Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Useful Temperament

     When Donald Trump first announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2016, I was inclined to dismiss it as of no importance. Trump had made such gestures before, most recently in 2012. It came to nothing then, and I expected the same result this time around. For Trump, politics had always been either an obstruction to his projects or a tool by which to get what he couldn’t get another way. This year’s sally looked to be just one more point on a very predictable graph.

     Well, suffice it to say that Trump has surprised me, and no doubt quite a lot of other Americans, with the energy and success of his current campaign. His enduring lead in the opinion polls suggests that persons who would have been described as “not engaged” in 2012 have decided to take notice, at least to the extent of registering an opinion with the pollsters. As his campaign has progressed, Right-inclined commentators previously as ready to dismiss him as I have steadily changed their tune, albeit not to the extent of endorsing him.

     Indeed, Trump just might have done the Republican Party the biggest favor it’s received in seventy years.

     These past few years, students of political discourse have popularized a term that was once relegated to academic journals: the Overton window. Joseph Overton’s original conception of this “window of discourse” suggested that it arises from popular willingness to consider only a bounded range of ideas – i.e., that the ideological range of the electorate puts some possible policy directions effectively beyond discussion. The term most often used to dismiss such policy directions is, of course, “radical.”

     But that appears not to be the case, at least not just now.

     Trump’s willingness to espouse several positions dubbed radical by his political opponents has demonstrated that the public’s window of discourse is broader than that of the political class. His statements on immigration in general and Muslim immigration in particular have evoked condemnation from his opponents – Right and Left – while eliciting steadily increasing approbation and support from the public. The public, apparently, is broader minded, at least as regards potential policy changes, than the political elite.

     If we postulate, even just for argument’s sake, that there are persons in the political class who quietly agree with some of Trump’s “radical” notions, we’re forced to face a question: Why did it take Donald Trump to bring those positions into the national discourse?

     I submit that this is the central question of politics and political ethics in our time.

     When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. – Noted song writer and occasional singer Robert Zimmerman
     When you ain’t got but a measly $10 billion and your name on the biggest, baddest buildings in New York City, you got nothin’ to lose. – Me.

     “Nothing to lose” is a frequently misapplied evaluation. More often than not, it would be more accurate to apply “can’t lose” to such initiatives. It’s not that the initiator has nothing he would be pained to lose. Rather, he’s convinced that the enveloping context couldn’t produce an outcome that would deprive him of anything he values. (A game theorist would say that “any negative cells in the payoff matrix have been rendered inaccessible.”) This is especially important in the assessment of such a person’s mindset as he charges forward.

     The “can’t lose” mindset evokes a carefree attitude whose expression sometimes causes it to be confused with courage. I’ve written before about the importance of that virtue, which is conspicuous mainly by its absence from the political class. They are the persons most inclined to avoid transgressing the Overton window, regardless of its genesis.

     Donald Trump is convinced, probably quite accurately, that he can’t lose. He wears that conviction like a loud tie. The conviction frees him to say whatever is on his mind, without qualification. It’s developed that a great part of the public has been waiting to hear a politician say exactly those things. I have no doubt that there are politicians, including some in high federal offices, who agree with some or all of the things Trump has said, but who would never have dared to say any of them publicly. Indeed, I’ve met a couple of them.

     Who produced that window of discourse?

     In analyzing the behavior of public figures, there are more factors than personal beliefs about vulnerability or invulnerability to be considered. Habit and training are of consequence. As Florence King once observed, no one could imagine Margaret Thatcher saying “goddamn son of a bitch” no matter how angry she might become. A desire to retain the approval of others, especially that of valued mentors and patrons, is another element. But temperament might be the most important of all.

     Temperament – the willingness or lack thereof to impose self-restraint upon particular impulses and inclinations – determines much about what a man will say, do, or attempt. Donald Trump has the temperament of a freewheeling, daring risk-taker: one who will try anything, whether because he’s confident about the consequences or is simply unconcerned about the possible downside. By essaying the various, supposedly “unspeakable” ideas he’s introduced to our political discourse this campaign season, he’d been the most useful of all the figures involved in it. He’s shown us what the public is really willing to contemplate – and it’s a much broader spectrum of policy possibilities than any of the career politicians would have dared to address.

     I still don’t think Trump would make a good president. I still hope one of the more conservative aspirants – preferably Ted Cruz – will win the nod. But I think it’s time the Punditocracy allows that, whatever we might think of his ultimate political viability or value, we owe Donald Trump our thanks for demonstrating that the Overton window is at this time a product of the political class itself – and that its edges are neither impenetrable nor lethally sharp.


Anonymous said...

I'm for Trump-his directness in addressing the nightmare we're living is just too damn important.

I like Ted but he's misstepped too often for my liking-most recently when he said Trump's policy to pause all moslim immigration was not the way to go.

Malatrope said...

It's always amazing to me how it takes non-engineers so long to figure out something, and it seems so advanced to them when they do – they race to publish, argue over who owns which semantics, and gnash their teeth at any competition – but it's trivial in the mathematics or engineering community.

The "Overton Window" is nothing more than a simple first order lowpass control loop. It can be coded as digital filter in a couple lines of code. There is a predictable lag, in this case about eight years.

All Trump has done is add some second-order characteristics to that filter. The phase lag is reducing. The bigger question is, has he increased the bandwidth? Perhaps to instability?

However this election (and concomitantly the nation and the world) turns out, I'm solidly behind Trump. To paraphrase Doc Holliday, "he's my wrecking ball".

JWMJR said...

I just put out my new take on the conflicts we are confronted with.

Unknown said...

The political class is engineering a reordering of the global division. They won't even allow us complain let alone fight it. What is required is a hostile takeover of the establishment in DC ala Carl Icahn in the 80's financial world. Donald Trump is just the man to accomplish this herculean task. I believe that he should suspend all regulations and work related rules to accomplish a massive reduction in force and budget of the Fed Gov. Make no mistake this is the fear of the uniparty. They will try a third candidate if he wins the primary contests or turn the Trump delegates. Things are going to get interesting. Whatever the outcome of the election, the Republican party is a party without voters. They are as finished today as the Whigs in 1860.

daniel_day said...

Cruz also gets credit for expanding the Overton window, in another direction -- telling Iowa Republicans that he's opposed to the ethanol subsidy, and getting cheered for it.