EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (if there are any of you left),
The late Bill Rusher, longtime publisher of National Review, often counseled young writers to remember, “Politicians will always disappoint you.” As I’ve often said around here, this isn’t because politicians are evil. It’s because politicians are politicians. Their interests too often lie in votes, not in principles. That’s why the conservative movement has always recognized that victory lies not simply in electing conservative politicians, but in shaping a conservative electorate that lines up the incentives so that politicians define their self-interest in a conservative way.
But if it’s true that politicians can disappoint, I think one has to say that the people can, too.
And when I say “the people” I don’t mean “those people.” I mean my people. I mean many of you, Dear Readers. Normally, when conservatives talk about how the public can be wrong, we mean that public. You know the one. The “low-information voters” Rush Limbaugh is always talking about. The folks we laughed at when Jay Leno interviewed them on the street. But we don’t just mean the unwashed and the ill-informed. We sometimes mean Jews, blacks, college kids, Lena Dunham fans, and countless other partisan slices of the electorate who reflexively vote on strict party lines for emotional or irrational reasons. We laugh at liberals who let know-nothing celebrities do their thinking for them.
Well, many of the same people we laughed at are now laughing at us because we are going ga-ga over our own celebrity.
Behold the Trumpen Proletariat
Yes, I know that there are plenty of decent and honorable people who support Trump. For instance, my friend John Nolte over at Breitbart is one. He constantly celebrates Trump because Trump has all the right enemies and defies the conventional rules governing politics and media:
Why Trump resonates. https://t.co/IGgZq6RXdS— John Nolte (@NolteNC) August 27, 2015
Trump goes right over the heads of the media to talk to the people. He uses the media like his chew toy. And it’s glorious.— John Nolte (@NolteNC) August 26, 2015
I’ve waited 30 years to see the media get treated like Trump just treated that piece of garbage @jorgeramosnews. Oh. Hell. Yes.— John Nolte (@NolteNC) August 25, 2015
But this is not an argument for Trump as a serious presidential candidate. It is really no argument at all. It is catharsis masquerading as principle, venting and resentment pretending to be some kind of higher argument. Every principle used to defend Trump is subjective, graded on a curve. Trump is like a cat trained to piss in a human toilet. It’s amazing! It’s remarkable! Yes, yes, it is: for a cat. But we don’t judge humans by the same standard.
The Tempting of Conservatism
I’ve written many times how the phrase “power corrupts” has been misunderstood. Lord Acton’s original point wasn’t that power corrupts those who wield power, it was that it corrupts those who admire it. In a letter to a historian friend who was too forgiving of the Reformation-era popes, Acton wrote:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Trump’s popularity apparently trumps all standards we would apply not just to our neighbors, but to our leaders.
Popularity — which in democracy is a very important kind of power — works the same way. We routinely forgive the rich and famous for sins we would condemn our neighbors for. Trump’s popularity apparently trumps all standards we would apply not just to our neighbors, but to our leaders. A small example of what I am talking about can be found in Ted Cruz’s vow not to criticize other Republicans — if by “Republicans” you mean “Donald Trump.” I have a lot of respect for Cruz, but this doesn’t pass the laugh test. The Texan has been lambasting the entire Republican party for his entire time in office. Some of his critiques are valid, of course. But he has shown not an iota of reluctance to criticize fellow Republicans when it’s in his interest. Cruz isn’t criticizing Donald Trump because, as a smart politician, he wants to woo Trump’s followers when/if Trump eventually falters. Similarly, I’m constantly hearing from Trump fans that it’s “disrespectful” for me to criticize the Republican front-runner — as if these fans would refrain from criticizing Jeb or Rubio or Kasich if they were in the lead.
The Bonfire of Principles
If I sound dismayed, it’s only because I am. Conservatives have spent more than 60 years arguing that ideas and character matter. That is the conservative movement I joined and dedicated my professional life to. And now, in a moment of passion, many of my comrades-in-arms are throwing it all away in a fit of pique. Because “Trump fights!”
How many Republicans have been deemed unfit for the Oval Office because of comparatively minor character flaws or ideological shortcomings? Rick Perry in 2012 saw his candidacy implode when he couldn’t remember the third item on his checklist of agencies he’d close down. Well, even in that “oops” moment, Rick Perry comes off as Lincolnesque compared with Donald Trump.
Yes, I know Trump has declared himself pro-life. Good for him — and congratulations to the pro-life movement for making that the price of admission. But I’m at a total loss to understand why serious pro-lifers take him at his word. He’s been all over the place on Planned Parenthood, and when asked who he’d like to put on the Supreme Court, he named his pro-choice-extremist sister.
Ann Coulter wrote of Newt in 2011: “If all you want is to lob rhetorical bombs at Obama and then lose, Newt Gingrich — like recent favorite Donald Trump — is your candidate. But if you want to save the country, Newt’s not your guy.” Now Ann leads a chorus of people claiming that Trump is our only savior. Has Trump changed, or have Ann and her followers? Is there a serious argument behind the new thinking, or is it “because he fights!”?
It is entirely possible that conservatives sweat the details of tax policy too much. Once in office, a president must deal with political realities that render the fine print of a campaign pamphlet as useful as a battle plan after the enemy is met. But in the last month, Trump has contemplated a flat tax, the fair tax, maintaining the current progressive tax system, a carried-interest tax, a wealth tax, and doing nothing. His fans respond, “That shows he’s a pragmatist!”
No. It shows that he has absolutely no ideological guardrails whatsoever. Ronald Reagan once said, “Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” Trump is close to the reverse. He’s a mouth at the wrong end of an alimentary canal spewing crap with no sense of responsibility.
In his embarrassing interview with Hugh Hewitt Thursday night, Trump revealed he knows less than most halfway-decent D.C. interns about foreign policy. Twitter lit up with responses about how it doesn’t matter and how it was a gotcha interview. They think that Trump’s claim that he’ll just go find a Douglas MacArthur to fix the problem is brilliant. Well, I’m all in favor of finding a Douglas MacArthur, but if you don’t know anything about foreign policy, the interview process will be a complete disaster. Yes, Reagan delegated. But he knew enough to know to whom to delegate.
If you want a really good sense of the damage Donald Trump is doing to conservatism, consider the fact that for the last five years no issue has united the Right more than opposition to Obamacare. Opposition to socialized medicine in general has been a core tenet of American conservatism from Day One. Yet, when Republicans were told that Donald Trump favors single-payer health care, support for single-payer health care jumped from 16 percent to 44 percent.
I’ve written a lot about my problems with populism. One of my favorite illustrations of why the populist mindset is dangerous and anti-intellectual comes from William Jennings Bryan. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver,” Bryan announced. “I will look up the arguments later.” My view of conservatism holds that if free silver is a bad idea, it’s still a bad idea even if the people of Nebraska are for it. But Trumpism flips this on its head. The conservatives of Nebraska and elsewhere should be against single-payer health care, even if Donald Trump is for it. What we are seeing is the corrupting of conservatives.
Homework Is for Losers
I agree that presidents don’t need to be experts on everything. But they do need to do their homework. This is a standard I’ve held for years:
This is my biggest gripe about some of the GOP candidates in recent years. They don’t think they have to do their homework, perhaps because they aren’t so much running for president as running for greater celebrity.
Consider Herman Cain. I love listening to him, and so do a lot of conservatives. He’s smart enough to be president. But he simply didn’t do his homework, and he acted like that was something to be proud of, as when he of bragged about not knowing the names of leaders of “small, insignificant states” like Uzbekistan (which he jokingly pronounced “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”).The one thing you cannot buy in politics is charisma. If you could, Mitt Romney would have bought a pallet of it at Costco and he’d probably be president now. Cain and Perry had the charisma, the natural political talent, and they squandered it by thinking all they needed was the sizzle without the steak.
Trump has the charisma, I’ll grant him that. But there is no evidence he’s thought deeply about the job beyond how much classier it will be once he has it. His whole shtick is an eminence front (“It’s a put on!” — The Couch).
When running for president, doing your homework is a question of character and even patriotism. If you love this country and want to be the president, quite literally the least you can do is be prepared.
So let’s return to the issue of character.
RELATED: Trump’s Hearing Problem
In 2012, Mark Steyn wrote that a President Gingrich would have “twice as many ex-wives as the first 44 presidents combined.” If that (quite brilliant) line resonated with you three years ago, why doesn’t it for a President Trump?
I understand the Noltean compulsion to celebrate anyone who doesn’t take crap from the mainstream media. But when Newt Gingrich brilliantly eviscerated the press in 2012, there was a serious ideological worldview behind it. Trump’s assaults on the press have only one standard: whether the journalist in question is favorable to Trump or not. If a journalist praises him, that journalist is “terrific.” If the journalist is critical of Trump he is a “loser” (or, in my case, a loser who can’t buy pants). Not surprisingly, Hugh Hewitt is now “third rate” because he made Trump look bad. I’m no fan of Arianna Huffington or Gail Collins, but calling them “dogs” because they criticized you is not a serious ideological or intellectual retort. (It’s not even clever.) I think Trump did insinuate that Megyn Kelly was menstruating during the debate. He denies it. Fine. But what in the world about his past would lead someone to give him the benefit of the doubt? This is the same man who said, “You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
Trump’s glass-bottom id lets the whole world see his megalomania.
Trump’s glass-bottom id lets the whole world see his megalomania. He talks about himself in the third person all the time. He explains that Trump is great because Trump is rich and famous. He’s waxed profound on how he doesn’t want blacks counting his money (he prefers Jews in yarmulkes). He makes jokes on national TV about women fellating him. He pays famous people to attend his wedding and then brags about it as if he got one over on them. He boasts in his books how he screwed over business associates and creditors because all that mattered was making an extra buck.
RELATED: What Makes Donald Run?
If your neighbor talked this way, maybe he’d still be your friend, because we all have friends who are characters. But would you want him to be your kid’s English teacher? Guidance counselor? Would you tell your kids you want them to follow his example? Would you go into business with him?
Would you entrust him with nuclear weapons?
Remnant Here I ComeKarl Marx coined the term lumpenproletariat to describe working-class people who could never relinquish their class consciousness and embrace the idea of a classless socialist society. Hence, they were useless to the revolutionary cause. I’m no Marxist, so I don’t buy the idea that anybody — never mind a whole class of people — are beyond persuasion. But I am tempted to believe that Donald Trump’s biggest fans are not to be relied upon in the conservative cause. I have hope they will come to their senses. But it’s possible they won’t. And if the conservative movement and the Republican party allow themselves to be corrupted by this flim-flammery, then so be it. My job will be harder, my career will suffer, and I’ll be ideologically homeless (though hardly alone). That’s not so scary. Conservatism began in the wilderness and maybe, like the Hebrews, it would return from it stronger and ready to rule. But I’m not leaving without a fight. If my side loses that fight, all I ask is you stop calling the Trumpian cargo cult “conservative” and maybe stop the movement long enough for me to get off.
Various & Sundry
I had hoped for sanity to be restored by the time I got back from my vacation. Alas, it was not to be. We had a really wonderful time. I may post some pictures over at my Facebook page later.
If you’re reading this “news”letter style, I’ll be on Special Report tonight. If you’re reading this on the web on Saturday (when it goes on the NRO homepage), I’ll still be on Special Report tonight, but you’ll be reading this too late.
I’ll be at the Cato Institute on September 9, talking about — of all things — the Magna Carta. Actually, I’ll just be responding to a guy talking about the Magna Carta. Still come on by if you can.
If you’re interested in what the presidential candidates are reading (or say they are reading), here’s my friend Tevi Troy’s breakdown.
My column today is on how Hillary Clinton is just simply guilty and the rest is commentary.
Here’s my column on defining superheroes down.
I’ve written a new foreword to Frank Meyer’s classic collection, What Is Conservatism? It seems timely.
Zoë Update: I don’t have much for you as I was away for two weeks and she was left behind with the house-and-dog sitter. We got back last Sunday. Around Wednesday she stopped chastising us for leaving her. The only problem is she now really thinks anytime I leave the house, I’m leaving forever. It’s pretty painful when she hugs my leg and I drag her toward the door.
And, now, some other stuff: