Politics & Policy

If Politicians Were Rational Beings, Here’s What Trump and the GOP Would Do

Trump speaks to reporters following the first debate with Hillary Clinton, September 26, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Rational self-interest would counsel very different courses for Trump and establishment Republicans than they have taken so far.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell was once sufficiently famous to be a punchline in a Mike Nichols–Elaine May impromptu sketch. As a dim-witted starlet discussing her unlikely dates (Albert Schweitzer, Bertrand Russell) with a radio disc-jockey, Ms. May mused fondly, “Bertie is also a heck of a good kid. I think a pushy philosopher can be a real drag.”

Russell was then an international figure both as a philosopher and as an anti-nuclear activist beloved by youthful idealists, but he was always likely to disconcert admirers of the moment by stating inconvenient truths. Towards the end of his life, he said that as a young man he had once hoped people could be persuaded to act altruistically but had reluctantly concluded that the best we could expect from humanity was rational self-interest — and even that was unlikely.

Not to overstate things but the course of the election campaign suggests Russell was spot on. Almost everyone on every side has been acting in a spirit of rational self-destruction since the early primaries. And they show no sign of slackening off in that regard.

The story begins with the large field of Republican hopefuls at the campaign start several centuries ago. Once Trump had begun to surge ahead by raising the issue of uncontrolled mass immigration, legal and illegal, the other candidates might have responded by producing policies to deal with it. It’s a conservative Republican policy, after all. Instead, as the months ticked by, the GOP candidates, showing the same admirable self-discipline as the crew and Royal Marines on the troopship Birkenhead, remained in strict formation on the deck and refused to “pander” to their electorate as their ship sank beneath the waves.

Maybe they thought that Trump could have the voters but they would win the donors’ primary we heard so much about. But when Senator Cruz finally emerged as the last man standing who was not Trump, that was in large part because he had been the first of the conventional Republicans to break free of the pack and adopt a clear program for lower levels of (more skilled) immigration both legal and illegal. That meant a clear majority of delegates were immigration hawks. And by then the donors just had to put up with it. After all, Trump had majorities in the actual voting primaries.

That put the GOP establishment in a pickle. Faced with the certainty of a Trump victory at the convention, the establishment dithered endlessly between embracing him and blocking him. It’s carried on doing so at intervals. (It’s fair to concede that Trump didn’t make its choice easier by his own erratic behavior. Surprise! Surprise!) Unless you want to advertise your own impotence, however, you probably shouldn’t adopt its tactic of constantly muttering about how much you disapprove of him just before urging the voters to support him, however quietly. As Napoleon said: “When you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” It seemed to be now or never last weekend.

So I suppose the decision was never. If so, then the alternative approach is a very traditional one: a formal endorsement followed by a dignified silence and an undeclared transfer of campaign resources to races down the ticket. It’s hard for the media to make a controversy out of the GOP financing its own candidates. In addition, establishment grandees would be advised to memorize a few useful remarks to shout to the media scrum as they fight their way to the getaway car: “This election is about issues.” Or “I have already made my position crystal clear.” Above all, however, avoid public demonstrations of moral anguish. It’s not a leadership quality, especially when combined with dithering.

Donald Trump — where should I begin? Or end? In 2001, before anyone saw the Donald as a presidential aspirant, I wrote a critique in National Review of his interviews with Howard Stern in which he discussed women in terms I thought ungallant. My attack wasn’t political, even though Trump was then a Democrat, but its message was sternly disapproving. Think Dr. Arnold in Tom Brown’s Schooldays: “Trump, you are a cad and a bounder and there is no place for you in this school.” Those interviews (which were on the record) were not very different from the notorious videotape. They were vulgar, crass, shameless, and silly sexual boasting — the kind of thing (second only to intrusive women sports reporters) that prompts me to avoid locker rooms. Above all, however, they were known about and readily available.

If a hypothetical reasonable man contemplating a run for the presidency were to suddenly recall that he had these interviews in his background, let alone the Access Hollywood videotape, he would stop and think very hard about proceeding with his plan. They would strike him as unexploded bombs in his path. Withdrawal would look the more prudent course. If he nonetheless decided to go ahead, he should take something like the following steps: call a press conference, present the Howard Stern tapes, declare himself appalled by them, announce that since then his family, especially his daughters, had made him a better person, and ask for the public’s forgiveness as he forged a new path of duty.

Revolting hypocrisy, you say. Well, thank you, I appreciate the compliment. We need at least insincere avowals of virtue if public life is not to become a fiesta of cynicism and squalor. In this case the hypocrisy would have practical advantages too. Our hypothetical candidate would then not have to worry about the tapes coming out — they would already be out — and his confession would armor him against any future disclosures of sins he had forgotten. They belong, he could say, to an unregenerate past I have renounced.

Trump not only failed to take these elementary precautions, but according to one report he instructed his campaign staff not to take the typical step of investigating his past as a way to rebut “oppo” research. As a result the past week’s “bimbo eruptions,” now nine in number, whether true or false, have inflicted serious damage on him. The Stern and Access Hollywood tapes virtually invite such accusations and make even those lacking evidence seem at least plausible. All that the Trump campaign can do is to prove the accusers wrong on points of detail to discredit them. Proving a negative is notoriously hard to do. He may not succeed if innocent, and he may be guilty in some cases. Trump himself should still make the speech outlined above, but it won’t have anything like the same impact that it would have done when he announced his campaign.

If Trump were to make an even colder calculating examination of his personal self-interest, however, he would probably decide to announce that he was withdrawing from the campaign in favor of Mike Pence, the GOP, and the country because the media had made a fair campaign involving him impossible. He was sacrificing himself to save the nation from Hillary, Bill, and the corrupt Clinton machine. He might throw in some mild self-criticism to ensure that Pence praised his nobility in return. But that would happen anyway. His main consideration would be that a decision to withdraw, made in the face of likely defeat, would protect him from the dramatic erosion of his own brand. His problem is that his political brand and his commercial brand are seriously at odds. Only an unlikely big victory could reconcile them at this point. His political brand is downscale, his commercial brand is aspiring upscale. If he loses badly amid sleaze and scandal, who will want to stay in the Trump Tower, wear clothing with the Trump insignia, or eat in restaurants recommended by him? But a dramatic announcement to withdraw, especially if made after a triumphant debate, would have the flavor of gallantry and patriotism. Most negative attention would then be directed not to Pence but to Clinton whose sins would not have been washed away by a noble self-sacrifice. (Try to imagine Hillary in a self-sacrificial role. You can’t do it. Nor, probably, Trump either.)

Trump’s campaign has been able to survive the suicidal tactics of his campaign (or as it is technically called, his id) so far because he has been opposed by the even more kamikaze-minded Clinton campaign.

Trump’s campaign has been able to survive the suicidal tactics of his campaign (or as it is technically called, his id) so far because he has been opposed by the even more kamikaze-minded Clinton campaign. Imagine that you are running a political campaign for a candidate who is widely regarded as corrupt, opportunistic, cynical, dishonest, and devious to the point that whenever some new offense is alleged against her, the campaign’s response is not (as Jonah Goldberg has pointed out) “She’s innocent” but “You have no proof” or “Where’s the smoking gun?” Do you write to your colleagues an early warning note: “Look, kids, we’re gonna be under maximum surveillance by the media on every tiny matter in this election. Nor are all the media in the Clinton camp. Some back Bernie. And to top it all Madam has installed some kind of private cockamamie e-mail server so she can send ‘Top Secret’ classified documents to Sidney Blumenthal — he’s the fellow in the big black hat and opera cloak who comes into the office via the air-conditioning system — without the CIA and Mossad knowing. Who knows how that will all end up? So I don’t want you to write a single word that you would be embarrassed to see on the front page of the New York Times. Be cautious, close-mouthed, silent, and discreet.”

No, apparently you write no such note. Instead you write: “Remember that the Democrats are the party of open debate. Let it all hang out. Don’t hold yourself back. Tell it like it is. And don’t fall for political correctness. We’re equal opportunity folks: If you pay, we play. When Latinos or Catholics are moving off the reservation, we Dems are no respecters of persons. Or faiths! But not even sheiks get a thank-you note without a seven-figure contribution. And don’t believe the stories that Hillary is scary. She’s a Mom! She likes nothing better than for a clever young intern to stop her in the corridor and get her to tell stories about what really happened that night in Benghazi. For her it’s like, well, nostalgia. So buttonhole her and get out the message to all and sundry. Because Putin will if we don’t.”  

“If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him,” said Richelieu. Hillary, John Podesta, and the various campaign dweebs who labor in the vineyard of policy analysis should be feeling very chancy around the collar just now. Even if Hillary survives, or especially if she survives, they may not. For they have written quite enough to meet the hangman in any normal election year.

Assuming she does survive, the lessons of rational self-interest for Hillary are: 1) Don’t expect other people to protect your secrets with the same degree of vigilance that you would. 2) When protecting your own secrets next time, find a way of doing so that isn’t felonious. 3) Lie less — and sleep easier.

But the rest of us can be grateful that the Clinton campaign’s bad security has confirmed it really is the kind of coldhearted elitist project that despises even the constituencies it affects to champion. Obligingly, they’ve warned us.

Where does all this leave the rationally self-interested voter? Well, I am assuming that none of the politicians would adopt the rationally self-interested approaches I recommend. Faced as the voters would be with two morally compromised candidates, therefore, they should ask themselves two questions: First, which candidate has the better policies? Second, which candidate represents a greater danger to the Republic?

The answer to the first is so obvious that I won’t bother to make the case for it. Trump has better policies than Clinton and, indeed, better policies than some Republicans.

The second question is one I have answered before on NRO, and I don’t think I can improve on that reply. It goes as follows:

It seems to me that when we break this question down, it is a choice between an evil that is erratic, inexperienced, reliant on fragile media connections to its largely humble supporters, lacking in intellectual, bureaucratic, and media firepower, and opposed by almost all the major institutions of modern society, and an evil that is remorseless, experienced, reliant on influential power networks going deep at home and abroad, able to call on people of high ability at all levels, and supported by most modern social institutions. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution was written more or less explicitly (as several anti-Trump dissidents have pointed out) to restrain, control, and frustrate the kind of open risks that a demagogue like Trump poses. Yet one cannot ignore the fact that it has been successfully perverted into a channel for the hidden dangers of the administrative state that Hillary Clinton persuasively represents.

One might sum up the differences between them as follows. Both aspire to follow America’s first Black president who as such is the least impeachable president in U.S. history. As America’s first woman president, Mrs. Clinton would be only slightly more impeachable than Obama. Donald Trump, on the other hand, would be America’s most impeachable president before he set foot in the Oval Office. He would have the support of neither party in Congress, the hostility of the media, the opposition of corporate America, and the resistance of the bureaucracy. He would find himself blocked, on occasion rightly, every time he sought to challenge some established policy popular with Congress or the bureaucracy. However boldly he acted, he would soon become a byword for gridlock. And if he seriously rebelled against these limits out of frustration, he would risk constitutional punishment. That is why those Republicans advising a [then] possible Nominee Trump must ensure that his vice-presidential running mate is a sound conservative of standing and ability. It may be the most important decision of the campaign.

And Hillary Clinton? All that she need do to propel America still further towards an oppressive bureaucratic future is to go with the flow. Alas, she would do a great deal more than that.” 

That seems to me to make the case for voting unenthusiastically for Trump.

I realize that this argument will make me a target of the cruel mockery of those like my old friend Pete Wehner, who think that “Vote first, Impeach later” is the reduction ad absurdum of Trumpery. Maybe. But is it worse than a policy of standing morally aloof and acquiescing in the election of the Unimpeachable Hillary?

For that certainly doesn’t seem an example of rational self-interest.

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