Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 September 2016

The First “Great” Debate


[For eleven good reasons to vote for Hillary and downballot Dems, click here.]

Last night a fifteen-year-old boy in the body of a man met an experienced and savvy but emotionless pol on the stage of a presidential debate. The result was as disappointing and soulless as it was bizarre.

The two contenders mostly spoke past each other, often refusing to answer the moderator’s questions. Our Founders, no doubt, were not just rolling over in their graves. They were rotating at a rate high enough, had they been hooked up to generators, to have increased our national output of electricity.

Who won? If you are a college-educated person with some knowledge of history and current reality, Hillary won hands down. Donald’s puerile self-justification, interminable “proof” by anecdote, and consummately selfish perspective revealed his vacancy as a thinker and human being, let alone a leader. But if you’re a bully who reasons like a fifteen-year-old boy, he might have rung your bell.

In other words, Donald kept his base, and Hillary kept hers. Neither likely expanded it much. So the fate of our nation will rest, as is our wont, on the desultory reactions of people who (as the song goes) don’t know much about history but make up their minds based on fleeting impressions from chance encounters with ads and activists in the last week of the campaign. Since TV ads seem to be having less and less effect, the so-called “ground game” may be everything.

Since most readers of this blog may have forgotten how fifteen-year-old boys “reason,” let’s look at three examples.

The most glaring example was Donald’s response to a challenge to his most famous Big Lie: his “birther” conspiracy. He didn’t deny his lie or his recently repudiating it. How could he? Given permission by his own recantation, the media that have made this miscreant famous and powerful finally began piling on. His own recantation took repudiation out of the hands of the “fact-checkers” on page twenty and onto the front pages.

So how did he defend? He accused Hillary of doing the same thing. Without specifics, he pointed to racist tinges in Hillary’s own campaign against Barack Obama in 2008.

There were indeed such tinges, as I noted in this blog at the time. But the contrast with Donald’s lie is as blinding as the Sun. Hillary used innuendoes and guilt-by-association from real facts—such as Obama’s actual attendance at edgy sermons of the unfortunate Reverend Wright—in an attempt to gain an edge in her campaign. In contrast, Donald’s own big and outrageous lie drove right to the heart of Obama’s legal qualification and gave Donald his own start in politics. Without his Big Lie and the notoriety it gave him, Donald would be back on reality TV, not interfering without our collective future reality and perhaps our species’ survival.

To a fifteen-year-old, it’s enough to answer your own big wrong with the challenge, “you did wrong, too!” The issues of magnitude and perspective never arise, let alone the notion that two wrongs don’t make a right. All wrongs are equal to a fifteen-year-old brain trying to excuse itself.

The second example of adolescent “reasoning” related to Donald’s tax returns. He “justified” his refusal to disclose them by saying: (1) he would after their current audit closed (no doubt after the election!), and (2) they didn’t contain much useful information anyway, at least not much more than financial disclosures he had already made.

The second point is trivial to bat down: if the returns don’t have much useful information, why not disclose them? What does he have to hide? And the first point was just another Donaldic razzle-dazzle. Nothing in law or practice requires anyone to avoid disclosing tax returns voluntarily during an audit. Donald didn’t even try to make that connection with anything like logic or reasoning.

The third point of Donaldic reasoning was pure puerility. He proposed forcing our allies, by “negotiating,” to pay for more of the defense that we offer them. Hillary pointed our that a lot rides on the reliability of American defense commitments, including the possibility of war. Donald’s response? It’s unfair for our NATO allies, for example, not to pay more for their defense. While castigating Hillary for allegedly disclosing her plans for beating ISIS, Donald never mentioned the effect of such negotiations on our allies and their adversaries. Might a big push to get allies to pay more, using the threat of the US reducing its commitment to them, embolden our mutual enemies and perhaps encourage war?

As any adolescent psychologist can tell you, things like consequences don’t matter much to the fifteen-year-old mind. That’s why Donald could answer so quickly to the charge of paying no taxes at all in certain years. His paying no taxes was “smart.” Yes, Donald, you were as smart as any fifteen-year-old boy who thinks it’s all about him.

In the final analysis, Donald is the ultimate heir to the “halo” of Saint Ronnie. As you may recall, it was Reagan who, with his cry “It’s your money!,” began our two generation national love affair with selfishness. That love affair is at stake in this election.

But Donald has one-upped Saint Ronnie in every way. He is not just an advocate for political selfishness. He is the apogee of personal selfishness.

His stiffed his contractors, employees, and students. So what? That’s just good business. He, a rich man whose brags about his wealth and success, never paid any taxes at all in the two years for which he has disclosed tax returns. So what? That was just smart!

He wants to risk degrading longstanding alliances, thereby upsetting our allies, emboldening their (and our!) enemies, and destabilizing international relationships that have kept the peace among major powers for over 70 years. Why not? We pay more than our fair share for defense. If our allies want our backing, they should pay more, regardless of consequences.

Do you see a theme here? And what about Donald’s push for “law and order”? Is shooting unarmed civilians down in the streets because they happen to be black “law and order”? I guess it is if you’re not black and you have a fifteen-year-old tribal mentality. But if you think justice applies to all of us, it’s a different story.

Unfortunately, Hillary missed a big opportunity to call out this adolescent, selfish thinking for what it is. It’s not just un-Christian and un-American. It’s contrary to every altruistic impulse that made this nation great—from Native Americans bringing food to our First Thanksgiving, through farmers leaving sandwiches on their window sills for itinerant hobos during the Great Depression, to our military aid to Europe during World Wars I and II and our aid to Israel today. If you believe, as I do, that empathy, compassion and altruism are the essence of our species, such über-selfishness is inhuman.

Donald Trump is not the most dangerous candidate for president ever because of his big ego, impulsiveness and scattered brain. He is the most dangerous because he is the most selfish and self-centered man ever to rise to a semblance of power in America. He stands literally and emphatically against all that has made this nation great, from Care packages and the Peace Corps to international monetary bailouts and military aid to threatened democracies. He stands for the age-old call of the desperate and despicable, “Every man for himself!”

There were other opportunities that Hillary missed. She agreed with Donald that nuclear proliferation is the greatest threat to our species. It is not. Global warming is.

The dangers of nuclear proliferation are doubly contingent. The may arise if: (1) bad actors get nukes, and (2) they are stupid and reckless enough to use them for anything other than their primary purpose: deterring conventional attack and invasion.

Nothing about global warming is contingent. It is happening today. Indeed, recent trends and the likelihood of positive feedback suggest that it may be reaching an exponential inflection point. We cannot stop it because the carbon and methane that go into the atmosphere today will continue excess heating for decades or centuries. The only thing we can do is slow its acceleration by severely curtailing our burning of fossil fuels—even before they run out—or find some way to sponge greenhouse gases out of our atmosphere on a global scale.

If we do nothing, the Greenland Ice Cap may melt soon, raising global sea levels over 10 feet and inundating many densely inhabited coastal areas worldwide. And that’s all in addition to more frequent and devastating storms, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes and the steady march northward of tropical diseases like malaria, dengue and zika. Compared to this, a small nuclear war between minor powers fades into insignificance: our species exploded many more atomic bombs above ground during the sixties, before test bans took effect.

A true leader must begin to lead even while still campaigning. Donald claimed to have done that by being the first to challenge modern trade agreements as the source of job losses. (Of course this claim, like most he makes, was a lie. Ross Perot warned of the “sucking sound” of NAFTA pulling good jobs to Mexico in 1992.) But that baseless claim at least shows aspiration to leadership.

If Hillary wants to claim real leadership, she must not agree that something speculative and contingent, like nuclear war due to nuclear proliferation, is as dangerous as something real and present, like global warming. More important still, if Hillary wants to be president, she must point out Donald’s diabolical selfishness and its origin in consistent Republican policy over two generations. That, at least, is what Bernie might have done.

To any intelligent, sentient creature, Hillary “won” the first debate because she is a real, qualified candidate with positive human impulses. Donald Trump is an abomination. Our media helped create this Frankenstein monster with their mincing “not-my-job” approach to truth. Now, maybe, they will undertake their real job and help us see Donald as he really is: a fifteen-year-old boy in a man’s body who wants his finger on The Button so no one will disrespect him.

So yes, Hillary “won” the debate. But there’s a lot more that she could do, and should do, to show us Yanks and the world what an abyss Donald would drag us into and how to avoid it.

Endnote on first names. Careful readers will note that, in this essay, I have changed my references from “Trump” to “Donald.” I am doing this just to put the two candidates on the same level and to avoid any show of undue bias. I have used “Hillary” consistently not out of any particular affection for her, far less out of disrespect for her or for women generally. I use her first name to distinguish her from Bill, because it is shorter and less cumbersome than “Hillary Clinton” or “Secretary Clinton,” and because “Mrs. Clinton” might imply that she’s not running on her own steam, which she clearly is.

As for “Trump,” I still like its shortness and harshness. It reminds me of how Republicans use “Democrat,” harshly, as an adjective to derogate Dems. But I don’t want to put this excrescence above Hillary or show him one iota of respect that he nowise deserves. So “Hillary” and “Donald” it will be, from now on, until she crushes his adolescent dreams or we all lose our Republic, like Germany in the 1930s.

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