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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

When the enemy of my enemy is NOT my friend: 2016 Republican politics and…..Pride & Prejudice??

According to Wikipedia: “ ’The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is an ancient proverb which suggests that two opposing parties can or should work together against a common enemy. The earliest known expression of this concept is found in a Sanskrit treatise on statecraft dating to around the 4th century BC, while the first recorded use of the current English version came in 1884. Some suggest that the proverb is of Arabic origin.”

This ancient proverb is, I suspect, on many minds at this very moment, as the bitter campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination has progressed into its first climactic stage, which began on Super Tuesday, and will end when the votes are counted in winner-take-all Ohio and Florida on March 15.

At the heart of this high political drama (although the circus is an apter metaphor than the stage for this increasingly grotesque spectacle) is the unholy alliance emerging among the three very strange bedfellows in mortal combat with Donald Trump --- Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich. They all seem to have recognized, albeit a little late in the political day, that (to quote another ancient proverb) “united they stand, divided they fall”. At the most recent debate Thursday, it was clear that Cruz and Rubio, who previously had been savaging each other, are honoring a de facto ceasefire between them, with the common cause of directing a double barrage at point blank range at the massive ego of Mr. Trump.

This temporary alliance is extremely uncomfortable for many establishment Republicans, mainly because of the intense antipathy that many of them feel not only toward Trump but also toward Cruz as well. Six weeks ago, Lindsey Graham pithily summed up that Hobson’s Choice:  "It's like being shot or poisoned. What does it really matter?"  

Graham’s bon mot embodies a rejection of the proverb, in this case, by the constituency who follow the lead of Graham, Romney, the Bushes, and McCain--the enemy (Cruz) of their enemy (Trump) is most decidedly NOT their friend—so it’s pretty obvious that they’re holding their noses and counting the hours till they can revoke their truce with Cruz, and pull out all stops to get Rubio (or some other establishment white knight) on the ballot against Hillary Clinton.

And…stepping back for a broader political perspective, the Republican circus is also causing a great deal of anxiety for Democrats like myself. Why? Because, from our perspective, all four of the Republican candidates are “enemies”. It’s not just Trump and Cruz, who embody different forms of right wing extremism that would make either of them a very very scary person to sit in the Oval Office. It’s also the deep hypocrisy of Rubio (a rebooted, Latino version of smiling, genial George W Bush)  and even Kasich (who, while far and away the most moderate of the four Republican candidates still standing, is still someone who I and many other liberals fear would, with a Republican congress behind him, do harm comparable to that perpetrated on our nation from 2001-2008.

We on the left end of the spectrum are therefore sorta like Lindsey Graham, in that some of us are rooting for Cruz or Rubio to weaken Trump enough to make him vulnerable in the national race to come, if he is the candidate. Yet others of us find Cruz so awful that even Trump seems less awful, because he is not a fanatical ideological conservative, and thus might work with Democrats on a pragmatic basis. And yet, our fear of the outsized danger posed by Trump or Cruz does not negate our fear of a “reasonable” Republican winning the election.

In short, then, how strange that is for many of us, to actually think of either Cruz or Trump as a “friend”. And the central point I wish to bring out via this brief analysis, is that it’s not a binary situation, it’s much more multipolar and complicated than the ancient proverb suggests.  

Which brings me to the main point of this post, which is that it only occurred to me this morning that there is a direct parallel to the above-described political funhouse madness, in the most unlikely of places---at the heart of Jane Austen’s most popular and famous novel—Pride & Prejudice. Let me explain.

The plot structure of P&P can be boiled down to this pithy formula: the heroine Elizabeth Bennet faces a very difficult romantic choice between the charming, sympathetic underdog Mr. Wickham and the aloof, arrogant aristocrat Mr. Darcy.

In the first half of the novel, Mr. Wickham seems to carry the day with Elizabeth, until he abruptly and unaccountably jilts her for (what turns out to be an unsuccessful attempt to marry) the freckled heiress Miss King. Then, after Eliza rejects Darcy’s disastrous first proposal, Eliza finds herself in no woman’s land, and she crystallizes her dilemma in this famous comment to sister Jane:

“She then spoke of the letter, repeating the whole of its contents as far as they concerned George Wickham. What a stroke was this for poor Jane! who would willingly have gone through the world without believing that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual. Nor was Darcy's vindication, though grateful to her feelings, capable of consoling her for such discovery. Most earnestly did she labour to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear the one without involving the other.
"This will not do," said Elizabeth; "you never will be able to make both of them good for anything. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one. There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man; and of late it has been shifting about pretty much. For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Darcy's; but you shall do as you choose."

As that last sentence indicates, Eliza has by that point already flipped her position upside down, and now accepts Darcy’s dark version of Wickham, whereas twenty chapters earlier she accepted Wickham’s “portrait” of Darcy. And that’s how the novel ends in the minds of Janeites---with Darcy wearing a white hat and Wickham a black one.

But what never occurs either to Elizabeth, or to pretty much all of the millions of readers of P&P over the past two centuries, is that Elizabeth has in effect relied too strongly on that ancient proverb. I.e., she has assumed that she is facing a binary choice, and therefore, the enemy of her enemy must be her friend. So, if Wickham and Darcy are mutual enemies, Elizabeth believes she has no choice but to see Wickham as a good guy so long as she sees Darcy as a bad guy; and then, when she fiips, she believes she has no choice but to see Darcy as a good guy, once she sees Wickham as a bad guy.

So, what if, in the fictional universe of the shadow story of P&P that I’ve been writing about for a decade, not only Wickham, but also Darcy, both turn out to be bad guys who happen to be enemies of each other? Or, drawing on the political analogy I’ve been making, what if not only Cruz, but also Trump, are both bad guys who happen to be enemies of each other?

That is the one scenario that never occurs to Elizabeth –that Darcy and Wickham are both adept at trashing the reputation of the other, because they are both justified in their attacks on the other!

Elizabeth should have listened to the whispering pundit (who I long ago identified as none other than sister Mary Bennet) who tries to warn Elizabeth to stay away from both Wickham and Darcy:

“The gentlemen came; and she thought he looked as if he would have answered her hopes; but, alas! the ladies had crowded round the table, where Miss Bennet was making tea, and Elizabeth pouring out the coffee, in so close a confederacy that there was not a single vacancy near her which would admit of a chair. And on the gentlemen's approaching, one of the girls moved closer to her than ever, and said, in a whisper: "The men shan't come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?"

Indeed, when it comes to the Republican slate of Presidential candidates, I want none of them!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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