This is part 5 of an exchange between Tevi Troy and his brother Gil Troy about the 2016 presidential election. Here’s part 1 (Nov. 3), part 2 (Nov. 6), part 3 (Nov. 7), and part 4 (Nov. 8), all below.
Well, the election is over and a lot of people seem to be panicking about the result. I would caution against it. Obviously, as a Republican, there is much that I am pleased with from last night’s results. I am happy that the Republicans retained both the Senate and the House, and that strong conservative senators like Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, and Ron Johnson won reelection. On the presidential front, I have had my misgivings about Donald Trump, as this exchange with Gil has made clear. But I also think that there is a positive case to be made from multiple perspectives. (No choice but
to be positive—there’s that Troy optimism again.) From my conservative point of view, I am pleased that a Republican president will be picking Supreme Court justices and that President-elect Trump has put forth conservative names for potential Supreme Court vacancies. On the Israel front, I’m quite confident that Trump will be better for Israel than Obama was—admittedly a low bar—and that there is a good chance that he can be significantly better than Obama was, and than Hillary would have been.
For my liberal friends, many of my own concerns about Trump stemmed from the fact that he was not a traditional conservative. This could lead to him potentially forming some nontraditional coalitions in Congress, especially if he can’t find common ground with elements of the conservative caucus. You may not like Trump’s rhetoric or his behavior, but he is probably less conservative on an issue-by-issue basis than just about everyone he defeated in winning the GOP nomination.
For Americans in general, remain calm. Trump is flawed, but hysterical accusations that he is some kind of totalitarian or fascist are and have long been not just overstated but plain wrong. In addition, American institutions are strong, and cannot easily be subverted by a president with bad intentions, even if we did at some point elect a president with those tendencies. We are governed by the rule of law and will continue to be governed by the law.
The fact is that the presidency changes people. There is a tried-and-true policy process that stays in place in both GOP and Democratic administrations. There is a somewhat laborious White House clearance process for presidential appointments, decisions, and statements. This does not mean that presidents always make the right decisions—far from it—but that decisions are carefully considered and within a relatively narrow band of parameters. The crazy decisions tend to get weeded out in the process. The very weight of the presidency makes Oval Office occupants consider their decisions carefully. A late-night tweet storm is far less likely to come from President Trump than from candidate Trump, just because of the nature of the White House and the White House process. In putting the weight of responsibility upon them, the presidency forces people to act more responsibly. We already saw this last night in the president-elect’s victory speech, in which he said, “Now it’s time to bind the wounds of division, come together as one people.” I thought it was a gracious speech and could point to the fact that the long-awaited “pivot” may finally have come. Will he continue to make some comments that offend? Sure, but that does not mean that he will pose a danger to the republic.
So that’s the positive spin on things. Did I want two more inspiring, less flawed candidates on the ballot in the 2016 election? Absolutely. Do I think that the election of Trump means the end of America or a manifest danger to its inhabitants? Absolutely not.
Gil Troy responds :
Hillary Clinton’s loss has terrified and traumatized almost every one of my friends. All day long, I have been distributing two historical “pacifiers.” One, Coretta Scott King’s prediction in 1980, that with a Ronald Reagan presidency “we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan and a resurgence of the Nazi Party.” The second, from Richard Neustadt’s political-science classic on the presidency, the notion that the “power of the president is the power to persuade.”
These are pacifiers, not predictors. They don’t turn Donald Trump into a mensch. They don’t undo his damaging words during the campaign or the alienation, anger, and fear so many Americans feel today. They don’t give him the experience or stability he lacks. But they are reminders that sometimes our worst fears don’t come true, and that America is bigger and greater than any one individual.
So far, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have played their historical roles gracefully (and I’m not sure that if he had lost, President-elect Donald “rigged election” Trump would have been as gracious). Still, what happened, happened. These next few months will test us all, left and right: Can we bring out the best in ourselves and each other—or the worst?
I am more worried than Tevi. I didn’t and don’t have delicate “misgivings” about Donald Trump. I’m disgusted by his demagoguery, dismayed by his bullying, appalled by his boorishness, stunned by his success despite his governing inexperience.
Still, I believe that America is bigger and greater than any one individual because of three important things: the American system, the American people, and the American idea. I still believe the American system the Framers designed over two centuries ago works brilliantly. Again and again, it has figured out how to bring out the best in people by understanding our flaws, thereby fragmenting power, checking and balancing, serving as a constructive platform for the greatest experiment in liberal nationalism, the United States of America. I still believe in the American people, the heroes who grew this country from a small, divided, racist, sexist, country to a true wonder of the world, that has put much of its ugliest past behind it—even as some work remains. And I still believe in the American idea, the notion that we all have inherent rights, that we all are blessed with the privileges of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that we also have attendant obligations.
And finally, while I see all the dysfunctions, the disconnects, I also celebrate American the functional, all the everyday miracles we take for granted, including the miracle we all witnessed and over 60 percent of registered voters created yesterday: Defying the predictions, participating peacefully, and initiating what I now hope and trust will be a constructive and respectful transition of power, disproving all the critics and again positioning America as the democratic role model to all those struggling in the impoverished dictatorships that characterize most of the world’s political and economic systems.
I love a great political slogan. The Revolutionaries’ “Don’t tread on me,” expressed Americans’ desire for independence and dignity. “Fifty-four forty or fight” in 1844 drew a clear line in the sand about American intentions in the Oregon territories. U.S. Grant’s 1864 “Vote as you shot” crudely distinguished between Southern traitors and Northern patriots. Herbert Hoover’s “A chicken in every pot” conveyed the great optimism of the 1920s that prosperity would never end. Franklin Roosevelt’s double whammy, promising “Happy days are here again,” if Americans accepted his “New Deal,” offered reassurance and reforms when Hoover’s prosperity ran out of chickens. Bill Clinton’s 1992 slogan “The new covenant,” while it didn’t quite resonate, conveyed a sense of seriousness, his desire to be seen as “Putting people first” and to forge what he eventually, called, more memorably “The third way,” triangulating between Big Government liberalism and “Government is the problem not the solution” Reaganite conservatism. Even Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can,” while somewhat trite, inspired people, empowering the once powerless, capturing the historic nature of his quest to be the first African-American president.
Against that historic background, the emptiness of the 2016 election was captured in the vapidity of the two rivals’ slogans. In fairness, on one level Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton hands-down in the slogan war. Wherever I went, when I would say, even to pro-Clinton crowds, “Donald Trump promises to make America …” they would shout, lustily, “GREAT AGAIN.” And when I added, and “Hillary Clinton promises …” there was often awkward silence—and then, in one high school, great laughter and applause that they had been played. Admittedly, after the Democratic National Convention some would mumble “Stronger together”—which sounds vaguely Stalinistic to me, or “I’m with her”—which evokes “I’m with stupid.”
The meaninglessness of Clinton’s slogans conveyed the void at the heart of her campaign and her vision for America. Walter Mondale-style, she reached out to various interest groups, wooing women, African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTs, Jews, many of whom were motivated by their fear of Trump. But her campaign was so defensive, so fearful of offending these groups she was courting, so concerned with maintaining her lead, that she didn’t offer a lyrical, inspiring vision that could pass what I call the “Richard Stands Test,” the schoolkid’s misstatement of the Pledge of Allegiance line, “for which it stands.”
Being tolerant and inclusive, while noble, is a foreign policy, not a national, mission statement. Hillary Clinton’s campaign validated (what I called last time) America’s wonderful, welcoming, pluralistic Republic of Everything but did little to build a Republic of Something, to create a new consensus that both creates a new national vision rooted in the past while looking toward the future, and offers any kind of diagnosis and cure for the fundamental ailments that are so clearly afflicting the United States: a de-industrializing economy that isn’t creating enough middle-class jobs; a coarsening culture that is creating legions of the walking wounded lacking discipline, purpose, hope; a fragmenting society that is losing its sense of community; and a polarizing politics that has politicians boasting about the gridlock they will deliver because their hatred of the rival party is trumping their love of America and commitment to governance. Moreover, she offered no promise of retreating from Barack Obama’s assault on the pride, the celebration of American values, the refusal to cower or, yes, apologize, that has always been at the heart of American exceptionalism.
Now, give Trump and his slogan some credit. “Make America great again,” evokes nostalgia for the old Republic of Something. Trump recognizes the serious breakdowns in our economy, culture, society, and politics. His campaign was buoyed by many of the same frustrations that lifted the Bernie Sanders campaign from punchline to powerhouse—although both of them used “free trade” and “Wall Street” as scapegoats that miss the real economic problem. The great mass-middle-class civilization that emerged after World War II enabled autoworkers and longshoremen to earn enough to have savings; today’s economy of part-time Wal-Mart workers and minimum-wage earners in automated factories produces the dislocation and frustration that has fueled this campaign—but not been addressed.
Unfortunately, Trump’s demagogic technique of divide and conquer; his campaign to be the plutocratic king of white-male America, not the increasingly multicultural United States of America; his lack of experience, discipline, consistency, substance, makes him the tribune of The Republic of Nothing, a nation of New Nihilists who will say anything, believe in nothing, and do what pleases them when it pleases them because they lack any core ideals, any true authorities, any traditional anchors. Coming from the world of reality TV—which is fake—running a campaign of 140-character insults and postures, offered a dystopic model not of an improved reality but of a coarsened, vulgar, abusive America.
To the extent that a campaign is a national stress test, America failed—and has become a laughingstock worldwide, no longer inspiring oppressed peoples with this exercise in popular participation but inviting mockery with this plunge into idiocy and unreason.
In a long, brutal history of American elections, this electoral season—and the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns—will have a special place in the Hall of Shame, among the worst, the most bruising, divisive, demoralizing. But all is not lost—yet. The John Kennedy transition in 1960, the Ronald Reagan transition in 1980, showed that candidates can evolve over three months from won-by-a-whisker damaged winners to confident presidents with a mandate. In a land where history is last week’s most-forwarded YouTube video of cats playing or babies drooling, memories are short and malleable. And in a nation that still represents the great ideals of liberty, democracy, and equality, the possibilities of redemption remain, like prosperity in yet another slogan, just around the corner.
Tevi Troy responds:
It’s hard to disagree with anything in your last missive, so I will pick up where you left off. It is true that this has been an exceedingly dismal campaign, and as we have made clear throughout this exchange, neither of us is very happy about it—nor is the country.
But despite the disappointment of this campaign, I believe that there is a reason for hope. First, the unpopularity of both candidates does suggest that most Americans think there is indeed something very wrong with this election, and with the candidates. Both of them won their respective nominations more for structural reasons and flaws in the selection process then for any compelling narrative about a hopeful America that they were trying to convey.
So the candidates are on the debit side, but I would put American institutions and the American people on the asset side of the ledger. American institutions are strong enough to withstand the poor policies of either candidate, and strong enough to resist excessive power grabs by officials who don’t respect democratic norms or the rule of law.
As Gil put it, we remain “a nation that still represents the great ideals of liberty, democracy, and equality.” One bad election will not take that away. I recognize that this may seem overly optimistic. In fact, one piece of feedback we have both received from a mutual friend is that we are excessively optimistic. (We can’t help it: It’s the Troy way.) This particular friend thought that my hope for an American-exceptionalism agenda on the part of the Jewish organizations was a naïve one. I didn’t put that thought out there believing that those organizations would embrace this perspective immediately, but part of the role of we historian-commentators is that we put ideas out there in the hopes that smart people will read them and take us up on them. And there I think is the promise of America. We still have free speech; we still have strong voices out there expressing every different perspective; and we still have hopes for a better tomorrow, whatever our actual tomorrow informs us happens on this Election Day.
I just completed a four-city, one-week speaking tour. The whole country, from North to South, right to left, Jewish and non-Jewish, seems to be suffering from PTSD: Pre-Trump-Clinton-Election Stress Disorder. Amid all this uncertainty, I am willing to predict that the next president will have a Jewish son-in-law, and despite the anxiety, let’s emphasize one bit of good news: The next president will support Israel more enthusiastically—and hopefully more effectively—than the incumbent.
God bless America! In Europe, too many campaigns historically pivoted around the question of who bashed the Jews the most. How wonderful that in the United States, both candidates vie to prove who is more “pro-Israel.” That competition reinforces the broad, left-to-right American consensus that has supported Israel enthusiastically for decades—and, despite our worries, is at a historic peak. That competition stems from the fact that in an ugly world of ISIS and Assad, of Islamicist terrorism and Middle East instability, an anti-Israel president would be anti-American too, overlooking America’s one stable democratic ally in that crazy, critical region. And that competition demonstrates that America’s traditional bipartisan support for Israel is good for America, not just Israel: Healthy democracies need some issues, like supporting Israel, on which both rival parties agree.
I’m not naïve. I understand that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump probably would express their support for Israel in different ways, although I also know that a candidate’s promises are not binding, especially regarding foreign policy. Barack Obama was sure in 2008 that he was going to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, which remains open. I also don’t think he ever imagined—nor did we—that he would kill as many terrorists by drone as he has.
Still, the differences in Clinton’s and Trump’s respective Israel approaches merit debate. Beyond proclaiming the most embarrassing foreign-policy credential—evah—that he was grand marshal of the Israel Day Parade—Trump has alternated between the passionately pro-Netanyahu “Israel right or wrong” school, promising no daylight between the two countries, and the more neutral “let’s make a deal” school, assuming some great deal-maker can impose the right borders on the squabbling partners.
Clinton in her career has vacillated. She started out closer to the “tough love” school President Obama (and the Israeli left) embrace—assuming Big Daddy America must force misbehaving Israel to compromise and stop beating up those nice, disenfranchised Palestinians. As New York senator, she reflected her husband Bill’s “love-love” school, understanding that if Israel feels supported by the United States and respected internationally, it’s more likely to compromise. And, as secretary of state, she was yet another “Peace Processor,” one of those perennially (Shimon) Peres-ian, Sisyphean optimists, who since the 1990s have been negotiating away, again and again and again, without asking why the Oslo peace process failed and what new understandings of reality (and of the Palestinian refusal to accept reality) are required.
In an ideal world, we would have had a mature, substantive, respectful debate in the Jewish community and beyond about which of these five approaches to take. In an even more ideal world, that debate would have taken us to the philosophical assumptions underlying each candidate’s foreign policy. Obama’s years in office have shaken Americans’ traditional faith in American exceptionalism. Both the humiliation imposed on us by Americans being kidnapped, beheaded, and blown up—as well as President Obama’s distaste for America’s traditional self-confidence and sense of national virtue—have many Americans doubting our competence and steadiness abroad, let alone American exceptionalism.
As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton’s celebration of American values—particularly her role modeling for women—expressed more faith in America’s special heritage to the world than the president did. Donald Trump’s “great again” talk more crudely expresses a nostalgia for that sense of self-confidence—and that mix of post-WWII power and righteousness with which he grew up. My gut tells me that if the candidates did ever speak in such sophisticated, theoretical terms, Hillary Clinton would park more of her support for Israel in shared values, Donald Trump would park it in the realm of mutual national interests reinforced by admiration for Israel’s chutzpah and strength.
Alas, such heady but important discussions have not even engaged the foreign policy wonk-etariat. Instead, in this electoral race to the bottom, what I have most heard in the Jewish community this week is that “Hillary’s a crook and she’s anti-Israel like Obama” or that “Trump’s a monster and he lies about Israel like he lies about everything else.” What I learn from this is: We must stop using the phrase “anti-Israel” about anyone unless that person truly rejects Israel’s right to exist, and that, whoever wins on Tuesday, we have a lot of healing and rebuilding of trust to do—in the Jewish community and in the good ole’ U.S. of A.
Tevi Troy responds:
Thanks for the note, and safe travels. I was glad I got to see you—briefly—on this trip. I regret the geographic distance between us makes our in-person interactions more limited than I—or our dear mother—would like. As you know, her favorite word is “togetha.”
You have previously mentioned to me your concerns about American society and the apparent worsening of such divisions in recent years. I wonder if a presidential election brings out these divisions and things will calm down once the election is over. This does not mean that either presidential candidate will miraculously become popular—or even bearable—post-election, but that people will move on and live their lives once the worst of the election divisions are over.
The excessive rhetoric of campaign season points to another problem, though. I recall that during the 2012 election, people on the left were saying the worst things about Mitt Romney. Ads claimed he fired someone whose spouse then died of cancer, as if he were responsible for the death. Joe Biden told a black audience that Republicans were going to “put y’all back in chains,” which was one of the more disgraceful comments we have heard from a sitting vice president. Then after the election, Romney suddenly became that nice guy who pumped his own gas and went to Disneyland.
Romney is not the only one to get that treatment. John McCain and George W. Bush were subjected to hysterical attacks as if they were all somehow completely outside of the mainstream of American politics. Charlie Cooke had a good piece on this recently, and Jonah Goldberg made a similar point back in July. The excessive rhetoric deployed against previous Republican candidates blunts the potency of similar attacks against Trump. Even some liberals acknowledge this. Bill Maher recently said that Romney, Bush, and McCain “were honorable men who we disagreed with and we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf, and that was wrong.”
As for the Jewish in-laws, I am not sure that I would take too much comfort there. After all, Hillary’s Jewish adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, sends her missives from his anti-Israel son Max (Gil, can I use the “anti-Israel” designation for Max?) Should I somehow take comfort that both Blumenthals are Jewish? And as for Hillary’s back-and-forth career on Israel, I fear that both her foreign-policy and political advisers will pose a real problem for Israel should she be elected. Campaign manager Robby Mook even told Clinton not to speak about Israel in front of a group of Democratic activists because Israel is presumably so unpopular in those circles.
This does not mean that I pin my hopes on the fact that Ivanka converted to Judaism, or—as Gil points out—that Trump was grand marshal of the Salute to Israel parade. I am, however, generally more comfortable with the Republican position on Israel and on Republican foreign-policy advisers on the subject of Israel. This does not make me pro-Trump, but it does mean that I see it as important that the Republicans retain both the House and Senate, so that they could be a check on the Israel-criticizing tendencies of the Clinton-Obama foreign-policy team. (See, I am already being more careful with the “anti-Israel” term. Perhaps Gil’s admonition will catch on, at least in the Troy family. Sigh.)
While I appreciate and share your hope that both parties in America staunchly support Israel, I see worrisome signs that the parties are diverging on this issue, with the GOP clearly being the more supportive party. And given that you and your family live in Israel, you will feel the results of this election more acutely than I will.
So I join you in hoping that “Love-Love” Hillary emerges; should she win, I fear that we will end up with what you generously called “Tough Love” Hillary. And the “Tough” tends to take precedence over the “Love.”
Gil Troy responds:
Thanks for your concerns. Yes, it was fun seeing you and introducing you to a new kosher restaurant, I assumed you had tried every one of them in New York by now.
The growing polarization—and estrangement—in America does worry me. Although you and I could have a fun presidential-historian-nerd duel citing examples of nastiness in previous campaigns with the intensity that you and your son Ezzie fenced by exchanging the names of obscure baseball Hall of Famers when he was 5(!), something feels different. I think of the campaign as a national stress test checking our national health, and often highlighting underlying problems. You’ve repeatedly heard my riff from my Age of Clinton book that we were once a Republic of Something, united by core consensus ideals, and this new Republic of Everything—and Nothing—of ours—is more welcoming but also deeply nihilistic, selfish, tunnel-visioned, lost.
And, yes, you’re right, Max Blumenthal qualifies as anti-Israel, given his loathsome, amoral, ahistorical, disproportionate comparisons between Palestinian cities and Nazi concentration camps. He proves why we shouldn’t use the “anti-Israel” charge too broadly. We need to keep it as a term of opprobrium for hateful extremists like him—otherwise we Jews are also crying wolf.
And, yes, I worry that some of Hillary Clinton advisers, while not “anti-Israel” like Blumenthal, are Bash-Israel-firsters, while others are those sapped, now-wearisome, peace-processing dinosaurs still preaching from a 1990s hymnal, still overlooking Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism.
Some leading Democrat must pull a William F. Buckley. Just as Buckley, America’s leading conservative, called out Pat Buchanan in the early 1990s, saying such anti-Zionism masking anti-Semitism did not belong in the Republican Party, I challenge Barack Obama when he retires to echo Buckley, reading out the genuine haters from the Democratic coalition (note this is an invitation, not a prediction).
But these worries about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are balanced out by seeing the Love-Lovers like Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton’s own leaked intentions to set a different, more constructive, tone with Israel than Obama has. Moreover, I have no idea what Donald Trump would do regarding Israel because I have no idea what this political novice would do regarding anything. He has no political track record—and serious impulse-control problems. Just because a bunch of Orthodox Jewish lawyers on his payroll whose kids study in the West Bank tell him to be pro-Bibi doesn’t guarantee that those sentiments would survive a Trumpian temper tantrum if Netanyahu treated a President Trump as he has treated President Obama.
Your lovely hope—which I share—“that people will move on and live their lives once the worst of the election divisions are over”—is imperiled by this blustering, ungracious candidate who vowed to challenge the legitimacy of American democracy by calling the election “rigged” if the American people dare reject him. This unprecedented assault on the process by a major-party nominee represents a characteristic Trumpian irresponsibility that is far more dangerous—to the United States, and by extension to its allies, including Israel—than the bleatings of little Maxie Blumenthal.
Tevi Troy responds:
Here is potentially something that could bring Jews together over the next four, eight, or even 12 years and beyond. Jews recognize how important American exceptionalism has been for Israel, for the Jewish people in America, and also for the world at large. Even if we as a community have many disagreements on a whole host of domestic and foreign-policy issues, there is–I think—a shared belief in the importance of America as a nation that both protects the Jews but also advances basic ideals about human rights, democracy, and freedom. This could be an agenda item for the wide swath of Jewish organizations that overpopulate Washington: Promote America as a force for good, regardless of who wins the election, and press the incoming administration to make sure it is pursuing that goal. Pursuing this agenda could lead to positive policy responses from the new administration, but it could also help determine the shape of the foreign-policy debate so that we get more acceptable foreign-policy candidates in the year 2020.
When the details about the James Comey investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails came out this summer, it seemed like they treated Clinton with kid gloves, handing out a number of immunity deals that normally would not be given and not getting her on record under oath at the start. At the time, Comey was lauded as the greatest lawman since Elliot Ness. Now, when he has come forward and said that they are still investigating and that there is this new trove of emails, he is just this terrible partisan.
It seems to me that the Department of Justice is typically fairly aggressive in prosecuting people for these kinds of crimes. Scooter Libby was prosecuted as a result of an investigation about something that it is clear he did not do—leak Valerie Plame’s name to Robert Novak. Dinesh D’Souza was clearly guilty of illegal campaign contributions, but the prison sentence seemed out of whack with what should have been punished with a fine. And Obama’s Affordable Care Act wouldn’t have passed without an extra Democratic senator elected in the wake of a wrongheaded investigation of GOP Sen. Ted Stevens that cost him his Senate seat. I am generally uncomfortable with overly aggressive Department of Justice prosecutions, but if they are going to be engaging in that kind of activity, it is only fair to treat both parties the same way.
What does this all mean for our election? When people start to question the legitimacy in the fairness of government, it erodes the basic building blocks of civil society. I do have a real fear that post-election we could have a significant number of people saying that whichever candidate wins is illegitimate. This would be unfortunate. We have a mostly successful 200-plus-year experiment in a democratic republic, a nation that has given great opportunities to the people who live here but has also been a beacon of hope to the world. I would hope that one election with two awful candidates would not threaten that larger enterprise. Such a result would be a tragedy for this nation, and for the world as a whole.
Gil Troy responds:
Hi—so, here’s where you start seeing a difference in our perspectives. First, if I were to write about the Justice Department and its prosecutorial approach, I would instinctively find examples from both sides of the aisle. Your litany of Republican woes, without saying so exactly, implies partisan bias, just as the Clintons during the 1990s could only see how Republicans criminalized politics by targeting Democrats.
Since Watergate, even though political corruption is down dramatically from the bad old days of the 1950s and 1960s, let alone the 19th century, prosecutions for political corruption are up. The good news: less tolerance for behavior that was once normalized. The bad news: the criminalization of politics that has hurt Democrats and Republicans alike.
Second, when the director of the FBI spent 14-and-a-half minutes berating a leading presidential candidate, and 30 seconds explaining that he nevertheless didn’t think her missteps were convictable and thus they were not prosecutable, I was inspired. I thought that was a great lesson in law and civics, that all elements of wrongdoing don’t necessarily justify prosecution in a system that convicts only based on guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” At the same time, I was appalled by the bad judgment Hillary Clinton demonstrated [in choosing to use a private server] and was reminded that, as in the 1990s, the Clintons always used “not prosecutable” as some kind of absolution. “Not prosecutable or convictable,” is not the standard of behavior by which I live or you live or we wish our kids to live—and it is not to me an acceptable standard of behavior for a future president.
And finally, your analysis ends in a kind of sanitized way. When you write, “When people start to question the legitimacy in the fairness of government, it erodes the basic building blocks of civil society,” I wonder, “what people?” This year, it isn’t just a generalized phenomenon. This is a problem that started, in many ways, with Donald Trump’s reprehensible comment about “the rigged election.” And I can’t help wondering that if your seeking refuge into worries about “people” reflects a kind of instinctive protectiveness toward the Republican nominee—even if you dislike him.
More broadly, of course, I agree with you. The polls showing that since the 1950s, faith in government, in Congress, in the presidency, has been plummeting does suggest the crisis of legitimacy about which you spoke. But in this campaign cycle, Donald Trump has been the major cause of those doubts and, on this one, Hillary Clinton shoulders far less blame.
Tevi Troy responds:
I know I’ll get another crack on Tuesday, but your missive warrants a brief response. I’m happy to list some overly aggressive investigations of Democrats, including those of John Edwards for doing something sordid but not illegal and Sen. Bob Menendez for doing legislative outreach on behalf of a donor that did not seem to be out of the ordinary. The criminalization of political differences leads to careers being ruined and a loss of faith in the system. And on the loss-of-faith point, Trump was wrong to suggest he wouldn’t accept the results of the election. Period. But there were plenty of Democrats questioning the legitimacy of George W. Bush after the 2000 election. And John Kerry waited an inappropriately long time before conceding the 2004 election. Kerry now claims that he was some kind of hero for conceding, but the story at the time was that he had to be pushed into doing so by the late Ted Kennedy.
Every election cycle, we hear people threatening to leave the country if their candidate loses. I wish all those who made such threats would follow through with them and not let the door hit them on the way out. Hysterical and dire warnings about the death of the republic based on the results of a particular election are bad for the country and bad for democracy. If Gil wants to see that belief as some kind of secret sympathy for Trump, he is welcome to.
What better way to greet the most depressing election in my memory than to argue politics with my brother. Even though Gil and I grew up in the same house in Queens, we took different political journeys. He was a Democrat early on—I remember he worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1976 Senate campaign. He even introduced me to Pat one time in Central Park. I am the younger brother and, therefore, more of a child of the 1980s. I volunteered for the Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign and was a summer intern for George Bush’s 1988 campaign.
Even though Gil and I had different journeys, we now share a lot of similarities of approach. We both have Ph.D.s—he went into academia and I did not. In the post-Sept. 11 world, both of us have been disturbed by the Left, especially when it comes to Israel. In his role as columnist for the Jerusalem Post, Gil has written many trenchant pieces criticizing President Barack Obama’s stances on Israel. I was typically more explicit and political in my approach. I supported Mitt Romney in 2012 and was an adviser to the campaign.
Which brings us to 2016. I have opposed Hillary Clinton from a policy perspective for two-and-a-half decades, but her other issues—setting up her own server as secretary of state, having a distant relationship with the truth, and her participation in “the great enrichment” via Clinton, Inc.—make her a complete nonstarter for me. And I was excited to see so many smart young conservative politicians lining up to join the 2016 GOP race. Yet that process brought us Donald Trump as the GOP nominee.
Liberals somehow see Trump as some kind of extreme conservative. I see him as a big-government liberal. He sees government as the solution to our problems, doesn’t want to make any changes to our unsustainable entitlement programs, and he has the AFL-CIO position on trade. That’s not to mention the allegations about his treatment of women, his avoidance of taxes, his nonpayment of debts, and his publicly demonstrated propensity to pick fights with women, POWs, and parents of slain soldiers, as well as elected—and respected—Republicans such as Paul Ryan.
As Gil knows, I usually get a thrill from voting. But this year, it’s more like a kick in the stomach.
Gil Troy responds:
I know my role here. To make things fun, clear, and tweet-worthy, I’m supposed to play the traditional New York Jewish liberal to my brother—actually my two brothers—the renegade New York Jews turned conservative. (Our older brother Dan Troy is a corporate super-lawyer and former Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush official). And perhaps, back in the 1970s and 1980s, when my hero Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a mainstream Democrat, that kind of simplistic political Punch-and-Judy show would have worked. (Tevi’s excellent first book on Intellectuals and the American Presidency has a great Moynihan chapter, showing where our political and intellectual agendas intersect.)
But I’m afraid I have to disappoint. I am too much the academic, too much the moderate, and too disappointed with where the Democratic Party and modern American liberalism have gone, to play the typical liberal.
As an academic who, like Tevi, is often called a “presidential historian” (we professors have to pretend to disdain such simplistic titles), I avoid publicly endorsing any candidates. I am proud when I write something that is praised as balanced, as I just did for Time, pointing out Hillary Clinton’s moral lapses along with the sexism and unreasonable “Clintipathy” that exaggerates her ethical sloppiness into extreme statements about being “the most corrupt candidate ever.” And I am equally proud when I write something historical as I did last week for Politico, tracing the long noble history of Party Bolting, which may have helped some Republicans abandon Donald Trump—without my telling them what to do. My approach to politics is captured in the late former New York Mayor Ed Koch’s great line: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”
My passionately nonpartisan moderation drives Dan and Tevi crazy, when they’re not busy sending each other secret messages with their fancy right-wing decoder rings. Dan even calls me “the smugwump,” a clever update to the nickname given the 19th-century liberal reformers who abandoned the Republican party in 1884 because they couldn’t support the corrupt former senator and former secretary of state (I’m not making this up) James G. Blaine. They were defined by the dismissive line “that a mugwump is a person sitting on the fence, with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.”
Mea culpa. I find the demands of partisan loyalty—and the resulting intellectual inconsistency—in Washington, D.C. suffocating. (Yes, I get it, hence the “smugwump” designation.)
Dan has another great line. He is often asked: “How could you three grow up as the sons of two New York City schoolteachers and none of you are liberal Democrats?” He responds: “How could any thinking being grow up in a union household in New York in the 1970s and still remain a liberal or a Democrat?” We saw Albert Shanker’s liberal UFT (United Federation of Teachers) disappoint my parents repeatedly. We watched New York City turn from a liberal Great Society paradise into a dirty, smelly, crime-ridden, debt-burdened, bureaucratically sclerotic disaster. And we also saw identity politics make too much of the radical Left turn totalitarian, unthinking, more swayed by who you were rather than what you did or thought, truly irrational, illiberal, and yes, anti-Israel.
So, for a change I find myself in the majority today, agreeing with the record levels of Americans who dislike and mistrust both candidates. In 2016, being a smugwump just means you think and care without partisan blinders on. Whereas writing my recent book on The Age of Clinton made me appreciate Bill Clinton’s centrism more, the Clintons’ moral blindspots perennially disappoint me.
But I also criticize Republicans. Extremist dog-whistling on immigration is reprehensible. I didn’t like “Can’t-play-with-anybody-in-the-sandbox” Ted Cruz and “Callow Marco” Rubio as candidates. I detest Donald Trump’s bullying, his contempt for so many, and his assault on our democracy’s very legitimacy with his “rigged election” demagoguery.
So I share Tevi’s concerns and heartbreak. Traditionally, when asked during campaigns, “Who will win?” I dodge, saying: “As a historian, I find it hard enough to predict the past, I can’t begin to predict the future. But,” I add, “on Election Day, Americans will vote peacefully, so, unlike in so many other countries, ballots not bullets will rule.” These days, I only say the first sentence. I mourn that the ugly demons Donald Trump stirred—and the extreme Left’s menacing response—prevents me from giving my usual prediction of a tranquil Election Day and a peaceful power transition.
Beyond being disappointed, I’m scared.
Tevi Troy responds:
This is unusual, but Gil is wrong about one thing: There is no vast right-wing conspiracy decoder ring. Or if there is, I don’t have one, and Dan has not shown me his. And while I know he takes great comfort in his “moderate’s freedom” and the ability to criticize both sides, I think conservatives deserve credit for their willingness to criticize the GOP candidate this cycle at a time when liberals and Democrats too often overlook the flaws of their standard-bearer.
In fact, one of the things that I find most comforting in this election is the degree to which many of the smartest and most able conservative thinkers have been unwilling to get on board with Donald Trump. I don’t see the same degree of self-criticism from the Left. Hillary gets to skate by on her many problematic issues. Even Bernie Sanders, who ran a spirited campaign against her, refused to engage on the email issue when it was clearly an issue on which she was deservedly vulnerable.
I remember in the early 1990s, my late mentor, Ben Wattenberg—an LBJ White House aide and Scoop Jackson Democrat, for the record—used to write that Democrats, when forming a firing squad, do so in a circle. There are no circles on the Democratic firing squads anymore, just a straight line pointing at the GOP. Republicans are the ones who seem to be forming the circles. But when Ben was making his observation following the 1988 election, the Democrats were in the midst of a period of self-criticism. Now Republicans are likely about to enter a similar period of self-reflection, and in that context, a circular firing squad, while ugly, may lead to the re-examination that the party needs in order to right itself, both politically and intellectually.
So while I am dismayed by what’s going on in the current election, and not happy with either of our choices, I do have some faith in the conservative movement’s willingness and ability to have the honest and robust discussions necessary to figure out the way forward. Call this the freedom of members of an intellectual movement rather than party operatives. We are free to think how we like and have no obligation to refrain from criticism of the party.
This vision centered around the freedom to disagree is reminiscent to me of the many robust arguments we had over our Shabbat table growing up. One time I brought home a female friend who left the table crying because she thought we were all yelling at that nice old man who was our grandfather. Well, Grandpa was indeed a nice man, but he also liked a good argument, and he trained his grandsons to follow suit. Perhaps similar training in the crucible of argument at other Shabbat tables is why many conservative Jews have been loud Trump critics.
Going forward, conservatives need to stay true to our principles. One of those principles is freedom. I hope that in the future the Republican Party can find a standard-bearer who celebrates freedom—including the freedom to disagree—and is one who the conservative movement can proudly get behind. This election has not brought it.
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