• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Mugwump For Trump

August 2017

In the year 1884, to defect from one political party to its rival had become an increasingly common thing. The mugwump, as such a defector was called, was that American voter who scandalously rescinded his support from the Republican Party and its indefensibly corrupt candidate, James Blaine, and hastened to the other side of the political aisle. Blaine was a Republican from Maine beset with allegations of financial corruption. Howsoever impeccable his political achievements (he was not only the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the Senate, but a two-term Secretary of State), his probably felonious interest in the railroad companies couldn’t be so easily overlooked. Uncomfortable with Blaine, yet still politically curious and ambitious and shameless, the mugwump chose instead to side with the Democrats. Of course, the Democrat of old wasn’t what she is today, but the leap from one to the other was still something. In time, the mugwumps were able to form a redoubtable little constituency all their own, which undoubtedly helped to propel the Democrat Grover Cleveland to the first of his two noncontiguous presidential terms.

Not without just cause, the mugwump was, in his time, largely derided for lacking fidelity and party loyalty. He was seen as being a faithless political acrobat—ready at the drop of a hat to dance and somersault to another side whenever the going got tough. He’d pack up and leave behind both party and pride. I’ve never understood why this kind of movement from one side to the other, this kind of evolution in thought and conviction, should be met with scorn. To amend one’s point of view, so long as the change is in the direction of edification and not of debasement, is nothing short of heroic. Any civilized society worth its name should hope that its citizens would be bold enough to think anew their long-held beliefs in the presence of better evidence. It would be a better society and a progressive society. It would be a society forever allergic to any type of dogma and its insidious appeal, and it would be filled with people willing to make a leap, be they Republicans to the left, or Democrats to the right.

Taking a page out of the election of 1884, this very sort of political turnabout happened in real-time Thursday night. President Trump was holding one of his famous campaign-style rallies in Huntington, West Virginia. There, the previously Democratic governor, Jim Justice publicly announced his defection from the Democratic Party to the Republican side. Justice, a West Virginian businessman and tycoon, with vast interests in real estate and the coal industry, had this to say: “I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor”. Admittedly, he gave up rather quickly in trying to do so; Justice was a mere seven months into the first year of his first four-year term. Regardless, he decided to cut his losses and move to greener pastures and to President Trump.

I resent not a politician who openly admits his ineptitude in his ability to serve those to whom he owes his office as an elected official; it’s a candid practice I hope becomes more commonplace. And while, as I said, I think it’s admirable and enviable for someone to move from one side of the political spectrum to the other, I can’t help but think that West Virginians in this case aren’t quite getting what they signed up for. Though undoubtedly nothing like the radical leftist to whom we’ve become acquainted in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ ascent to political celebrity, Justice did run as a Democrat. Albeit, a relatively conservative Democrat, but a Democrat nonetheless. As such, donning blue, he was elected as a Democrat in an overwhelmingly red state. It’s a state in which President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by forty-two points. West Virginia, along with states like Alabama, Kentucky, and Missouri, awarded Trump one of his largest margins of victory in the election. Justice, for his part, won in his home state by seven points. Substantial, doubtless, but not overwhelmingly so. A margin of victory that is less than ten points makes clear to anyone that, in choosing him, there were reservations.

Being that the two men, Justice and Trump, are similar in many ways, it’s surprising that their vote totals ended up so different. In what ways are they alike? One is from the hinterlands, the other Manhattan. One is a coal-man, the other a celebrity. It turns out, the similarities reach further than expected. Both have been munificent benefactors to the “other” political party at one time or another. Trump is, of course, well-known to have been a generous donor to various Democratic organizations, and political campaigns. In much the same way, Justice too has donated lavishly to similar causes. Both have vacillated in the past between Independent, Democrat, and Republican—only to have landed at the same place. Each has found inordinate financial success (ignoring for the nonce Trump’s bankruptcy cases). Trump is, at our best guess and at his endless urging, a billionaire of some repute. Justice is estimated to be worth about $1.6 billion, making him the wealthiest mountaineer in the state and its only billionaire. Both are real estate magnates. You wouldn’t know it with Justice—as no building bears his name—but he’s been massively successful in dealing in estates. The difference between Justice and Trump is that the former hasn’t yet taken to brandishing his name across a property’s façade. It’s for good reason, I do think; a guilty person might think twice before approaching a building with the sort of Trumpian, gold encrusted name, “Justice” dangling like a conscience overhead. “Trump” doesn’t elicit the same kind of panic and disease (or at least it didn’t).

Fortunately, Justice doesn’t need to worry about the signs adorning his structures above the ground; below it is where his wealth lies. Upon his father’s death in 1993, he acquired his family’s massively successful coal-mining business. In West Virginia, as in Pennsylvania and in Ohio, coal is life. It’s the commodity, however dwindling and acutely finite, that many families have harvested to secure their bread, their sustenance, their futures, and—if they’re so lucky as in the case of Justice—their substantial wealth. His family’s company continued to be a success until it wasn’t. It was then that he sold the company to outside investors, only to recently reclaim his assets and his mines. He still has proprietorship till this day.

While Justice’s wealth came from his mining of that combustible fuel from the inhospitable bowels of the earth, Trump’s came from peddling its importance to a nation warily seeking alternatives to its energy use. In this way, it’s no stretch to conclude that both men have profited financially and then politically (in the case of Justice) and politically and then financially (in the case of Trump) for having been so faithful to coal.

As you can see, the similarities between the two men are much more prominent than any differences there may be. It’s really no surprise, then, that Justice made this transition from left to right. Hastening his move, no doubt, is the fact that the Democratic Party—the party to which he as of late was aligned—is completely without direction and a viable plan to move forward. Trump raised this point to great effect, when he said that “The reason why Democrats only talk about the totally made-up Russia story is because they have no message, no agenda, and no vision”. As is his wont, Trump’s main premise is a bit misleading (the “Russia story”, as of yet, is not conclusively nor totally “made up” as he might like it) but there is in what he says an underlying truth. The Democratic Party has no message, except for its dislike of Trump. Its agenda? Pout and browbeat the trite and uninspiring lines. Its vision? Its vision is restrained and myopic. It sees not the larger picture nor the details that accent it.

The Democrats, for their part and to their detriment, have proven what Trump said. They made ineluctably and painfully clear this reality with their party’s latest motto. It reads, “Democrats 2018: I mean, have you seen the other guys?” What a futile and inutile motto. Nothing could be less inspiring nor wanting in creativity and verve. It reeks of self-deprecation. It sounds like a boring concession. In a word, if this is their strongest message, the best evidence for their superiority, the Republicans in general and Trump in particular should have no fear of losing their strongholds in midterm or the next presidential elections. Should Democrats glom on to this anemic slogan, expect there to be one in response: it’ll read “(Disaffected) Democrats 2018: Mugwumps for Trump”.

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