The Corner

Politics & Policy

Once More unto the Breach

Because of matters more pressing, I’ve only now gotten a chance to read my esteemed colleague Conrad Black’s “distasteful” return to our ongoing disagreement.

I will summarize as much as necessary where we stand. I wrote a column arguing that while the differences between Donald Trump and Joe McCarthy are important and significant, the way Trump’s personality dominates our time is similar to the way McCarthy’s did during the McCarthy era. At that time, it didn’t matter whether you were an anti-Communist, it simply mattered what you thought of McCarthy’s tactics. Either due to my poor writing or his poor comprehension, Conrad took me to be saying something else. He responded in a column by insisting the two men have literally nothing in common. I replied to Conrad’s column here.

In my response, I explained where I thought he was misreading me and why I thought getting all worked up about the McCarthy-Trump comparison was unwarranted. But, since he was so worked up about it, I did want to address the issue. I wrote:

Lastly, let me just say that I think Conrad is wrong to say Donald Trump is “nothing like Joseph McCarthy.” I have no objection to a weaker claim that the comparison isn’t all that fruitful. But that’s not Conrad’s position. There are many obvious similarities: the demagogic rhetorical excesses, the disdain for getting the facts right before making sweeping charges, the bullying, the tendency to see conspiracies, the tendency to divide the world into illegitimate enemies and righteous friends, and so on. There are also historical connections. One of the most influential people in Trump’s life was his mentor Roy Cohn, who taught him a thing or two.

To this Conrad replied in at least three ways: By implying I am lying (or, to be more charitable, that he understood my thinking better than I do); by inaccurately suggesting I surrendered to him in some way; and last by offering yet another Stakhanovite defense of Donald Trump.

He begins:

It is distasteful to return to my exchange with my esteemed NRO colleague Jonah Goldberg about the column he wrote several weeks ago likening President Trump’s reference to the implantation of FBI informers in his campaign as “Spygate” to McCarthyism. He replied on June 6, citing some of what I had written, and putting me in the category of those who had criticized his column because he “should have endorsed ‘Spygate’ in toto.” I neither wrote nor implied anything of the kind. My objection was that any likening of Donald Trump to Joseph R. McCarthy is utterly spurious and Jonah knows that perfectly well. I won’t dwell further on the point and welcome his emphatic assurance that the comparison was as circumscribed as he defined it in his June 6 revision. It was still nonsense but much less objectionable nonsense and Jonah Goldberg has a right to an unvexed retreat, like Kutuzov after Borodino or Lee after Gettysburg (contrary to Lincoln’s orders).

Now if I put Conrad Black — or even seemed to have put him — in a category he does not belong, I regret the error.

But I have not retreated from anything. And if he read me in good faith, he would know that.

Instead, Conrad ignores what I actually wrote to insist — again — that “any likening” of the two men is “utterly spurious.” And he now goes further by asserting “Jonah knows that perfectly well.”

I know no such thing. Either Conrad is lying about what I know or he is accusing me of lying. Or, again, he’s relying on powers of telepathy he does not possess. Regardless, I believe he has let his passion get the better of him. I stand by what I wrote, while Conrad flees from it to a new subject: My book, which he uses as a springboard for yet another heroic effort to cast Donald Trump as the savior of our democracy.

Much like this exchange, which Conrad keeps returning to like a dog to its vomit, I find his familiar recitation of accomplishments not yet achieved to be unpersuasive. Conrad writes:

But I think the victory of Trump and his gradual success in the principal areas he has focused on — economic growth, deregulation, tax reduction and reform, regularization of immigration, nuclear non-proliferation, equitable burden-sharing in the Western alliance, reduction of the trade deficit and oil imports, and withdrawal from ecological measures based on fear of global warming — are strong evidence of the strength of enlightened democracy in the United States.

Some of these are fair enough, but most would have likely happened under any Republican president. Meanwhile, the trade deficit has gone up, not down. Our Western alliances are weaker than they’ve been in modern memory (Trump reportedly told the G7 that NATO is as bad as NAFTA). And unless you take Trump’s Twitter feed as gospel, the claim that the grade for Trump’s nuclear non-proliferation agenda is anything other than “incomplete” is simply risible.

Like many Always-Trumpers, Conrad overstates the case for his client and understates the case against him, while trying to make the real issue the perfidy of Trump’s critics. The most common form of this tedious rhetorical trope is to dismiss everything controversial or worrisome the president has done as a mere matter of “style.” This is helpful to these fellow-traveling populists because it allows them to insinuate that any criticism of Trump’s myriad examples of policy failure, rhetorical asininity, and ideological autarky is really just a form of snobbery. Must make common cause with the Red Hats, you know.

Praising dictators, calling domestic critics and the press the “enemy of the people,” deriding NAFTA, likening immigrants — and not just MS-13 — to pestilence, encouraging trade wars while having a thumbless grasp on the issue of trade itself, and lying with remarkable abandon are not merely matters of “style.” And it is not snobbery to point this out. But it does seem like a kind of snobbery to assume that the facts don’t or shouldn’t matter to the little people.


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