Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ayn Rand Played On

Ross Douthat's blog post "Silence Equals Trump" makes a strong argument:  Republican leaders must vocally oppose Trump and organize the resistance, to save their party and their country, and notwithstanding that Trump may be able to portray their actions as the desperate flailing of a threatened establishment.

But I was more struck by the title of the post.  "Silence = Death" was the slogan of ACT UP, a disruptive organization that used controversial, over-the-top tactics to bring attention to the HIV epidemic.  The point they were making was that the stakes were painfully high, and so it was morally requisite for leaders to speak out, to end the silence.  The key factor distinguishing ACT UP from other groups was its sense of overwhelming urgency, and its willingness to risk going too far in getting its message out.  (Langdon Hammer, in his masterful biography of James Merrill, notes that the slogan must have fallen on Merrill's ears like body blows:  Merrill concealed his HIV diagnosis and remained aloof from politics while homosexuals were dying by the hundreds of thousands.)

It's not a bad analogy, even if it's a little jarring to watch a Catholic social conservative deploy the rhetoric of a radical and mostly homosexual anti-HIV group.  The comparison is not a subtle one, but I want to pick up on a more nuanced way in which Trump's rise resembles the proliferation of HIV.  In And The Band Played On, Randy Shilts punctuates his account of the HIV epidemic with updates on the number of reported cases and the number of deaths.  I have to admit, the number of cases seems quite underwhelming at first.  A few dozen, a few hundred...  even a single death is a tragedy, but if HIV had stayed at those levels, most Americans would never have heard of it.

Of course this shows how misleading it is to think about geometric growth that way.  The personnel at the CDC were frantic from the start because they understood the math of infectious diseases.  Anyway, the numbers soon climbed into the thousands, at which point there was no excuse for anyone to ignore the threat to public health.  Nevertheless, the Reagan administration did just that, trying to limit spending on HIV as part of its overall budgetary efforts.  (The idea that it was fiscally responsible to shortchange the anti-HIV effort is one of the most mind-boggling examples of short-sightedness I've ever seen.)

The rise of Trump really seems as though it exploited the same kind of mathematical heedlessness.  It's true that early on it was excusable to think that Trump's tenure at the top of the polls would be brief, like that of Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain before him.  But as Trump persistently attracted a hugely disproportionate share of media attention, squeezing serious candidates like Rick Perry and Scott Walker from the race before the voting even started, it was evident that something was different.  Certainly by the time Trump started racking up first-place victories in primaries, it was time to mobilize the party against him.  But few made even a half-hearted attempt to do so.  The lesser candidates continued to maul each other while Trump racked up wins with about a third of the vote.

All of this is familiar now, but for a long time Trump flew under the radar and attracted almost no fire.  And while it seems excusable for a casual observer to have missed the import of his campaign, it seems like political malpractice for the Republican Party establishment to have done so.  Like the CDC, they were in a position to understand the math, but unlike the CDC, they refused to do so, and so they failed to sound the alarm.  And their silence = Trump.


Blogger Zed said...

Here is Ted Cruz today: https://twitter.com/nycsouthpaw/status/712299502946877440

I don't think the GOP was "heedless" of Trump. They were reluctant to attack him because they were too busy coopting his message.

2:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home