Scheming demons dressed in kingly guise
Beating down the multitude, and scoffing at the wise
–Rush, “A Farewell to Kings”
In a 1523 letter to his friend Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli famously asserted that he loved his “fatherland more than his eternal soul.” If we massage this text a bit, as political theorists often have, we get the so-called dirty hands thesis, the idea that a prince or political leader ought to be willing to sacrifice his eternal soul or at least his moral integrity to enhance the power of his polity. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and what’s breakfast without eggs? You can’t run a government without breaking heads, and what’s life without government? Vegans and anarchists might dispute the implications of those questions, but most people are neither.
That said, even those of us who are neither vegans nor anarchists have some moral integrity. So I suggest that we turn Machiavelli on his head: a person of integrity loves her eternal soul, or even just her mortal moral agency, more than she loves her native fatherland–or motherland. At a certain point, she draws the line and refuses to get her hands dirty in the muck that goes by the name “the good of all.” I don’t mean that properly conceived, the common good is an unworthy aim. I mean that it’s not always properly conceived.
I think sensible people have by now, however belatedly, come to the conclusion that Donald Trump’s recent press conferences render him dangerously unfit for the presidency. When the President of the United States starts spouting logorrheic, unintelligible drivel about injecting bleach into human bodies, or curing COVID19 by shining ultraviolet light into them,* the time has come to ask how to get this man out of power without on the one hand resorting to desperate expedients like assassination or coup, or on the other relying on slow-moving/unfeasible ones like waiting for the general election, re-impeaching him, or invoking the 25th Amendment.
If you’re one of those people who thinks I’m misrepresenting the president’s claims, or thinks that his malfeasances are no big deal, just “Trump being Trump,” you’re not part of my target audience. I’m addressing myself to people who regard Donald Trump as having reached peak batshit craziness, agree that his doing so has become an intolerable danger to the people of the United States (and much of the rest of the world), and are wondering what to do about it. I feel bad for people like Bandy X. Lee, who’s been on a crusade to make the preceding point for years. It must be demoralizing to have worked so hard to be so reasonable, to be derided and ignored for so long, and then see that people will kinda start to get the point when mass death finally stares them in the face. But better late than never.
The “bleach episode” proves beyond reasonable doubt that rational people cannot constrain Donald Trump. In that respect, he really is like Hitler. Apologies to anyone who regards that as an exaggeration, but it isn’t one. Hitler had not, by 1936, gotten quite as sociopathic as Donald Trump has three years into his presidency. Granted, Hitler was en route to places Donald Trump has not gone. But no one really knows where Donald Trump is capable of going. That’s been the whole problem with Donald Trump from Day 1. Anyone willing to make excuses for him at this point is willing to leave huge amounts of power in the hands of someone flying blind through epidemiological and political space with terminus unknown, up to and including wars of aggression, mass death, and fascism.
It’s quixotic to sit around asking whether we have social scientific evidence to prove that character is a proxy for policy in the case of a person like Donald Trump. The problem we face is that we have no idea what is a proxy for policy in this case. The situation is so fucked up and so unprecedented that we couldn’t possibly get the kind of data or studies that would satisfy the canons of social science. Only a person completely out of touch with reality would think that we need to wait that long–when “wait that long” could plausibly mean “sometime after the end of his second term.”
It is likewise a moot point to put one’s hands on one’s hips and declare that you know, we wouldn’t be in the mess if only the president didn’t have so much power, or some such nostrum. Even if true, it doesn’t tell us what to do with the guy who actually has the power, unless the solution is to recite nostrums about why he shouldn’t have it. Like prayer, that seems harmless. But like prayer, it won’t have any effects in the world external to the person engaged in it.
An indication of the right approach was recently taken in a small but effective way by the journalist Kaitlan Collins. Faced with an unjustified command by Trump, Collins simply held her ground and refused. That kind of courage deserves widespread commendation and emulation. There is a case to be made for compliance even with immoral laws or orders, up to a point. We are now past that point, at least when it comes to this president: civility, respect, charitable construals of nonsensical claims, and compliance are at this point simply Trump’s means of exploiting, abusing, and victimizing us. He has to be forced to back down at every turn. He should be harassed, ridiculed, yelled at, yelled down, interrupted, and above all, openly defied in just the way Collins did. That’s the only way in which he can be stopped. And he must be stopped.
But defiance by journalists will only have limited utility. The real center of gravity is within the government (“the Deep State”), and in particular, from within the part of the government managing the federal government’s response to the pandemic–the likes of Fauci, Birx, Redfield, and Hahn. These people in particular have to stop deferring to Trump, and simply do their jobs as though he didn’t exist.
I was initially tempted to say that they should quit, but a better idea would be for them to continue working in a way that risks, even tempts, termination. As I say, they should do their jobs as though he doesn’t exist: say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, ignoring him. Since he does exist, of course, he will do what he can to get in their way. But so far, he seems to grasp that his political life rests in their hands: he can’t remove them for fear of being left completely adrift with a problem he knows he can’t solve without them.
That’s the very weakness that demands aggressive exploitation. If Trump pushes back on the defiance of his medical advisers, they should openly defy him–in effect (though not in those words) tell him to go and fuck himself. (They need not openly show defiance or anger; my point is that they should not try to fool anyone with furtive or secret actions, and should make no compromises with his irrationality.) If he threatens any one of them with termination, they should all simultaneously counter-threaten with resignation. They should play this game of chicken until they win. Notice that the game only works if some critical mass of advisers functions as a striking union might, in solidarity and in concert with one another–no scabs, no free-riders, just concerted opposition to The Rat.** Like striking workers everywhere, the people defying Trump have to realize that he needs them more than they need him.
There are serious risks here. If Trump fires them (which he could), we would be left without leadership in the pandemic. That’s a frightening prospect. But de facto, we are currently without leadership in the pandemic. The leadership we thought we had–the leadership of responsible people constraining the president–is as much of an illusion as Hindenburg’s and the German nationalists’ constraint of Hitler in 1933. That gambit may have worked for awhile, in a contestable sense of “worked,” but it’s got nowhere left to go. You can’t constrain Trump by appeasing him. You can only constrain him by resisting him. There is now a critical mass of resistance that, if exercised, can succeed. It should be exercised so as to succeed.
Donald Trump has to go. We can’t kill him.*** We can’t impeach him. We can’t remove him. We–or rather, those in the relevant places–have to defy him, and push him, step by step, away from the levers of power. The longer he holds power, the greater the danger we face. At a certain point, we have to figure out that as dangerous as the virus is, he is the real danger we face–the single biggest obstacle to our fighting COVID19 with all the powers at our disposal. We need to look that danger in the face, stare it down, and take it out, before he does the same to us. Because when push comes to shove for him, he will take us out: he will sacrifice our lives to the whim of the moment. Push has already come to shove for us. It’s time to push back as hard as we can.
*Thanks to Steven Postrel for the observation that there are in fact FDA approved devices that claim to do what Trump asserted. The fact remains that the claim was, as stated, egregiously irresponsible.
**The critical mass need not be so large as to require mass resignations from the relevant federal agencies. The rank and file can and should continue working; some part of upper executive management should resign.
***So don’t accuse me of inciting, recommending, or planning violence. I’m not.
Thanks to Maria Venardis for very useful comments on an earlier version of this post.
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There really is no bottom. But without resistance, they’re going to keep going.
Who could have envisioned that Trump would literally lie us to death? If “the truth shall set you free,” lies of this kind put you in the morgue. The enormity of the injustice exceeds one’s capacity to understand it. It will be decades before we come to terms with what these moral monsters have done to us, and how they got away with it.
Nothing separates Trump and his inner circle from the Nazis. We should stop invoking the phrase “never again” if we’re not going to take it seriously enough to see the fascism on display right before our eyes.
What you are suggesting is a kind of mutiny of the senior members of the administration—or at least of those that Trump ‘needs’ in this crisis: Fauci, Birx, and the people under them who are loyal to them rather than Trump. You recognize the risk involved. It could backfire, Trump’s narcissistic fury could fire everyone, resulting in more chaos, more deaths, mobs of nuts with guns, who knows what. This is a mad king surrounded by sycophants and ideologues. — If Fauci and Birx can get solidarity from the troops, a non-confrontational determination to ignore him could have a good effect, but any cracks in that solidarity could be fatal. If they could get Peter Navarro on board, or someone else on the economic team, that would help. — And how could such a project get going? We’ve letters of condemnation of Trump signed by scores of Ex-military and intelligence officers, by leading psychiatrists (noting his mental state), and an impeachment trial. Still, almost half the country still supports him. Some kind of civil war is not unthinkable.
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All good points, undeniably true. I am suggesting that what needs to happen is a kind of mutiny. I think it’s telling that Trump himself referenced “Mutiny on the Bounty“; a psychoanalyst would have a field day with that. I just wish his fears of a mutiny were well-founded.
On confrontation vs non-confrontation, I think there’s a division of labor possible. The press could maintain a confrontational posture while Fauci et al just did their thing. But the division isn’t going to be sharp or clean. Part of Fauci et al’s doing their thing is dealing with the press. My view is that they should be candid about the failings of the administration. I think they’ve been too diplomatic. Trump will undoubtedly hit the roof, and at that point, confrontation on their part will be inevitable. But I think it’s desirable. They are now beginning to suffer from a version of folie a deux (or trois, or whatever) that tends to dilute the message they need to convey to the American people. We can’t handle a pandemic unless the people are on board, but we can’t get them on board if the government sends unclear or mixed or even mendacious messages.
I agree that there are risks to my approach, but there are also risks to trying to muddle through as we’re doing. As you suggest, the country is headed toward a kind of low level civil war. Allowing Trump to set the agenda makes that more probable. Pushing back on him makes it less so. It also makes him less dangerous. That’s the basic premise behind my argument. But it can only work if those implementing the strategy act in concert. If they don’t, it will fail and fail badly.
Your point about the ex-military officials, psychiatrists, and impeachment proceedings is all well-taken, but that’s why I’ve made this suggestion. The ex-military officials are out of the government. The psychiatrists are trying to go through Congress. The impeachment was a congressional action. I agree with the strategy in each of these cases, but the tactics won’t work. The thing that will work is ironically the very thing that Trump has said he fears: the Deep State. The Deep State has to wrest the government out of Trump’s hands, threading the needle between chaos on the one hand, and normalization on the other. I think we have gone too far in the direction of normalization in the hopes that if we just gritted our collective teeth, we could endure the end of Trump’s presidency. That was a reasonable thought before the pandemic, but not any more. We cannot endure Trump until November. Worse still, if the pandemic interferes with the election, we face the prospect of his bypassing the election itself. That would make the pandemic the equivalent of Trump’s Reichstag fire.
I know how alarmist this sounds to certain ears, but if we get there, we are in a fascist dictatorship with destination unknown. In 2016, calm, suave people tried to tell us that bad as Trump was, his bark was worse than his bite, and lily livered liberals lacking historical perspective just weren’t dealing in facts. Here we are in 2020, watching tens of thousands of Americans dying at the hands of the coronavirus–and not dying dignified deaths, but suffocating to deaths, with their bodies decomposing in the fucking streets.
To normalize that, to respond to it in tones of calm, soothing equanimity, is to abet a grand-scale crime. I don’t mean that being over-wrought is a condition of accepting the validity of my suggestion. I just mean to underscore the stakes. The people who have underplayed Trump’s badness have consistently been proven wrong. Those of us who grasped early on that a character this depraved was a danger to us have been proven right. There are still people out there inexplicably on the fence about whether Trump is all that bad, or the coronavirus is. It hasn’t, after all, decimated their town, so how bad could it be? That attitude is a symptom of a whole society gone awry, so devoid of any conception of a common good that it can’t detect the most wholesale threat to the existence of the commonwealth itself.
My view is that this republic is on the brink of destruction. We need to get Trump out of the way before we go over the edge with him. My two favorite readings on this:
Irfan, I hesitate to agree with you because of the high risk involved. There would have to be very strong support from the career civil servants (the necessary bureaucracy in any modern state), which Trump has with invidious intent characterized as “the Deep State.” And there would have to be approval among key people at the top, such as Navarro, who sounded the virus alarm early. Pence, Pompeo, Kudlow, Mnuchin, etc.—fuggedaboudit. Trump and Fox News and the radio blowhards would jump all over a mutiny. Blood in the fucking streets, man! Maybe the low-key, reasonable, just-the-facts ma’m approach might work, but a strong confrontation would be nuclear unless it’s strongly supported. Somebody with authority would have to take charge of organizing—say, and I’m serious, former presidents Bush and Obama together, plus former generals and admirals, some business giants like Gates and Buffet. They could organize all the others who have signed declarations of Trump’s unfitness in support of Fauci et al. It would have to be well-coordinated, all on the same page. Failing that, I think the risk of backfire is too great.
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I can’t deny that the risks are there. But the uncertainties from having him in charge are risks, too. I don’t think Navarro would go for this. Pence, Pompeo, et al would absolutely not. But my thought is that the people who should mutiny are precisely the ones with medical expertise, the ones who are most indispensable, whose expertise is least fungible.
Ironically, I’ve taken this insight from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and transformed it. Rand’s point was that The Producers ought to withdraw their productive abilities to demand the freedom to function properly. My point is that the people with the relevant medical expertise should do something similar now. Of course, in Atlas Shrugged, society essentially collapses before it’s reborn (!), and my preference is to avoid an American Gotterdamerung. Or else I’ll be forced to move to Canada.
I can’t help thinking that our present situation is eerily reminiscent of certain scenes in Atlas Shrugged, but operating in a political context that Rand could not coherently have processed (much less predicted). The one thing to be said in favor of that novel is how well-plotted it is: multiple events at multiple levels come together in an intelligible way to produce the dramatic climaxes. One of those is the Taggart Tunnel disaster, which is oddly like the American response to the pandemic:
But the differences are just as instructive. Our disaster is in large part a function of our inattention to Nature, not technological logistics. And arguably, our political failure comes from under-investment in public health, something Rand implicitly championed. It also stems from our under-investment in a safety net (unemployment, sick leave, health care, etc.) something she also implicitly favored. But the idea that a disaster might arise through a society-wide abdication of moral and intellectual responsibility is on target.
This is what I was referring to by “bodies composing in the streets”:
Irfan, your response is, as usual, lucid and compelling. I also find the Atlantic essays by Appelbaum and Packer—two favorite commentators—to be powerful and true. Your focus on the medical experts—the people who know what’s going on as opposed to the corrupt and incompetent flunkies sucking up to an incompetent president—is indeed a good analogy to the plot of ATLAS SHRUGGED. One main difference, however, is that Fauci et al. are but one segment of competent “Producers,” whereas in A.S. the denizens of Atlantis represent the entire society of the virtuous, from CEOs to music composers. That’s why I think others are needed. There is indeed a huge issue of political economy involved in our response to the pandemic, and since Trump et co. fucked it up from the get-go, our problem is hugely compounded in ways that nations with competent leaders—Germany, South Korea, New Zealand—are not now faced with. It’s no longer just a medical problem, and Fauci et co. are not experts with a more general social catastrophe. Thus the need for a larger base of authoritative support.
I agree that the System is corrupt and corrupting, and much of it is along lines of the Randian critique. The decadence of late capitalism is grotesque, as Piketty stated, only to mention the critique of lefties like F. Jameson. But I find much in Rand’s vision to be destructive in the extreme, especially her utter devotion to laissez-faire capitalism, which the Republicans love with obscene ardor. Rand recognized greed as a motive for the “second-handers,” but she utterly failed to see greed as an unavoidable motive attending the profit motive. HER motive, and her heroes’ motives, is self-fulfillment, along with appropriate remuneration; but the System that she advocated is, mutatis mutandis, the System of Greenspan, of McConnell, of Trump: amoral, socially irresponsible, and workable only in Galt’s Gulch. And such a society will end up like any failed utopia, be it Brook Farm, Rajneeshpuram, or Cuba. The irony is that Rand’s egoism and laissez-faire capitalism, based on radical libertarian freedom for the individual, utterly ignores our essence as SOCIAL BEINGS, an essence identified by her guru Aristotle’s ZOON POLITIKON (which can be translated as either ‘political’ or ‘social,’ as context requires). The free individual is not the foundation of a just political system but is rather constructed within a just political system. A shorthand way to explain: our Constitution is the foundation of a good—that is, just—social System; the Bill of Rights is the fruit of that System, the reward for all members of a true polity that allows them to pursue fulfillment as individuals. Here comes a bold statement: To see the individual as primary is to take Thrasymachus, or Trump! as a representative man.
I don’t agree with your last line (taking the individual as primary is to take Thrasymachus as representative), but I do basically agree with your criticisms of Rand. I hadn’t meant to be defending her above. There isn’t a single line in her writings that has a kind word to say for the concept of public health–a decisive strike against her all by itself. Among the few government programs she ever praises are the military and NASA, the two most expensive, grandiose, and distant from the promotion of basic human needs. She goes out of her way to heap derision on just about every aspect of the welfare state aimed at the amelioration of ordinary suffering. Even at my most sympathetic to Objectivism, that was an aspect of her thought that I found repulsive. Over time, the revulsion came to overshadow most of the rest.
I don’t even like Atlas Shrugged as a novel. But if it has a single merit (maybe only that), it’s Rand’s ability to plot a sequence of events operating at many different levels of complexity. Love it or hate it, what makes Atlas Shrugged an engaging book is the plot. No one has made a good film of it, but it’s very film-like. I’ve never spent time in Colorado, and yet I find the Colorado sequences vivid in a film-like, image-laden way. I get that from parts of We the Living and The Fountainhead, too. Paradoxically, she has no comparably complex conception of history. Her discussions of history are usually a train wreck of some kind, even when she’s not discussing trains.
Appropriately enough, I’m re-reading Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. My idea of an “escape” from all this.
Oh crud. Proofread error: zoon politikon CAN be translated as ‘political’ or ‘social,’ depending on context. (See Liddell-Scott Lexicon).
On reading what I wrote about “bodies in the street,” a reader, Chris Paglinco, sent this story along, even more gruesome than mine (thanks, man!):
The only place where I have literally seen “bodies lying in the street” is White Clay, Nebraska, possibly the saddest single place I’ve ever been in my life and not coincidentally, right here in this country.
The first time I drove through the place, I had to drive around the bodies of men lying in the street–not dead, I suppose, but dehydrated and ill in the broiling sun, incapacitated from alcohol. Of all the dismal places I’ve ever been, I’ve never seen anything quite like that. But Paglinco’s item is on par.
But I find much in Rand’s vision to be destructive in the extreme, especially her utter devotion to laissez-faire capitalism, which the Republicans love with obscene ardor.
I don’t know, do they really?
There may be something obscene in laissez-faire capitalism. There’s certainly something obscene about ardent Republican party politics. But even if both these things are true, I’m not sure the latter proves anything very clear or convincing about the former.
he current Republican President of the United States is probably best known among Republicans for his vigorous endorsement of protectionist tariffs and immigration restrictions. The now-dominant faction within the party either ideologically agrees with him about this (say, Josh Hawley) or else has made its peace with letting him have his own way for political reasons.
Trump’s faction within the Republican party is unusual and only recently in the ascendant, but other factions that have been dominant in the past (for example the temporary coalition of Neoconservatives and Religious Rightists around George W. Bush) were also overtly hostile to the identification of laissez-faire policies with conservative politics (Neoconservatives have been banging this drum since at least the 1990s, given their interest in communitarian critiques of liberal individualism; Religious Rightists had existing commitments to government suppression of vice industries like abortion, drugs and pornography, and were easily sold on the ideas of government subsidy for faith-based initiatives; establishment conservatives at the time seem to have thought that perceived hostility to the welfare state was costing them elections, hence “compassionate conservatism” . The signature issues at the time of Bush’s first election were a vast expansion of Medicare (the largest expansion of government social spending since the Great Society), and a large-scale federal reorganization of public schooling. Along the way of course they also picked up a couple of multitrillion dollar generational wars, a vast consolidation and expansion of the government surveillance and security apparatus, and a multitrillion dollar multi-agency coordinated government bail-out of the financial industry. That last certainly has something to do with capitalism, but not with laissez-faire capitalism, if the “laissez-faire” is supposed to mean anything at all.
Politics is a messy and contested business, and it’s also full of flawed and sometimes opportunistic or cynical human beings, and so of course governments in power can end up doing politically that they say they are opposed to ideologically. (Many American Progressives are genuinely ideologically committed to national single-payer healthcare coverage and full federal coverage of abortion procedures, but what Progressive politicians have done while in office is constrained by political opposition and also by their own calculations about what they can realistically accomplish.) But this doesn’t seem to be a case like that. Neither Bush Jr. Republicans nor Trump Republicans claimed to be aiming for unrestricted free markets but hampered by real-world political constraints. Rather, they defined their own ideological positions around direct criticisms of unrestricted free markets and in favor of increased government spending, and in Trump’s case, dramatically increased federal restraints on international trade and international freedom of movement.
Here comes a bold statement: To see the individual as primary is to take Thrasymachus, or Trump! as a representative man.
I think this is far too strong. Thrasymachus’s accounts of justice don’t just depend on taking the individual interest as primary, they also depend on an underlying account of what the interests of a human being are. In particular, they depend on the combination of (0) the claim that everyone ought to follow their individual interest with the theory that individual interests are (1) premoral or amoral, (2) essentially agonistic, (3) immutable and basically irrepressible by reason, convention or institutions. If you keep (0) and keep (1)-(2) but weaken (3) to allow for shame or ideology to repress interests, then you get the difference between Thrasymachus’s interest-of-another and interest-of-the-stronger accounts of justice. If you keep (0) but discard (3) and weaken (2) to allow the commonality of most interests to overwhelm their occasional conflict, then you get Glaucon’s account of justice, without having to stop seeing the individual interest as primary. (Glaucon’s story is a story about self-interested people coming to a negotiated compromise.) If you keep (0) but discard (1) and (2), you get Socrates’s account of the just man even in the unjust polis. (Socrates doesn’t attempt to argue against (0), he consistently argues that his interlocutor has an inadequate conception of what (0) entails.) Or you might get a very different sort of account, depending on what you think (1′) the content of morality and (2′) the nature of the harmony among individual interests is.
(Rand, incidentally, explicitly rejects (2) over and over again in her writing, particularly when she’s talking about her differences from what she thinks of, rightly or wrongly, as “Nietzschean” individualism. She also explicitly rejects (1), although this is complicated in the details, since she’s much more willing than Socrates to have the direction of fit between morality and self-interest go both ways rather than just one. Of course her account of the just man and her account of the just polis are radically different from Plato’s Socrates, because they differ radically on (1′) and (2′). I happen to think they are both wrong, but I don’t think that either of them has gone wrong by reason of rejecting the claim that humans are zoa logika kai politika. I think they agree with that bit, but they make mistakes in their accounts of what that entails.)
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Ironically, I manage to agree with both John and Radgeek, taking John to be painting in broad brush fashion, and Radgeek to be focusing on the fine grain. And some of what they’re saying overlaps.
The thing I would say to Radgeek is: points taken. But even if we focus on the specifically libertarian wing of the Republican Party, their focus on indiscriminately “starving the beast” has had problematic effects on public health. There is a clear libertarian rationale for Trump’s wanting to spend less on pandemic preparedness, and on public health generally (understood as health care planning undertaken in a centralized fashion by a government agency). Not all libertarians will accept it, and not all do, but the decision has a recognizably libertarian pedigree. And libertarians have been in the forefront of those willing to minimize the dangers of COVID-19, critical of quarantine-like measures, and insistent that we open, even at the risk of significantly elevated morbidity and mortality. I have been moving away from libertarianism for years, but this really seals the deal for me. I don’t think libertarianism necessarily entails these things, but if, as a sociological matter, this is what the preponderance of libertarians want, I want to break even my residual connections with libertarianism. And they were getting increasingly tenuous anyway.
I get that you are not aligned with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, but C4SS-style libertarianism is so much of an outlier relative to the mainstream that when I criticize “libertarianism,” I just ignore things like C4SS altogether, or at least implicitly put it in a separate box. Obviously, this isn’t because I lack respect for the people associated with it. It’s because its uncompromising stance puts it too far outside of the mainstream to be part of the political action that’s visible on the national stage. Yet we still need ideological labels for politics of that mainstream variety.
The libertarian wing of the Republican Party may not espouse an ideologically pure form of libertarianism, but by degrees it’s more libertarian than non-libertarian political players who have a place at the table (socialists, left liberal Democrats, neoconservatives, etc.) So I don’t hesitate in describing it as libertarian, and in describing political failure arising from its actions as failures of a libertarian approach to politics. In Capitalism, George Reisman proposes that as a first step toward laissez-faire capitalism, we defund all public hospitals. That’s bat-shit crazy (and frankly malevolent), but it is crazy in a recognizably libertarian way. It has a recognizably libertarian rationale, and he offers up recognizably libertarian rationalizations for why it should be done, and why it would have great effects. I’ve read libertarian stuff for decades, and increasingly, I began to feel that the more I read, the more I was suffering from folie a deaux. Whereas if a libertarian were to defend increased public expenditures for public health (or public hospitals, or whatever), that would be one person’s idiosyncratic view, more akin to Tyler Cowen’s “state capacity libertarianism” than real libertarianism.
The thing I’d say to John is this. I no longer have much sympathy for Ayn Rand. Having spent far too much of my life defending her views, it occurs to me that right or wrong, my efforts were a serious waste of time and energy. That said, I agree with Radgeek that most of your criticisms of her views really are mistaken, in some cases, very mistaken. (Likewise in your discussion with Alison on Facebook.) I agree with R’s criticism above. The basic issue that Rand got right and that most people get wrong is that a conception of self-interest depends on the substantive nature of the interests involved. If you simply assume at the outset that any set of interests has to be agonistic or conflict-laden, then of course their pursuit will lead to conflict. But if a set of interests is defined in such a way as not to conflict, its pursuit will not lead to conflict, or at least not to ubiquitous conflict in non-extraordinary circumstances. One of Rand’s real achievements was to challenge the commonly held belief that the pursuit of self-interest must lead to conflict. I’ve spent thirty years reading the philosophical literature on this topic, and I can say without hesitation, that I have not seen a single cogent, conclusive argument ever for the idea that self-interest inevitably leads to predation or conflict. This is not to say that Rand’s attempted solution to the problem was right (or even worth describing as a solution), but that she was absolutely right that the consensus view required challenging.
Whatever is wrong with Rand, I don’t think it’s plausible, for instance, to saddle her with Donald Trump. None of her fictional characters resemble Trump at all. Many of her villains do. Likewise, none of the ethical values she champions bear any recognizable relation to the way Trump behaves. But almost all of the vices she condemns, do. When all is said and done, the only similarity that remains is that a Randian hero acts for himself, and Trump acts for himself. But since the selves in question are radically different, and the difference between them was a matter of deliberately staked-out ethical territory, this is not a useful point of departure. An honest person committed to justice who incorporates the welfare of others into her own can act for herself; Donald Trump, a dishonest person zealously committed to the pursuit of injustice, can act for himself. The similarity between them is conveyed by a single thought: “action for oneself.” But the differences between the two selves are what make the difference.
One last point, a more political one. Though I count myself a sort of pragmatist liberal (somewhat left of center, but despicably centrist by all genuinely leftist standards), I think that ordinary liberals have something important to learn from libertarians, as I did. One important lesson is that government regulation is not all that it’s cracked up to be. The failed response to COVID-19 has many diverse causes. Some day, historians and social scientists will put it all together. But one inescapably obvious factor is government over-regulation. Every sector of our economy that might have responded more flexibly to this crisis was constrained in one way or another by regulation. And one sudden, panicked realization that governments made at the 11th hour is that if we were to respond to COVID-19, a lot of regulation had to be loosened or repealed–fast. In my experience, left-liberals are far too reluctant to acknowledge this problem or take it fully on board. They’re content to look at the parts of the world that are under-regulated (and parts are), but have an ad hoc or cavalierly complacent attitude toward over-regulation or mis-regulation.
In policing? Fine. On free speech? Fine. On immigration issues? Fine. But what about licensing? What about zoning? What about price controls? Etc. A large part of our testing fiasco can be attributed to imposed by federal agencies. It’s unfortunate that Trump has styled himself as the president of de-regulation. In doing so, he’s given the impression that de-regulation is a Trumpian policy, favorable only to Trumpian people. It’s not. I’m a left-leaning academic, and I think I am over-regulated. My wife is a landlord and a private practice therapist, and I think she is, too. My father was a small business owner (a physician), and arguably he was, too. Same with my brother, the hospitalist. Etc.
Behind every regulation stands a cop. In every cop’s hands there’s a gun. At some point, I think liberals have to ask themselves some hard questions about ratcheting that phenomenon back to some definable limit. An over-regulated world is not one in which people have the autonomy or space to solve problems, but one in which initiative is increasingly produced by someone pointing a gun at someone and demanding some result. The spectacle of armed protesters storming the Michigan statehouse is really just a symbol of what this country has become–not just private guns pointed at everyone’s heads, but private and public ones doing that. The hard truth is that the Michigan protesters are acting in just the way government regulators often act: they’ll show up at your door with guns and pieces of paper rationalizing their presence, then demand the impossible of you at gunpoint right now. It’s not just distasteful when done by bearded men in MAGA hats. It’s just as distasteful when done by supercilious bureaucrats with “Esq” after their names. But regulatory agencies are filled with people like that.
What we have to learn from this episode is a complicated mess. But that makes sense, since we’re in a complicated mess.
I get that you are not aligned with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, but C4SS-style libertarianism is so much of an outlier relative to the mainstream […] because its uncompromising stance puts it too far outside of the mainstream to be part of the political action that’s visible on the national stage. Yet we still need ideological labels for politics of that mainstream variety.
Sure. I don’t agree with all of your criticisms of the libertarian faction within the Republican party, but I agree with some, and I’m not setting out to contest the others in this thread.
My point is, I think that John’s comment severely overestimates the influence of laissez-faire capitalism as an ideological ideal within the present composition of the Republican Party. And my main point there is not mainly about the extent of the compromises involved in relatively ideological members of the libertarian faction try to make what they view as political progress under real-world constraints. My main point is that I think he’s dramatically overestimating the extent of their real world influence in what the Republican Party does or has done for most of the last several decades. The point being not to defend the libertarian faction within the Republican Party (because, fuck those dudes, really), but to try to get a realistic read on their power and influence. I don’t think that this has been very high either during the Bush era, or now during the Trump era. There have been times its influence was relatively higher,* but I think this clearly is not one of those times.
It’s true that Trump and the administration around him have pursued policies of deregulation and fiscal austerity in some areas, I don’t think they pursued them out of a concern for laissez-faire ideology (certainly, the same people happily discard any reference to it when it comes to protectionist tariffs or to immigration or even to humdrum matters like spending on infrastructure projects), or out of the practical influence of libertarian ideologues on their decisions (I’d argue that they don’t seem to have much). I understand there’s a history and an intellectual infrastructure that makes it more complicated than this, so I’m arguing in terms of broad strokes and stylized facts here, but I would argue that there’s a strong case for taking the stylized fact to be one of coincidental overlap of policies, not one of causative power over Trump administration policies or intellectual influence on those few within Trumpworld who occasionally have ideas. And I’d argue that the same was clearly true for the different sort of Republican faction that was running things back during the Bush administration.**
So it’s true that you can reconstruct libertarian or lazy-fairy ideological reasons for doing some of the things that they do in Trumpworld, or once did in the Bush administration. But you could do the same for some Obama administration policies (DACA/DAPA, pullback on federal marijuana enforcement, maintaining a relatively easygoing attitude towards regulating online speech and commerce, etc.). Or Obama’s policies overlap with those of the Communist Manifesto (they both favor a heavy progressive or graduated income tax; they’re both in favor of free education for all children in public schools), but of course the overlap is not a strong reason to treat the Obama administration either as a case of laissez-faire ideology in action, or communist ideology in action.***
If those decisions would have been made anyway in the counterfactual world where the libertarian faction did run more things, and if they would have had similarly bad or awful results in that world too (taking into account that they’d be happening in a different context where a lot of ceteris is not held paribus), then in that case, that’d be a salient reason to put them as forward as evidence that laissez-faire capitalism might be a bad idea. But they wouldn’t be much reason for seeing the Trump administration as an example of people who are trying to put that idea into practice, and so I think also wouldn’t be a very helpful read on what intellectual influences guide the direction politics are going here in the real world.
(* Over the last few decades, usually when Republicans have been in control of Congress but not of the Presidency.)
(** My reason for thinking that the intellectual proclivities of movement conservatives around Trump are mostly indifferent or hostile to laissez-faire capitalism, as an ideal, is the fact that they so often say so. If you want intellectual criticism of laissez-faire capitalism or classically liberal individualism — well, Mr. Trump is the wrong place to go for intellectual anything, but you can easily find it explicitly made among more ideological politicos — Hawley, say — or among movement intellectuals who have strongly allied themselves with Trumpian nationalism and have some hope of influencing the conservation within conservative politics — Sohrab Amari and the First Things crowd, say; or more distant spectators like Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony — make speeches and write books full of this kind of stuff. Much the same was true of the folks around Bush, but for different ideological reasons — administration figures like David Frum, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, etc. were hostile to it from the long-standing neoconservative proclivity for communitarian critiques of liberal individualism. Evangelical Religious Right folks like Ashcroft were hostile to it from concerns over the supposedly corrosive effects of market individualism and mass consumption on religion and public morality, as well as their specific desires to go hard after obscenity, vice, abortion, etc.)
(*** Which is also not to say that there’s nothing wrong with ideologically pure communism, just that if there is, criticism of the Obama administration’s policies is also probably not a good way to get to it.)
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Yes, that I certainly agree with, including your criticism of John’s appraisal of the Trump Administration. The only quasi-libertarian element in the Trump Administration has been Trump’s “promise” to de-regulate the economy. Like all of Trump’s promises, that one was as much a lie as every other. Though I don’t recall his ever promising to do so, Jimmy Carter de-regulated, too, more so than Nixon, and more substantively than Trump. Yet no one calls Jimmy Carter a “libertarian.”
Other than that failed promise, there’s nothing libertarian or Objectivist about Trump. So it’s unfair to call Trump one, or to think of him as much influenced by libertarianism, Objectivism, or Rand. It makes a great deal more sense to see Trump as “influenced” or bearing an affinity to nationalist conservatives of the sort you mention. And those conservatives, I agree, are explicitly, self-consciously anti-libertarian.
The libertarian wing of the Republican Party is another matter, but you’re right that that wing mostly seems to have fallen off the plane.
Ironically, I turned to Objectivism in college soon after I met Yoram Hazony; I thought of Rand’s Objectivism, self-consciously, as a kind of antidote to the theocratic ethno-nationalism I associated with him (which was pronounced even then, back in the early 1990s). I later met Greg Johnson, the white nationalist, remember thinking the same thing about him, and thinking idly that “wouldn’t it be funny” if Hazony and Johnson were to meet each other some day. I guess in some way they have met, but no, it wasn’t funny.