The G-File

Politics & Policy

The Coalitional Instinct

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 (But not the guy who refused to get out of the left lane back in Minnesota. You’re dead to me),

I’m starting this “news”letter behind the steering wheel of a rented RV in a parking lot in downtown Sandpoint, Idaho. I have no idea where I’ll be when I finish, but I’ll update you as we proceed.

It’s very strange being on a family vacation out West during what many are saying is the craziest week of the Trump presidency. I’m not sure it’s true that this was the craziest week, though Tuesday was like Magilla Gorilla’s tasting menu: bananas. Conventional writers would never have had the Manafort verdict and the Cohen plea deal happen within minutes of each other. But part of the problem is that it’s so hard to tell what’s weird anymore. Really, ever since 2015, the writers of this timeline have gotten so desperate to keep the audience off balance that it’s hard to get your bearings. Everything is accelerated. Bret Baier likes to say that the news cycle needs to be converted into dog years. The Omarosa thing happened like two weeks ago. The Helsinki summit was last month. That Mike Pence press conference where he started pole-dancing in assless chaps in the Rose Garden to the tune of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” to celebrate the latest Space Force victory was only like six weeks ago.

Oh whoops, sorry — that’s a sneak peek from the 2019 season finale.

(Oh that reminds me: You know how there are certain idioms that are irrational or illogical but nonetheless convey meaning? For instance “I could care less” makes no sense logically to express the idea that you don’t care at all. But save among pedants, it works just fine at conveying that idea. Well, “assless chaps” is another irrational term. After all, all chaps are assless. But for some reason, this term has emerged as the way to describe that gay-biker look of wearing chaps without any pants underneath. So just as “I couldn’t care less” is logically the correct way to express the idea that you don’t care, “assfull chaps” should be the correct term for the biker look. But, what are you going to do? Language is an emergent system not a slave to reason.)

So where was I? (Well, I was in the Sandpoint parking lot. I’m now on I-90 West heading, uh, west).

Oh right, everything seems off, like the roast beef at a Canadian deli or a universe where the Triumvirate touched the Orb. Time hasn’t just accelerated; it seems less linear. Odd moments from the past are suddenly relevant again. Who knew that the Clinton impeachment would be so relevant again? Who predicted that Lanny Davis would be brought back into this story like Bobby Ewing in the shower at the end of the ninth season of Dallas? I would never have guessed that Cory Lewandowski was the Three-Eyed Raven.

It’s like every morning we need episode recaps — “Previously on The Trump Show . . .” — to remind us what to look out for.

I’ve explained — at book length — that I think that this tendency to see politics as a form of entertainment goes a long way toward explaining why our politics have gotten so nasty. Entertainment is a shortcut to the more primitive parts of our brains, where the formal, procedural, and rational rules of the extended order have little sway. No one cares when the hero does something illegal in a movie or TV show so long as it’s clear that he or she is the hero.

Nowhere is this more true than in the mobster genre. Whether it’s Tony Montana, Tony Soprano, or some other criminal protagonist not named “Tony,” we cheer him on even if he does horrible things. This seems relevant given how The Trump Show has veered into some of the most clichéd writing of the series, with the president openly castigating snitches and praising omertà.

The problem is that this isnt a TV show.

American politics isn’t a TV show about the mob. And it’s not a courtroom drama either. One of the points I used to make all the time during the Clinton impeachment saga is that legality is a separate lane from morality. Speaking of flashbacks, here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote for National Review 20 years ago:

Greta Van Susteren and her colleagues have carried this mode of analysis into the political arena. It has had a lobotomizing effect on civic discourse. For example, on September 21 on Larry King Live Judge Robert Bork asserted that a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would be, and should be, impeached if he was sexually serviced by an intern in his chambers — even if he never lied about it. That someone should be punished for something that is not a crime flummoxed Miss Van Susteren to the point of incoherence, “Maybe if he’s a bachelor, may — have — what if he’s a . . . bachelor? . . . as consenting adults?”

There was a time when poor manners and dishonorable behavior were judged as reprehensible as committing a crime. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Claude Rains tries to commit suicide on the Senate floor because he has disgraced himself, not because he’s going to jail. Today if one has violated every tenet of decency but stopped short of violating criminal law — a constantly moving goalpost — then one is merely expressing oneself (like Larry Flint) or minding one’s own business (like David Cash, the vile Berkeley student who stood aside as his friend raped and murdered a young girl). We are greeted constantly with the images of scoundrels triumphantly leaving courthouses celebrating the fact that their repugnant behavior was found not to have technically violated the law.

Now the president of the United States benefits from this new standard.

(Fun fact: Van Susteren refused to ever look me in the eye or speak to me after I wrote that essay.)

In my Friday column, I try to make a point that seems very difficult for some people to understand: Rudy Giuliani’s defense of the president is entirely defensible because Giuliani’s job is to protect Donald Trump, full stop. But his arguments in defense of the president aren’t transferable. Donald Trump isn’t your client; Donald Trump is your president. In other words, your expectations of the president and the presidency are entirely different from Rudy Giuliani’s.

Imagine one of your kids drew a picture on the kitchen wall with a red Sharpie. You assemble the kids at the scene of the crime and ask the most likely culprit — the one with ink all over his hands — “Did you do this?”

Before the literally red-handed child can answer, his sister interrupts: “I have advised my brother not to answer your questions. I think you are trying to railroad my client into a perjury trap.”

You might laugh. You might not. You might admire your daughter’s loyalty to her brother. But you probably wouldn’t take it very seriously.

My point is not to compare the president of the United States to a toddler (that’s Dan Drezner’s beat). It’s simply to illustrate that standards vary with the context. Defense lawyers get a pass in our society to make horribly dishonest arguments in the name of keeping the system fair and just. But we’re not supposed to internalize those arguments as a standard in every realm of life. A Catholic in the confessional won’t get far with the priest if he declines to answer on the grounds that he wants to avoid a perjury trap. A husband with strange lipstick on his collar would be well advised to pursue a different defense as well.

It used to be a standard argument among conservatives that issues of right and wrong shouldn’t be replaced by legalistic arguments about legal and illegal. It’s in the president’s self-interest not to testify. It may be even in his interest to fire Jeff Sessions. But would it be right? Would it be consistent with his obligations as president?

There are non-ludicrous arguments for contending that the president’s self-interest and the national interest are aligned. But you don’t hear them much, do you? Oh sure, every now and then you hear that the president shouldn’t be distracted by the Mueller probe when he’s achieving peace in our time in North Korea and all the other winning. But the real passion of his defenders is all about the supposed persecution of the president and Whataboutism about Hillary. And even when you do hear the allegedly high-minded arguments, it might be useful to ask yourself: Would these people be making the same argument if Hillary Clinton were president?

When Evil Becomes Inconvenient

I know we’re pretty far along now (just outside Spokane in fact), but the point I actually wanted to make wasn’t about any of this stuff. In my first column of the week, I noted that nearly every political evil can be found on display in China: slavery, discrimination, religious persecution, xenophobia, tyranny, mass-political indoctrination, colonialism, cultural genocide, and so on. And yet, the outcry against these things in America and the West is a tiny fraction of what it was with regard to South Africa in the 1980s or Israel today. Why?

Some of the political answers are pretty obvious — and have much merit. A few that come to mind: China is non-Western, and many of these sins are supposed to be unique to white Europeans; China is a victim (or “victim”) of colonialism, and so we shouldn’t judge it harshly; China is very powerful, and realpolitik dictates that we be diplomatic; and so on.

But there’s another reason. As you may have noticed, I’ve become much more interested in evolutionary psychology of late, particularly the topic of coalitional instincts. The coalition instinct is the programming that helped us form strategic groups that advance our self-interest. We are a social species and cooperation is what helped us skyrocket to the top of the food chain. John Tooby, one of the founders of the field, explains, “The primary function that drove the evolution of coalitions is the amplification of the power of its members in conflicts with non-members.”

He continues:

This function 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, preexisting and superseding any policy-driven basis for membership. This is why group beliefs are free to be so weird. Since coalitional programs evolved to promote the self-interest of the coalition’s membership (in dominance, status, legitimacy, resources, moral force, etc.), even coalitions whose organizing ideology originates (ostensibly) to promote human welfare often slide into the most extreme forms of oppression, in complete contradiction to the putative values of the group. Indeed, morally wrong-footing rivals is one point of ideology, and once everyone agrees on something (slavery is wrong) it ceases to be a significant moral issue because it no longer shows local rivals in a bad light. Many argue that there are more slaves in the world today than in the 19th century. Yet because one’s political rivals cannot be delegitimized by being on the wrong side of slavery, few care to be active abolitionists anymore, compared to being, say, speech police. (Emphasis mine).

Note the causality here. The moral repugnance of slavery is derived from the fact that a rival coalition supports it. Now, I don’t think Tooby is saying that hatred for slavery is simply a product of coalitional us-vs.-themism. But I do think he makes a very good point that when some objectively evil practices are no longer convenient as cudgels against coalitional rivals, they lose much of their power and intensity. This is one reason why I think the anti-Israel movement will get much worse in the West in the near future — because support for Israel is becoming polarized between rival coalitions.

Much of the stuff that liberals hate about conservatives — and vice versa — is driven by similar coalitional dynamics. It helps explain so much of the seeming (and real) hypocrisy of our time. Bill Clinton was the Big Man of his coalition back in the day, and so feminists and other liberals who had spent so much time denouncing sexual harassment abandoned, bent, or suspended their principles in order to defend his behavior. Today is almost a mirror image of those days. Trump is the Big Man of his coalition. His sexual behavior — proven and alleged — is as inconvenient for the virtuecrat and “Character Counts” Right as Bill Clinton’s was for the feminist Left. The people who once defended — even celebrated — Clinton’s sexual escapades are now horrified by Trump’s, and the people once horrified by Clinton’s behavior are now insisting that King Solomon got a lot of tail on the side, too. The people who once hitched their wagons to petty legalisms are now waxing poetic about norms and the spirit of democracy and the people who once espoused commitment to higher authorities and deeper morality over the mere letter of the law are excusing behavior they wouldn’t tolerate from their plumber.

One can only imagine what’s in store in potential future spinoffs, such as Avenatti Presidency or The Pence Show.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: This could be a very long Canine Update, but as my laptop is almost out of power and cell reception may not last much longer, I’ll keep it short. The simple fact is that there have been days when it’s not so much that we took our dogs on vacation than that they brought us along for theirs (Pippa really loved Lake Michigan). And when we try to do any vacationing without them, They Are Not Amused.

Now, as I discuss in the next episode of The Remnant, one of the unforeseen problems on this trip has been the fact that Zoë and Pippa do not understand the point of the RV (BTW, we are not driving that behemoth pictured in last week’s G-File. That was a stock photo. We’re in a smaller vehicle — a Winnebago Trend to be exact). A big reason we opted to rent the RV wasn’t because we’re so into camping. I’m a great indoorsman raised in New York City. My wife is an Alaskan with a deep skepticism about camping in the Lower 48. No, a big part of the reason we got this thing was so that my daughter wouldn’t have to be stuck in the back seat for 6,000 miles with two, often stinky, dogs. Well, the stinkers didn’t get the memo. On the road, they spend all of their time crammed up front with us. Anyway, they had a grand time in Montana and an even better one in Idaho. Pippa has gotten to do an enormous amount of swimming and Zoë is giddy with all the varmint scents and critter chasing. Yesterday, we really wore them out at Green Bay (the one in Idaho, not the one with the socialist football team). Tiring out one’s dogs is one of the great under-appreciated satisfactions in life. Anyway, more to come, I’m sure.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

This week’s Remnant, on book publishing

China’s Jim Crow

Rudy Giuliani’s selfish defense of Trump

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

The 50th anniversary of “Hey Jude”

WWII shipwrecks around the world


The first face transplant

Stranded cows

The universe is disappearing

The end is near

Cold War codebreakers

Because of the erotica? Why so many people still believe in Bigfoot

Why kids hate their vegetables

Venezuela hyperinflation

An escape through fire

A calculator made from rollercoasters in Rollercoaster Tycoon 2

What would happen if you detonated a nuclear bomb in the Marianas Trench?


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