The Great Debate

Daily Best of the Web   —   Posted on May 27, 2016

The Great Debate

The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at The Wall Street Journal written by the editor, James Taranto.

The Great Debate
“In the latest twist to this unpredictable 2016 presidential race, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders independently agreed Wednesday night to debate each other,” NBC News reports:

On ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Trump was asked if he would consider holding a debate with Sanders. Trump agreed to the idea.

“If he paid a sum toward charity I would love to do that,” said the business mogul, noting that a Sanders vs. Trump debate “would have such high ratings.”

Sanders quickly responded with a tweet reading, “Game On. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7th primary.”

This is pure genius, a win-win for Sanders and Trump. Putting Sanders up against the Republican nominee would elevate him from an also-ran to a still-running. As for Trump, having a debate opponent who isn’t actually an electoral adversary would likely curb his worst impulses. The only loser would be that other candidate. You know the one we’re talking about. We haven’t mentioned her name in this column, and we’re not about to start now.

Atlas Trumped
Charles Murray
has complicated views of the Donald Trump phenomenon. In a February essay for The Wall Street Journal, he argued that “Trumpism is an expression of the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken.” But as to the candidate himself, Murray is a Nevertrump die-hard with a vengeance.

In a post for NationalReview .com titled “Why ‘Hillary Is Even Worse’ Doesn’t Cut It,” Murray lays out his case against Trump. He writes that “this note is addressed to my fellow Establishmentarians,” by which he means “the tiny fraction of the population that deals professionally in public policy from the right.” For them (OK, us), supporting Trump is, in Murray’s view, illegitimate:

The False Priests are the columnists, media pundits, public intellectuals, and politicians who have presented themselves as principled conservatives or libertarians but now have announced they will vote for a man who, by multiple measures, represents the opposite of the beliefs they have been espousing throughout their careers. We’ve already heard you say “Hillary is even worse.” Tell us, please, without using the words “Hillary Clinton” even once, your assessment of Donald Trump, using as a template your published or broadcast positions about right policy and requisite character for a president of the United States. Put yourself on the record: Are you voting for a man whom your principles require you to despise, or have you modified your principles? In what ways were you wrong before? We require explanation beyond “Hillary is even worse.”

Without using the forbidden name, we can do it in three words: Consider the alternative. Murray proceeds with his argument against Trump. It’s a worthy contribution to the anti-Trump canon, notwithstanding some appeals to dubious authorities, including David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan and “a systematic fact-check” conducted by Politico.

It’s a bit late, though, coming just as Trump officially becomes the presumptive Republican nominee. That Murray was not included in NR’s “Against Trump” symposium back in January was an oversight on somebody’s part.

What jumped out at us, however, was a clause that crystallizes one of our complaints about the Nevertrumpers, namely their tendency to claim their position is a matter of pure principle. That clause is “a man whom your principles require you to despise.”

Your principles, according to Murray, require you not only to disagree with Trump on important policy questions, or even to oppose his candidacy, but to despise him. By what logic does a set of principles lead inexorably to a strong emotional reaction? The only answer we can think of is Ayn Rand’s* theory of emotion:

Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

But since the work of man’s mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly. [*Ayn Rand was an atheist and a libertarian who promoted a philosophy known as Objectivism. Her best-known novels are Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.]

Murray does not appear to subscribe to that view. After laying out his case against Trump, he offers the following exhortation:

I know that I am unlikely to persuade any of my fellow Establishmentarians to change their minds. But I cannot end without urging you to resist that sin to which people with high IQs (which most of you have) are unusually prone: Using your intellectual powers to convince yourself of something despite the evidence plainly before you. Just watch and listen to the man. Don’t concoct elaborate rationalizations. Just watch and listen.

So in the end it’s about first impressions, not first principles. But what in the world does Murray think everybody who follows politics has been doing for at least the past nine months?

This columnist has watched and listened to Trump, and our reactions have been all over the map, from horror and embarrassment to sympathy and delight. If the many thousands of words we’ve written on the subject are but “elaborate rationalizations” of our ambivalence, then why should we regard Murray’s case against Trump as anything more than a rationalization of his own unmitigated distaste for the man?

No one was more prone than Ayn Rand to the sin of rationalizing emotional antipathy into high principle. In “The Ayn Rand Cult” (1999), Jeff Walker described what happened when Rand had a personal falling-out with her protegé Nathaniel Branden:

In the weeks that followed, the rank and file, the “students of Objectivism” (they were not permitted to call themselves “Objectivists”) would be asked to take sides. Without knowing the cause of this violent rupture, the students of Objectivism would be asked to shun Branden and anyone who continued to associate with him. Many of them did just that, because Ayn Rand had asked them to. Others refused to denounce Branden until they were shown a reason, and these were excommunicated, anathematized, boycotted, and blacklisted forever by official Objectivism. Their close friends abruptly stopped speaking to them.

As we noted last August, anti-Trump conservatives (the term “Nevertrump” wasn’t yet in common use) imagined themselves to be acting in the spirit of William F. Buckley’s efforts to marginalize the John Birch Society in the 1960s. But in conflating the personal and the political, they remind us more of Rand than WFB.

In February NR’s Jonah Goldberg tweeted: “ ‘What did you do when Trump was taking over the country, Daddy?’—A question some people will have no good answer to.” Murray replied: “Lots of long-time friendships among people on the right are going to take an irreversible hit over the next few months.”

In April Peter Wehner observed in a New York Times op-ed: “The candidacy of Donald J. Trump is not only fracturing the Republican Party, it is breaking up friendships as well.” But after pondering the matter, he decided not to go full Ayn Rand:

Mr. Trump’s candidacy is putting more stress on more friendships than any other political development in my experience. Precisely because of the antipathy I have for Mr. Trump, I need to try doubly hard to resist the temptation to assume the worst of his supporters even as my worries about him mount. Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, I need to grant to them the same good faith I hope others would grant to me.

Our colleague Peggy Noonan observed earlier this month:

I do not understand the impulse of the NeverTrump people to anathametize and shun those Republicans who will not vow to oppose Mr. Trump and commit to defeating him. They have been warned that if they don’t do these things they will not be allowed to help rebuild the party after Mr. Trump destroys it. Conservatives love to throw conservatives out of conservatism; it’s like an ancestral tic. But great political movements should not be run like private clubs. And have the anathemitizers noticed they aren’t in charge anymore? That in the great antiestablishment disruption of 2016 they have been upended, too?

Last week Jonah Goldberg offered this “dark confession”:

During a panel Q&A, a passenger on the [National Review] cruise made a strong case for voting Trump. He ably argued that we know Hillary will be terrible, while we can only suspect Trump will be. Trump will probably do some things conservatives will like—Supreme Court appointments, etc.—while we know for a fact Hillary will not.

And here’s what I said: I agree. If the election were a perfect tie, and the vote fell to me and me alone, I’d probably vote for none other than Donald Trump for precisely these reasons.

Goldberg hastens to add that he still won’t vote for Trump, because his vote won’t be deciding and Trump is the lesser of two very evil evils, analogous to “being shredded to death by a giant cheese-grater“ as opposed to “fed to a pack of half-starved wolverines.”

Well, OK, but what if you think the difference is somewhat greater—that electing Trump is like being bitten by a thousand chiggers, which would be unpleasant as hell but still vastly preferable to being consumed by wolverines? Is there really a great matter of principle at stake here?

Murray ends his post with the answer his headline promises:

We have had presidents whose characters were subsequently revealed to be worse than they had seemed during the campaign. Kennedy, for example. We have never had a president whose character proved to be more admirable once he was in office than it had appeared during the campaign. What you see on your television screen every day from Donald Trump the candidate is the best that you can expect from Donald Trump the president. “Hillary is even worse” doesn’t cut it.

There is an obvious problem with this logic. The premise—that no president’s character is better than it appears in the campaign—is categorical. It would apply not only to Trump but also to Her-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. If she is even worse, then on Murray’s own terms that settles the question in Trump’s favor.

For more “Best of the Web” from The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto click here.