In ancient times, shipping was the key to trade. And trade was the key to wealth. Not everyone benefited, and those who benefited did not benefit equally, to be sure. Stratified wealth, with rare exceptions, was roughly proportional to inherited social position. Social mobility was confined to those already born into the elite.

Trade was the greatest area of opportunity for the wealthy to increase their wealth. But there were risks. Piracy or weather could wipe out an entrepreneur. One legend, isolated pretty much to the insurance industry, has it that the concept of shared risk, the precursor to the concept of formalized insurance, originated in ancient trade.

Enterprising traders would seek out competitors and form alliances. We can imagine ten competing traders, each assuming great risks in order to achieve great profits.

Ten individual shipments from those ten different traders could each be sent on an individual ship. If one ship was captured by pirates, or was taken by a mutiny, or fell victim to a violent storm, or simply sank because of bad seamanship, one of the ten would be wiped out. The other nine would prosper.

But all of the ten made the proper agreement, each one could divide a shipment among the ten ships. If one ship sank, all ten entrepreneurs would take a minor hit. But profits from the other nine ships would overcome that one loss many times over.

Shared risk.

But all ships shared a common downfall that could not be overcome by sharing risk.

Grain was the most common substance of trade. And grain attracted more than profits. It attracted rodents. Mice and rats would find a comfortable home on a ship. Even when a shipment was something other than grain, food storage for a crew would provide nourishment for an army of rodents.

Trading consortiums had to find a way to deal with rats. They discovered cats.

The occasional mouse catching cat was more than a ship mascot. Cats became beloved crew members in their own right. When it came to a cat, no ship could leave home without it.

Rats did provide a stunning spectacle whenever a ship floundered and was about to be lost. Rats pretty much don’t like being trapped in closed quarters amid rising water. They probably have something against drowning. As a vessel took on water, sailors in lifeboats would watch amazing hoards of rats gather on deck and dive away from the sinking ship. The sheer number of rats produced a dazzling sight.

I sometimes think about ancient ships and the steps taken to ensure their cargo when I read about the angst experienced by principled Republicans in the current campaign season.

It began as Donald Trump abandoned classic conservatism, with its emphasis on free trade, free immigration, small government, voluntary association, and freedom from regulation. Instead he embraced what we used to call racial conservatism.

The forgotten secret at the underpinnings of political conservatism has been an appeal to racial resentment. In recent times, the appeal has been much more passive than what those of my generation witnessed in the long ago days of my youth. If older wealthier white Americans just wanted to keep material benefits from flowing toward those whose ethnic and racial backgrounds made them less deserving, many modern political figures considered that to be an unfortunate fact of life that just happened to benefit the ascendancy of true conservatism. Happily, it was a minor fact of life that was rapidly disappearing as the conservative movement won on ideology.

Donald Trump exploded that view. Racial resentment was not a sad but minor part of conservatism. The Republican base, for the most part, did not care at all about classic conservatism. Ideological fidelity was cast aside by an electorate fired up by more primitive concerns.

They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Donald Trump, June 16, 2015

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

Read by Donald Trump, December 7, 2015

A few Republicans, classic conservatives who take their conservatism seriously, began their separation from Donald Trump right away. They were a precious few.

Then, during the primary season, more reflexive Trumpisms came into public display.

“He is not a war hero… He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you. He is a war hero because he was captured. OK, you can have — I believe perhaps he is a war hero.”

Donald Trump, July 18, 2015

This was not a catalyst for any massive defection of Republicans. John McCain was the war hero who became not a war hero, then perhaps a war hero, even though he was guilty of the disgrace of capture, imprisonment, and torture by America’s enemies. But even John McCain declined to disown Mr. Trump, should he become the Republican nominee.

The hope of many was that he might begin to moderate his public statements, or at least curb his language after he received his party’s nomination. Alas it was not to be.

When he was criticized by an American Muslim whose son had died in combat saving American troops, Mr. Trump went on the attack. He began by suggesting that the father whose son had died had not criticized him on his own. He had, perhaps, simply read what some Clinton speech writer had written for him. Then Mr. Trump accused the man of muzzling his wife. He speculated that the grief stricken mother of the slain army captain had been forbidden to speak.

His wife. If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.

Then, he went further than anyone could reasonably have expected. He suggested that if Hillary Clinton was elected then Second Amendment people might want to take their own form of action.

By the way, and if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the 2nd Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.

Defenders insist that he was merely suggesting, in an inartful way, that those who want to preserve the right to bear arms, and who believe Hillary Clinton wants to take their guns, should vote against her.

That interpretation requires an elegant bit of creative parsing. If she is elected, then militant gun enthusiasts should prevent her from appointing judges by … voting against her? After she is elected? And even then, only those whom Mr. Trump calls 2nd Amendment people should vote against her?

The famous 2nd Amendment solution advocated by some is dangerous and irresponsible. But at least the incitement to violence is coherent.

There is some background noise that Republican officeholders, especially those seeking re-election, in particular those running for re-election in tight races, intend to separate themselves from Donald Trump.

Some public figures, politicians, pundits, and Republican advisors, have already come out. Talking Points Memo has been keeping a running account.

A few intend to support Hillary Clinton. More will support neither candidate.

So far, they include:

Reagan staffer Doug Elmets:

He’s managed to hoodwink America into believing that he will lead this country through the fire. I think he will thrust us into the fire.

President Reagan’s Political Director, Frank Lavin:

Donald Trump was quite, quite, cavalier in suggesting that Korea or Japan might develop nuclear capabilities.

Colonel Peter Mansoor, a lifelong Republican:

He lacks the character and the foundation of knowledge necessary to be President. By his own admission he gets his information from the shows.

Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida:

I could never explain to my two little girls that I would support Donald Trump.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine:

…by his derogatory comments, by his mocking of the most vulnerable people in our society, by his marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities…

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE)

Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA)

Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY)

Former Michigan Gov. William Milliken

Hank Paulson, Treasury Secretary for George W. Bush

Former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD)

Meg Whitman, who ran in California for the US Senate

Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson

Maria Comella, longtime communications director
                          for Chris Christie

Sally Bradshaw, close advisor to Jeb Bush

The list is impressive and will probably grow.

The cynical among us might think back to those ancient times, and recall rats deserting a sinking ship.

Not all of those swimming away from Mr. Trump are seeking re-election. Not all are even holding office. It is not at all clear that those who are running will benefit from their stand against the Republican nominee.

I have been predicting for years the demise of the Republican Party as a national institution. I think it will happen by the end of this decade. So I do not fondly dream of Republican survival. I do not even believe the party will somehow find within itself a final brave moment, and disengage from this dark path.

But I do retain what may be a naive, visionary hope that humankind, even conservative politicians, even the conservative movement itself, can act out of principle that goes beyond self-preservation.

I don’t think of rats deserting the ship.
I see the faint possibility of the ship deserting the rat.

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1 thought on “Rats”

  1. Let’s just be clear about this:

    Classic Conservatism = greed

    Trump’s Conservatism = greed plus hatred.

    The two things have, throughout history, proven to be a perfect marriage, which is why we almost always see them together. Non-racist Conservatives, like, say Bob Taft, are extreme outliers in this group, not historical antecedents.

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