What is more important, the Message or the Messenger?
Our understanding of politics is muddled by confusion between policy and image, between the message and the messenger. In today’s debates, one side despises the President because he is a repugnant human being and continues a non-stop attack on civility and social norms. The other side witnesses his policies and believes that a change in course is on long overdue. Liberals have a visceral hatred for the person; conservatives (and business), by in large, feel that the policy-direction is more important than the policy-maker.
How do we reconcile such a condition, to allow ourselves to conduct the important business of state without devolving into petty bickering and name-calling? This is the fundamental issue today, and we better figure it out before we cross the Rubicon and find our country so divided as to risk a catastrophic domestic schism.
Perhaps we should start with the messenger. Let’s face it, Trump is a repugnant human being. I doubt if most ordinary Americans would have either much in common with Trump or derive any great pleasure (other than the awe of being with the President) from an extended relationship with him. Even most of his senior staff and Secretaries can seem to stand the man for more than a year before they walk away in disgust (or were fired for daring to challenge his ego).
I was stationed at West Point in the mid-1980s and witnessed his behavior as a real estate developer in New York. He acted like a churlish adolescent. His relationship with his financiers and employees were invariably confrontational. He undermined the basic social contracts (e.g. a fair wage for an honest day’s work). He epitomizes the very worst caricature of a heartless capitalist. Illegal, perhaps not (although he was sued often enough), but certainly skirting the edges of propriety.
Often in relationships we want the luxury of picking and choosing the desired characteristics in the other person. Certainly, we expect this out of our spouses- keep what we like, but jettison what we don’t. I witnessed this perspective firsthand as a general’s aide. My guy was a warrior and clashed with the with “establishment” Army. I felt that we ought to have a “war drawer,” the place you keep the soldiers who have the fighting spirit to win in combat but are ill-suited for the peace-time Army that values conformity over initiative. We often see this in the characterizations of Special Operations-types in movies.
People come as a package and often the things that make them successful are the very characteristics that make them undesirable in other circumstances. This is certainly true of Trump. He has bulled and fudged his way to the top in business…and now in politics. The people who get to the pinnacle are not usually the people you’d choose as your best friend.
Personally, I wish we had a better standard-bearer, but the reality is that the “professional” politicians don’t have the fortitude to tackle the neglected and growing problems facing our country (like uncontrolled immigration or unfair trade practices). It takes an outlier to do the previously “unacceptable,” and his unacceptable behavior will not stop with the policy issues.
Trump is despised because, in part, he is simply better at the games they all play. He “out-politicked” the politicians. Would Hillary Clinton really have shied away from “dirt” on Trump? Hmm…I think not.
I would posit that while Bush and Obama may have been likable fellows, the choice in 2016 was between two fundamentally odious candidates, neither of which were personally appealing. Trump was voted in because enough people believed he would “fix” the things the “real” politicians, from either party, were afraid to even confront.
This brings us to the “message.” There is a clash of philosophy about the fundamental direction of our country: Socialism versus Capitalism. The winner of this battle will set the stage for the next twenty years, and by that time, the baseline will forever be altered. In fact, one might argue that Trump’s rise was the direct backlash from a significant portion of the population that believed that the baseline had already moved too far to the Left.
The Democrats are promoting an American brand of Democratic Socialism. The agenda of the far Left, personified by Bernie Sanders and young radials (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes), would have government ever more responsible for, and intrusive in, our lives. The Green New Deal advocates the nationalization of major portions of our industrial base. Medicare of All is socialized medicine with its inevitable ques of sick people waiting for medical care.
In the 1940s, the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek authored “The Road to Serfdom” and warned that the countries of the West could follow Russia and Germany (now failed totalitarian states), if they didn’t resist the lure of socialist ideology. He argued that the path towards socialism inevitably leads to a loss of individual freedom, “the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning.”
Whether we accept it or not, the government has a dominant influence in virtually every facet of our lives. Perhaps the most insidious effect of the consolidation of power and wealth in the hands of the government is that collectively we have undermined the notion of individual benevolence. C.S. Lewis stated, “Some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to.” We have ceded a fundamental Christian value to the secular State.
Humans, with all our flaws simply cannot build a “perfect” society – the imaginary socialist utopia. The more we try and fail, the more power the government usurps and the more freedoms we lose. That is indeed a “road to serfdom.”
So, here is our conundrum: What is more important, the message or the messenger? The choice is clear for the Left, both are unacceptable. For Conservatives, the problem is more complex. As unappealing as Trump may be as a person, he represents the best chance of forestalling the inexorable march towards socialism and government control: a morally suspect guy doing the right things despite himself.
In an odd twist, I find that my original notion that, “We don’t always get to pick the messenger,” is erroneous. It was an election, the voting public did in fact, “pick” Trump. I guess I should restate it: for a significant portion of the population, “The message was more important than the messenger.” This situation will replay itself in the 2020 election.