the national interest

Final Answer: Trump or the Republic?

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 1994, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted an article to Social Text, a journal of cultural studies. In the article, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Sokal proposed that physical reality was nothing more than a social construct. The article mocked as “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook” the notion that “there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.”

Sokal’s argument was a parody of reasoning. In fact, as Sokal later revealed, it was intended to be absurd. Sokal had grown concerned about a postmodernist literary theory that denied objective truth taking hold within certain left-wing precincts of the academy. His goal in publishing the article was to expose both the extremism of the theory and the lack of intellectual standards of the people who safeguarded it in prestigious journals like Social Text.

My initial response to Donald Trump’s campaign was to see him as a living, breathing Sokal hoax on the Republican Party. Here was a “candidate” stretching all of the features of modern Republican politics — the disdain for objective truth, the substitute of bluster for logic and detail, the appeal to ethnocentrism — past the point of parody. It remained unclear for a very long time if Trump actually wanted to win the presidency. It seemed vanishingly unlikely that he stood any chance. Even if he could somehow capture the nomination, his unsuitability for office was so overt that I believed the party Establishment would never allow him to win. He was a cartoon dictator, a comic demonstration of his party’s pathologies and the depths to which standards of political discourse had sunk in a party used to worshiping the likes of Dubya and Sarah Palin. This was part of the reason why, for a while, I wanted him to win the nomination. By winning the nomination and then inevitably losing, Trump would demonstrate everything liberals had been saying about the Republican Party more powerfully than we could in a thousand columns.

By March, my point of view had changed. The main piece of evidence that turned me around was a rediscovered interview Trump gave to Playboy in 1990, in which he had praised the Chinese government for its crackdown in Tiananmen Square the previous year. The comments fit in with a long-standing pattern of praise he had offered to various dictators for their ruthlessness. I’ve mentioned this frequently because, while every Trump critic has their own favorite evidence, this, to me, encapsulates his most alarming trait. Through every iteration of his political profile — left-ish to far-right, pro-Democrat and Republican — and every issue flip-flop, from “core” beliefs on trade and immigration to abortion and everything else, Trump has never wavered in his belief that strong leaders dominate and put down their opponents. He’s never had any externally driven motive to say these things. He genuinely believes it.

More recently, another belief of mine has fallen by the wayside: that even if Trump managed to eke out a majority of delegates, the Republican elite would simply never give him the cooperation he would need to win. I suspected simple self-interest would dictate this. Trump is poison to the constituencies Republicans will need to win to stay viable in the long run, and allowing the party to be associated with him will have long-term costs. What’s more, a Trump presidency would likely court catastrophic blowback for the party. Not to mention, I assumed a significant number of Republicans, whatever their substantive policy disagreements with liberals, would recoil from Trump out of sincere loyalty to the republican form of government. And some conservatives have. A handful of elected Republicans, like Ben Sasse, have withheld endorsements. Conservatives like Ross Douthat and David Frum (“The vote you cast is for the republic and the Constitution”) have defended a vote for Clinton as essential to preserve the sanctity of the democratic system from an American Putin.

But these holdouts are the rare exceptions — far more rare than I anticipated. However low my opinion of the Republican Party, it was not low enough. Mostly they have shuffled along or beavered away on Trump’s behalf as though everything is normal. The political apparatus of the Republican Party will not stop him. The response has been chilling in its ordinariness. Trump is an authoritarian but not a fascist, and a racist but not a genocidal one. With that important caveat, read this passage (from a Politico report on the Trump transition team) without thinking of Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil:

Several said they set aside initial alarm over the 2005 video released in early October that featured Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, as well as the subsequent accusations of sexual assault from a number of women.

The initial shock led some team members to contemplate quitting, but sources said there have been no defections. Several transition staffers said that although they have privately held reservations about their nominee, they felt a duty to help prepare for the possibility that he could be elected.

“We may not like what he said — we may think it was childish or juvenile,” one transition official said. “But then we say, ‘Look, you know, he’s kind of our boss.’ In this town, if you were to bail on every politician who had a scandal, you would not have a long-term relationship with very many people.”

“People have mostly kept their heads down and continued working,” another transition official added.

The Wall Street Journal has a report on one hair-raising aspect of a Trump presidency that has received little recent attention: the unprecedented conflicts of interest his business empire would pose to his governing. Trump has dealings with governments throughout the world that would create immense possibility for corruption. In the story, Trump Organization counsel Alan Garten reiterates the campaign’s position that Trump intends to allow his children to run his business empire while he carries out the duties of the presidency. “It’s not unusual for people around the world successful in a business to play some role in government,” he explained. And Garten’s right about this — kleptocracies across the world have rulers who use their power in government to enrich themselves and their families. Nobody in Uzbekistan would bat an eye. What Trump proposes is only unusual in the United States or other democratic systems.

The norm here is for elected presidents to place their investment holdings in a blind trust, so that their self-interest could not possibly influence their decisions in office. Trump promises to disregard that norm, which is a vastly more important safeguard than the norm requiring candidates to disclose their tax returns, which he has likewise disregarded. When is the last time you saw a Republican call on Trump to release his tax returns? That answers what you need to know about Trump’s plans to enrich himself in office. President Trump’s kleptocracy would simply recede into the din of partisan complaint. So, too, if a President Trump followed through on his threats to impose punitive tax and regulatory policies on Amazon in retaliation for tough coverage in the Washington Post (which is owned by Jeff Bezos), or lock up his opponents.

The cost of intra-party dissent would grow exponentially once Trump actually has the power and prestige of the executive branch behind him. Republicans who contemplated an open breach with him and decided against it have already passed the point of no return. All that remains is rationalizing their self-interest.

When the audiotape first emerged of Donald Trump boasting of his sexual assaults, Mike Pence, like many Republicans, reacted with horror. It “was a devastating blow to him,” reports National Review’s Tim Alberta, in a fascinating profile of the Republican vice-presidential candidate. But according to the friends and colleagues who know Pence, and spoke with him at the time, the initial shock and disillusionment gave way to a very different response. “Pence spent the weekend holed up, unwilling to face questions,” reports Alberta, “and when he re-emerged after private discussions with a contrite Trump, he went into a different sort of shell, newly certain that his running mate — a man he’s prayed with, golfed with, become friends with — is being victimized by a bloodthirsty liberal media.”

His capacity to suppress his own moral qualms is chilling. Pence is perfectly representative of the conservative movement and the normal, non-Trump Republican Party, which is why Trump selected him over his personal preference for the more instinctively slavish footman Chris Christie. And Pence’s response to the revelatory Billy Bush audio is a synecdoche for the behavioral response that has allowed Trump to mostly consolidate his party and come within missed-short-field-goal odds of becoming president.

This is not a joke. This is one of the moments in history when the republic is at the brink.

Final Answer: Trump or the Republic?