Friday, January 12, 2018

Does Trump's Bad Character Matter? Michael Wolff and the Claremont Straussians

Why should he accept immigrants from "shithole countries" like Haiti and African nations rather than places like Norway? 

That's what Donald Trump said yesterday in a meeting in the White House with Congressional representatives gathered to discuss a proposal for immigration reform.

This language of vulgar racism has shocked many people, including Representative Mia Love, who represents a congressional district in Utah, and who is the first Haitian-American representative in Congress, and the first black female Republican elected to Congress.  She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, who first arrived in the United States on a tourist visa, because they were fleeing from political violence in Haiti.  She is a pro-life conservative Republican.

Why would conservative Republicans want to denigrate someone like this as unworthy of American citizenship because her parents came from a "shithole country"?

Well, of course, this is just the latest display of Trump's disgustingly bad character.  In speaking of character, I have in mind what Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics identifies as the moral and intellectual virtues.  So Trump's bad character is that he lacks both the moral and intellectual virtues of a good human being.

The disastrous consequences of Trump's lacking those virtues are clear in Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.  Wolff's account of the first ten months in the Trump White House shows how Trump's vicious character has made it impossible for his people to execute any coherent public policy agenda.

But then some of Trump's supporters--and particularly the Claremont Straussians--seem to say that Trump's bad character doesn't matter, because all that matters is that the people brought into the government by Trump can carry out his good policies--particularly, for dismantling the administrative state.

One can see this, for example, in the "Statement of Unity" of the "Scholars and Writers for Trump," which includes many of the leading Claremont Straussians.  They explain their support for Trump by identifying the good policies he will promote in the areas of "Constitutional Governance," "Corruption in Government," "Economic Stimulus," "Religious Liberty," and "Education."  But they are completely silent about Trump's character, as though this is of no importance.

This is strange, because the Claremont people have learned about the importance of character in politics from their mentors Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa, who pointed them to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and who also pointed to the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln as displaying the Aristotelian virtues.  Can anyone imagine Lincoln denigrating Haitian immigrants as coming from a "shithole country"?

And yet the Claremont people can point to evidence that the first year of Trump's administration has indeed shown some progress in attacking the administrative state put in place by progressives over the past century.  If so, does that show that Trump's bad character really doesn't matter?

The chaos that Trump's character has created in the White House is evident in Wolff's book.  And although critics have rightly questioned the truth of some of Wolff's stories, I haven't seen any evidence that would challenge the fundamental themes of Wolff's overall story. 

One can see that Wolff relied heavily on interviewing Katie Walsh, the White House deputy chief of staff, and Steve Bannon, who becomes in some ways the central character of the story.  But Wolff knew that he had to balance conflicting stories coming from people fighting a factional battle within the White House.

Wolff admits that many of the stories he was told are either "baldly untrue" or incoherent, as one should expect from a Trumpian White House (xii-xiii).  But most of what Wolff reports is consistent with the public record of the words and deeds of Trump and of those around him in the White House.

I see three fundamental themes in Wolff's book that seem plausible.  The first theme is that almost everyone in the Trump campaign--with the exception of Steve Bannon--did not expect Trump to win, and therefore they were not prepared to deal with Trump's unfitness for the presidency: "The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be.  Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue" (10).  "Donald Trump and his tiny band of campaign warriors were ready to lose with fire and fury.  They were not ready to win" (11).

But then, once they unexpectedly entered the White House, they were forced to deal with Trump's unfitness for his office.  He could not or would not read anything, not even a one-page briefing statement.  His attention span was so short that he could not listen to anyone for more than a few minutes.  He was so impulsive that he could not follow any consistent plan of speaking or acting.  Above all, he needed to be loved by everyone, and so he was easily seduced by flatterers, and easily slighted by any suggestion that someone did not love him as much as he loved himself.  He had no sense of shame or propriety, no sense of decorum, or concern for doing what is right for the circumstances one is in.  This is what a person looks like who has neither moral nor intellectual virtues.  (This bleak picture of Trump's character has been confirmed by others who know him well--for example, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who wrote Trump's book The Art of the Deal.)

Trump's lack of any moral or intellectual coherence leads to the second theme of Wolff's book--Trump's dependence on Steve Bannon as the one person who was a somewhat coherent thinker about the meaning of Trumpism and how it might be put into public policy.  Bannon joined the campaign in August of 2016, and he seems to have been largely responsible for the campaign strategy that led to Trump's victory.  He also seemed to be the brains for Trumpism understood as alt-right economic nationalism, tight borders and restricted immigration,  and isolationism in foreign policy.

People in the White House joked about "President Bannon," and Bannon himself took this seriously by speaking to some people about how he was using Trump to prepare the way for Bannon's presidency.  This arrogance eventually provoked Trump, Bannon's enemies in the White House, and even some of his supporters.  Bannon's firing in August and his recent fall from prominence confirms Wolff's depiction of his own moral and intellectual defects.

On February 23 of last year, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Bannon famously promised the "deconstruction of the administrative state," which is exactly what the Claremont Straussians are hoping for.  Does Bannon's fall threaten that agenda?  Or is the attack on the administrative state going to be carried out by others in the Trump administration?

Bannon could never prevail in the White House, because he was opposed by rival factions, which is the third theme of Wolff's book:  the White House was thrown into chaos by the war between three factions.  With the help of Katie Walsh's analysis, Wolff saw that Trump's bad character make it impossible for him to sustain any coherent plan of public policy, because he became "something of a blank page--or a scrambled one," and the three leading people in the White House--Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus--each had a radically different idea about what should be written on that page.  "Bannon was the alt-right militant.  Kushner was the New York Democrat.  And Priebus was the establishment Republican."  Thus: "As Walsh saw it, Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House.  It was a 1970s video game, the white ball pinging back and forth in the black triangle" (117).

Of course, rivalry in the White House is nothing new.  One might remember Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which relates the history of the factional fighting within Lincoln's White House.  But unlike Trump, Lincoln's moral and intellectual virtues allowed him to channel this rivalry towards promoting the good policies that Lincoln formulated.

Is it possible that the Claremont Straussians are correct in thinking that Lincoln's virtues are no longer necessary--that the good policies of Trumpism can be promoted without Trump having any of Lincoln's virtues?

Recently, Ryan Williams, the new President of the Claremont Institute, has suggested this possibility. He cites evidence that the first year of the Trump Administration has successfully begun to roll back the administrative state.  For example, he refers to the recent controversy over Trump's appointment of  Mick Mulvaney to be the Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  The CFPB was created in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, and it's the model of what progressives want for the administrative state.  The CFPB is not accountable to either the Congress or the President, because the President cannot  remove the director of CFPB, the director appoints the inferior officers of the agency, and the funding of the agency is not controlled by Congress.  Richard Cordray was appointed the Director of CFPB by Obama, with a term expiring in the summer of 2018. To  avoid having Trump appoint a new director this summer, Cordray resigned in October and appointed his own successor, Leandra English, who refused to leave when Trump appointed Mulvaney.  Eventually, Mulvaney prevailed.  So, here, Williams suggests, we see Trump enforcing the constitutional principle that administrative agencies should not be so independent as to be unaccountable to the Congress, the President, and the Courts.

Williams also points to a recent article in the Washington Post on "How the Trump Era Is Changing the Federal Bureaucracy."  The article reports a significant reduction in the size of the federal bureaucracy, moves to punish bureaucrats who are not doing good jobs, and eliminating waste and bad spending. 

Consider these remarks in the article:

"Many chafed as supervisors laid down new rules they said are aimed at holding poor performers and problem workers to account." 

"Conservatives who have long pushed for smaller government are cheered by the developments." 

"And some civil servants said they welcome the focus on rooting out waste and holding federal workers to high standards." 

"Agencies have told employees that they should no longer count on getting glowing reviews in their performance appraisals, according to staff in multiple offices, as has been the case for years."

Amazingly, these Washington Post journalists report this in a tone that suggests this is bad for the country!

If this Trumpian attack on the administrative state is happening, despite the moral and intellectual emptiness of Trump himself, does this show that the bad character of the President does not matter?

I am not convinced of this.  As I reported in an earlier post (here), even some of the Trump supporters (for example, Stephen Balch of Texas Tech University) have admitted that Trump's bad character might ultimately prove more damaging to American conservatism than anything that Hillary Clinton might have done as Preside;nt.

I don't see how the conservative policy agenda of the Claremont Straussians can survive the damage that comes from the bad character of Donald Trump.

What happens to the Trumpian policy agenda when Trump's bad character provokes people into voting in November for a Democratic control of the Congress?

How can that agenda survive when the President overseeing that agenda takes malicious pleasure in the vulgar racism that insults people like Mia Love?

Polls indicate that the high rates of disapproval of Trump among American voters are due primarily to his bad character.  A report last July from the Gallup polling organization showed that of those disapproving of Trump's performance, 65% did so because of "personality/personal characteristics," and only 16% did so because of "issues/specific policies."  If this is accurate, then American voters think Trump's bad character really does matter, and it matters more to them than their possible agreement with policies of the Trump administration.

Moreover, there is a fundamental philosophical issue about the meaning of the American regime raised by Trump's claim that immigration policy should favor immigrants from predominantly white countries like Norway.  There are reports that when Trump said this, Senator Lindsey Graham spoke up at the meeting and said "America is an idea, not a race."

Until recently, the Claremont Straussians seemed to agree with Senator Graham, because they seemed to interpret the Declaration of Independence as appealing to the universal idea of human equality and liberty as defining American identity.  But recently, some of the Claremont Straussians (Tom West, for example) have said that Trump is right about the need to restrict the immigration of non-white people to protect America's white racial identity.  [See the comments on this post from Tom West.]

If so, then this would put the Claremont Straussians on the side of the alt-right white-identity movement, which would be a disturbing denial of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or perhaps a denial of Lincoln's interpretation of the Declaration in favor of Stephen Douglas's interpretation.


Tom West said...

Larry, you have once again mischaracterized my position. I have never said that America has a "white racial identity." That is a figment of your imagination.

I am a "citizenist." I have always said that public policy ought to be based on what promotes the common good of all Americans, no matter what their race may be.

Larry Arnhart said...

That's good. Let's clear this up right here.

According to my notes, and my watching the CSPAN video of the panel on Conservatism and Trump, you said, at the end of the panel, that many young people are now worried about the attack on their white identity, and, in effect, they are saying "I don't want to die." "People want to live," you observed, and white people see their life as defined by their white identity.

Is this a misinterpretation?

If it is, would you agree with Senator Graham that "American is an idea not a race "? And, therefore Trump's argument that we should prohibit immigration from Haiti and African countries and favor immigrants from countries like Norway is un-American?

Larry Arnhart said...

Do you agree with me that Mia Love is the kind of citizen we want in America, and so Trump is being anti-American in scorning people like her as being from a "shithole" country?

Larry Arnhart said...


Here is the passage to which I was referring from the APSA panel on "The Future of Conservatism." This is copied from the CSPAN transcript. You said:

"The elites have become more aggressive--talking about how white people are worthless and need to go away and vanish. Younger people, younger white people are saying I don't want to die, I'm going to stick up for myself and my people. That is a source of a future conservatism."

This talk of how a future conservatism should defend white people against the attempt of the elites to destroy the white race sounded to me like the rhetoric of the alt-right white identity movement.

Was I wrong?

Tom West said...

Larry, the position you attribute to me ("white identity" politics) is the exact opposite of the one I described as conservative throughout my APSA talk as well as in the Q&A.

The words you quote omit the two sentences that follow, in which I explain what I mean by "a future conservatism."

My point was that the rising resentment among young whites against the nonstop elite denunciations of white people is leading to a rejection of the current liberal narrative. That can go in one of two directions.

(1) If this resentment can be channeled into a restoration of the older conservative view -- that government should protect the life, liberty, and property of all Americans equally, including whites -- then conservatism in my sense of that term has a future.

(2) But if this resentment is turned to promoting the racial identity of whites at the expense of other races, it could become -- and here I will quote myself -- "a source of a future that could be very anti-conservative in the sense I was talking about. It could be dangerous." (Steve Balch followed up my remark with a comment appropriately emphasizing this danger.)

The C-Span transcript --

-- is full of errors and omissions. I will write down my actual remarks here, starting at 1:20 of the video:

"But what's happening is that as the elites have become more and more aggressive and talking about how white people are basically worthless, the source of all problems in world history, and need to go away and vanish -- as Bret Stevens put it in a recent New York Times editorial -- younger people, and especially younger white people, are saying "I don't want to die. I'm going to stick up for myself and my people." And that is a source of a future conservatism. It's also a source of a future that could be very anti-conservative in the sense I was talking about. It could be dangerous.

"If the elites can't figure out how to harness that sentiment in a way that leads towards what I was talking about as conservative -- oriented toward the public good and protecting the rights of everyone – then conservatism has no future. But if conservatives can figure out that these people are ultimately on our side, that we need to work with them – then I think conservatism in my sense of the word has a future.

"It doesn't have to necessarily have a natural rights and natural law explicit foundation. You can call it whatever you want to call it, but people do want to live and want to have their life, liberty, and property protected by government."

Larry Arnhart said...

Thanks, Tom. That explanation clears it up for me.

But I don't see that Donald Trump agrees with you, because he believes that admitting immigrants from "shithole" black nations like Haiti and African nations rather than white countries like Norway is a threat to American identity. That's what provoked Senator Graham's retort: "America is an idea not a race." You are on Graham's side against Trump.

Tom West said...

Larry, I was responding to your nasty accusation that I am an advocate of white identity politics. I have no interest in debating immigration policy with you.

Larry Arnhart said...

My point is that in rejecting white identity politics, you must also reject an immigration policy based on white identity politics.

Larry Arnhart said...

Crucial to white identity politics is an immigration policy that favors white immigrants (from countries like Norway) and restricts black immigrants (from countries like Haiti and the African nations). Therefore, supporting such an immigration policy is supporting white identity politics.

Anonymous said...

No one is proposing a white identity immigration policy. This is absurd.

Anonymous said...

Balch (and you) are worried that bad character will undermine good policy. Seems reasonable enough. Does this only apply to conservative goals (or only to policy positions that *really* are good)? Why is it no one ever seems to worry (or hope) that the imperfect character of liberal politicians will somehow undermine liberal achievements? Doesn’t this stack the deck just a bit?