On a Tweet-Drizzle on Trump’s Honest Dishonesty

I suspect many poll respondents do not separate “appearance of emotional authenticity” from “verbal approximation of factual truth” in polls such as the one Mr. Bouie finds “bewildering,” in which “45% see [Trump] as honest and trustworthy, but it goes lower, to 36%, for Clinton.” Setting aside, as we must in order to comment on the political campaigns, the encompassing inanity of the terms of discussion, we can further observe that the answer “he is more honest” replicates the same pattern: The answer itself may be an “honest” as in “honestly dishonest” answer in the minds of such respondents, meaning they can both “honestly” and “dishonestly-honestly” judge Trump “honestly a liar,” a liar true to himself as a liar, while Clinton remains for them a “dishonest truthteller.”1

Bouie is hardly alone in his mystification. In an essay from May2, David Frum predicted that the reaction to Trump’s dishonesty, or his honest dishonesty, would be “the hardest [part of this story] to explain after it’s all over”: 

Trump did not deceive anyone. Unlike, say, Sarah Palin in 2008, Trump appeared before the electorate in his own clothes, speaking his own words. When he issued a promise, he instantly contradicted it. If you chose to accept the promise anyway, you did so with abundant notice of its worthlessness. For all the times Trump said believe me and trust me in his salesman patter, he communicated constantly and in every medium that there was only thing you could believe and trust: If you voted for Donald Trump, you’d get Donald Trump, in all his Trumpery and Trumpiness.

Trump may be relentlessly mendacious, but he is not simply mendacious, or, to put it paradoxically, and not for the last time, he is so simply and obviously dishonest that there is, in this sense, no question of his honesty and openness. As Frum puts it, Trump “appear[s] in his own clothes, speaking his own words.” He gives “abundant notice.” Trump voters know that they will get the authentic Donald Trump.

This paradoxical conversion into a version of virtue, of a diametrical opposite of virtue may in a lover or an artist or in the daily life of a citizen of this world count as a necessity, perhaps a dreadful necessity or nothing honorable in the old sense. In a leader the quality is contrary to the minimal functional requirements for any form of non-tyrannical governance, especially to those of a self-governing liberal-democratic republic. This disrelation between Trumpism and rational political discourse makes it incompatible with American-ideological conservatism, which means to be reasonable, but not with the reductive, likewise emotionally rather than rationally authentic version of American-national conservatism, the conservatism that would be conservatism for us because we recognize it and the recognition of it, and so on, as altogether ours and ourselves all together.

The rump of faithful “movement conservatives” among the politerati strenuously insist that Trump is not authentically a conservative, and will have in mind his lacking commitment to small government or other elements of Reagan Era dogma. Yet we cannot say that Trump’s firstly and even only emotionally authentic form of conservatism is not a conservatism at all. The Trumpian conservatism that is conservatism because people who call themselves conservative deem it to be and thus convince their enemies as well to call them by that name connects here to the simplistic nationalism of the alt-right, the traditional conservatism of attachment to “one’s own,” however “one’s own” defines itself (always circularly: how one defines oneself pre-determines how one may define oneself): Thymos, emotional energy of collective self-assertion, the generation of the something worth dying for out of itself, is also authentically conservable.

Where we seem to differ, or are not in fact all together, is over what “our own” can and should be, not over its indispensability, which would be the indispensability of us to ourselves, whoever we are or manage to find in the historical mirror. The merely or mainly emotionally authentic nation is and cannot be the state from which the citizen expects reason strictly, or the liberal state, but that latter state cannot be at all without knowing that other, its contradiction, as also itself.

Notes:

  1. My own drizzle of tweets replying to Bouie and Digby, on which this post expands, can be found here. []
  2. Donald Trump and the Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy – The Atlantic []

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To take power, May had to pretend that she, too, dreams these impossible dreams. And that led her to embrace a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are be reimagined as “the people.”

This is not conservatism—it is pure Rousseau. The popular will had been established on that sacred referendum day. And it must not be defied or questioned. Hence, Theresa May’s allies in The Daily Mail using the language of the French revolutionary terror, characterizing recalcitrant judges and parliamentarians as “enemies of the people” and “saboteurs.”

This is why May called an election. Her decision to do so—when she had a working majority in parliament—has been seen by some as pure vanity. But it was the inevitable result of the volkish rhetoric she had adopted. A working majority was not enough—the unified people must have a unified parliament and a single, uncontested leader: one people, one parliament, one Queen Theresa to stand on the cliffs of Dover and shake her spear of sovereignty at the damn continentals.

...Brexit is thus far from being a done deal: it can’t be done without a reliable partner for the EU to negotiate with. There isn’t one now and there may not be one for quite some time—at least until after another election, but quite probably not even then. The reliance on a spurious notion of the “popular will” has left Britain with no clear notion of who “the people” are and what they really want.

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The most extraordinary paragraph in this op-ed, however, is this one:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

...First — and this is so obvious I can’t believe I have to type out these words — the United States can’t simultaneously proclaim “America first” and then claim any kind of moral strength. Saying loudly and repeatedly that American values are not going to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy strips you of any moral power whatsoever.

The second and bigger problem is that the “embrace” of a Hobbesian vision of the world by the most powerful country in the world pretty much guarantees Hobbesian reciprocity by everyone else. Most international relations scholars would agree that there are parts of the world that fit this brutal description. But even realists don’t think it’s a good thing. Cooperation between the United States and its key partners and allies is not based entirely on realpolitik principles. It has helped foster a zone of stability across Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim that has lasted quite some time. In many issue areas, such as trade or counterterrorism or climate change, countries gain far more from cooperation than competition.

Furthermore, such an embrace of the Hobbesian worldview is, in many ways, anti-American.

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The rise of the military, if coupled with the undermining of civilian aspects of national power, demonstrates a spiritual exhaustion and a descent into Caesarism. Named after Julius Caesar — who replaced the Roman Republic with a dictatorship — Caesarism is roughly characterized by a charismatic strongman, popular with the masses, whose rule culminates in an exaggerated role for the military. America is moving in this direction. It isn’t that some civilian agencies don’t deserve paring down or even elimination, nor is it that the military and other security forces don’t deserve a boost to their financial resources. Rather, it is in the very logic, ideology, and lack of proportionality of Trump’s budget that American decline, decadence, and Caesarism are so apparent.

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