It’s no wonder Donald Trump is hated so passionately by the radical left. He doesn’t so much use their tactics against them as transcend their tactics, and render them inert.
I have never imagined Trump’s real-world effect as something he consciously intends, in every particular. I think he has much of his effect simply by being himself, as opposed to following a calculated strategy. He does do things intentionally – he’s not just a sort of political idiot savant – but when it comes to some of his most important effects, he’s not approaching them with a linear vision and a step-by-step program. He’s just having the effect because of how he rolls.
It’s an effect that we need. I’ve seen that clearly for a long time, although I wouldn’t pretend to foresee from one instance to the next which things need to be broken and exposed for us. But we do need it, and it’s better to have it than not. If we don’t go through this period of broken eggs, smelly as they may be, we will never recover our national character.
Here is what set me off. Andrew McCarthy, for whom I have the greatest respect, and with whom I certainly agree on principle, in this case, tweeted the following:
Mr. President, we all know he should get the death penalty. But when *you* say it, it makes it harder for DOJ to make that happen. https://t.co/m19gHTLg7Rtake our poll - story continues below
— Andrew C. McCarthy (@AndrewCMcCarthy) November 2, 2017
Couldn’t agree more. When the president expresses a preference for a particular outcome from the criminal justice process, he seems to be exerting undue influence on it. Obama actually did this a number of times, but in most cases, he did it more subtly and elliptically. It creates a bad environment for public expectations about the independence and integrity of our judicial system.
But in that one tweet, and those few words I just used to address it – taken together – McCarthy and I have laid out the rules of our social conventions that Saul Alinsky proposed to break our society by exploiting against us.
This next sequence of observations is key. McCarthy started out by saying “we all know he [Saipov] should get the death penalty.” Even people who don’t believe in the death penalty would mostly agree that McCarthy is expressing a justifiable certainty about what’s right and wrong in this situation.
Our hearts and heads are in sync in that regard. We prize the careful processes and distinctions of our legal system, but not because we start out in doubt about a case like this one. There is no requirement for the law to intervene against our assumptions in order to prevent injustice here. We let the law work as intended, not because a potential acquittal or a light sentence might in some inconceivable way be more just, but because we want to live by the rule of law.
That last sentence is the core of what I want to convey here, so please keep it in mind. Now consider the president weighing in, in a tweet, on whether Saipov should get the death penalty. It is a well-worn convention, and for good reason, that the president doesn’t give the appearance of putting his finger on the scales of justice.
The matter of undue influence from the executive branch, taken as a whole, is more than just a convention. It’s something an appeals court would have reason to take into account. A judge might rule in some cases that enthusiasm from the executive for particular outcomes was a reason for vacating a conviction.
But that issue is not black and white, in regard to any specific case. It’s a matter of interpretation. Matters of interpretation, where the people’s priority is to live under a rule of law, are exactly the seam at which Alinsky wanted to create his havoc.
This is because (a) we understand that living under the rule of law still leaves us with a lot of imperfect outcomes, and (b) interpretation itself is a matter of intentions. Imperfection and intentions are the soil and fertilizer of political exploitation. The former is inevitable; the latter manipulable.
If we can assume that the intentions of interpreters – judges, for example – are mostly good, we can avoid worrying overmuch about every imperfect outcome.
But what about when we can’t assume the intentions are good anymore? Are our social and political conventions a suicide pact?
Conventions like “the president mustn’t exert undue influence on judicial outcomes” are adopted for very good reasons. But what if the people can see clearly – as many did with Obama – that a president was adept at insinuating preferences for judicial outcomes, and that that was beginning to have a negative, real-world effect on the operation of the criminal justice system, as a core element of social organization?
It is useless to say, in this regard, that even in the Obama era, juries in high-profile cases were coming up with rule-of-law answers (e.g., in the trials for the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown). That is a fatally limited point.
The people can tell the difference between having a murder trial without rioting in the streets, projectile-throwing marches abetted by out-of-town agitators, vandalism, arson, and pillaging, and carpet-bagging federal employees coming in to shake down city and county governments – and having a murder trial with those factors. That difference is everything to the common good and social harmony. The justice system itself, instead of protecting the people, becomes a weapon to attack them with.
As Trump voters understand it, the “rule of law” attitude on the part of the people – the preference for it as a good and meaningful standard – is being exploited against them. Agitators against the common good have falsely assumed the mantle of the “rule of law,” and now snipe at the social order from beneath it.
The honorable discipline of the ordinary people is expected to freeze them in place while radicals busily reinterpret what the “rule of law” requires – and in fact, what it requires of the ordinary people. The rule of law is increasingly exploited, by whoever can claim to have it on his side, to jack the ordinary people around.
As with the justice of punishing Sayfullo Saipov to the full extent of the law, it is often the case that everyone can see what’s right and wrong. Yet the people are expected to sit still for a growing pile of wrong (e.g., with going-on-years of rowdy, often violent protests in the St. Louis area) in order to not violate the very conventions of the rule of law that are being exploited against them.
This is so much of why Trump supporters are dedicated to supporting Trump, no matter what. It’s because there is real injustice being done to them by the exploitation of their citizens’ honor against them.
But don’t do us both a disservice and think my point stops there. That’s just the groundwork. What Trump does on a regular basis is expose and defuse those methods. The methods are used against him every moment of every day – and yet he withstands them, and can’t be taken down. This alarms and angers some people of goodwill on the right, as well as the left.
But what is being exposed in that process is something more important than the Alinsky methods themselves.
What’s being exposed is the emptiness of the conventions, without right intentions and virtue behind them. The conventions themselves are not evidence of virtue, nor are they guarantees of it. When we place our faith in those conventions, we put it where it doesn’t belong. Our faith is turned against us.
That is what is being exposed by the Trump phenomenon.
The Trump difference
Be clear on this: Trump is not engaged in a symmetrical counterattack. He isn’t using Alinsky’s methods, on the Alinsky model. If he were, you would reflexively feel that he had a point when he ridiculed someone (Rule #5), or personalized and polarized a target (Rule #13). You’d fear the appearance it might have if you were somehow associated with Trump’s target.
But you don’t feel that way about Trump. I know that about people who aren’t Trump fans, because every time he tweets some cringeworthy attack on an individual, the non-Trump-fans just get annoyed, instead of feeling like the target of Trump’s attack has been damaged. His attacks don’t elicit that socially-correct response. He isn’t appealing to your sense of convention when he ridicules someone or personalizes his attacks.
The talking heads on MSNBC, the editorial department at Newsweek – those folks are using ridicule and personalization to try to hook into your conventional reactions.
And that’s the Alinsky method. Alinsky was all about cheap, easy ridicule: the kind that leverages what you reflexively find ridiculous – even if it has to be done through innuendo or outright lies.
For various reasons, Trump is operating in a different way. Believe me, I’m not saying it’s a good way. But I am saying it is different – which you can tell because his ridicule doesn’t make you embarrassed to be associated with his target, or to give his target the benefit of the doubt. That’s what Alinsky’s methods do.
Trump’s personal attacks basically highlight that he is personally attacking someone. They make him look petty. For many people, that’s the only thing their eyes can see: whether Trump looks petty or not.
Meanwhile, it is odd how often something he has expressed through the vehicle of a personal attack, up to and including genuinely cruel ridicule, turns out to be a correct statement of an underlying fact (often about policy) – even though the ridiculed individual wasn’t being treated with human kindness.
And please get this, if you get nothing else: the converse is also true. A very great deal of what other people say, even when they say it with the greatest attention to avoiding ridicule, polarization, or anything else we legitimately want to refrain from, is not true, or valid, or useful in the sense of affecting the people’s lives for the better.
To take just one example: it isn’t necessary to call your political opponent “Crooked Hillary,” or make fun of her or say things about her that a fourth-grader would find too stupid to utter, in order to roll back the regime of economy-strangling regulatory overreach achieved by the EPA in the last 40 years. Right? I know you NeverTrumpers agree with me on this. It’s incontestably unnecessary.
Yet focusing on observing the conventions of public virtue has never gotten the EPA’s regulatory overreach rolled back. Trump has.
The people can see that clearly, and to them – because it’s their jobs, their property, their sense of self-worth, their hope and future on the line – getting the regulatory juggernaut rolled back is what matters.
The Trump effect
This is only the beginning of understanding. It cannot be that we’re supposed to learn from the Trump phenomenon that virtue is overrated.
And I am not saying it is. What I am saying is that the conventions with which we express virtue – what we might call our “civilization,” in fact – have been exploited against us by Alinsky’s methods for many decades now. (Rule #4: Make the enemy live up to his own rules.)
Perceiving virtue through the prism of conventions isn’t working for us. And now Trump is exposing the emptiness of those conventions by continuously withstanding the assault against him.
Trump violates many of those conventions himself, and he is attacked through the Alinskyite exploitation of all those conventions, and yet still he stands. The impact he is having, in terms of policy and material outcomes, is so far a mix of positive and negative, by no means incontrovertibly proving anyone’s point about political philosophy. The conventions are what are not operating in the way we’re accustomed to.
I urge you to consider that someone is trying to tell you something about the meaning of those conventions.
Is our civilization entirely about appearances? Is that what our moral lives are about? Is that the measure of our virtue? Because if that’s the case, Alinsky has already won.
Alinsky can make you look as bad as the devil himself, viciously and unjustly, and he can make the devil look like an angel of light. If he can make you flee from ridicule on cue, by wielding his rules against you, then we are not a republic of virtuous men and women. We are effectively whipsawed by fear and lies.
Consider that it doesn’t even take an Alinsky to make good people look bad. Sometimes it’s just timing or misunderstandings. We don’t see everything clearly under the best of circumstances. That’s why it’s a positive virtue to give people the benefit of the doubt and suspend judgment.
But when we build rote conventions around that, and prize the conventions themselves, regardless of the outcomes they systematically produce, our honorable intentions become a fertile ground for exploitation against our interests.
It is obvious to the American people that the bigger their government gets, the more subject they are to having their livelihoods and property arbitrarily steamrolled. It’s as obvious as it is that Sayfullo Saipov committed murder and requires stringent punishment.
Nothing looms larger today than that obvious truth about what the American people are being subjected to. This is a terribly immoral way to treat our fellow men. Yet we justify sitting still for it by the very conventions of “virtuous” dealings that have made it possible. We fear ridicule too much because we falsely equate being ridiculed with having erred or failed. We fear the appearance of impropriety, instead of cultivating an eye for actual virtue, in ourselves and others.
There is no alternative of trying to correct our social and political problems by restoring the rote conventions of discourse. That’s not going to do it.
And the Trump phenomenon is doing us a signal service by not allowing us to make the attempt.
Our conventions of social pressure and social cueing have stopped working.
That means Alinsky is dead.
Alinsky is a parasite who can’t survive without his host. His methods require that men live by conventions and appearances, and lose touch with what lies beneath.
Don’t despair over what that may portend. It can only be good. Look beyond convention to the real virtue it is meant to buttress – and look to the source of our standard for virtues. Until our eyes are trained in that direction, and not on each other – not even on Donald Trump – we will not find the answers we seek.