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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Trump Derangement vs Trump Zombie is Rationalism vs. Empiricism


Would you vote for a gangster?

Of course, this question cannot be answered out-of-context.  What if all the candidates are gangsters and there are no other choices?  One must ask further questions such as what is the current form of government, i.e., will their power be limited by checks and balances?  Will they be tasked with making appointments to other federal agencies?  What if the political position does give the power to regulate the market, Gangster X is known to take money from a free market group, Gangster Y takes money from communists, and the only major issue during their term is regulating the market?  What will the likely issues be over his term?  Is the economy collapsing, are there serious foreign threats emerging, is political correctness threatening civil liberties?  Who are his close advisers?  What types of people will he put on the supreme court or in the federal judiciary?  What kind of people will he pick to head the military and intelligence services which speaks to both foreign policy and civil liberties.  Is he a cheerleader for good ideas even if he doesn't or can't implement them (like Reagan was)?  Does he have a positive spirit when advocating for America overseas, i..e, what message does he send to the world about America and American interests?  Does he provoke fear in our enemies or does he project weakness and appeasement?

It would be a grave mistake to simply declare, "Gangster X is a gangster," then proceed to dissect the implicit philosophy of an abstract gangster qua gangster (irrational, dishonest, violent, etc.) and subsequently deduce that any decisions emanating from a particular gangster (because all gangsters are irrational, dishonest, violent, etc.) must be bad. This latter approach is a textbook case of rationalism.  It represents an attempt to obtain knowledge through deduction from concepts in your head rather than from the full set of facts.

On the other hand, dismissing this larger context, and concluding, without qualification that Gangster X is an all-around great guy that is impervious to error, just because you heard him give a nice speech or observed him doing a few good things, would also be an error - albeit, an instance of empiricism.  Such an approach would render any attempt to forecast or project what a candidate is likely to do in a given situation impossible.  The empiricist is a prisoner to the last observed data point.  Perhaps you like the way he makes you feel at a rally, or his brash style resonates with you or you like the way he belittles his opposition because he seems tough and in command.  While all these factors are relevant data points, they must be integrated with a full appraisal of the candidate's wider philosophical outlook, and that must be integrated with the larger political context as described above.  Toughness and brashness were also characteristic of Mussolini and Castro.   

If you want to advocate a position, you need to integrate political philosophy with political facts. The full context involves myriad factors and can require a fairly detailed understanding of the various factors involved as it relates to your own self-interest, including the history of the candidates, recent political history, the nature of the current government, the major issues at stake, the term of the appointment, and so on.  In general, we should never judge a candidate in a moral vacuum as if we are judging his candidacy for heaven.  Ayn Rand, in her essay, How to Judge a Political Candidate, said:
One cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate’s total philosophy — only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials). It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job. It is only political consistency that we can demand of him; if he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours. [emphasis mine]
As a great example, recall Ayn Rand's consideration of the Nixon candidacy (The Ayn Rand Letter, “The American Spirit,” page 136).  Despite Nixon's flaws (which could be analyzed out-of-context), she weighed the importance of his supreme court picks which would outlive his presidency - a totally rational and pertinent factor:
We may hope that Nixon might gain time for the nation, by granting some relief (i.e., removing a few chains) to the private sector of the economy and by arresting the growth of the public sector. But, in view of his record, we cannot be certain. There is, however, one promise of his 1968 campaign – perhaps, the most important one – which he has kept: the appointment to the Supreme Court of men who respect the Constitution. It is still too early to tell the exact nature of these men’s views and the direction they will choose to take. But if they live up to their enormous responsibility, we may forgive Mr. Nixon a great many of his defaults: the Supreme Court is the last remnant of a philosophical influence in this country.
From The Ayn Rand Letter, November 6, 1972, "A Nation's Unity,” Rand said she didn't like either candidate, but that McGovern would kill the country for sure, so to vote for Nixon.  From The Ayn Rand Letter, November 20, 1972, “The American Spirit,” page 133: “The election was a triumph of the American sense of life, a demonstration of its survival.” From The Ayn Rand Letter, November 20, 1972, “The American Spirit,” page 133: She said the results of the election were not because Nixon was popular or because Americans approved of his policies. It was because people rejected McGovern who stood for statism.

An integrated approach to a significant election requires knowing a lot about politics (political facts) and political philosophy.  Given this complexity, even following a rational, integrated method is difficult and fraught with the potential for honest errors and mistakes - while open to debate among reasonable people. However, engaging in purely rationalistic or empirical arm-chair arguments for politicians is a much bigger and more insidious problem that should be understood and avoided.   


As an example of pure rationalism, consider Onkar Ghate's article titled "The Anti-Intellectuality of Donald Trump: Why Ayn Rand Would Have Despised a President Trump."  Despite being unwilling to "speak for the dead," Ghate goes on to speak for the dead, and professes to know what Rand would have thought. He writes :
My wager is that were Ayn Rand alive today, she would condemn the whole Trump phenomenon. Far from seeing him or his administration’s actions as even partially influenced by her ideas, she would see Donald Trump as the kind of political figure whose rise she had foreseen and warned us against.
And despite admitting that she surprised her followers (as geniuses tend to do continually, although that irony seems lost on him) by not endorsing Reagan shortly before her death, as an "expert on Ayn Rand’s philosophy," he feels qualified to speak for her.  Regarding Trump, he claims:
Trump’s salient characteristic as a political figure is anti-intellectuality. Because Rand saw this mentality as on the rise (she called it the anti-conceptual mentality), she had a lot to say about it, and it’s illuminating how much of it fits Trump.
"To be an intellectual," he writes, "is a demanding responsibility. To be intellectual requires real independence of judgment and enduring honesty and integrity." And in case any of us were considering likening Trump to the Founding Fathers, he notes, "It’s not just that Trump lacks these virtues; in comparison to, say, Jefferson, Washington or Madison, most of today’s politicians do. It’s that Trump projects disdain for these virtues."

Note, that this self-proclaimed expert on Ayn Rand, while decrying Trump for not being an intellectual, forgets to mention that Rand herself told us: "It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job."

So, what's the upshot of all of this?  Ghate tells us that when the anti-intellectual mind replaces fidelity to truth with "loyalty to the group," it leads to "a profound tribalism" which, in turn, leads towards "authoritarianism and dictatorship."  Ghate regards Trump as an amoral pragmatist with a penchant for lying.  His anti-conceptual mind demands loyalty to "Him" and this represents an ominous trend towards "authoritarianism and dictatorship." Evidently, Ghate tells us, we are nearing the stage where "pseudo-intellectuals will eventually be replaced by their progeny: people who more openly dispense with the intellect and who are more explicitly boorish, brutish and tribal, i.e., by anti-intellectual mentalities."  In this regard, Trump is a Cuffy Meigs type character, but instead of a "gun in one pocket and a rabbit's foot in the other," Trump "carries the nuclear codes in one pocket and Infowars in the other."

Note that Ghate ignores every possible contextual factor outside of his isolated analysis of Trump's moral and psychological pathology.  What about the Supreme Court and appointments to the federal judiciary?  What about the Cabinet agency heads, particularly the EPA which has a stifling affect on American manufacturers and energy?  What about our military, Israel, and the UN?  What about immigration policy, taxes, the economy, etc.?  What about the authoritarian leftist PC movement who would have found a friend within Hillary's administration and a brash enemy in Trump?  Can the checks and balances of our system prevent him from unleashing his supposed authoritarian tendencies while leaving him room to initiate his better policy proposals?

Of course, virtually any politician today could be subjected to an isolated dissection of their philosophic pathology.  Imagine such an analysis of Hillary Clinton (which might require volumes), Bush, Bernie Sanders, or Joseph Biden?  They are all the progeny of a collapsing culture and a bankrupt post-modern intellectual climate.  However, focusing on Trump's particular philosophical pathology outside of the larger political and cultural context is pure rationalism.  Yes, maybe he is anti-intellectual (although, I think he is more unintellectual), but that might be ok, for example, if his opponent is a cunning philosophical evil genius bent on overthrowing America.  In stark contrast to Trump, who were the other choices?  Were the candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and James Madison?  Does Hillary lie?  Is Biden an intellectual?  Is the socialist Bernie Sanders an authoritarian?  How do those characteristics relate to the current political context?

Ghate's article is a rationalistic exercise that fails to appreciate factual complexity and impugns the character of many thoughtful, intelligent people that see the situation very differently. You don't have to love Trump to see this.


What is the largest threat facing defenders of individualism today?  In my view, the biggest threat is post-modern philosophic trends that are threatening free speech, violently stifling dissent, whitewashing the threat of Islamism, purging western culture from the university curriculum, causing the balkanization of Americans into racial and victim groups, justifying wanton violence towards law enforcement, and breaking down the rule of law - not to mention the left's various political programs of environmentalism, socialized medicine, and confiscatory taxation. 

The popularity of Trump is in large part an American backlash to this threat and despair over the seemingly endless corruption of politics in Washington.  Would it be nice to have an articulate, reasoned, opponent of these trends?  Yes, but Trump's crudeness and unwillingness to apologize to the PC police is exactly what resonated with ordinary Americans fed up with, not just the PC left, but milquetoast Republicans who kowtow to these trends at every available opportunity.  Trump's macho demeanor is anathema to many, but it is a projection of a certain American sensibility - a sense of confidence and moral certainty.  A cowboy wouldn't win the Yale debate club, but he would project confidence, swagger, and ability - important qualities in an executive that most Americans admire.

As Americans watched in horror as Dallas cops were gunned down in the street, watched Antifa thugs beating up conservatives on college campuses, and witnessed more and more victims of yet more Muslim terror attacks, all we heard from the leftist shills in the mainstream media was PC propaganda that "Islamophobia" or "white privilege" is really what we must fear!  In an age of "Blame America First," Trump's unabashed "America First" mantra is the first time in a generation or more that a politician has expressed this sentiment.  And, even if this is the product of an "anti-intellectual boor," he means it - and most Americans love it.

Hillary Clinton is a corrupt megalomaniac who has spent her life crushing her opposition in a ruthless quest for political power.  As we have now found out, she spent her years under Obama as Secretary of State selling out American foreign policy for cash.  As we have found out since, her tentacles stretched not only into the DNC (which threw the primary for her), the media (which openly campaigned for her), but to the former Attorney General, the FBI Director, and elements of our intelligence agencies who appear to have conspired to undermine his campaign and presidency.

She was not pursued for brazen obstruction of justice when she and her cronies deleted tens of thousands of emails, while others rot in prison for 1/100 of an offense.  FBI Director Comey went on national television to cite a litany of obstruction violations under federal law, only to tell us that he would not seek prosecution.  Of course, that is not his call, it is the call of the justice department and attorney general, but, oh wait, AG Lynch had already recused herself due to a mysterious meeting with Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac.  This is the stuff of Banana Republics!  If she had won, perhaps Clinton would have worn epaulettes, ceremonial medals, and smoked a pipe at her inauguration.       

Where was Ghate's philosophical analysis of this creature? 

I would have voted for virtually any of her opponents, simply to rid the federal government, as much as possible, of the Clinton machine's cronies and allies, her cabinet heads, her justice department, her FBI, her intelligence agencies and state department, to say nothing of her economic and tax advisers.  In the same way, I'd like to see Chicago shorn of the Democratic machine regardless of what replaces it for a few years.

Meanwhile, under Trump, we have gotten a conservative Supreme Court justice, which is to say we avoided a liberal justice, we have some cabinet agency heads that are dismantling their agencies, notably the EPA and the Department of Education and we are getting non-Hillary types at all levels of his administration.  Due to Trump's and the Republican's inability to think or act in principle, we have not had a repeal of Obamacare, but we don't have full socialized medicine yet.  Trump shows no concern about the escalating budget deficit  which is horrible, but hardly worse than what would have happened under Clinton.  Trump's crony capitalist instincts along with his seeming praise of ruthless dictators is troubling, but how has this tendency manifested in his policies?  Is he injecting poison darts in his enemies?  No, he seems to have scared the North Koreans into submission (for now), which I analyzed here, and has imposed crippling sanctions on both North Korea and Russia, while taking an aggressive posture towards the Communist Chinese.  In his own hamfisted way, he is forcing a healthy rethink of NATO's purpose and budget. I expect the political achievements of Trump to be minimal, but not devastating.   

More important than policy matters right now, Trump's election has brought to the surface clear fronts in a broader cultural war between PC left progressives and Americans - something that would never have happened as starkly under a Clinton presidency.

The left and the media have been totally exposed.  Liberal democrats and the left are at war (#WalkAway).  The left, on full tilt over Trump's election, have exposed themselves as fully anti-American fascists, willing even to shout down speeches given by the ACLU!  If it's not clear that the mainstream media is openly biased, then it never will be.  The main news networks and large metro newspapers openly campaign against Trump and the Republicans on a daily basis in the most brazen way.  The major social media companies openly worked with the Hillary campaign, and now are openly trying to stifle right wing social media platforms on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and others. 
The PC left is an authoritarian movement that seeks to purge Western civilization in favor of Marxism and identity politics.  This is the biggest danger advocates of free markets and civil liberties face right now.  America does need clear, articulate defenders of Western civilization and western values of reason, individual rights, and capitalism.  Some of those people have been emboldened by the left's hostile antics, and are now winning in the marketplace of ideas.  People like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin (none huge fans of Trump), and many others have emerged as articulate defenders of free speech and western civilization on campus.

We should call Trump out for bad policies or bad ideas, but, also, place his presidency in the broader context of the intellectual and political battle we are waging and the alternatives we actually face in the here and now.  More importantly, proponents of freedom and individual rights should focus their attacks on the real enemies of civilization rather than rationalistically attacking Trump for not being the Thomas Jefferson of politics.  No shit. 


In a broad post examining Objectivist rationalism, Objectivists Disintegrating?, I wrote that the candidate example demonstrates the need for an important distinction: method versus conclusion.  I would never say that my analysis of every concrete political issue is absolutely correct.  On the contrary, I would expect a lot of rational debate over the nature and weight of the evidence given that I am not omniscient.  However, the validity of the contextual method of approaching ideas is an epistemological absolute.

For example, two parties both acknowledge and understand the full political context, including being open to new evidence as it is presented, but one party claims, "you're wrong about political candidate X, because the real important factor is not his Supreme Court nominees, it's his foreign policy goals and his views on the actions of the Fed - that is far more dangerous in the long run as compared to candidate Y."  This is reasonable and arguable since we share the same fundamental context.

However, if you said, "you're wrong about political candidate X, because he is a Christian and mystics are bad because they are anti-reason" I would not even consider such a claim.  If you could explain or show how the fact of his Christianity could affect or has affected his decisions and compare and contrast that to the other candidates, maybe you'd have something, but stating such a fact, out-of-context, is worse than useless - it's dangerous since you might come to the utterly wrong conclusion as it pertains to your own values.  What if he is mildly religious and otherwise pro-individual rights while his opponent is an atheist Marxist who wants to seize the means of production and imprison dissenters?     

This scenario helps to explain the level of anger and intransigence displayed by the out-of-context thinker.  He believes that he knows the unassailable formula, e.g., "mysticism is anti-reason and anti-reason is anti-life so a mystic is always and everywhere as bad as any other."  No amount of facts or context can shake this "dogma in a void" as Peikoff puts it, because his judgments are not tied to the full set of facts and reality - they are tied to disconnected abstractions.  Whereas the contextual thinker can be reasoned with, because other facts can be presented to alter the conditions of his judgment, the floating out-of-context rationalist cannot be reasoned with, because his mind only contains unassailable universal abstract formulas. 

This does not only affect Libertarians and Objectivists.  Consider the leftist who assails his opponent with the formula "you don't want to ban all guns, therefore you want to kill kids, therefore you are an evil person that deserves threats or worse" or "you don't believe in government welfare so you want the poor to die in the streets." Or consider the anti-abortion activist who declares "you support abortion rights, therefore you want to kill babies, therefore you are an evil person....."  These types are virtually unreachable because no amount of facts, explanation, or nuance can be integrated into their out-of-context formulation which translates into emotional appraisals and even violence against their opponents.

If you want to advocate a position, you need to integrate political philosophy with political facts.  We would love to have a bunch of George Washington's, who are principled in both theory and action, overseeing a constitutionally limited republic, and we should advocate the principles that hopefully will result in more George Washington's in the long run, but even if this were possible, you always have to advocate for politicians within a context.