Monday, October 3, 2016

The Quest for Pluperfection

Olive Thomas in Alan Crosland's The Flapper (1920). From somebody's Tumblr.

Last week as we were talking about that Brooks post where he was longing for the good old days when conservatives were real conservatives and not just reactionaries the way they are now, longing for the good old days when lolwut—I guess Brooks is not merely living in the past but the anterior past or pluperfect, the time before the past that the conservatives of the past were dwelling in, like a Confucian scholar in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) looking back to the Han (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), when folks lived by the morality of the mythical sage-emperors Yao and Shun (before 2070 B.C.E.).

Anyway, Jordan in comments drew attention to this very peculiar piece by Peter Beinart in The Atlantic, arguing somewhat more coherently that today's conservatives aren't, essentially, reactionary enough, or at least Trump and his supporters aren't, in the way they glorify the selfishness of Trump's own personal story, his gleeful use of the tax code and bankruptcy law to stiff the government and cheat his creditors, which is so counter to the message of conservatives back in the day, which was always for a revival of that dear traditional morality that reigned in that anterior past (they believed in the pluperfectibility of man):

Since the birth of “fusionism” in the 1950s, America’s most prominent conservative thinkers and politicians have called for both reducing government’s power over the individual and strengthening traditional morality. They’ve squared that circle by emphasizing personal responsibility. Don’t use government to force people to take care of each other, conservatives have argued, since that threatens freedom. Don’t force people to hand over large swaths of money to Washington, which then doles it out to the poor. Instead, encourage them to look out for one another voluntarily, without the coercion of the state. Inculcate the moral character that leads people to take responsibility for their families and communities. In the 1980s, George Will called this “Statecraft as Soulcraft,” and Republican presidential candidates have been preaching it ever since.
The 1980s, as you'll remember, also known as the "gilded age of greed", when the captains of industry (all of them tax-hating Republicans) served the Invisible Hand of the Market by being as rationally selfish as they possibly could. Preaching to the lower orders, no doubt, about their personal responsibility. Government was to inculcate moral character by negative practical means: withholding benefits from the poor, to encourage them to lose benefits by getting married and/or taking a below-poverty job. Government was to show "tough love".

And then of course private individuals of means wouldn't be that greedy; they would take up some of the slack, with their conservative compassion, but not too much, so as not to encourage dependency. This is what we have learned from compassionate conservative George W. Bush, charitable John McCain—
Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed.
—Mormon Willard Mitt Romney, and regular guy Paul Ryan (the name of Ronald Reagan is curiously missing from the post, Beinart seems to have forgotten all about that guy in spite of his deep knowledge of the conservatives of the 1980s), but that nasty and classless Trump has departed from the norm:
Donald Trump never talks this way. In his presidential announcement speech, he never mentioned “morality” or “responsibility” or “community.” The only family he mentioned was his own.
Well, hm. But the fact is that he's mentioned them all before, as in 2011, when his campaign was just beginning:
The American work ethic is what led generations of Americans to create our once prosperous nation.
That's what I find so morally offensive about welfare dependency: it robs people of the chance to improve. Work gives every day a sense of purpose. A job well done provides a sense of pride and accomplishment. I love to work. In fact, I like working so much that I seldom take vacations. Because I work so hard, I've been privileged to create jobs for tens of thousands of people. And on my hit show "The Apprentice", I get to work with people from all works of life. I'm known for my famous line, "You're fired!" But the truth is, I don't like firing people. Sometimes you have to do it, but it's never fun or easy. One of my favorite parts of business is seeing how work transforms people into better, more confident, more competent individuals. It's inspiring and beautiful to watch....
Teenage mothers [shouldn’t] get public assistance unless they jump through some pretty small hoops. Making them live in group homes makes sense. A lot of these girls didn’t have fathers or full-time parents. But there are people-I think we can call them saints-who dedicate their lives to helping kids like this. Whoever they are, and whether they work out of a church, a temple, or some kind of public facility, they deserve all our support....
Once you have reached the top, what do you do? Once you have reached the top, it is time to give back. Give to charity, give to your children, give your knowledge to others, and give to your culture. I made a lot of money, and I give a lot of money away to charity.
From that "once prosperous nation" where people used to live by the work ethic before they got spoiled to that appeal to freely given charity as opposed to charity by coercive taxation, it's all there. Trump isn't really any different from Willard Mitt Romney, in his ideological grounding, or Ronald Reagan. He's lying, of course, about his charitability (but then Romney's charity was strictly according to the LDS dictate, and all the examples of his kindnesses they came up with during the 2012 campaign were to church members), but the main thing is that he's unhinged the hypocrisy of the traditional conservative idea in a way that hasn't been done since Ivan Boesky, simply by being so unhinged himself .

The whole conceptual scheme was always double talk: Personal responsibility for you, little man, and I'm not to be questioned on mine, because how could I have gotten so wealthy if I hadn't delayed all my gratification and put my nose to the wheel and my shoulder to the grindstone? It's another rationalization for saying government shouldn't do anything at all (preach, don't practice!), but the real reason is always I don't want to pay taxes.

Why Beinart should think it worth while to concern troll conservatives like this, playing with the Brooksian thematics and encouraging the belief that there is some kind of good conservatism that went missing at some point in time and ought to be rescued from its captivity, I don't know, but it's dumb and annoying.

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