Watching the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson run their little con games, I can’t help but recall the ageless wisdom of H.L. Mencken, an early 20th century journalist known as the Sage of Baltimore.
“For every complex problem,” Mencken observed, “there is a solution that is simple, clear and wrong.”
And that’s what a lot of people are peddling and a lot of other people are buying these days — solutions that are simple, clear and wrong. You want a list?
Immigration? Deport ’em.
Climate change? Ignore it.
ISIS? Bomb ’em.
Taxes? Cut ’em.
Health care? Repeal it.
Competitors? Crush ’em.
Poor people? Screw ’em.
It all sounds so easy, so simple. And when people are confused and fearful, as many are today, simplicity has an enormous appeal. They don’t want to hear that we live in an incredibly complicated and interdependent world, a world in which a single misstep — say, a little 30-day invasion of Iraq, after which we’ll be greeted with flowers and chocolate — can have consequences that will echo across continents and across generations. They want the reassurance of simple answers.
And once you’ve embraced the notion that complex, complicated problems have simple, obvious solutions, you naturally begin to wonder why those obvious solutions aren’t being implemented. The answers, trumpeted at campaign rallies and on talk radio, are again simple and obvious:
A. Our leaders are too weak to implement them.
B. They are too stupid to implement them.
C. They are too corrupt to implement them.
D. They are downright treasonous and have no intention of implementing them.
In short, we don’t lack solutions. We lack the will. Armed with the solutions, all we require to make America great again are leaders who have the necessary strength to implement them. Given the gravity of our situation, strong leaders do not allow themselves to be bound by restraints that lesser mortals might face — matters of law, treaty, arithmetic, practicality, morality. Because you know who abides by the rules?
Losers do. And what we need are winners.
But it’s just not that easy. For example, as much as we might wish otherwise, there is no simple solution to ISIS, nor to the larger challenge of Islamic extremism. It is a complex, complicated problem, with more moving parts than we can comprehend. It poses nowhere near the scale of threat that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union posed, but it also defies the brute-force solution of, say, marching on Berlin, deposing Adolph Hitler and dropping bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So when you watch a Republican debate and you hear candidate after candidate preach the virtues of strength in responding to ISIS, ask yourself why a Republican Congress has yet to pass a use-of-force resolution against ISIS requested more than a year ago by President Obama. The answer is that even among themselves, Republicans can’t agree on a course of action more specific than “strength.” Because it’s complicated.
And here’s the big irony: While we all worry for our country’s future, there is no sign more troubling than the sight of millions so desperate for hope that they succumb to the promise of easy answers and “strong” leaders to implement them. You want to “make America great again?” It will take hard work, and that work begins with the willingness of individual citizens to think things through.