Bursting ‘Beltway Bubbles’

Trump is seen through video monitors during a speech in Miami, Fla., in August. (Reuters photo: Eric Thayer)
As much as Trump’s supporters accuse his conservative opponents of living in the ‘Beltway Bubble,’ aren’t they living in a bubble, too?

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 Readers (including all the nasty women and bad hombres),

My kid missed the school bus today, so rather than waste more time fighting rush-hour traffic into D.C., I’m writing this from a shopping-mall parking lot in Virginia. It’s good to get outside the Beltway Bubble, though I think technically, I’m still inside it. But you know what I mean. And since we’re on the topic, as Lawrence Welk said to his roadies, “Let’s talk about bubbles.”

I am always hearing that people inside the Beltway, in Washington, along the Acela Corridor, in the GOPe, wherever, are “living in a bubble” and that’s why “we” or “they” or “you” don’t get it.

“It” is a tiny word, but it contains multitudes. The “it” can refer to gun culture or abortion, opposition to immigration or, for that matter, support for immigration, it can be hatred of Washington or Hollywood or HBO’s Girls. And of course “it” can mean Donald Trump’s appeal.

I am the first to concede that when my wife is out of town I eat an inordinate number of meals over the kitchen sink. But that’s not important right now. I am also an early conceder of the point that I use “You just don’t get it” a lot myself.

Which reminds me: I think a great New Yorker cartoon would have Meet the Press panelists debating the presidential candidacy of Cousin Itt from the Addams Family with one pundit saying to the other “You just don’t get Itt!” Or something like that.

I’m here all week, try the veal. Hello? Is this thing on?

Anyway, where was I? Oh right: Bubbles.

The truth is everyone lives in a bubble, or rather a number of bubbles. For instance, there’s a thing called “Dunbar’s Number.” It’s the rough estimate of how many human beings we can really know as people in relationship to us and to other people. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar set the outer boundary at around 150 people. That sounds about right, though I am sure it varies person to person. My hunch is that some politicians and salesmen have abnormally high Dunbar numbers, while misanthropes like me have a much lower one.

Consider the family. Every family, no matter how normal or weird, is a bubble, a unique little civilization of its own. Not to be too much of a downer, but I wrote about this a bit in the first G-File after my brother passed away, when such thoughts were very close to my heart:

Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.

Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.

Friends have inside jokes. When an outsider or newcomer asks “What’s so funny?” sometimes the only serviceable response is “You had to be there” or “You just don’t get it.”

But the truth is, that’s not true. You could explain the inside joke so that any outsider could understand it. What’s much harder is explaining it so that the outsider feels it. This is a common insight when it comes to jokes. Explanations of jokes are like dissections of lab animals: In order to demonstrate how they work, you have to kill them.

Feelings, Woe, Woe, Woe, Feelings

And I think this is an important point given the moment we’re in. A very large share of the arguments on the right these days have more to do with the expression of feelings than the explication of arguments (this is normally a more recognizable trait of the Left).

For over a year now, people have been yelling at me “You don’t get it!” when it comes to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And while I am certainly open to the claim that I’m not that bright, I do think I get it. What drives a lot of friends and (former) fans crazy is that I don’t share their feelings — and that, in turn, feels to them like betrayal. And I get that, too. I’ve felt the same thing about conservative writers — many of them friends or former friends — who came to unpopular conclusions about this or that, and I’ve had similar feelings of betrayal, resentment, and, to use a word that would make total sense in German, notgettingitness.

I think this explains why so many people scream at me with Sam Kinison–like belligerence that I go ahead and endorse “my candidate,” Hillary Clinton. It’s a manifestation of the tribal, bubble-thinking that says if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem, or “if you’re not with me you must be with them.”

It’s worth pointing out that many of the intellectuals and writers shouting about the ‘Beltway Bubble!’ live in their own bubbles too.

I get the arguments for why I must, absolutely must, vote for Donald Trump. And I think some of them are fairly sound. I also get the arguments that I must, absolutely must, endorse Donald Trump. I just don’t find any of them very persuasive. Because, as I’ve said a million times now, I’m not going to let that guy turn me into a lying hack. I want no ownership of him, now or ever. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, which is why you can count me among the Brothers McMullin.

But there’s no need to recycle arguments I’ve made countless times already. Still, I think it’s worth pointing out that many of the intellectuals and writers shouting about the “Beltway Bubble!” live in their own bubbles too. I love the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College, but if you don’t think there’s a bubble surrounding those Ivory Towers, you don’t know why we have the term “Ivory Tower” in the first place.

Consider the anonymous writer Decius (whose identity is known to anyone who cares to know it and hidden from the masses of people who couldn’t give a rat’s ass. But I will honor this ridiculous conceit.) Decius’s most famous piece of work — and it was a piece of work — was his Flight 93 Election essay in which he argued that this election poses an existential threat to America’s survival. Either we charge the cockpit and vote for Trump, or the figurative terrorists of the Clinton cabal kill us all. Either you muster the courage to fight the terrorists, or you’re with the terrorists. Moreover, if you don’t agree with his Manichean prescription, it’s probably because you’re acting to protect your status as a member of the “Davos class” or some other phylum of pocket-lining, rent-seeking remoras. I think that argument is grotesque on the merits, and unworthy of the author.

As I explained in a previous G-File, it’s also remarkably cowardly. He invokes the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93. Decius’s pseudonym harkens back to a Roman martyr who bravely gave his life to save the Republic. And yet, he’s unwilling to risk putting his own name on the literary bombs he throws for fear of losing his own Davos-class-worthy lifestyle.

In a more recent essay, Decius attacks my AEI colleague James Pethokoukis for writing a piece titled “A Conservative Case against Trump’s Apocalyptic View of America.” It’s worth noting that Decius had to misrepresent Pethokoukis argument from the outset. The title of Pethokoukis’s piece begins “A Conservative Case” — meaning that it is one argument among many other possible arguments. Decius changes it into the conservative case, suggesting that James is trying to assert that his is the only way conservatives should see the issues. That’s not Pethokoukis’s style, but it is the style of the man who says if you disagree with him about Trump, you’re a sell-out in favor of destroying America. Pethokoukis’s sin, according to Decius, is to even suggest that apocalyptic despair about America might be an overreaction to the current plight of our country. He goes on to write, with no sense of irony:

I don’t know James Pethokoukis. But I know lots of “conservatives” just like him: eager, even giddy, to throw anyone ostensibly on their side to the Leftist wolves.

I’m tired of being shot in the back my “friends.” It’s high time to turn around and let them shoot me in the face, in frank acknowledgement that I am their enemy.

I don’t think Decius is my enemy. But he clearly thinks anyone not in lockstep with his worldview is his. Still, I do have one suggestion. If you want your supposed enemies to shoot you in the face, stop hiding behind a pseudonym.

Tiny Bubbles, in the Whine

I dwell on Decius here not just because I am appalled by the way he’s been writing in bad faith, but also because it illustrates my larger point. As an actual argument, Decius makes some fine points about the current state of America — many of which I agree with in whole or in part. But in its totality it isn’t really an argument at all. It’s a cri de coeur, a venting of feelings. The passion, no doubt sincerely felt, has taken reason hostage. The correct response to so much of this venting isn’t to rebut his points case by case, but to simply say, “Lighten up, Francis.”

Trump will throw his wife under the bus for the sake of a laugh, but he will not brook mockery of himself, even from himself, no matter the cause.

But there’s a lot of this stuff going around. The whole Trump phenomenon is like a massive dollop of foam, a grand constellation of ideological and psychological bubbles. It’s been based from the beginning on the idea that there is some silent super-majority of like-minded people out there who will carry Trump to victory if only they are sufficiently roused. That’s the theory for why Trump must keep doubling down on his trumpiness. Those wanting to explain the method behind his madness will tell you that he doesn’t need to add anyone to his coalition, he just needs to energize his base. That’s why he brought Barack Obama’s half-brother to the debate. That’s why he couldn’t break character and show a scintilla of self-deprecation at the Al Smith Dinner last night. Sure, he’ll throw his wife under the bus for the sake of a laugh, but he will not brook mockery of himself, even from himself, no matter the cause.

That theory is what gets a lot of people out of bed, I’m sure, because it feels reassuring. But it is ridiculous as a matter of analysis. The man we saw last night, and in the debate on Wednesday, is no Cincinnatus set to deliver us from the swamps of liberalism. It was a vain and petty man, full of bitterness and self-absorption. The man who will allegedly save the Constitution was asked by Chris Wallace what he thinks the role of the Court should be and how the Constitution should be interpreted (a document he is as familiar with as the paperwork that comes in a package of aspirin). Here’s how he answered:

Well, first of all, it’s so great to be with you and thank you, everybody. The Supreme Court, it is what it is all about. Our country is so, so, it is just so imperative that we have the right justices. Something happened recently where Justice Ginsburg made some very inappropriate statements toward me and toward a tremendous number of people. Many, many millions of people that I represent and she was forced to apologize. And apologize she did. But these were statements that should never, ever have been made.

Read it again. He started out okay, not great, but okay. But before he could explain why it is imperative that we have the right justices, he had to make the issue about him and about how Ruther Bader Ginsburg had to apologize. His ego, his sense of power, strength, and importance is for him the only way he can feel emotionally invested in the topic. Sure, he went on to rattle off some boilerplate. But the important takeaway is that he thinks the real issue is his own vanity. In a contest between his vanity — engorged by his status as president — and the Constitution, which way do you think he’d come down?

If all you heard in his answer was the box-checking boilerplate and not the needy cries of his id, then you’re in a bubble. If all you saw at the Al Smith Dinner was a man speaking truth to power, you’re in a bubble. If you nod along when he says “Nobody has done more for civil rights than I have” or “Nobody respects women more than I do” you live in a bubble (I have a theory that he paid a staffer to change his name to Know Body, so he can say that stuff with a straight face). If you really buy the idea that the polls are faked and the election is rigged, you’re in a bubble. If you think that his huge rallies are all the proof you need that he’s going to be swept into power, you live in a bubble. Lots of people go to the opera. Lots of people attend Nickelback concerts. Huge crowds attend WrestleMania. Even all together, that’s not a winning coalition in a presidential race.

And if you believe that if only the couple dozen — at most — “Never Trump” writers and activists suddenly endorsed Donald Trump he would get a boost of 4–5 percent in the polls, you live in a bubble. A friend of mine insisted to me the other day that if the NeverTrumpers, women, and Republican friendly independents rallied to Trump he’d be in the lead. That’s true. It’s also true that between me and Charles Koch, our combined assets are in excess of $40 billion. From FiveThirtyEight:

But while we’re in something of a wait-and-see mode, one demographic split caught my eye. That was from a Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted on behalf of The Atlantic. It showed a massive gender split, with Clinton trailing Trump by 11 percentage points among men but leading him by 33 points among women. To put those numbers in perspective, that’s saying Trump would defeat Clinton among men by a margin similar to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson in 1952, while Clinton would defeat Trump among women by a margin similar to . . . actually, there’s no good comparison, since no candidate has won a presidential election by more than 26 percentage points since the popular vote became a widespread means of voting in 1824. To get to 33 points, you’d have to take the Eisenhower-Stevenson margin and add Lyndon B. Johnson’s 23-point win over Barry Goldwater in 1964 on top of it.

Trump is losing women, particularly white, married women, by heretofore-unimaginable numbers. If only women voted, Clinton would carry 458 electoral votes to Trump’s 80.

The ire aimed at Never Trump folks is understandable. But that ire isn’t an argument for why reality is wrong. The belief that the supposed traitors are to blame isn’t a rational belief, it is an irrational passion that only seems rational deep inside a bubble. And shouting “You just don’t get it!” won’t change the fact that the people shouting are the ones who just don’t get it.

Various & Sundry

My Friday column was on the ridiculous cognitive dissonance about journalists donating to Democratic campaigns.

My first column of the week was on the horrible hangover we’ll have after the election — no matter who wins.

I was on Fox News’s Special Report on Friday.

I will be ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

I will be on NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday.

I will be speaking at the Center for the American Experiment Monday night.

The Progs are going after Prager U.

My Official Statement on my Condemndorsement of SMOD.

My disagreement with Bill McGurn.

Canine update: So we had a terrible, no good, horrible, very bad scare Wednesday night. The Dingo (who despite her horrible experience with parvo as a puppy, is just about the most indestructible dog I’ve ever known) came up lame in the early evening. We knew something was wrong when she wouldn’t come to dinner when we called her, even though she seemed fine when my wife, the Fair Jessica, had returned with her and Pippa from a run/squirrel patrol a few hours earlier. She wouldn’t leave “her” bed. Her back left leg was useless and she was clearly in pain. I couldn’t even move her from the bed so I could get in it.

In the morning she was even worse, panting in distress and now her front right leg was a mess too. When we forced her to stand she had to teeter on one back leg and one front leg, while leaning on one of us or on a wall. We rushed her to the vet. They said it looked like some sudden onset of a tick-borne infection. They took blood, but immediately prescribed antibiotics. When I carried her into my house from the car, Pippa the Spaniel (who thinks that Zoë is some kind of German designed uberhund) immediately stopped doing the normal welcome-home dance and sat down, staring. She went up to Zoë licked her face once and then stood guard.

I tweeted about all this on Wednesday night. Given how much I love my beasts and the medical travails I have had with my various canine partners, I could not have been more dismayed. The support and advice from folks on Twitter meant a lot to me. Of course, because some people are horrible that support came at the price of the inevitable calls to “put it down” and much, much worse. And people wonder why I don’t tweet about, never mind post pictures of, my daughter very much.

Anyway, I am happy — very happy — to report that the antibiotics are working spectacularly (even though it’s still not clear what the infection was. She’s always tested positive for the Lyme Disease antibodies. The vet says it could be that or some other infection the test didn’t screen for). She’s still a little limpy and sleepier than normal. But she’s was up at 5:30 a.m. to make sure the rabbits and squirrels hadn’t been lulled into any ill-advised self-confidence. She’s out right now with Jessica and Pippa giving the lesser vermin the what-for.

Debby’s Friday links

A fan created an animated summary of Liberal Fascism

John Cleese recaps The Walking Dead so far

What is a bro?

SMOD must be angry that I have withdrawn my endorsement: There is nothing we can do to stop an asteroid apocalypse

Service dog gets his caricature drawn at Disney Land

Man high on LSD saves (a different) dog from imaginary house fire

Have cats won the Internet?

The jaw-dropping art of bull leaping

The elections in Gotham City are rigged

Democrats dancing badly

Are these strange signals from 234 stars signs of intelligent alien life?

Nobel Prize committee gives up trying to contact Bob Dylan

How to draw the Beatles

A physicist reveals why we can’t put metal in the microwave

Every Tom Cruise run: a supercut

29 spin-offs that almost happened

Lenticular cloud — or UFO?

Is this Bigfoot?

Pop culture’s treatment of the possibility of a Chicago Cubs championship

Scientists discover a method to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol

Rooster calls into C-SPAN

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