As the White Rabbit said: “Don’t just do something — stand there.”
In a podcast the day after the massacre in Las Vegas, Michael Graham asked me what supporters of the Second Amendment ought to do in reaction to such horrifying events. My answer at the time was: nothing. And nothing that has transpired since then has shown me cause to modify that position. It is in the nature of reactionaries to react, but very often the right course of action is inaction.
To my friend Michael, that’s cold-fish stuff. What’s needed, he argued, is passion: an emotional discharge in the service of a proactive agenda. While bookish types such as myself are mustering evidence and reason behind a dispassionate analysis of the facts, he argued, the gun-grabbers and other demagogues are getting the rubes all riled up (I am rephrasing) to do . . . something. “We have to do something!” he insisted.
Of course his argument is not without some merit, especially if you are running for office. (Consider who is president of these United States in anno Domini 2017.) Passion is helpful if you are trying to animate a crowd, either to vote for you or to tune in to your radio program or television show. Consider how fond Rush Limbaugh is of the word “passion,” which he describes as the essential key to success. He is not wrong about that: The love of the thing itself is necessary and irreplaceable for the development of any talent or enterprise. Who doubts that if Rush Limbaugh would give Winslow Homer a run for his money if his passion were watercolor instead of broadcasting, or that LeBron James would be a master cordwainer if his passion were making shoes instead of making shots?
But our passions can run away with us, especially in politics. Politics is not about policy: Politics is about tribe. Turn on Thom Hartmann’s radio program some time and, if you can stomach two minutes of it, you’ll understand what politics really is for many people: a license to hate. The indulgence of hatred is, for a certain kind of person — not an uncommon type, either — extraordinarily pleasurable, as is the expression of outrage, disgust, and indignation. You probably have seen this, in someone else or in yourself: In the course of detailing some outrage or act of buffoonery, one lists each detail, building up to a crescendo, and then — the smile. A big, wide smile of serene satisfaction announcing that the day’s outrage has been duly and deeply savored.
Politicians, and their media minions, have good reason to keep us stirred up, to keep our passions in a state of constant excitation. If we stopped and thought about things for a minute, we’d tar and feather the lot of them.
The exercise of the emotions is enjoyable in the same way as the exercise of the muscles, and probably for the same reason. That is what makes drama so engaging. To Aristotle we owe the idea of drama as catharsis, a word we use to mean a kind of transformative release. The Greek word was used to denote the pruning of trees or the clearing of land for cultivation, and hence was applied metaphorically in Aristotle’s time to a medical procedure: purgation, or therapeutic evacuation. As Aristotle understood catharsis, theater was a kind of emotional laxative. And there is a whiff of castor oil around Broadway. The idea survives into earthy modern English, in which a person who is having an emotional outburst is described as “losing his” — you know.
Passion is what drives us to “do something,” exclamation point implied. It is also what causes us to misunderstand politics as a contest between white hats and black hats: Think of how much of our political discourse is dedicated to explaining the other side as some sort of conspiracy, with the Right talking about “Alinskyites” and “Cloward-Piven,” the Left whispering darkly about the Koch brothers or, this week, NRA money lining the pockets of politicians.
The National Rifle Association is in fact barely among the top 500 political contributors (it is No. 460 at the moment) the organization and its affiliates having made barely $1 million in contributions in the 2016 cycle. Never mind the numbers — we have passion to express!
Passion makes you stupid. It also makes you president.
(Those are not mutually exclusive.)
We could do with a good deal less passion in our public life. The alt-right knuckleheads rallied behind Donald Trump not for reasons having to do with policy — they have no serious policy agenda at all — but because he gives voice to their passion, that passion being the desire to shock and annoy the politically correct busybodies and transnational economic elites by whom they feel condescended to. Trump was sworn in as president in January; it is October, and it already is obvious that he is as tired of the job as the country is of him and his schoolboy antics. “He fights!” they said. And, indeed, he has spent a great deal of time taking swings at cable-news figures, who enjoy the attention, and at Jeff Bezos, who doesn’t notice. By “He fights!” they mean he runs his mouth and tweets angry dopey things. And he does. Does he do anything else? Can he?
Do we really want to find out?
The passionate man is an unreliable man.
The NRA, which to its great discredit got into bed with Trump early and enthusiastically, ought to be concerned about his passion, which is a fickle thing. Trump was a gun-control advocate to the left of Hillary Rodham Clinton until shortly before he decided to run for president as a Republican. He was a supporter of a ban on so-called assault weapons, an advocate of waiting periods, and a critic of Republicans who “walk the NRA line.” Some of his associates already are worrying that Trump will revert to his old Manhattan Democrat ways on the question, because Trump’s passion is seeking the approval of crowds, especially the small crowd that edits the New York Times. Cutting a deal with his new best friends, Chuck and Nancy, in the aftermath of Las Vegas, might be appealing to that passion, especially if he could do so in some low-cost way such as opposing the NRA-supported Hearing Protection Act, which would make it easier to buy noise suppressors for firearms.
The passionate man is an unreliable man. Trump has been on both sides of gun control, abortion (he famously took five different positions on the question in three days), the Afghanistan war, Syria, the Electoral College, NATO, Beijing’s purported currency manipulation, tax reform, single-payer health care, the Export-Import Bank, and whether the president should play golf, among other things. (He finally got it right on golf.) Emotions are running high at the moment, and Trump is a captive of what Marcus Aurelius called “the animal soul,” writing in his Meditations:
To have sensible impressions exciting imaginations, is common to us with the cattle. To be moved, like puppets, by appetites and passions, is common to us with the wild beasts, with the most effeminate wretches, Phalaris, and Nero, with atheists, and with traitors to their country. If these things, then, are common to the lowest and most odious characters, this must remain as peculiar to the good man; to have the intellectual part governing and directing him in all the occurring offices of life.
He was a pretty good emperor.
Would have been a lousy talk-radio host.
Passion is the enemy of good government — and the enemy of the civil peace, too. Good government is boring government: regular, orderly, predictable. To govern dispassionately requires a measure of mental serenity, which is hard to come by while Americans are still bleeding in Las Vegas. The easiest and surest way to equanimity is to let time pass. And, in the meantime, just do — nothing.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.