The G-File

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Political Theatrics

President Trump speaks during a signing ceremony in the East Room at the White House, March 21, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The line between rhetoric and entertainment is blurring.

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 all you whippersnappers under the age of 50),

I’m writing this from somewhere over the Atlantic. At least I hope that’s the Atlantic down there.

After watching American politics from outside the fishbowl for the last couple weeks, I feel a bit like a bartender or bouncer who works at a whorehouse and now has to return to the job after a brief respite away. The whole fetid, depraved spectacle of it, glimpsed through the distorted fisheye lens that is the steamed-up peephole of Twitter, has left me feeling a bit despondent for America.

Of course, America isn’t as unhealthy as the image through the lens. And even if she is, she is worth salvaging. America is still the last best hope for mankind — and it has pretty great Tex-Mex food, which I miss terribly.

Where to begin? Well, while I was gone, the president of the United States attacked George Conway in fairly juvenile, personal, and pathetic terms, and Conway’s wife came to the president’s defense.

I don’t want to dwell on it, because I’ve known and liked the Conways for years, and the whole spectacle is sad. I don’t care which of the three you think is the villain, heel, chump, or victim. It’s sad.

But it’s also gross — regardless of what soap-opera reality-show interpretation of this spectacle you subscribe to. I don’t care if you think it’s kayfabe, deadly serious, or something in between. It’s repugnant.

And if you can’t see that, you’re part of the problem.

America, The Series
Here’s an easier example: Eric Bolling. I have considerable disagreements with Bolling — though he’s personally always been a decent guy to me. I can certainly understand why people are critical of him. But using the tragic death of Bolling’s son as a cudgel because of a political disagreement is not simply horrible; it’s evil. It’s a corruption of the soul.

But that’s the thing: The political disagreements are the least of it now, because almost none of it is really about policy anymore. It’s all about theater.

Speaking of the theater: On Wednesday, I took my family to see Les Misérables in London. It’s not my favorite musical for a bunch of reasons, but it was a really stellar performance, and my daughter loved it.

Anyway, at the end of the show, when the actors come out to take their bow, something strange happened. Or at least it was strange to my wife and me. When the performers who played the conniving Thenardiers and also the actor who played Javert came out to a mostly thunderous standing ovation, a smattering of people in the audience booed. Both my wife and I got the distinct impression that the boos were intended for the characters, not the actors themselves (the Fair Jessica was almost certain). The actress who played Madame Thenardier even made a face when she heard the boos that suggested she’d experienced this sort of thing before.

Maybe the booers were tourist from a land where this is common. Maybe they were just joking around. But, at least figuratively, it felt like this was part of what I am getting at. The guy who mocked Bolling was mocking the character in his mind, not the actual person. These kinds of category errors virtually define our politics now. “That side isn’t just wrong, it’s evil” may not be the dominant view among normal liberals and conservatives, but it is the official opinion of the loudest ones.

Ever since I wrote my book, I’ve been going on about how we watch politics as if it’s a form of entertainment. Your brain changes when you watch entertainment. Or, rather, it unchanges; it reverts back to something closer to its original design. (The real change to your brain is the one that takes place outside the theater; the one that makes it possible for you to get along with strangers and not hit them over the head with a rock when you want their Toostie Pop.)

When you watch entertainment — movies, plays, video games, etc. — you can yell: “kick him again!” or “finish him!” You can cheer when a character you detest suffers beyond all deserving. Most of the time this is cathartic, healthy, humorous, or otherwise harmless — because it’s not real. What happens in the movie theater stays in the movie theater. Now, with Twitter and Facebook, we never really leave the theater, because we’re watching the story unfold everywhere — including New Zealand.

But the news is real — or at least it’s supposed to be.

Of course, politics — as in the stuff politicians say and do — has always had less reality than straight news because so much of politics is performative. When an orphanage is burning on live TV, there’s little acting on the screen. When a politician visits the ashes and vows to hold so-and-so responsible, there may indeed be some acting going on.

Even so, politicians may be full of fakery, but that fakery is the tribute rhetoric pays to reality. The false sincerity, the “spontaneous” outrage when the camera light goes on, the lachrymose pathos, and the earnest pretending that somewhere in a steaming pile of double standards is a golden nugget of principle we’ve come to associate with politicians — these may all be forms of acting on the political stage, but they are not strictly speaking fictional, the way Star Wars or Frankenstein is fictional.

Let me put it more simply: I do not believe about 80 percent of the outrage I hear spewed from senators’ mouths, but that outrage is intended for effect in the real world, to sway votes inside and outside of the chamber. It’s not the same thing as a speech by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, where both the actor and the audience alike understand there is a suspension of disbelief at work and the emotional response from the audience is an end in itself, not a means to an end as it is in politics.

Even the infotainment-y bilge flung at the audience between ads for adult diapers and gold coins like a monkey tossing feces through the bars of his cage on a nightly basis is supposed to be more real than pure entertainment. Instead, the lines are blurred, and people treat TV “personalities” like they are TV characters, and the TV characters say insane things that the audience is supposed to believe are real.

When Mark Antony waved the bloody tunic, he was performing, but the desire was to incite the mob for a political goal, not to put on a rousing show. Much of political commentary is intended for little more than getting people to tune or click in tomorrow, by telling the audience that the enemy is even worse — and we are even more victimized — than you thought!

What Shall We Believe?
In other words, the line between rhetoric and entertainment is blurring. Rhetoric, Wayne Booth once said, is “the art of probing what men believe they ought to believe.”

What, I wondered over these last two weeks, are we teaching people to believe?

Every time I looked through the Twitter peephole or listened at the doors of the brothel bedrooms, the president was saying something outrageous or heroic depending on where you sit. What stuck out to me was not merely his demeaning of John McCain but the various conservatives leaping to Trump’s defense. Apparently it’s not only defensible but laudatory to piss on a former POW’s grave, according to various Republican politicians and consultants, because McCain is a useful “foil” for Trump. Dead men often are (I can out-debate any corpse in the world).

The rhetorical gibbeting of McCain was grotesque.

Meanwhile, other conservatives and Republicans — who obviously know better — simply stayed mute or rolled their eyes at anyone who criticized Trump on the grounds that this is “who he is” and everyone should just get used to it because we have a “transactional” relationship with him. They sound like pimps making allowances for abusive Johns because “that’s who they are” and we’re running a business here.

Worse, some keep telling us that Trump’s behavior — all of it — is actually manly. I pity the son whose parents tell him, “Be like that guy,” and I fear for the daughter whose parents say, “Behold a man in full” when Trump is on the screen.

The Anti-Trump Corruption
But if this were all about Trump, I wouldn’t be all that despondent. I’ve drained a spleen venting about the corrupting effects of Trump on the right. And when I do, I always get a nice pat on the head from liberals for it. But the same liberals seem blind to or celebratory of the rot on their own side.

Call it Trump derangement syndrome, moral panic, the righteous arrogance that comes when you substitute politics for religion — I really don’t care what label you put on it. But the simple fact is that the Democrats are behaving horridly too. Is there moral equivalence? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

But when I hear liberals say: “What about Trump!?” all I hear is deflection or the insinuation that “better than Trump” is an acceptable standard for liberals. After all, liberals saying “What about Trump?” bounces off me just as much as when MAGAers shriek “What about Obama?” at me. I’ve remained consistent. They haven’t.

This is a personal peeve of mine. But when I hear sophisticated liberals tut-tut “both sideism” these days, it drives me a little bonkers. I am very comfortable in my bothsidesism because both sides offer plenty to criticize, and when people like me or David French or Charlie Cooke denounce Democrats, we aren’t trying to distract anyone from anything.

But forget about me. “Whataboutism” is such a strange argument from people who claim Trump is a demonic force in our politics. I am happy to beat up on Trump’s transgressions, but if you are going to bleat and wail about Trump’s violation of democratic and constitutional norms while staying silent as Stacy Abrams flatly lies about winning her governor’s race — questioning the outcome of an election! — spare me the accolades for speaking up about Trump and “my side.”

I don’t know how much credit or blame Trump deserves for goading the Democrats into a kind of nervous breakdown of radicalism, but the fact is Trump could resign tomorrow and the rhetoric of our age would already be horribly disordered. And, yes, on both sides.

Notes from The Peephole
According to Democrats today, the Constitution — which we are supposed to revere, but only when Trump defiles it — is a relic of white supremacy and tyranny when it proves modestly inconvenient to Democrats.

Indeed, in the politics as-the-crow-flies that defines so much of progressivism — and a great deal of Trumpism — inconvenience is the divining rod for discovering what your actual principles are. For Trump, inconvenience is defined entirely egocentrically. Ideas, individuals, institutions, even marriages that lay between him and where he wants to go are, at least rhetorically, flowerbeds to be trampled in order to cut the path of least resistance.

For progressives, inconvenience, too, marks the boundaries of principle. Because inconvenience is like the gravel on the road to personal liberation, and the moment you feel the smooth ride give way to unpaved road, it is time for the government to come clear the path ahead. So “socialism” means not having to deal with private health insurance paperwork (according to Kamala Harris), or college tuition, or struggling to find a job — or even working at all according to the Green New Deal.

Even the convenience of restrictions on verrrrrry-late-term abortions is the very definition of tyranny now. I’ve lost count of the number of Democrats who, when asked specifically about late-term abortions or babies accidentally delivered after botched abortions, respond with platitudes and euphemisms about choices and “women’s bodies” — even when the relevant body in the scenario is no longer inside the woman’s body.

Beto O’Rourke may or may not agree with all of this from his Democratic opponents. We won’t know for sure until he’s elected because, like Obamacare, we have to vote for Beto first to find out what’s in him. But inconvenience defines Beto, too. He finds it too inconvenient to have an opinion on many policies, so he’s literally asked his biggest fans to tell him what he should believe. He asks his supporters to tell him who to be and to “shape” him.

Rhetorically, this makes him the defining candidate of our age. While Trump loves to play his greatest hits at rallies, Beto is taking requests for new material. He’s asking the people to lead, and he’ll follow them, because rhetorically that’s how we define leadership today: pandering to the base, servicing the fans, and telling the people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

Various & Sundry
Well, I’m about to land, so I don’t have much time for this portion, which is okay because I don’t have much of a canine update for you. The doggers have been doing great with Kirsten, our dogwalker, and if you’ve been following me on Twitter, you probably knew that already. After I get the full story from Kirsten, I will have a more fulsome canine debrief next week.

Oh, one last thing, my thanks to everyone who wished me a happy birthday. It was very much appreciated.

And now the other stuff.

ICYMI . . .
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