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 (Including Steve Bannon, who now has more time on his hands),
But this week feels different. The fecal content is higher. The curlicues of shimmering methane distorting the air above Washington seem thicker.
Taking this metaphor beyond all good sense and taste, when I look at the gauges and dials in the control room, all the needles are in the red, and the sewage-outflow pipes are all pointed at the industrial turbines.
From the writers of Sharknado 7: The Sharkenating, SyFy brings you: Sh*t Show.
“My God. That’s not coolant water . . . that’s not water at all!”
In other words, it feels like this is the moment when Trumpism hits the fan.
Dead Presidency Walking?
Of course, it has felt like this to one extent or another before: when Trump denigrated John McCain’s military service, when he compared Ben Carson to a pedophile, when he smeared Ted Cruz’s father, when the Access Hollywood tape came out, after the various idiotic tweets, after he fired Comey, when he divulged intelligence sources and methods, etc.
And while this week will surely make every historian’s list of Great Moments in Presidents Stepping on Their Own Penises, he’ll surely survive this too. But survival is the wrong metric. Barring impeachment and removal, presidents can only be fired in elections. Lingering on for three-plus more years as a failed president is a kind of survival. The question is, is this presidency salvageable?
There’s a reason we have the expression: “The straw that breaks the camel’s back.” A piece of straw alone is not a burden for a camel. But if you pile on one burden after another, you reach “the last straw.”
This is one of the — if not the — most important dynamics in politics.
If you go back and look at any number of “spontaneous” political outbursts, you’ll discover that the actual people doing the, uh, out-bursting are actually responding to a long list of grievances and that the precipitating event was only the last straw. (A few that come to mind, in no particular order: the sudden emergence of the Tea Parties in 2009, the firestorms over Trent Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond, George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Myers to the Supreme Court, Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, FDR’s court-packing scheme, the French and American Revolutions, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, etc.)
For instance, the Arab Spring was ignited by the abuse of a street vendor in Tunisia, but the kindling for the region-wide political conflagration to come had accumulated over decades. You can imagine the anger and confusion of, say, Hosni Mubarak, who was left wondering why he had to step down because some peon in Tunis set himself on fire.
Hindsight is rarely 20/20 — but 20/20 foresight is an even rarer thing.
This tipping-point dynamic is one of the most interesting phenomena in politics, in part because it tends to catch so many people off guard. If it were obvious to everyone when we were approaching the Last Straw Moment, history would look very different, and we all would probably still be living under kings and emperors.
Sometimes historians have to come in like NTSB inspectors investigating a crash to explain the inevitability of something that everyone thought in the moment was spontaneous. Some of our Founding Fathers understood that slavery was doomed as an institution. Others believed it would endure forever. Hindsight is rarely 20/20 — but 20/20 foresight is an even rarer thing.
I have always believed that the Trump presidency would end badly because I believe character is destiny. There is no reasonable or morally sound definition of good character that Donald Trump can meet. That’s why we learned nothing new about Donald Trump this week. He can’t change. Some good, decent, and smart people couldn’t or wouldn’t see this. But every day, more people see this. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is a collective phenomenon, but like all collective phenomena it’s made up of a multitude of individual realizations.
For example, Julius Krein, the founder of the pro-Trump egghead journal American Affairs, reached his tipping point this week:
I supported the Republican in dozens of articles, radio and TV appearances, even as conservative friends and colleagues said I had to be kidding. As early as September 2015, I wrote that Mr. Trump was “the most serious candidate in the race.” Critics of the pro-Trump blog and then the nonprofit journal that I founded accused us of attempting to “understand Trump better than he understands himself.” I hoped that was the case. I saw the decline in this country — its weak economy and frayed social fabric — and I thought Mr. Trump’s willingness to move past partisan stalemates could begin a process of renewal.
It is now clear that my optimism was unfounded. I can’t stand by this disgraceful administration any longer, and I would urge anyone who once supported him as I did to stop defending the 45th president.
Like Joe Scarborough in the spring of 2016, he has hit his “Colonel Nicholson moment.” I was always skeptical of Krein’s project for the simple reason that crafting a coherent intellectual program around Donald Trump’s entirely glandular personality is like using the globule in a lava lamp as a ruler.
I don’t bring this up to say, “I told you so.” In fact, I think my fellow Trump skeptics on the right should resist the temptation to rub it in too much. For instance, I agree with many of the points Matt Lewis makes here, but rubbing salt into wounds elicits a reflex that is not helpful. Too many people have turned Trump into a populist or cultural avatar; “love me, love my president.” I think it is bizarre that so many people feel personally insulted when Donald Trump is insulted, but I think lots of entirely human reactions are bizarre. Trump is hardly the first political leader to elicit this kind of psychological reflex. Indeed, to some extent it’s true of every political and religious leader.
I do think it was idiotic to nominate Donald Trump as the GOP’s standard-bearer, but I do not think everyone who voted for him in the general election is an “idiot,” as Lewis suggests. Some of the smartest people I know voted for him, for defensible reasons. Krein and his fellow Trumpist intellectuals weren’t dumb, they were just wrong. And while I think the conservative movement would probably be in better shape if Hillary Clinton had won last November, I don’t think it’s nearly so obvious that America would be. But that is an entirely academic question at this point.
So why do I bring this up? Because the process of hitting the last straw is not uniform. My friend Hugh Hewitt thinks Trump’s support is solidifying:
I think that’s almost surely preposterous. But even if his anecdotal evidence is correct, what Hugh misses is that the camel is getting more burdened by the day. Trump’s core supporters — which now clearly includes the tiki-torch Nazis marching behind Obergruppenführers Richard Spencer and David Duke — may indeed be intensifying their investment in Trump, but far more people are intensifying their opposition to Trump, including as of this morning the folks at Breitbart.com. It’s funny. For a year now, they’ve been beating the drums insisting that everyone join the Trump cult of personality. But it turns out they were in it for Bannon all along. After all, no policy has changed. No new program has been announced. Trump is the same man he was yesterday. But with Bannon gone, the Breitbarters are going to war.
If Trump had a different character, I could imagine all sorts of scenarios in which he pivots, reboots, triangulates, or in some other way gets a do-over. But this week demonstrated — once again — that he can’t be anything other than what he is. The entropy is intensifying, the orbit is decaying, and rather than fight it, Trump is leaning into it. Think of it this way. Is there a remotely plausible scenario under which Julius Krein recants his denunciation of Trump? Is there a means by which the White House could entice all of the CEOs quitting these stupid councils and commissions to come back? What would that look like? The D.C. rumor mill is thick with stories of White House staffers looking for the exits and qualified people rejecting offers to come on board. Heck, what will now bring the Bannonistas back into the fold?
If you think Donald Trump has the skill and character necessary to reverse these trends, you also have to believe that Charlie Brown is going to kick the football this time around and that the scorpion is finally serious about not stinging the frog.
When Maximums Become Minimums
My Friday column is about the incandescently stupid idea that fighting Nazis is so virtuous that you can’t criticize “anti-fascists.” Noted political scientist Seth Rogen summarizes the attitude quite succinctly:
The idea that Nazis and people who oppose Nazis are somehow equatable is the most batshit fucking crazy shit I’ve ever fucking heard.— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) August 16, 2017
Having written a whole book on the topic, I know that Rogen speaks for millions, including some of the great (and allegedly great) intellectuals of the 20th century. And yet, I haven’t lost my ability to be shocked by the idiocy of it all. This mode of thinking is fundamentally religious. You might call it “Manichean Hegelianism.” In this binary formulation, the world is divided between the forces of Light and Darkness, Good and Evil — and evil cannot fight evil and good cannot fight good.
Even a moment of serious thought should demonstrate how absurd this is. Mob bosses kill each other all the time. There’s no rule that says serial killers can’t kill other serial killers. The quest for power routinely pits decent people against decent people and evil people against evil people. Every version of Henry Kissinger’s Iran–Iraq War joke captures this fundamental truth about the nature of reality. The Spanish Civil War pitted two bad movements against each other. Members of al-Qaeda and ISIS are not above killing each other. Stalin killed more Nazis than FDR did — but that doesn’t make Stalin a better man than FDR.
And that gets me to the rhetorical trope I find so poisonous. Let’s stipulate that Adolf Hitler was the most evil person ever. On the scale of evil, he scores 100 percent. Fine. What score should we ascribe to Stalin or Mao? Let’s say they score 90 percent. Who gives a rat’s ass? Certainly not the millions they murdered. If you watched your wife get raped by prison guards in the Gulag and then die in the snow, how much solace would you take from the fact that Hitler was “worse” on some asinine abstract metric of evil? If you want to argue that no one was worse than Hitler, have at it. But if you’re going to then argue that because someone wasn’t as bad as Hitler — or because someone fought Hitler — that they are somehow absolved of their own evil deeds, then you’re a fool. To do so is to render complex moral and historical questions into a pass/fail system. Suddenly, “not as bad as Hitler” becomes a passing grade.
Whether or not the antifa goons are better than the alt-right peckerwoods is an idiotic argument to have. It’s an entirely subjective and aesthetic question. If you think racism is the most evil thing ever, you’re going to say the KKK is worse than antifa. That’s fine by me. But who cares? Is there a fainter praise imaginable than “He’s better than a Klansman?”
Is there a fainter praise imaginable than ‘He’s better than a Klansman?’
The really infuriating part of this Manicheanism is its retroactivity. In the post-Charlottesville tumult, liberals have convinced themselves that the GOP is simply the face of institutional racism. Sadly, Donald Trump has made that an easy charge to levy. But as Kevin Williamson notes, this rush to tear down Confederate statues is really an example of the Democratic party cleaning up a mess it created. I’m reminded of something George Clooney said a decade ago: “Yes, I’m a liberal, and I’m sick of it being a bad word. I don’t know at what time in history liberals have stood on the wrong side of social issues.” One could be charitable and say, “It depends what you mean by liberal.” But as an institutional matter, the Democratic party’s history on race is far, far worse than the GOP’s. It breaks my heart that the GOP has allowed this to be forgotten. But as an historical matter, the idea that the party of Woodrow Wilson, Josephus Daniels, Robert Byrd, William Fulbright, Richard Ely, et al. has been the great bulwark against racism is laughable.
The simple truth is that history isn’t simple: The universe isn’t divided into the Forces of Goodness and the Forces of Evil. That divide runs through every human heart and, therefore, every human institution. Recognizing this fact is the first step toward humility and decency in politics and life. But we live in a tribal moment where people ascribe good and evil to vast swaths of humanity based upon the jerseys they wear. Sometimes, the jerseys do make the case. Wear a Klan hood or a swastika and I will judge the book by the cover. But just because you think you’re morally justified to punch a Nazi, don’t expect me to assume you’re one of the good guys.
Various & Sundry
Alas, no Canine Update this week, as the beasts are home with the dogsitter. It was very hard to say goodbye to them, not just because they barked and cried when they saw us carrying the luggage out the door. It was also hard because they would so love every place we’ve been this week. The Goldbergs are reaching the point where it’s not really a family vacation if the dogs aren’t with us. The dogsitter sent some proof-of-life pictures, and it sure looks like they miss us. Zoë in particular looks out the window in the hope we’ll return any minute. We miss them, too.
And now, the weird stuff.