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Put Trump Veterans in Political Timeout
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Put Trump Veterans in Political Timeout

They should not soon again hold positions of public trust.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence on Election Night in the East Room of the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)

Marcus Aurelius must have gone to a pretty rough gym. The emperor-philosopher wrote: 

In the gymnastic exercises suppose that a man has torn thee with his nails, and by dashing against thy head has inflicted a wound. We neither show any signs of vexation, nor are we offended, nor do we suspect him afterwards as a treacherous fellow; and yet we are on our guard against him, not however as an enemy, nor yet with suspicion, but we quietly get out of his way. Something like this let thy behavior be in all the other parts of life: let us overlook many things in those who are like antagonists in the gymnasium. For it is in our power, as I said, to get out of the way, and to have no suspicion nor hatred.

With Nikki Haley getting set to announce her 2024 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, a vexing question is raised—a question that we are going to have to think about a great deal: What do we do with these products of the Trump administration? 

My own belief is that the senior figures in the Trump administration—Donald Trump himself, Mike Pence, the various Cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs, etc.—should never again hold any position of public trust—or, if not never again, at least not in the foreseeable future. By “position of public trust” I mean not only elected office but appointed positions in government, on the boards of universities and publicly traded corporations, etc. The same is true for those in Congress who voted against certifying the 2020 election results and those who were otherwise involved with the attempted coup d’etat of 2020-2021. Trumpworld lawyers such as John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, and Cleta Mitchell should be disbarred. (I wasn’t talking about you, Sarah!) This would, of course, much more than decimate an entire generation of Republican leaders—whether you think of that as a cost or a benefit will depend very strongly upon your point of view. If you have a 150-pound healthy person and a 600-pound tumor, there may be some question about who is removing whom. 

I do not think that any of this should be done in a spirit of vengeance, nor do I believe that we should work to socially ostracize these people or go out of our way to ruin them financially, though, of course, their employment prospects would be narrowed in some cases. Rather, I think that we should think of them the way Marcus Aurelius thought about his hypothetical sparring partner: We have had a bad experience with them, and we should take such steps as are necessary to avoid repeating that experience. Once is enough. 

Put another way: The point of keeping Trump administration veterans out of positions of public trust is not to punish them—it is to keep them out of positions of public trust. We should do that because the public cannot trust them. We have norms, institutions, and procedures designed to protect the public trust from those who would abuse it or who, having been invested with some great authority, neglect that trust in the pursuit of private gains, be those financial or political. These are useful social tools, and we should use them. 

Nikki Haley presents a particularly irritating—and disappointing—case because she so clearly knew better. Haley was a trenchant critic of Trump’s and worked openly against him in 2016: Hailing from what then might have fairly been described as the Jeb Bush wing of the GOP (a wing that has since been amputated), Haley considered supporting Ted Cruz but ultimately settled on Marco Rubio as the candidate most likely to keep Trump away from the GOP nomination. Her sensitivities may have been heightened by the fact that she is a woman, that she is not white, and that she is the daughter of immigrants, but none of that was necessary to see Trump for what he was and is. 

Haley did see him for what he was and said so. And then she didn’t. And then she did again. And then she kinda-sorta did and didn’t at the same time. And that’s where she is now. 

The story of Haley’s embrace of Trump might have been taken from an unfinished Christopher Buckley novel. Her lieutenant governor—a sometime ally, sometime rival, sometime outright adversary—was Henry McMaster, who was the first public official of any standing to endorse Trump in any of the key primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. That was a big favor. When Trump won the White House, he offered to repay McMaster with his choice of roles in the new administration, but what McMaster wanted was to get Nikki Haley out of the way so that he could be governor. And so Trump offered her the job of ambassador to the United Nations, which would allow the governor to put a little foreign-policy work on her résumé. Haley’s promotion was a gift from one of her enemies to one of her rivals—she herself was not the principal actor in the appointment. 

Haley wanted—wants—to be president, and, knowing what she knows about Trump, made a Trump sycophant governor of her state in order to join the administration and become a much more significant Trump sycophant herself. The opportunism is forgivable, but sycophancy becomes a way of life. Haley went from criticizing the candidate as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president” to working for him to lavishing praise on him in her book to defending his absurd election claims on the grounds that “he believes it” to writing him off as a political dead-man-walking after January 6 to her current fence-sitting/difference-splitting approach to Trump. 

Whatever the through-line is there, it isn’t principle or the public interest. 

Haley told Tim Alberta, writing in Politico: “We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” All true. One of the ways we can make sure that we don’t let that happen again is by not giving political power to the people who worked for him and stood by as he violated the public trust in the grossest fashion–which by no means began on January 6, 2021. We do not need to put them in prison (we do not need to put many of them in prison) but we do need to put them in quarantine. Haley has shown herself to be an extraordinarily poor judge of character when it comes to matters of executive authority in government—i.e., when it comes to the very position she now seeks. More precisely, she has shown herself willing to set aside her better judgment for the sake of career expediency. 

I am not saying that Nikki Haley and other veterans of the Trump administration are necessarily villains or dishonorable people or anything like that. I am saying that they are an avoidable risk—and we should avoid them. 

Maybe we should insist on going at least one decade without an attempted coup d’état before veterans of the administration that attempted the last one think about returning to power. There was a time when troublesome political figures were sent to a monastery to think on their sins—and, more important, to be kept far from the reins of power. (Lookin’ at you, Childeric III.) We don’t have monasteries that are available for that purpose—we have the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and other such political purgatories. Is that an overreaction? Maybe. But a mild fever is a sign that the body’s immune system is working. 

In Case You Missed It

I have updated my guide to guns and gun policy

Hunting rifles and military rifles. Joe Biden can be relied upon to say some variation of this sentence about once a month: “Nobody needs an AR-15 to hunt deer.” Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times offers his own dopey variations of the formulation. Two things about that: One, as noted above, the Second Amendment is not, and never has been, about hunting—with its assumptions of militia deployment, what it is talking about is “arms” understood as infantry weapons, a fact about which there was very little misunderstanding until the gun-control people went about inventing that misunderstanding. The second thing, of course, is that military rifles are hunting rifles and vice versa, and always have been. Firearms in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries were expensive pieces of kit, and if you had one, it usually served all your shooting needs—hunting, fighting, whatever. 

While many military rifles and rounds have been adopted by hunters over the years, the direction of the evolution is sometimes misunderstood: It was American hunters and their skill with the Pennsylvania rifle who really first demonstrated the potential of the rifle—still a relatively new invention at that point—over the old muskets carried by British soldiers. (A rifle has “rifling,” meaning spiral grooves cut into the bore, which cause the projectile to spin like a well-thrown football, increasing its effective range and accuracy.) But things have gone both ways: The AR-pattern rifle is commonly used by American hunters. In its most common 5.56mm chambering, it is used for pest control and small game, particularly coyote and other predators and whitetail deer; in the other most common U.S. military chambering, 7.62mm NATO, it is used for wild pigs and medium to large game. Many manufacturers offer AR-style rifles in hunting cartridges such as .243 Winchester and .260 Remington. The AR-style rifle is a hunting rifle and has been for more than half a century.

The classic American hunting cartridge, the .30-06, was originally developed for the military and popularized for hunting in considerable part by Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt. (If you’re rushing to email me that Roosevelt actually used the nearly forgotten .30-03 in his famous African safari, please don’t.) In the golden age of safaris, famous hunters such as W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell routinely hunted with the common British military rifle of the time, the .303 Lee-Enfield. The bison-slaying rifle that “won the West” was the AR-15 of its time, the military-issue Springfield 1873. The 7.62mm NATO cartridge began as a military experiment but first hit the market in its hunting form as the .308 Winchester. The first semiautomatic rifles in general use were, in fact, almost all hunting rifles—conservative military decisionmakers did not trust the newfangled mechanism. The AR-15 hit the hunting market the same year it was adopted by the U.S. military, 1963. But Winchester had been selling semiautomatic hunting rifles for six decades by that time.

Semiautomatic rifles are hunting rifles. AR-pattern rifles are hunting rifles. Military rifles are hunting rifles. They always have been. The distinction between hunting rifles and scary rifles is entirely synthetic. 

There is much more in there that will be of use to you in understanding the particularly of the gun-control debate. 

It occurs to me that some of the guide will, taken as a whole, read somewhat repetitively. But each entry is meant to stand on its own, hence the repetition. I suppose you could call it a “repeater,” if not a “revolver.”

Economics for English Majors: Jobs Aren’t Enough

Talking up some piece of big-spending legislation (the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009), Nancy Pelosi said the point of the law could be summarized in four words: “jobs, jobs, jobs, and jobs.” A normal low-rent demagogue would have gone with three “jobs,” but Nancy Pelosi is a fancier, Californiafied demagogue, so we got “jobs, jobs, jobs, and jobs.” 

I am a fan of jobs. I like having a job. I’ve never enjoyed getting fired. (And, when I get fired from a job, it’s a story in the New York Times.) One of the worst periods of my life was a relatively brief (it felt a lot longer) period of joblessness (or, rather, much-diminished income; I never really stopped working) during the slow-motion failure of a newspaper I had helped to start in Philadelphia many years ago. All of which is to say: I am not someone who takes having a job lightly. You know that cartoon conservative who sneers at the guy in the gutter, “Get a job!”? That guy might be a little callous, given the situation, but the advice is excellent. Getting a job is a great thing to do if you happen to find yourself in a situation in which you are not financially equipped to enjoy a life of extended leisure. Honestly, it’s good advice even if you are so equipped: What are you going to do all day? Golf? Some of the hardest-working people I know are billionaires—they don’t need to work, but they don’t want to spend that much time at the golf course or idly waiting around to die. 

So, three big cheers for the recent news: “U.S. added 517,000 jobs last month in astonishing labor market growth,” as the Washington Post headline put it. I don’t know that I’d go with astonishing, but that is a pretty solid number, and an encouraging one. 

And it is not enough. 

Jobs are not an end—jobs are a means. If the United States started a program tomorrow in which every American was conscripted into a well-paid make-work job—call it $200,000 a year to dig ditches and then fill them up—what would the result be? We’d have full employment and high incomes, and, of course, worldwide economic catastrophe, starvation, and ruin, because the world relies on Americans to produce about a quarter of the stuff the human race consumes, making the United States, among other things, by far the world’s largest exporter of food, as well as the largest exporter of liquified natural gas,and  the largest producer and third-largest exporter of oil. It is good to have a paycheck, but what matters most is what work produces

From that point of view, the United States is in a slightly strange economic position: GDP growth has been slowing (down a bit from the third to the fourth quarter of 2022 and likely headed a little lower still this quarter) even while unemployment is low. During those recent consecutive quarters of GDP contraction (that absolutely positively were not a recession no sir you bite your tongue) job growth was pretty solid, and total hours worked were up: We were working more but producing less. Not only were Americans producing less, they were earning less, too: Real wages declined during 2022. “Well, that’s just inflation!” comes the answer from people looking to buttress the Biden administration with good economic news—as though that were an excuse and not a big part of the problem!

Here is an example that I have used before but that remains very useful as an illustration. Less than 200 years ago, picking cotton was work mainly performed by slaves; after the abolition of slavery, picking cotton was work performed by poor people (including my father and his parents) mostly paid by the pound at the equivalent of a very low wage; today, picking cotton is a high-tech job performed with the aid of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in equipment by sophisticated specialists who often enjoy six-figure incomes in which the first figure is not a one or a two. That’s the basic story of the Industrial Revolution: Investments in capital make workers’ labor radically more valuable, to such an extent that we now have people who become multimillionaires doing a task that once was assigned to slaves. The tradeoff is that harvesting cotton doesn’t require as many workers as it once did (one man now can do the work of hundreds) and those jobs require more skills and training than they once did. What’s true of cotton-picking is true of many other occupations: I spent the earliest part of my career helping newspapers equip and train up their copy editors so that five or six people on the copy desk could do work that had employed dozens of people in the composing room and the rest of the back of the shop. 

Everybody wants to have more jobs—and nobody wants to pick cotton by hand. 

There is a famous legend about Milton Friedman being shown some big public-works project in China, where the workers were equipped with hand tools instead of sophisticated modern construction equipment. “See,” said the Chi-Coms, “we know how to create jobs!” Friedman, appreciating the absurdity of the scene, asked in reply: “Why not use spoons?” 

Creating jobs is a great success if you are a politician who sees human beings as liabilities rather than as assets. If a human being is just a mouth to be fed or a bank account to be filled up, then a paycheck is all you need—no matter where it comes from or what it comes in exchange for: If the voter is getting paid, then the problem is solved–it is a political problem, not an economic problem. But if you view human beings as assets—as creative and inherently valuable—then what you are most interested in is making the most out of that human potential, which requires education, investment, and a stable policy environment in which that human capital can be most effectively deployed. From that point of view, more jobs but slowing GDP growth is not a particularly encouraging indicator. 

The point here isn’t to micturate from a great height upon the Biden administration’s economic record. (I am not what you would call real invested in the political success of Joe Biden, but if I were to go out of my way to undermine him, it would be on somebody’s behalf—and there ain’t nobody to be that somebody, so far as I can tell.) The point here is to have a more meaningful understanding of where prosperity actually comes from—and of what is needed to fortify and expand that prosperity. That means sorting out the economic issues from the political issues. 

Jobs are great, as a starting point. But: Jobs doing what? Under what circumstances? For what kind of market? For what kind of return? 

Words About Words

Revisiting the “reins of power” above: It may be the phrase “reins of power” that causes us to conflate reins—as in, “Giddyup, horse!” with reigns—as in what King Charles theoretically does. 

Reign, as you might guess, comes to us from the Latin rex/regnum, rex meaning king and regnum meaning royal power. Rex was, of course, a kind of political dirty word for the Romans, who cultivated a glorious contempt for kings and for the idea of kings. (As longtime readers of the Chicago sports pages know.) Rein, on the other hand, is related to the similar-sounding word retain, from the Latin retinere. 

Rain, on the other other hand—the third hand?—is from the side of the English family with Germanic roots. It has often been noted that English retains traces of Norman-era class divisions, with the words that refer to the interests of the high and mighty coming from Latin via French while the words that refer to the burdens of the lowly and poor come from old Germanic roots through various Anglo-Saxon channels. Beef comes from French, but cow has Anglo-Saxon roots; diplomacy is French, but war is Anglo-Saxon; a mansion is Latinate, a hut is Germanic; etc. 

But back to rex, for a second. 

One of the great ironies of political history is that populism and democracy are, taking their derivations literally, nearly synonyms: Populism is people-ism and democracy is people-power. But just as in our time the populists are the most significant enemies of democracy (and liberty), the great populist leader in the end days of the Roman republic was Julius Caesar, who hoped to make himself a king, even if the populist rabble-rouser Mark Antony says otherwise, at least in Shakespeare’s version:

You all did see that on the Lupercal 

I thrice presented him a kingly crown – 

which he did thrice refuse! Was this ambition?

Yet, Brutus says he was ambitious;
and surely he is an honorable man.

(The Lupercal, or Lupercalia, was a Roman spring festival, the name of which refers to the legend of the she-wolf who suckled Rome’s legendary founders, Romulus and Remus. Lupercalia is coming up on February 15, in fact, if you’re into the whole f’n’-pagan-idolatry thing. In the ancient world, political power often was thoroughly mixed up with fertility in such festivals, and, of course, we still speak of a great political man such as George Washington as “the father of his country.” There’s all sorts of weird pagan-fertility stuff attached to the Washington legend, for example, a colonial-era miniature that incorporates the “Washingtons’ intermingled chopped hair to symbolize their bodies joined forever, like the two hearts crowned with the wreath of immortality and wedded on the altar to Hymen, the Roman god of marriage.” Etc.)

The two famous Roman political tendencies—the typically conservative optimates or boni and the redistributionist populares—were not organized political parties the way we think of them, or even factions, exactly. (Many modern scholars reject the use of the terms at all as ahistorical.) That being written, Julius Caesar represents in many ways a familiar type: He was the child of an ancient aristocratic family that had married outside of the patrician ranks for money, who presented himself as a champion of the common people, whose interests he would secure if only he were given what he needed to do the job: absolute power. That is the perverse incentive structure of demagoguery: It is the people who derive their power and their status from the suffering of the poor and the marginalized who have the strongest incentive to prevent measures that would effectively relieve that suffering–it is too valuable to them. That is why there are few areas in American life in which we tolerate monopolies, much less insist that a monopoly is the only morally acceptable option—except for the public schools, the dysfunction of which serves many ends, though not those of the students or their families. Why do public-school superintendents get million-dollar contracts? For the sake of the poor children, of course. 

In any case, the example of Julius Caesar offers a useful reminder: It is always the people who claim to speak passionately on behalf of the people who will make themselves kings and make the people subjects and serfs. Nothing really ever changes. 

If those who reign hold the reins, you know who it is who has the bit in his mouth: It’s you, pleb. 

Elsewhere

The recent ice storm that has shut down typically sunny Texas raises a recurring question: How much should we invest in events that are recurring but rare? More in The Dispatch

“Sad and Predictable.” Police dysfunction, Nikki Haley, missing zoo animals and more in The Dispatch Podcast

New York could, if it wanted to, fix its gun laws. The problem with its licensing system is not that it is too strict but that it is arbitrary and invites corruption. More in the New York Post.

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You can see my New York Post columns here

In Closing

There’s a relatively narrow slice of the American people—college-educated, urban-suburban, $250,000+ households—that has remarkably outsize influence on our national life. They are the reason the New York Times has 50 stories about Ivy League admissions practices to every one story about the graduation rates of public schools in New York—where 80 percent of the students are in city public schools. They are the reason most of the commentariat seems to believe that the answer to improving U.S. workers’ productivity is more … graduate school, of all things. And they are the reasons that, as we now we learn from the Wall Street Journalin a story that seems to make a strangely focused effort not to report the news at hand—that the U.S. government is rejiggering its rules for electric-vehicle subsidies to raise the cutoff price for certain vehicle subsidies from $55,000 to $80,000, which will help a few Tesla and Mach-E buyers. As you might have guessed from the passages above, I am not much of a populist—but do you know who is not having the very worst time of it among the people of these United States? People who are buying a new electric car for $80,000. I love Teslas—they are super fun to drive, with all that acceleration, and I hate gas stations for obvious reasons. (Not obvious enough? Because they are run by incompetents, generally dirty, and typically home to a gauntlet of beggars. Exception for Buc-ees, obviously.) I’m sure that new Ford Mach-E is a hoot, too. And I’m 100 percent sure that the people who are buying them need to get their hands out of my pocket. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.