat you know in real life: they are ready to crawl over broken glass to vote in November. You don’t need a poll to tell you this. And it’s because of Trump – his policies, his recklessness, his personality, and yes, his scandals.
Moreover, there is a significant downside to not squarely addressing the crime and corruption that surrounds Trump in the context of a campaign. Yes, crime and corruption surrounds him! On the receiving end of the 75 criminal charges and five guilty pleas uncovered thus far in the Mueller investigation are Donald Trump’s Campaign Manager, his Deputy Campaign Manager, his National Security Advisor, and his foreign policy advisor. As well, it seems likely that his personal lawyer will face criminal indictments soon. To let all that slide is to indirectly affirm Trump’s conspiracy theories and fold to his unreality and confusion. It is capitulating to an un-American world of alternative facts. Quoting the former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello, Hamby draws a crucial distinction between reliving the 2016 election and the importance of a narrative that fits the facts of today and makes sense.
“The more it’s about Russia and the 2016 elections, that feels backwards-looking and seems like a partisan lens,” he said. “It works when it’s about corruption and crime and the fact that the president shouldn’t be above the law . . . . Trump has put his narrative out there, and quite frankly, Democrats haven’t put it out there or talked about it in effective ways. When Trump says ‘witch hunt’ or ‘deep state,’ from the Democrats you sort of get nothing. And then Mueller says nothing, so it starts to sound like maybe this is all just silly partisan politics.”
Hamby concludes his piece with the correct but incomplete observation that “If Democrats are truly on offense this midterm year, they should be talking about Bob Mueller in a smart way, as well as gas prices and health care and immigration.” Incomplete because, as Hamby correctly observes at the start of his piece, people need to know what the Democrats stand for. There needs to be an affirmative vision that makes sense of current events and inspires people about the future. There needs to be an effective counterpoint to what Trump and the Republicans now offer. It should be a consistent theme that starts now and builds through the 2020 election contest – a theme that unites, not just Democrats, but independents and those Republicans who revile Trump.
So, what’s the theme? In many ways, the binding message could not have been teed it up better: The most effective counterpoint to Trumpism and the Republicans in Congress is America. The key question is who better represents American principles? The theme need not be abstract or elaborate. To the contrary, it is probably best expressed by holding Trump and his associates to values that most Americans share on a day to day basis.
One obvious place to start is to correctly label blatant lies as un-American. Each time Trump poses an obvious, un-American lie – and we can count on a steady stream of those from now to 2020 – he’s called on it. Republicans in Congress who follow suit are called out as well. For example:
“Everybody knows Trump is lying again. This is un-American. In America, we believe in truth, not alternative facts.”
Similarly, Trump’s zest for authoritarian power and hostility to law and restraint will predictably lead to more crime and corruption. He needs to be called out. For example:
“The President is not above the law and all this crime and corruption is un-American.”
Trump will continue to make racists comments. Saying such comments are “reckless” is weak. It may actually backfire since voters are not happy with Washington and it plays to Trump’s narrative that he’s “unpredictable” and “shaking things up.” Here again the more accurate response is the stronger one. For example:
“Trump prefers racist smears to the American idea of individual merit, dignity and equality before the law.”
These statements come naturally because they are true. There’s ample material along these lines. We just need the courage to say it. In this way, a common theme begins that Trump and Republicans who support him in Congress are simply un-American. Of course, one should never use the charge “un-American” lightly or carelessly, but at this point the charge is richly deserved. To fight a clear attack on our ideals, we need to be absolutely clear about what we are defending.
To be sure, candidates also need to address local issues, and the best issues to focus on will vary district by district. Candidates and their consultants will know this part of their election equation best. In a rural district, it may be skyrocketing healthcare premiums. In a poor district, it may be an unregulated power plant causing asthma or water pollution. It may be gasoline prices, real wage growth, immigration, taxes, infrastructure and the federal debt too. But overall these issues can and should fit into a larger theme. “Dangerous Don” and basic issues alone won’t do it.
At the end of the day, Trump is pressing hard on the very foundations of American liberal democracy. We would be fools and cowards not to push back.