Is Trump a Scarlet Pimpernel?
Updated: Nov 3, 2020
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I believe Trump will emerge as victor in November's election. This in spite of national polls that show Biden with a lead of somewhere between 5% and 12% and the stock market's "presidential predictor" indicating a Biden victory, which has only been wrong once in 92 years.
I didn't vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020. I cast my vote for a third-party because I believe both major candidates and parties have gone far afield from what constitutes the Culture Stack most conducive to human flourishing and happiness.
But Trump gives credence to the often disregarded advice about politicians, "ignore what they say and pay attention to what they do." Most Americans do far too much of the former. In Trump's case, ignoring what he says and examining what he does makes a strange and perplexing case for reelection.
Trump as a Scarlet Pimpernel?
Growing up, one of our favorite family movies was The Scarlet Pimpernel, starring Anthony Andrews as the seemingly self-absorbed, out-of-touch buffoon of an English aristocrat who secretly was a gallant savior of men, women, and children from the guillotine of the French Revolution.
In recent months, I've come to wonder if Donald Trump is playing a similar role.
When Trump captured the GOP nomination I was flabbergasted. All I knew of him were sordid tales of moral failings, underhanded business dealings, and his bombastic, domineering performances on a reality TV program.
I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone when the Democratic party named Hillary Clinton as their nominee. Were Clinton and Trump really the best we could do? Joseph de Maistre's 1860 observation taunted: "every nation gets the government it deserves." Were these two really a reflection of who we are as a people?
When election time came I didn't vote for Trump, but I preferred him over Clinton if only because the practices of the Democratic party are a tad farther down the path towards sinking our ship of state than the Republican party and perhaps a Trump victory would buy us slightly more time to get our act together.
When Trump won, I was filled with a sense of giddy incredulity. Not giddy as in "happy", but in a so-this-is-what-Alice-feels-like-in-Wonderland sort of way. The cognitive dissonance from trying to accept "this man really is our president" still has not subsided.
Like Alice in Wonderland and the Twilight Zone, Combined
In the four years that have passed, I've wandered between Wonderland and the Twilight Zone. Still captive. Still dazed. Trump's tweets are bizarre and light-years away from being presidential. His modus operandi is narcissistic, dismissive, pompous blathering. Before him, I'm like a deer in the headlights, unable to move, unable to get my bearings.
And so are the Democrats.
Incredibly, he seems able to outmaneuver them, political bullets bouncing off his chest that would take down anyone else. Inexplicable friendliness with Russian and North Korean leaders? No problem. A politicized, even questionable impeachment process? Still standing. Outright biased hostility by the press? Bob and weave. Bitterly antagonistic former staffers? Nothing to see here.
And yet, while I've been distracted by his bullying, blustering ways, he's actually done some remarkable good.
What Trump Has Done Well
Self-described "radical progressive" academics, Brett and Heather Weinstein, call him a "political savant" and a "political genius". Although they believe he is a cynical actor, focused on moving the political ball, he has often acted rightly, they say.
In September, Michael I. Krauss, professor emeritus of law at George Mason University, wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal where he, surprised, enumerated Trump's surprising successes:
upholding immigration laws
building a border wall where legally permitted
appointing more than 200 federal judges and three Supreme Court nominees who are committed to finding the law, not making it up
reducing taxes on 82% of American households
lowest minority unemployment rates ever recorded
historic middle eastern peace agreements
recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the U.S. embassy there
withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal
eliminating Iranian terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani
neutralizing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi
cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as they pay support to families of terrorists
taking steps to counter China's efforts to weaken the U.S.
combatting anti-Semitism on college campuses
promoting school choice
naming excellent cabinet members who've arguably tempered Trump's tantrums
Other media sources enumerate further accomplishments:
established the Space Force, tasked with protecting US military assets in space
signed criminal justice reform legislation
defended due process on college campuses
withdrawing from the flawed Paris Agreement (we've reduced emissions faster than other countries - through innovation, and moving towards natural gas - quicker than we would have under Paris)
denounced and defunded equity and diversity training based on the illiberal perspective in Ibram X. Kendi's Anti-Racism and Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility
Joe Biden, on the other hand, is running on a low-key, man-of-character-and-decency platform, i.e. not Trump. He's getting asked and answering very few questions, but what he has said is telling:
a promise to undo Trump's tax cuts, resulting in higher taxes for most Americans in the midst of a pandemic
a promise to abolish the oil industry over time, which currently represents 9.8 million jobs or 5.6% of total U.S. employment
near silence on the leftist riots in American cities and the failure of Democratic governors and mayors to condemn and stop them
promotion of the false notion of systemic racism
loyalty to teachers unions which are largely responsible for poor school performance
favors taxpayer-funded abortions
has not explicitly denounced court-packing
Trump's Faults and Failures
The left's critique of Trump is blistering and not without merit. This month, the New York Times proclaimed that the president places no value on science, data, facts, or truth and has rolled back environmental protections and crippled the CDC's ability to guide the nation through the pandemic. This month, the same paper published a series of editorials on his corruption, his abandonment of science, his demagogy, his fake populism, his incompetent statesmanship, his attacks on women's rights, immigrants, Black Americans, the environment, the economy, and LGBT rights.
And it's not just the left. Many tried-and-true conservatives have denounced Trump as chaotic, thin-skinned, unfit for command, and claim he has destroyed the foundations of traditional conservatism.
On the COVID front, Trump was excoriated earlier this month by the editors of The New England Journal of Medicine, stating that he should have emulated the strict quarantine and isolation measures of China and the intensive testing and contact tracing of Singapore and South Korea. They condemned the unavailability of personal protective equipment and the state/federal balance of authority on disease control. While Trump closed borders relatively early and induced factories to produce (unused?) ventilators, he often contradicts and undermines his own medical experts and failed to provide the calming, unifying "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" type of leadership that FDR was so well known for during the crises of his time.
And don't get me started on Trump's deficit spending.
It's enough to make one's head spin. How is a citizen to keep track of all of this, let alone make sense of it? Particularly, when the embattled sides have different definitions for words like good, bad, progress, right, and wrong? Particularly, when you only have to wait as long as you can hold your breath before the next crisis comes along, as Sam Harris, the noted neuroscientist and author said this week.
Both candidates and parties seem deeply flawed - or are they simply deeply human?
Trump was and is not the face of conservatism that many on the right ever expected or wanted. But Americans are not above electing someone who is deeply flawed. Consider Democrats' support for Bill Clinton. He had many women accusing him of sexual misconduct, including rape (!), but they supported him anyway after evaluating the full picture. I think Trump's roster of the ridiculous is longer than Clinton's but it just goes to show our willingness to support such candidates when push comes to shove.
Looking Beyond the Candidates
Not to further complicate matters, but let's turn for a moment away from the candidates. Consider the bureaucracy each man would oversee, the appointments he would make, the VP who would take over should he become unable to govern.
Trump's conservative administration, the Republican-controlled Senate, and the now-conservative Supreme Court have served as important counterweights to the left-leaning institutions of media, entertainment, academia, large corporations, and the House - especially with the waning of traditionally right-leaning institutions like church and family.
What's really at stake in this election is the same as every election for the past one hundred years - the vision of the role of government in our lives.
On the left, Progressives believe the Founders' concerns that "power corrupts" are far less relevant nowadays, and therefore, so is our complex structure of government. Abolishing the Electoral College, threatening to pack the court, treating any court nominee other than Living Constitutionalist court as a "nightmare", and seeking a federal solution to every societal problem - these are the present pursuits of the left.
On the right, Conservatives continue to believe that power does still corrupt, so it must be dispersed and kept separate like the watertight compartments on a ship, preventing leaks in one area from sinking the whole vessel.
Conservatives also believe we are a diverse nation with differing values and priorities, or at least with very different views on how society's problems should be solved. They believe that most governance should be local. Your state doesn't want a single-payer healthcare solution? That's fine, but mine does. Your state doesn't want school choice? That's fine, but mine does. Your state doesn't want to fund abortion, contraceptives, and sex education? That's fine, but mine does. Your state prefers a private/charity approach rather than a comprehensive state-run-and-funded department to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless? That's fine, but mine doesn't. The federalist, "laboratories of democracy" approach allows us to vote with our feet, and see who has the best ideas over time.
That's why I believe Trump will win this election. I think more Americans, however Satan or Savior-like they believe Trump to be, believe that the Conservative perspective on power and governance is more correct than the Progressive view - at least electorally. If he loses, it will be entirely his own doing. His results make a strong case for reelection - his personality and behavior do not. And the Progressive case is defective even though it may be well-intentioned. Plus Michael Moore thinks the "evil genius" has good chance of pulling it off and who am I to doubt him.
The Election Won't Cure the Divide
Even beyond that, what's undecided among us is it means to be human, male or female, born or unborn, and what rights belong to creatures such as us. We are deeply divided on these questions and so long as that persists, so will bitterly divisive scenes like the uptick in racial tensions, embattled court nominations, and rancorous presidential elections. Honestly, I'm unsure how effective federalism can be at diffusing these differences because the questions are so fundamental in nature.
So, coming full circle, do I believe Trump is a Scarlet Pimpernel, publicly buffoonish and privately gallant? No, I don't. I believe the Trump we see is the Trump we get - uncommon in a politician, one might argue, but not really a virtue in this case because, well, he's Trump.
Instead, I suspect there's truth to Trump-skeptic John Woo's argument in his book Defender in Chief that the Constitution's structure, which pits power and self-interest against power and self-interest is channeling Trump's blunder and ambition as brilliantly as the Founders could have hoped, whether Trump realizes or not.
And as they intended, for now, most of our discord continues to take place in the opinion pages, the nightly news, social media, and our legislative sessions - rather than in our streets.
This is good, but it's not a permanent solution and no matter who wins next week, if we even know next week who wins, neither candidate is poised to fix what ails us, because what ails us, is us.