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Slouching Toward Cleveland

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The real ideological divide today between left and right comes down to this: There are those of us who want to keep government at arms length (as much as possible in this modern information, terrorism prone age at any rate — with some clear trade-offs that spark disputes among those in this camp) and those who firmly believe that government is the right tool for making everything go the way they want (from wealth distribution to climate change), i.e., for achieving all the laudable goals of a modern citizenry (more benefits, more social cushioning, more protection from the vicissitudes of life).

The ones who recoil from too much government tend to focus on personal liberty (or at least on maximizing our experience of it) while the latter focus on fixing society so it will give us more of what they think we all want. That includes security from from life’s inherent difficulties. Security from terrorism strikes these folks as less critical (for now at least) than security from the risks of illness or of financial hardship (from being left behind by their fellows economically in a competitive society) and from having to worry about their future status and well-being. We all feel this sort of concern but for the left, these things are paramount.

For the left, government is the right tool, the proper means for achieving their goals. It’s not to be feared or constrained but embraced and empowered to “do the right thing.”

For the right, on the other hand, government is at best a flawed instrument, one we must use to keep things going but which we must also work to control because of this institution’s dark history (tyranny, abuse, human slaughter). The left desires government to control everything in order to achieve the left’s ends (which all of us want as individuals of course) while the right wants achievement of those ends to be left, as much as possible, to the individual and so demands constraint of its government wherever possible. (National security concerns muddy these waters, somewhat of course, yet that seems something we cannot help in this era.)

In a nutshell today’s political divide comes down, then, to this: Either government is our most effective tool (so says today’s left) or it is our most risky one (the right). It’s probably the case that neither view is perfectly correct (extreme positions rarely are) as the ongoing need for compromise between a small government philosophy and security in an age of big terrorism seems to amply demonstrate. But these views represent the poles which mark out left and right. As such, the Obama administration, and the one which Democrats want to replace it with (a Hillary presidency committed to Sanders style ideals), represents the left’s view, the left’s demands, its agenda. On the right, on the other hand, our obsession with terrorism and economic displacement has caused many in the old Republican Party to lose focus, leading to the party’s hijacking by a billionaire faux populist talking the talk of the angry and the scared but whose capacity and willingness to actually walk the walk still demands faith in a man who hasn’t given any of us much reason to place our faith in him.

To support Trump you have to take his word for things though his words keep changing (when they are even coherent enough to discern a real agenda behind them). We’re asked to put our faith in a man who has repeatedly spoken heedlessly and with little regard for the facts or even his own consistency. Some of us have been able to repress our concerns, to buy into the man without paying too close attention to his actual message. But that hasn’t been universal within the Republican Party, or among conservatives.

The case for Trump is that he isn’t Hillary (just as the case for her among many disaffected Democrats and progressives is that she isn’t Trump!). But is that enough? He promises us conservative Supreme Court picks but he has promised lots of things and only delivered when it suited his purposes, while his inclinations, the main themes behind all his words, are those of power — of the strong man exercising it. Against this backdrop we have the specter of a man who lauds dictators (Putin, Saddam, Mussolini) and who dictators laud (Putin), a man who has promised to give our military orders which they will have to obey, he asserted, even if illegal. And he has spoken ominously of the consequences to other Republican leaders, like Paul Ryan, if they don’t do as he wants once he’s president.

And then there’s the recent threat to personally go after Republican leaders who don’t fall in line behind him, a thing he’s already done with New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez. Trump is a man who believes in power and, most importantly, in his — and in his willingness and capacity to ruthlessly wield it the way political strong men do. In his business career he made a practice of using his wealth to intimidate adversaries and shut down criticism when such criticism threatened his bottom line. And yet he readily declared various of his businesses bankrupt when that suited his purposes, too, while insulating himself from financial risk as he stiffed bondholders, investors and institutional lenders. Trump’s business style has been one of ruthless self-aggrandizement. As with business so with politics. Witness the ways in which he’s used slander and innuendo to undermine political opponents while rabble rousing on the stump.

As the GOP convention in Cleveland approaches, conservatives, who are conservative in the traditional American way — about government, are now being asked to place their faith in this man whose guiding star seems to be his belief in a faith called strongmanism. Is this what conservatives, who made their bones on demanding limited government and adherence to the rule of law, now want? Can Republicans sell their party in good faith now to this Hugo Chavez of the north?

That’s the question that we’re ultimately facing as we move toward the convention in Cleveland. Trump has the delegates to win of course, if everything stays as it is. The question now is whether, watching Trump’s message tank nationally despite FBI director Comey’s takedown of Hillary Clinton’s truthfulness and judgment, Republicans can afford to let that happen. There’s little chance of rejecting Trump in a delegate rebellion at the convention but it’s not no chance. Something could still happen if Republicans open their eyes to the kind of governance Trump promises, not to mention the kind of government we could well end up with if Trump goes down.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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