Gird your loins: the battle hymn of the Republicans (and the Democrats)

The candidates, debating in typical restrained fashion. (George Bellows, "Dempsey and Firpo," 1924, oil on canvas, 5 x 63.3 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art / Wikimedia Commons)
The candidates, debating in typical restrained fashion. (George Bellows, “Dempsey and Firpo,” 1924, oil on canvas, 51 x 63.3 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art / Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t really like to do it, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So on occasion, when I feel the situation has devolved from everyday addle-headedness to foolishness pure and simple, I breathe in, cinch my belt, and enter into the political fray. I do this mostly from the sidelines, not holding much truck with the actual playing of the game since the evening, long ago, when my first wife challenged a future United States congressman to a drinking match and won. It’s not that the future congressman didn’t try: both contestants ended up under the table, where they just sort of slithered at some point, taking care to grab their respective bottles as they slid. But the future congressman stayed there, snoring, while the first wife emerged wobbly but triumphant, and from that point I figured the trouble with politics is that it’s played by amateurs, and therefore not to be taken overly seriously.

Still, Matters of Consequence do come before these august bodies (I’m referring to the House and Senate, not to the future congressman or my first wife), and so it’s only common sense to pay at least a little attention to what the incumbents and candidates for incumbency have to say and do. That does not mean I watch the form of debased televised theatrics known as presidential debates: I’m proud to say that in the endless campaign slog of 2015 and 2016, I’ve skipped them all. Still, I read the post-mortems, and word seeps through.

No, I like to take my questions on the political process to the experts, of whom I’ve known a few. Readers of this column might recall my previous conversations with the likes of the canny Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, who among other insights into the power racket made the famous and eye-opening distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft: to paraphrase very loosely, if you accept tit, you’d better give an honest tat.

I also chatted with the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, who’s developed a fierce and controversial reputation for his views on realpolitik; the American steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, a key corporate political insider; my old friend Kautilya, a superb tactician who wrote the ultimate Hindu treatise on statecraft and military tactics, the Arthashastra; Eugene Field, a poet among political commentators; Thomas Hobbes, the noted political theorist and author of Leviathan; Huey Long, a master practitioner of the byzantine form of politics followed in the Deep South; Jesus of Nazareth, an influential populist religious leader with ties in the disputed territories of the Middle East; and the prominent American religious revivalist Elmer Gantry.

Here are a few excerpts from my conversations:

BH: The outsized influence of big money is a huge issue in this presidential cycle. Charges are flying that there’s too much of it moving from the wrong pockets to the wrong pockets, and the whole election’s up for sale. Hillary’s fat Wall Street speaking fees have the Bernie backers’ knickers in a twist. What’s your take?

 Frick: (snorting with disgust; he was in a foul mood, and this was the only question he deigned to answer). Yeah, sure. Like Teddy Roosevelt. We bought the son of a bitch, and then he didn’t stay bought.

 Plunkitt: Everybody is talkin’ these days about Tammany men growin’ rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There’s all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft – blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. – and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics. There’s an honest graft, and I’m an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

BH: Well, now, America is the land of opportunity, isn’t it? And nobody’s been more opportunistic in this race than Donald Trump. The big news has been the seemingly far-fetched rise of this canny buffoon who’s out-bellicosed even the truculent Cruz, and seems to grow stronger and stronger the nastier he gets, like some sort of demon spawn sucking the power out of his attackers. Maybe nobody but Trump himself thought he’d last this long: after all, when the parade began he seemed to be little more than a blustering showman. Yet here he is, suddenly inescapable. When we chatted a few months back, you seemed unimpressed.

Plunkitt: Another mistake: some young men think that the best way to prepare for the political game is to practice speakin’ and becomin’ orators. That’s all wrong. We’ve got some orators in Tammany Hall, but they’re chiefly ornamental. … The men who rule have practiced keepin’ their tongues still, not exercisin’ them. So you want to drop the orator idea unless you mean to go into politics just to perform the skyrocket act.

BH: And still, he’s rising. Could it be the oratory’s just for show, and what you’ve really got to watch for is the iron fist?

Machiavelli: I’d like to speak to that, if I may.

BH: Good to hear from you, Nick. How are things? That famous sound bite sticks to you like a Blue Man on a Velcro wall: “And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” What about that? Ever wish you’d just kept quiet?

Machiavelli: (Sighing, and then explaining the trouble with sound bites: always out of context, always edited.) Nobody ever remembers what I said next, which was this. “Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated.” They never get that part. And I don’t think your Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz do, either. Not to mention Mr. Putin, though of course he’s not your problem. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m on my way to offer counsel to the Prince.

BH: Mr. Putin may or may not be our problem, depending on how this whole foreign relations thing works out. In his speeches, Trump likes to rattle sabers, something he never actually did in the military he never actually joined, but consistency and hobgoblins and all that. The best way to deal with ISIS, he’s declared, is to “bomb the shit out of ’em.” Is this a wise approach?

Kautilya (responding, as is his habit, in Sanskrit, written on palm leaves): Avoid war. One can lose a war as easily as one can win. War is inherently unpredictable. War is also expensive. Avoid war. Try Upaya, the four strategies. Then Sadgunya, the six forms of non-war pressure. Understand the opponent and seek to outwit him. When everything fails, resort to military force.

BH: Well, that seems to make sense. Any of the candidates sounded you out for secretary of defense, or maybe secretary of state?

 Kautilya: Oh, please. I’d rather go through boot camp again. And I’m two thousand years old.

BH: Nothing’s certain, it seems, but death and taxes. Seems like every election season a populist cry goes up that we’re sorely overtaxed. Candidates vow that once elected they’ll slash the rates and not allow one more dime to enter the government trough. This despite clear evidence that among the nations of the developed world, American tax rates are moderate. So: should we just refuse to pay ’em?

Kautilya: Of course we need to pay taxes. And of course they need to be fair. Deciding what’s fair is part of what politics is all about. It’s like I wrote about collecting taxes: “As one plucks one ripe fruit after another from a garden, so should the king from his kingdom. Out of fear for his own destruction, he should avoid unripe ones, which give rise to revolts.”

 Jesus: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Oh, and about death: don’t be so sure that’s a sure thing, either.

BH: Jesus, thanks for making that clear: Sounds like you advocate a rigid separation of church and state. Several candidates who claim to be your followers have a radically different idea about that. Religion’s playing a big role in this campaign, and fear and bigotry seem to be tagging along. I’d like your esteemed representative (or so he declares), the Reverend Doctor Elmer Gantry, to address this issue, if he would.

Gantry: I have here in my pocket – and thank heaven you can’t see them – lewd, dirty, obscene, and I’m ashamed to say this: French postcards. They were sold to me in front of your own innocent high school by a man with a black beard … a foreigner.

BH: That sounds a little extreme, Elmer. What should we do, then, build a wall?

Gantry: Sin, sin, sin! You’re all sinners! You’re all doomed to perdition!

BH: Um, thanks for that, Elmer. Let’s move on. As strange as it seems, the very concept of governance is being challenged in this election. The far right pretty much claims the only good government is a dead government. Out West, Sagebrush Rebellion militants declare the authority of the federal government is null and void. In what seems a clear obstructionist move, Republican members of Congress even refuse to allow a vote on a new justice for the Supreme Court. Can a nation actually operate in such a way, frozen in its tracks? Can we banish governance and survive?

Kautilya: Are you kidding? Sheer nonsense. You have to be practical, and you have to roll with the punches. But you can’t just stop. The king should grant exemption from taxes to a region devastated by an enemy king or tribe, to a region beleaguered by sickness or famine. He should safeguard agriculture when it is stressed by the hardships of fines, forced labor, taxes, and animal herds when they are harassed by thieves, vicious animals, poison, crocodiles or sickness. He should keep trade routes clear when they are oppressed by anyone, including his officers, robbers or frontier commanders when they are worn out by farm animals. The king should protect produce, forests, elephants’ forests, reservoirs and mines established in the past and also set up new ones.

Hobbes: Look, there are basics. No state can survive without a social contract. Tinker with the one you have; adjust it as the situation changes. But rip it up at your own peril. Without government we would be reduced to a state of nature, and let me remind you, nature isn’t happy Disney bluebirds twittering in the glen. Don’t like those pesky government regulations? In a pure state of nature, everything’s at war with everything else, and the top dog always wins. In such a primal “paradise” there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

BH: Sounds intense. Leviathan reminds of The Kingfish, Huey Long. We haven’t heard from you yet, Huey, but your career reminds me a bit of Bernie Sanders’, and Bernie’s populist drive to break up the oligarchy and redistribute wealth and power. Just like with you, nobody gave him much of a chance, but look at him now: he’s a force! Is this his time?

Long: Could be, Bob. Could be. You know, I took my motto from William Jennings Bryan, and it worked real well for both of us: “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.”

Plunkitt (clearing his throat): Oh, really? The fact is that a reformer can’t last in politics. He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business. You’ve got to be trained up to it or you’re sure to fail. Suppose a man who knew nothing about the grocery trade suddenly went into the business and tried to conduct it according to his own ideas. Wouldn’t he make a mess of it? He might make a splurge for a while, as long as his money lasted, but his store would soon be empty. It’s just the same with a reformer. He hasn’t been brought up in the difficult business of politics and he makes a mess of it every time.

Long: Well, Plunk, that’s where we differ. Sure, you need to be savvy, and when it comes to entertainin’ a crowd I know how to tease a catfish out of a crocodile’s teeth. But without ideals, what are your ideas?

BH: The Republican race has been nothing less than astonishing. Seventeen candidates to start with, unless I’ve missed a few, and all of a sudden it seems trimmed down to the one guy everyone thought was a joke. What happened to all those other candidates?

Field (reciting in a sort of cat-and-doggerel trance):

The gingham dog went “bow-wow-wow”

And the calico cat replied “mee-ow!”

The air was littered, an hour or so,

With bits of gingham and calico,

While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place

Up with its hands before its face,

For it always dreaded a family row!

… The Chinese plate looked very blue,

And wailed, “Oh, dear! What shall we do!”

But the gingham dog and the calico cat

Wallowed this way and tumbled that,

Employing every tooth and claw

In the awfullest way you ever saw.

And, oh! How the gingham and calico flew!

… next morning where the two had sat

They found no trace of dog or cat;

And some folks think unto this day

That burglars stole the pair away!

But the truth about the cat and pup

Is this: they ate each other up!

BH: Wait a minute. Isn’t that the same thing you told me four years ago, when Gingrich ripped into Romney in the South Carolina primary?

Field: The more things change, the more they stay the same. You can quote me on that.