“Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” George Orwell
With Orwell’s aphorism in mind I am reminded of when I served as a juror in a trial.
It was a criminal case in which the defendant was charged with breaking into a small accounting firm and stealing computer equipment. He was arrested a block away from the heist by a police officer who testified that the defendant was holding one of the purloined computers as the officer approached. At the sight of the officer the defendant dropped the computer like a hot potato and took off running. In due course he was apprehended, arrested, charged and sent to stand trial.
For some reason the defendant choose to stand trial rather than negotiate a plea bargain. The defense produced the inevitable collection of character witnesses who showed up to testify that the defendant was really a good guy after all. Then for some inexplicable reason, the defendant actually took the witness stand. After we listened to his rather implausible explanation of how the stolen computer managed to find its way into his hands at 2:00 AM around the corner from the burgled accounting office, the prosecutor began his cross-examination.
That’s when we found out about the three prior convictions for attempted murder.
The defendant, gamely insisting that it was really only two and not three attempted murders, triumphantly pointed out that he never actually succeeded in killing anyone. Moreover, he pointed out, he really only pled guilty despite his innocence, because the judge was upset and he didn’t want to disturb her any more.
As you might have guessed, this didn’t wash very well. The formal conviction vote came shortly thereafter.
I tell this story because, just as the defendant’s guilt was obvious, it is similarly obvious that President Trump is in way over his head, and as he twists and turns to pretend otherwise, he, like the defendant is just making matters worse. But the defendant just made things worse for himself. Trump is making things worse for the country at large. That ought to be obvious too. What may not be obvious (although it should be) is the cultural damage Trump is doing as he further degrades a popular culture that is already doing great damage to the institutions of civil society.
An important insight of conservative intellectuals is that politics stems from culture, not the other way around. Contra this, totalitarians have tended to see art as instrumental in the quest for power. Hence we have Soviet proletarian art of the Stalinist era, Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution, and Hitler’s fondness for art whose exterior form was meant to symbolize an inner racial purity. And of course, all used art as propaganda.
As Trump and his coterie crash through political and social norms that have been with us for centuries, he is wearing down institutions that matter, and matter a lot, for the support and preservation of liberty in America. His down market vulgarity is not merely tasteless; it attracts more of the same ilk as the hiring of the Anthony Scaramucci, the new communications director, clearly shows.
In Scaramucci we have someone who appears to be a lot like the President: a slob with a lot of money, who has no understanding of politics, history or policy.
Up until this point there have been conservatives who have been willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. The time for that is by now well past its sell-by date. Other conservatives have decided to “support Trump when he’s right and oppose him when he is wrong.” That too is wearing a little thin, given that Trump is his own worst enemy, and that his influence in the legislature is diminished, to say the least. And not to put too fine a point on it, if a liberal Democratic President behaved even close to the way Trump routinely behaves, conservatives would be swinging from the lights.
Conservatives are supposed to have an appreciation for the limits of government power; they are supposed to be the ones who think people are unique individuals with inherent rights and are not just an undifferentiated mass, they are supposedly the ones who wish to conserve and protect the institutions of Western society that preserve and protect liberty and the rights of man. Remaining silent and timid in the face of an all-too-predicable daily display of Trumpian boorishness and overbearing behavior is no way to accomplish conservative ends. After all, it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
If the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, relegates itself to defending the President’s indefensible behavior rather than choosing to articulate and implement an agenda to roll back government power and expand individual freedom, it ought to close up shop.
One thought on “The First Duty of Intelligent Men”
This is the best column you have written since starting the blog. It is interesting that the attack on Jeff Sessions may be the catalyst for an attempt to reclaim principle over the past praise for Mitch McConnell’s tactical rather than strategic vision. It should not be lost that intellectual conservatives have held to their beliefs while much of Congress has tried to ignore the “inconvenient truth” of the Faustian bargain with which it is living. Time for principle over electoral expediency????
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