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The Palace Mouse and the Country Mouse

The Trump administration is in chaos. The Trump administration is doing a fairly good job. Can both of these statements be true, depending on where you sit?

Right-leaning people, pick your narrative:

1) The Trump administration is in chaos. The press office/spokespeople merry-go-round, the failed attempts at passing health care reform, the approval ratings in the 30s, the lukewarm statement following Charlottesville, the special prosecutor – all these things are very bad and indicate the Trump administration is failing.

2) The Trump administration is doing a fairly good job. North Korea is backing down from belligerent language, regulations are being rolled back, unemployment is down, the Dow and consumer confidence are up, Gorsuch’s nomination was confirmed – all these things are pretty good, and point to a Trump administration that is getting some important things done.

These wildly different ways of looking at the administration’s record to date appear irreconcilable, separating the right into at least two major camps. The contrast in perspectives has led to conservatives getting crosswise with each other, often in very public forums, such as this exchange between Stephen Gutowskiand Jack0Spades that my friend Leslie brought to my attention. (click on the tweet’s date to see the entire exchange and follow their conversation)

Stephen appears to be saying that the administration is a disaster, and cites examples; and Jack appears to counter that by saying that the folks outside the Beltway are pretty pleased, and cites his own examples. Taken together, the comments seem to indicate that the further you get from the Beltway perspective, the less things look as though they’re burning down. And there’s probably some pretty good reasons for that. If you find yourself agreeing with one of these more than the other, keep that in mind as we examine the viewpoints of the other.

I’m going to make some assumptions that could be wrong; but if they’re right, they may explain where the rift is coming from, and perhaps ultimately how it can begin to be bridged. I’ll refer to Stephen and Jack’s perspectives on the issues they cite, but any generalities I use in describing their perspectives are just that – generalities, and I don’t intend to try to speak for either of them.

Before we get to the conflict, a disclaimer. I’m a twenty-year veteran of active political involvement, and have held leadership positions in the Republican party at various times and levels. I’m coming at this from the perspective of an insider, someone embedded in the party system, able to be defined easily as part of the ‘establishment’.

During the Republican primaries, I was one of the people concerned about how Trump was affecting the process. I laughed off his candidacy as a publicity stunt at first, and I kept waiting for the people supporting him to get serious and move to a REAL candidate. His was the Boaty McBoatface candidacy, I thought, and he’d get bested by another candidate that I could take seriously, and we’d all move on while he built his media arm of his entertainment empire.

I’m still eating crow.

But while I was wrong in predicting how things would play out, I don’t think I was wrong to be concerned. As a part of the GOP establishment, I’ve looked at the party as a vehicle for advancing policies and values that I support. It hasn’t been the most effective vehicle, granted; but it was better than all the other ones on offer, closer to my views and beliefs.

And parties are meant to provide a support system for ideas that will last beyond personalities, something that prevents ideas dying with the people championing them. Ideological conservatives like me noted how tenuous that party strength was when it was turned solely in support of a personality, as in the case of the Democrats and President Obama. We saw Trump as a mirror image of Obama, and also a wrecking ball careening through the structure we’d spent years building and working on, and also a threat and a danger to the apparatus we relied on for the advancement of our ideals and values.

That’s the way I saw it.

But as people lined up behind Trump in state after state, it was pretty clear they didn’t share my concerns. Why, they might have thought, should anyone care about the health or structure of the Republican party, when the Republican party clearly didn’t seem to care about them or listen to them? The Republican party leaders talked about a lot of things, but did the party actually fight for the folks in the heartland? There was a lot of talk from the Republicans, but were any of those words used to defend and support the regular Joe? If Trump was going to come in and bust up the DC cocktail party circuit, well, the people in the heartland weren’t going to cry over it. And they just might jump on the bandwagon for a good seat from which to watch the establishment bonfire.

I understood that dichotomy as well as I could from where I sat. Leslie reframed it this way for me when she noted the Twitter battle:

Palace intrigue is hugely important, deadly sometimes; but only really to the people in the palace, or the ones trying to get into the palace. Maybe for the folks in DC and those who make their money from DC, it seems like the kingdom is burning down. The courtier class would naturally be quite worried about the state of events in the palace. But for folks who don’t live and die by news cycles, folks outside the palace living their everyday lives with little thought to political parties or decorum or protocol, things probably appear to be looking up.

The two camps have very real concerns about very different things. Life for the DC class doesn’t change too much whether the economy is good or bad, whether this or that regulation is added or repealed, or whether consumer confidence is up. However, those things are felt intimately (often harshly) by the country class. Likewise, the country folk don’t experience much of an impact to their lives when a special prosecutor investigates the administration, or when the president’s approval rating drops, or when the media parses words and statements from the president over tragedies and ugly sentiments of racists. But these things have huge (often far-reaching) ramifications and import for the DC class; it is on things such as these that careers and fortunes turn.

This could easily account for the differences of opinion seen within the right. Had Stephen and Jack been talking to each other directly, perhaps they would have realized they were talking about two different worlds: one in which everything is chaos, and another where life is decent to good.

And even then, the chaos the courtier class sees could be the subject of debate. See Game of Thrones’ Varys and Peter Baelish debate whether chaos is a pit of destruction (which it is to some courtiers) or a ladder for advancement (as it is proving to be for others).

We wanted to test this palace v. people theory, so I set up a survey to get a very rough idea of which issues people we knew were focused on. We knew it wouldn’t be scientific, but it would at least give us some responses and comments to sift through. The survey asked respondents to grade the importance of ten issues, taken from the Twitter exchange, when thinking about how to evaluate the performance of the Trump administration. The scale was 1 to 5, with 1 indicating that the issue was not important at all, and 5 indicating that it was extremely important.

The results seemed to be right in line with Leslie’s observations. In order of importance, and taken directly from the Twitter exchange (with links to the comments from each):

See the survey results in full HERE 

If you listed the examples Jack and Stephen cited and noted whose issues ranked higher, you’d see that you have to get to number 5 for even one of Stephen’s concerns to make it into the ranking. Stephen’s examples seem to matter to the (smaller) courtier class like me, Jack’s examples seem to matter to the (larger) country class. Instead of the classic tale of the town mouse and the country mouse, the gap is even wider: the palace mouse and the country mouse.

Side note: this also might account for the reaction of Alisyn Camerota’s panel of Trump supporters in their reaction to rallies and confrontations in Charlottesville. Check it out; the video is fascinating.

Again, the survey isn’t scientific, but it is an indication that we could be on to something. Leslie noted that if these two camps listened to each other, rather than each striving to be acknowledged as correct, maybe they would discover that they were still conservatives with similar goals, just different points of focus. And maybe their best course of action would be to find a way to discuss both worlds in a way that brings conservatives together, rather than arguing past each other, leading them to unfollow each other and decide they have nothing to talk about.

There might be wide differences of opinion, but there’s a strong possibility that they are due to differences of perspective, not differences of intelligence. And that’s key; assuming the other side is stupid, and telling them so, leaves you no room to persuade them to listen to you, and inspires no desire on their part to hear you.

If they did stop and talk, we might see establishment Republican folks like me understand that the country class likely feels ignored and betrayed by the ‘traditional’ Republican politicians, and that they were willing to take a gamble on Trump. We might be able to imagine how bad it must have seemed to them that they could buy what Trump was selling on no evidence, simply because they saw him as something different from, and destructive to, Republicans as usual.

And the folks who supported him, or who at least have decided to give him some time before passing judgment, might understand and acknowledge that Trump concentrates more on the perception than the reality of any particular issue. They might also consider that many Republicans are concerned that their issues are not advancing at all under Trump, and that he is throwing grenades not only at Republican politicians they dislike, but also at the unity of the only viable vehicle available to oppose leftist and socialist initiatives that frighten them, too.

This isn’t the era of serious discussion, though; of listening to people who disagree with you to better understand their position. Leslie and I hope the discussions start to happen, but we both are afraid it might be too late already. We just hope we’re proven wrong.