Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Final Answer: Trump or the Republic? By Jonathan Chait
In 1994, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, submitted an article to Social Text, a journal of cultural studies. In the article, titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Sokal proposed that physical reality was nothing more than a social construct. The article mocked as “the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook” the notion that “there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ‘eternal’ physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ‘objective’ procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.”
Sokal’s argument was a parody of reasoning. In fact, as Sokal later revealed, it was intended to be absurd. Sokal had grown concerned about a postmodernist literary theory that denied objective truth taking hold within certain left-wing precincts of the academy. His goal in publishing the article was to expose both the extremism of the theory and the lack of intellectual standards of the people who safeguarded it in prestigious journals like Social Text.
My initial response to Donald Trump’s campaign was to see him as a living, breathing Sokal hoax on the Republican Party. Here was a “candidate” stretching all of the features of modern Republican politics — the disdain for objective truth, the substitute of bluster for logic and detail, the appeal to ethnocentrism — past the point of parody. It remained unclear for a very long time if Trump actually wanted to win the presidency. It seemed vanishingly unlikely that he stood any chance. Even if he could somehow capture the nomination, his unsuitability for office was so overt that I believed the party Establishment would never allow him to win. He was a cartoon dictator, a comic demonstration of his party’s pathologies and the depths to which standards of political discourse had sunk in a party used to worshiping the likes of Dubya and Sarah Palin. This was part of the reason why, for a while, I wanted him to win the nomination. By winning the nomination and then inevitably losing, Trump would demonstrate everything liberals had been saying about the Republican Party more powerfully than we could in a thousand columns.
By March, my point of view had changed. The main piece of evidence that turned me around was a rediscovered interview Trump gave to Playboy in 1990, in which he had praised the Chinese government for its crackdown in Tiananmen Square the previous year. The comments fit in with a long-standing pattern of praise he had offered to various dictators for their ruthlessness. I’ve mentioned this frequently because, while every Trump critic has their own favorite evidence, this, to me, encapsulates his most alarming trait. Through every iteration of his political profile — left-ish to far-right, pro-Democrat and Republican — and every issue flip-flop, from “core” beliefs on trade and immigration to abortion and everything else, Trump has never wavered in his belief that strong leaders dominate and put down their opponents. He’s never had any externally driven motive to say these things. He genuinely believes it.
More recently, another belief of mine has fallen by the wayside: that even if Trump managed to eke out a majority of delegates, the Republican elite would simply never give him the cooperation he would need to win. I suspected simple self-interest would dictate this. Trump is poison to the constituencies Republicans will need to win to stay viable in the long run, and allowing the party to be associated with him will have long-term costs. What’s more, a Trump presidency would likely court catastrophic blowback for the party. Not to mention, I assumed a significant number of Republicans, whatever their substantive policy disagreements with liberals, would recoil from Trump out of sincere loyalty to the republican form of government. And some conservatives have. A handful of elected Republicans, like Ben Sasse, have withheld endorsements. Conservatives like Ross Douthat and David Frum (“The vote you cast is for the republic and the Constitution”) have defended a vote for Clinton as essential to preserve the sanctity of the democratic system from an American Putin.