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 the good cat, which for some reason is opposed to my daughter getting an education),
I should just say it clearly: I will never fall in love with Donald Trump. For most of you, this is not a big surprise. But for some, it’s a kind of betrayal. In much the same way the Left gets furious when you just don’t care enough about its priorities, many of Trump’s biggest supporters get bizarrely angry at the fact that I am not emotionally correct when it comes to the new president.
Monsieur Google tells me that “emotional correctness” is a term that’s been used before including by — ack! — the constantly self-parodying Sally Kohn. But fortunately, I don’t mean it the way she does. In fact, I think I mean something close to the opposite.
There’s a lot of tribalism and romanticism in the water these days. By tribalism I mean the idea that loyalty to one’s side comes first and arguments come later, and when they do, they must be bent to fit the needs of one’s side. By romanticism, I mean the primacy of feelings over facts.
Epistemic Closure for Thee, But Not for Me
The vexing thing is that a lot of liberals agree with this observation when it’s framed as a criticism of conservatives. That’s Obama’s whole shtick these days, decrying “bubbles” and the lack of a “common baseline of fact.” And by “these days,” I really mean his entire presidency. Obama has always argued that anyone who disagrees with him is doing so from a deficit of facts and surplus of partisanship and ideology. Even when Elizabeth Warren disagreed with him, he resorted to this lazy arrogance.
But Obama is hardly alone. This has been a theme in progressivism going back a century, from the progressive obsession with “disinterestedness” to JFK’s insistence that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of modern challenges. “Most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems,” he insisted, and these problems “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.”
The whole ludicrous and yet somehow quaint “epistemic closure” panic of the last decade and the rise of “explanatory journalism” illustrated the extent to which liberals believe that confirmation bias is a uniquely conservative failure. Paul Krugman cut to the epistemological chase with his claim that “facts have a liberal bias.” Neil deGrasse Tyson’s fantasies of creating a utopian world called “Rationalia” is in one sense a great punchline to a joke, but it’s also a perfect example of how liberal tribalism uses scientism to discredit perspectives it doesn’t like.
Care, Damn It
All of that is annoying, but it can’t hold a candle to the ugliness of emotional correctness. In recent years, we’ve seen how the real crime isn’t conservative intellectual or ideological dissent but conservative emotional dissent. Mozilla’s Brendan Eich being pelted from his job, the perfidious treason of the wedding-cake bakers, the assaults on Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A, the bonfires of asininity lit every day on college campuses: These have so much less to do with an ideological argument and more to do with the new unwritten and unspoken fatwah: “You will be made to care.”
During that idiotic Halloween controversy at Yale, one student captured the moment beautifully when she complained that an administrator’s attempts to discuss, explain, and debate the issue were beside the point. “He doesn’t get it,” she wrote. “And I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.” The truth is she didn’t just want to talk about her pain, she wanted her pain validated and even celebrated.
In the Soviet Union and other totalitarian societies, displaying overt signs of “insufficient enthusiasm” is a crime:
“Now, if a North Korean university professor is suspected of insufficient enthusiasm for the system, they will be gone without a trace very quickly,” Andrei Lankov has written of the Hermit Kingdom. “Even the memory of the unlucky victim would likely disappear.”
The other day an NPR reporter tweeted:
Marilyn Geewax surely can’t think that Tom Price, a doctor, is against curing cancer. But she clearly thinks that there’s some serious problem with Price for not applauding an entirely debatable and typical rhetorical bauble in a State of the Union Address. My point isn’t to single out Geewax. I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice person.
My point is simply that in this moment of cultural and ideological polarization, the refusal to share one’s passions is a sign of disloyalty.
The Trump Tribe
And that is true on the right as well. In fairness, it’s surely always been true on the right to one extent or another, because the phenomenon I’m talking about is a product of human nature not ideology. The coalitional instinct is a universal human trait that causes people to link up in tribal bonds. The great evolutionary psychologist John Tooby explains that the coalitional instinct “explains a number of otherwise puzzling phenomena.”
For example, ancestrally, if you had no coalition you were nakedly at the mercy of everyone else, so the instinct to belong to a coalition has urgency, pre-existing and superseding any policy-driven basis for membership. This is why group beliefs are free to be so weird.
I’m writing about this at considerable length in my book, so I won’t cannibalize myself here. But the coalitional instinct is an important concept to keep in mind these days.
It certainly helps me understand the barrages of invective and utterly bizarre psychoanalyzing I’m subjected to every day. For instance, last night I was on Bret Baier’s Special Report. On the show, I praised Trump’s appointments and offered a plausibly favorable interpretation of his disagreements with his cabinet officials. I also defended Trump’s tweets supporting LL Bean, but I criticized others. The response, as usual, from the Trump Tribe was an irrational miasma of rage and projection.
When you cut through the trollery, the basic complaint is simply that I am guilty of insufficient enthusiasm for Donald Trump. I keep getting asked in various ways, “When will you get over your Never Trump obsession?” As I’ve written countless times now, as far as I’m concerned, Never Trump isn’t a thing anymore. Trump won, he’ll be the next president, so there’s nothing to be “never” about.
The problem is that “Never Trump” has morphed in the minds of both liberals and conservatives to mean something very different. For liberals, it means one must never defend anything Trump does or even nod to his legitimacy in the slightest way — lest one be guilty of some form of hypocrisy (this is just another manifestation of the ancient practice of liberals telling conservatives the right way to be conservative).
On the right, Never Trump has become a convenient psychological crutch for dismissing inconvenient arguments. Like the ever-metastasizing phrase “fake news,” it’s waved like a magic wand to make any threatening claim disappear without having to deal with it on the merits. Marxists used to use the term “false consciousness” in much the same way: to head-off threatening facts or arguments by attacking motives. When I point out that until a few months ago Republicans and conservatives despised crony capitalism or “picking winners and losers,” the instant reply amounts to: “When are you going to get over your Never Trump obsessions?”
The upshot of all of these responses is “Get with the program,” “Get on board the Trump Train,” or “Get on the right side of history.” I’ve spent the last two decades decrying this form of argumentation from liberals — twice at book length. I don’t see why I should abandon that position now. Indeed, the only logically consistent argument for why I should (and one often whispered or hinted at behind the scenes) is that it’s the safe play for my career and my income — to which I say, “Meh.”
How to Help Trump Win
But I’ve dilated on all that many times in this space, so let me make a different point. I very much want Trump to be a successful conservative president — which is to say, I don’t want him to be a successful statist president. I understand all-too-well that many of Trump’s fans do want him to be a successful statist president. They don’t use the word “statist,” preferring the rough synonym “nationalist.” They either sincerely think, or convincingly pretend to think, that there’s a meaningful difference between a statist and a nationalist. There isn’t.
That’s a worthwhile argument to have, and there will be many opportunities to have it down the road.
But if Trump is going to be a successful conservative president, I think his biggest fans will have to recognize their own tribalism. I’ll give you two examples. Last night I got these responses to my appearance on Special Report:
Put aside how much these tweets exemplify the points I made above.
The most relevant point is the claim that “the voters want him to tweet.” Trump’s spinners make similar claims ten times a day, insisting that “the American people” support whatever it is he’s doing at a given moment.
Donald Trump’s approval ratings are the lowest for any incoming president in history, by a very, very wide margin. Obama went into his inauguration with a net favorability rating of +71. George W. Bush and Clinton had +36 and +50, respectively. Trump? Negative seven (-7). He’s dropped 13 points in the last month. Quinnipiac has his favorability rating at 37 percent, a marked drop since November. The internals are worse. He’s lost ground in almost every category since the election. Only 12 percent of Americans say they think he will be a “great president.” Oh, and Americans think by a 2–1 margin (64 to 32) that he should stop tweeting.
Looking at these numbers, it is very difficult to see how the Trump Tribe can claim he has the support of the American people for his behavior since the election, unless you define “the American people” as the Americans who unabashedly support Trump. And it seems that a lot of people in the Always Trump camp believe exactly that.
Various & Sundry
Yes, yes, I know this was not a particularly — or even remotely — jocular G-File. Sometimes that’s the way things break. For those who’ve come to expect that every week, I apologize. My muse for this “news”letter is always unapologetic self-indulgence, and sometimes I just don’t have the pull-my-finger jokes in me. I’m still deep in Book Hell and have a slew of big-time hassles in my private life I’m trying to deal with. I also woke up to discover I made a stupid mistake in my column today, which always puts me in a foul mood. Tune in next week, maybe we’ll both have better luck.
Canine Update: The beasts are doing well, though Pippa had a scary incident with the dogwalker in which she fell through some ice. She emerged a bit like George Bailey after he’s shown the light in It’s a Wonderful Life. Pippa greeted everyone, including some dogs she’s normally afraid of like Spock after he realized Captain Kirk wasn’t dead. And since this “news”letter has been deficient in Vitamin J (for jocularity), I’ll recount a somewhat off-color tale from this morning.
While I was getting dressed for our pre-dawn perambulations, Pippa and Zoë were doing their usual celebratory wrestling and mutual face-licking. At one point, as she is wont to do, the Dingo was biting the scruff of Pippa’s neck when she, uh, well farted. It was surprisingly audible and seemed to take Zoë more by surprise than anyone else. She wheeled around to see what the Hell happened in steerage on the HMS Dingo. At first, she seemed shocked that she didn’t find a squirrel with a Woopee cushion. But then she caught the scent and followed it out of the room like one of those Loony Tunes dogs that smells a roast beef from far away. Perhaps that’s why she seemed so keen to enjoy the fresh air this morning.
Has the New York Times given up on stopping Jeff Sessions’s confirmation?
The new Ricochet GLoP podcast discusses Meryl Streep and the Golden Globes, the culture wars, Rogue One, and more.
Obama’s farewell address was a campaign rally in disguise (corrected version).
And now, the weird stuff.