I too-briefly touched upon a peculiarly Aristotelian character trait on my subtly-named Aristotle: Wrong About Everything piece, when I really should have expended a thousand more words on this true legacy of that poisonous old Macedonian bastard. You see, almost everything Aristotle came up with was fundamentally, ridiculously, often immorally wrong, whether we’re talking about his absurd views on astronomy, anatomy, biology, or the arts — but few people in history were more assured of their own greatness and correctness than Aristotle, and that towering conviction, the utter lack of any self-doubt or reservation, no matter how half-baked the idea he was espousing, convinced succeeding Western generations for over two thousand years into making him the #1 guiding light of Western civ on the basis of gee, if that guy is that convinced he’s right, there must be really something to him.
Few men in history had the raw, animal dominance, and the resulting reception and excitement among more submissive people, of Aristotle. And this unique trait would go along way to explaining our current politics.
Now, both sides have been hammering Mitt Romney for his recent op-ed and its quite accurate assessment of our president’s moral character; but #MAGA in particular has been hammering him with a viciousness outdoing anything liberals ever came up with in 2012. One of NRO’s more Trumpified acolytes, Victor Davis Hanson, came out with his own rebuttal which, surprisingly, avoided most of the personal attacks, thereby providing some illumination as to why these guys are so enthralled by such an oafish, blundering buffoon.
VDH starts by rolling out the cliche’d but-Gorsuch and but-Hillary routines, and the what-about-that-endorsement bit, as if those had anything to do with the question of Trump’s personal character. Because the president’s ethical and moral self, which lands somewhere in the spectrum between “vile” and “pondscum,” is what we’re talking about, not the damn judges. Neither Mitt nor conservative stalwarts with impeccable lib-owning street cred like Jonah Goldberg, David French, Alexandra DeSanctis, Amanda Carpenter or Kevin Williamson have one cross word to say about Gorsuch or Kavanaugh. As I sonorously repeat over and over, it’s all about his moral character. And as VDH’s colleague Goldberg notes, the fact that our president makes your average mob boss look like a model citizen most likely spells disaster for his presidency — and the country. In real-life, practical ways — because, as conservatives used to believe until two years ago, character is destiny. For instance, the brewing recession stupidly triggered by his clumsy trade wars were only possible from someone too profoundly ignorant of economics and too convinced of his own half-assed opinions, someone who is only enraged when a subordinate offers disagreement.
And recessions don’t care who you voted for when the layoffs start hitting your firm.
But VDH really gives the game away here:
And given that Trump was a known quantity (and known often to be abrasive) for decades, why would Romney have sought out and accepted his endorsement in 2012 for his own presidential run? The obvious answers are that in a world of political pragmatism, all candidates are foolish to turn down endorsements from celebrities and sitting presidents. But is not the bar higher for ethicists who argue that traditional definitions of character adjudicate successful or unsuccessful governance? (emphasis mine)
There you have it. A different set of standards applies to you, me, and Mitt than they do to Trump. The bar is higher, the penalties harsher for us plebes, as opposed to, and forgive me for bringing in another philosopher, a beautiful Nietzschen Übermenschen like Donald Trump (try not to laugh).
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Trumpkin declare this so baldly, but that has been the bedrock of their arguments, such as they are, since Trump descended on his escalator. It’s the basis of the Fifth Avenue rule, and they would never attempt the same outrageous defense with anyone named Bush or Cruz. VDH and his peers truly believe the laws and morals that govern regular people should not and do not apply to Donald Trump, as he is history’s true greatest genius, its towering figure from whose shining brow all the gifts of Western Civilization arise.
All that, of course, we already knew. But the big question remains: why?
Why do people believe this, especially over someone as laughably incompetent, dull-witted, uncreative and amoral as our president, who ol’ Friedrich would have had a good chuckle over? Perhaps VDH’s “Trump is above your petty laws and codes” stance gives us a clue.
I believe the answer is how Trump’s magnetism has the same ferrous core as Aristotle’s, that absolute, unshakable faith in his own genius, one that somehow becomes stronger the wronger he is — and drawing in everyone around that narcissist, especially those of weak and/or submissive temperament like VDH’s confederate, Rich Lowry. (It also naturally attracts the perpetually-furious subsection of #MAGA including the likes of Kurt Schlichter, Dan “Roid Rage” Bongino, and John Nolte, guys who see Trump as a useful battering ram against civilized society and who’ve always thought Jesus and his Golden Rule were for cucks, anyway.)
Not everyone is drawn in — those of solid moral backing are left confused and wondering what just happened with their former friends. But that doesn’t change the fact that Trump has totally dominated his own party to an extent unprecedented with either party since WWII, to the point where the GOP chairwoman denounced Mitt Romney, her own uncle — and it isn’t from the president ever being right about much of anything. It isn’t from his spectacular failures as a businessman, one who couldn’t even succeed at running a casino during Atlantic City’s boom years. It isn’t from any kind of genius policy proposal. His only success came from convincing others he was some kind of business virtuoso (i.e. the basis his old reality show), despite his track record proving otherwise. And his political success came from convincing the same kind of rubes and suckers that, in his words, “I alone can fix” the nation’s troubles.
The problem is that, despite what conservative moral relativists like VDH and Roger Kimball believe, not only can the president be wrong in an absolute sense, but that wrongness can and will have deleterious real-world consequences, just as Aristotle was more responsible for the European Dark Ages than any single other person in history. Besides the recession, we have a world looking down on America as a kind of joke, the insulting of allies (or outright betrayal, with the Kurds), the emboldening of the world’s worst dictators, ever-more-division between American citizens to the delight of both Trump and Putin, and a Republican Party that has formally renounced character and family values.
That last isn’t an exaggeration. “Railing about character hurts the president, and Republicans know that,” wrote Henry Olsen in another op-ed, getting straight to the point. Caring about morals hurts the Great Leader; therefore, we should not care. This has always been a tenet of the New Right, along with there being a different set of rules for their ochre overlord; they’re just getting more brazen in admitting it.
Would any of that have happened under Jeb! or Little Marco?
There have been other world leaders with the same Aristotelian core, and with the same resulting cadre of awe-struck submissives serving as yes-men, as our dear leader. Napoleon comes to mind, although he at least also had some real-world military genius to carry him through. That said: how did his story end for France and for himself? How many were left dead by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution instituted by Mao, a man completely immune to the self-crticism he demanded of his subjects? And I hate to go there, but: how did a certain mid-century leader’s unassailable conviction of his own genius end for Germany, especially compared to his counterpart Stalin, who by contrast was at least aware of his own lack of genius in military strategy and who was therefore able to delegate effectively?
Our president may be many things, but he is neither new or unique, and neither is the almost erotic submission of men like VDH, Lowry, Lindsey Graham, and Rand Paul to their self-declared alpha, the latter two engaged in a chronic, catty, and repulsive one-upmanship with each other to be the dominant’s favored submissive of the moment.
One core tenet that conservatives used to believe in is the immutability of human nature, across the world and across time — and though the Right is abandoning this along with every other principle, it has never been more true than now. The vulnerability to dominance by the alpha male is the same as it was two thousand years ago, as is the completely dominant personality eager to exploit this. It may be fascinating that our current-day president has relearned the same nefarious lessons discovered by Aristotle so long ago, but it is also disheartening that it still works so well. Few things Aristotle ever uttered endured as truth, but the man himself is evidence of a hard truth of human nature. Our institutions were carefully constructed to protect against this, among other human frailties — which is precisely why the Alinskyite New Right aims to tear our institutions down.