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 those of you who are no longer my personal lawyer),
Almost 20 years ago, I wrote in this space that the movie A Simple Plan was one of the most conservative movies of the 1990s.
In case you haven’t seen it, the plot is pretty straightforward, almost clichéd. It focuses on three men in rural America. Two are a bit down on their luck: The first is kind of dimwitted, the other is the town drunk.
The third, played by the late, great Bill Paxton is slightly more prosperous but still struggling. He’s hardworking and a straight arrow with a pregnant wife. They discover a pile of drug money in the woods. The drunk says that they should keep it. “It’s the American dream!” he declares.
Paxton replies, “You work for the American dream. You don’t steal it.”
To which the drunk replies, “Then this is even better!”
The men come up with a simple plan to keep the money. It requires a simple lie and a little secrecy. Needless to say, it doesn’t work out well for any of them.
What I liked so much about the movie is that it shows how easily life goes off the rails when you deviate from boring, stodgy, bourgeois morality. One of the more reliable themes in literature and popular culture is the idea of “staying on the path.” In Breaking Bad, Walter White plays a decent, hardworking high-school chemistry teacher. By the end, he’s a mass-murdering drug lord. The journey, like all such journeys, begins with a simple plan to take a single small step off the path.
As I wrote at length here, Walter’s transformation truly begins when he decides — thanks to the arrogance of his own intellect — that he can be his own arbiter of morality. Staying on the path is for lesser, weaker men. As I wrote here, in Sons of Anarchy, the bikers — inspired in part by the anarchist Emma Goldman — collectively decide to live in the wilds of human nature, far from the path of civilization. Once encamped there, “free” from the protection and demands of the law, all questions are settled by force, and morality is determined by what is good for the tribe.
In one sense, staying on the path is the simplest thing in the world. But as anyone who has tried to stay on a diet, go to the gym regularly, or start writing that term paper well ahead of the deadline can attest, the simplest things in life can often be the hardest. As Al Pacino, after his late-in-life graduation from Over-Acting School, says in Scent of a Woman, during the final “trial” scene:
I’m not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: He won’t sell anybody out to buy his future!! And that, my friends, is called integrity! That’s called courage! Now that’s the stuff leaders should be made of. Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard. Now here’s Charlie. He’s come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It’s the right path. It’s a path made of principle — that leads to character. Let him continue on his journey.
If you’re sick of all the pop-culture references, consider the “success sequence.” From my book:
Ron Haskins, also of the Brookings Institution, has identified what he calls the “success sequence”: “at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.” If young people do just these three things, in that order, they are almost guaranteed to climb out of poverty. “Our research shows that of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year).”
This is the path that almost guarantees a relatively decent life for poor people. And yet, many don’t follow it. Why? One reason: because it is hard. The pull of human nature is strongest when we are young — all those hormones! All of that adolescent arrogance! We think — feel, really — that the rules are for other people and that we can handle all of the possible consequence of indulging our glandular impulses. (Another reason more people don’t follow this path: Our culture and many of our elites heap scorn on it.)
Staying on the path may be the most conservative concept there is. “What is conservatism?” asked Abraham Lincoln. “Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?” People who think conservatism is opposed to all change miss the point entirely. Paths go places. They might not get us where we want to go as fast as we would like. But the conservative is deeply skeptical of shortcuts and simple plans to save time or effort. The rationalist temptation to “out think” the simple rules — what Oakeshott called “making politics as the crow flies” — may not always lead to tyranny or oppression, but the odds that it will are too great to justify the attempt.
The whole point of my book is that, for 250,000 years, humans wandered on the wrong paths — or without any paths at all — and then, accidentally, we stumbled through a miraculous portal that has delivered once-unimaginable prosperity and liberty. But rather than have a sense of gratitude for our good fortune, we bathe ourselves in resentment for the path we’re on and where it brought us. The rationalist progressives think they’re better cartographers and can map a better route. The hard or nostalgic nationalists want to double back to a shady bend in the road behind us. The ugly racists want to march even further backward. The sophomoric socialists are convinced that everyone should throw their kits onto the road and divvy up our wares more equitably. Others of a socialist bent are convinced that we can somehow get on a bus to the future, sparing us the effort and providing equal seating for all. The identity-politics obsessives think the path is a private road benefitting only white people or white men. But the path is for anyone willing to stay on it.
The Moment We’re In
Before you smash my guitar against the Delta House wall, let me bring this down to earth a bit. Believe it or not, when I started writing this “news”letter, I planned to dive straight into a discussion of the news of the day. I wanted to use the A Simple Plan reference to set up a basic point: We’re in the mess we’re in because too many people — people who should know better — have strayed off the path.
John Podhoretz tweeted this yesterday:
He is absolutely correct. I’d only expand the indictment. Every moment has deep roots. And while I love to read conservatives who place all our current woes on Machiavelli or Joachim of Fiore, the current state of our politics can be more immediately traced back to rise of the House Clinton, the Tudors of the Ozarks. I’ve written my fill — for now — about Bill Clinton and the priapistic prodigy of prevarication’s perpetual straying from the paths of propriety, both personally and politically. Suffice it to say that Bill always believed that norms were for other people.
Of course, he doesn’t deserve anything like all of the blame; conservatives often responded to his norm-breaking with norm violations of their own. The culture itself was ready for a president like Clinton, and that is its own indictment. Indeed, as Bill has often suggested, he was a victim of a breakdown in media practices and other norms that once would have protected him. That’s why he loves to hide behind whataboutist arguments about JFK’s transgressions. But it wasn’t just the sex. He broke norms, legal and otherwise, like a tornado ripping through town. Shaking down foreign donors , the White House travel-office firings, “Filegate,” selling pardons, the list goes on.
And Hillary Clinton wasn’t just standing by her man baking cookies. She was part of the racket. From her impossible genius at playing cattle futures, to her insidious cultivation of Sidney Blumenthal and David Brock, to her off-book email server, Hillary Clinton has always seen norms as something that should constrain other people. Since Bill left office, the Clintons monetized government service like no one in American history had, in both scope and scale.
If Hillary Clinton, a terrible politician but a terrific bureaucratic and backroom conniver, hadn’t largely rigged the nomination, both literally and figuratively — and if the Democratic party, including Barack Obama, hadn’t let her — the FBI would never have been in the position it was put in. Even more specifically, if she had simply followed the rules about classified material that have sent lesser mortals to jail, the people running the Justice Department and the FBI would have had no reason to break the rules in their handling of her case. This is no exoneration of the FBI, which clearly strayed from the norms John describes above. Rather, it simply illustrates that norm-breaking is contagious. Broken-windows theory applies to politics, too.
I know liberals hate any “This is how you got Trump” take that strays beyond the comfortable notion that an army of racists, hypocritical religious zealots, and gun nuts voted for him, but nothing in politics happens in a vacuum. At an intensely populist moment on both the left and the right, a moment when the healthy dislike of political dynasties had metastasized into an almost lethal phobia about elites’ self-dealing, the Democratic party nominated the poster child of self-dealing elites.
Donald Trump cast himself as a capitalist übermensch, who transcended the rules of a corrupt system he boasted about being a part of. He was one giant middle-finger to the norms, and he has invited a responding counter-attack on norms — from journalists, judges, and, it seems, at least a few FBI agents.
For instance, in a normal time, a man with his sordid sexual history could never get near the Republican nomination, never mind the presidency. But we live in a moment of whataboutist asininity when hypocrisy is considered a worse sin than the actual transgressions we’re hypocritical about. It’s as if a murderer, who had a history of preaching against murder, is seen as more of a villain for violating his principles than for killing someone. No wonder Donald Trump could neutralize his transgressions simply by pointing to Bill’s. The common denominators cancelled out the numerators. The process of erosion didn’t end with Hillary’s defeat — it spread. It may feel like ancient history now, but, fairly recently, avowed Evangelical Christians were defending Roy Moore’s preying on teenage girls for the simple reason that the norms had broken from their moorings.
The Contagion Spreads
So now we have Trump, whose single most important mandate was to not be Hillary Clinton. And, because that choice must be psychologically ratified, the single greatest sin in the new Church of the Right is a failure to cheer at whatever the man does. That is why a traditional and principled conservative such as Mark Sanford lost in his primary and why Jeff Flake has been pelted from the public stage. That is why the head of the RNC, a woman who dropped “Romney” as her middle name because it vexed the boss, proclaims: “Complacency is our enemy. Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.” That is why countless pundits wave off criticism of Trump’s preening over dictators and murderers by attacking the alleged motives of those who offer the criticism. It is why Trump’s blinkered views on trade have been subsumed into a larger argument about the culture war.
Point out that no reputable economist thinks we lose money from trade deficits the way Trump constantly insists, and the retort is, “Why don’t you want to make America great again?” Hell, I could say “two plus two equals four,” and if that were somehow inconvenient to the president, the immediate response would be, “I’d expect a Never Trumper to say that.” Point out that Trump Inc. is making money off the presidency in ways that would make the Clintons green with envy, and the reply is either eye-rolling or a fecal fog of whataboutism.
To paraphrase Nietzsche: Norms are for losers. Fighters make their own norms. Unity is the creed of MAGA, and its mantra of the One True Prophet is the order of the day. And if that means supporting a white-nationalist wannabe for the Senate, so be it. Campus conservatives used to define their intellectual rebelliousness by their support for certain ideas, now some define it chiefly by their fawning over a single politician.
I have praised many of the things Donald Trump has done, but like Jeff Flake’s and Mark Sanford’s voting records, that counts for nothing if you don’t go whole hog. For 20 years, I have been arguing that unity in general is amoral and overrated and that the great strength of the conservative movement has been our willingness to argue among ourselves and not ape the progressive tendency to blind ourselves to our own dogma. Now, the defining argument of conservatism is “Shut up,” even from people who agree with me.
To Hell with all that — I’ll stay on the path as best I can.
Various & Sundry
It’s been an absolutely grueling week on the road. But I want to thank all of the great folks who turned out at my events last week. The fake media will never report how big the crowds were at the events hosted by Economic Forum of Palm Beach County and the Tiger Bay Clubs of Orlando and St. Petersburg. But I’m grateful for them nonetheless. I’d love to come back to Florida again, just not in the summer!
You can look up future speaking events at JonahGoldberg.com.
Canine Update: I am sad to inform you that there have been some norm violations here at Chez Goldberg. One of the beasts strayed from the path while I was gone and pooped in the house on at least two occasions (at least we think it was only one of them and not a team effort). Neither seemed outwardly ill, so I fear it was editorial comment on all of my travelling. Of course, they each point the damning paw of blame at each other. I suspect it was Pippa, in part because she lacks the Dingo’s fastidiousness, but also because she’s been behaving oddly.
In our bedroom, we have a very large wooden bed frame, and Pippa knows that whenever she goes under the bed, she gets stuck there — sometimes for a long time if we’re not home or don’t notice. And yet, twice while I was gone, she got herself stuck, forcing the Fair Jessica to use the jaws of life by herself for the purposes of spaniel extraction. Jessica’s probably correct theory puts the real blame on Zoë. She’s gotten some special chew treats lately (a trachea and a bully stick). And Zoë is extremely protective of such treasures. If a cat gets near one of these disgusting things, Zoë will race over and get it, even though the cats want nothing to do with them. When Pippa gets near them, Zoë growls, and that always terrifies Pippa, which is probably why she went to her sub-bed bunker in the middle of the night.
It just wasn’t Pippa’s week. As longtime readers know, on weekdays the beasts get a big midday romp in the woods with Kirsten and the dogs in her dogwalking pack. Earlier this week, Obi, a gentlemanly older Golden, took Pippa’s tennis ball, causing her to breakout in an unladylike torrent of canine expletives. But it also inspired this absolutely fantastic tweet:
Anyway, all is well at home now. They were very happy to see me last night, and they were delighted to get back to their core mission with me this morning. Though Pippa was a bit cross that the mud puddles had dried up, even though their absence spared her another early morning hose-down.
There’s still time to get a copy of Suicide of the West for Father’s Day, by the way.
Oh, and speaking of Father’s Day, as per tradition, here’s a link to the eulogy I delivered for my Dad. The 13th anniversary of his passing was a few days ago. It still feels all-too-fresh to me.
My appearance on Ben Shapiro’s “Sunday Special” show is now available.
Ben Carson, Scott Pruitt, and the trappings of power (Whether you like this column or not — I haven’t made up my mind — I am kind of proud of the fact I churned it out in 49 minutes at the St. Petersburg airport.)
And now, the weird stuff.