The G-File

Trump’s Cult of Personality Is Corrupting Conservatism

Trump at a campaign stop in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty)

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 (Unless you’ve abandoned your family to pretend to be a small child, in which case I think you should commit to the role and pretend you’re illiterate),

Say you’re a ninja. Or maybe a former world champion mixed-martial-arts fighter. Or maybe you simply know the quart-of-blood technique or have mastered the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique. The point is, you have in your old kit bag a case of canned whup-ass and you keep your can-opener handy at all times. And should you ever run low, Amazon Prime has promised to restock your supply of whup-ass with same-day delivery. 

#ad#Now, imagine you’re sitting at the bar drinking a glass of milk. Some bro from the local Sigma Tau whatever frat house is all beer-muscle-y and bumps into you deliberately. You say, “watch out” or “no harm” or “be careful” — frankly it doesn’t matter much what you say, I’m just trying to build some narrative tension.

The kid turns his baseball hat around, only to realize it was already backward, so he embarrassingly turns it around again. “You want two tickets to the gun show, mister?” the kid asks, nodding to his own biceps. 

Now, we can play out this stupid hypothetical for another couple pages of painfully clichéd dialogue. But let’s skip ahead and just assert that Man-Bun Biff — as I like to call him — over here in the ironic Nickelback t-shirt deserves to get his ass kicked. Indeed, he’s begging to get his ass kicked. Maybe he throws a drink in your face, or pulls a knife on you, or says something unforgivable like “Sophia Coppola was a brilliant casting choice for Godfather III.” Whatever.

So you get up, with your can-opener primed and ready. And then, suddenly, your friend says, “Don’t do it Jake, that’s exactly what this guy wants you to do!”

Apparently, this is the only argument you need to hear. It settles all disputes. You must not fight Biff because Biff wants you to fight him. 

By now you should have figured out that Biff is ISIS in this metaphor. And the chattering classes keep saying we must not give ISIS the apocalyptic battle it so desperately wants. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why intelligent people think this argument makes any sense at all.

The refusal to contemplate that we’re stronger and smarter than our enemies strikes me as a kind of crisis in confidence.

I know Charlie Cooke already covered this the other day, but this is an ancient peeve of mine. We all know the expression, “Be careful what you wish for.” In our own lives we consider this something close to an immutable karmic law of the universe. It is the plot device of It’s A Wonderful Life as well as, by my very rough count, 87 katrillion movies, TV shows, books, parables, fortune cookies and, I suspect, Chinese character tattoos.

But, for some reason despite being inexorable law in our own lives, and an indelible lesson of human history, this rule is somehow suspended when it comes to a bunch of savages in the desert. We must not do what ISIS wants because a bunch of barbarians have the gift of perfect foresight into how events will play out.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying we should meet ISIS at Dabiq and give them the Islamist Ragnarok they want. But I’m not saying we shouldn’t either. My point is if they want to have one big mano-a-mano fight between the forces of the West and Mordor, it’s purely a tactical question whether we should give it to them. I’ve yet to meet a general who doesn’t agree that in an “all-in” contest between the Islamists and everyone else, the Islamists would lose very, very, very quickly. We don’t owe our enemies a fight on any terms but our own. But if they would actually be willing to engage in a straight up brawl, I don’t see a particularly strong argument for why we wouldn’t give them exactly what they’re asking for.

The refusal to contemplate that we’re stronger and smarter than our enemies strikes me as a kind of crisis in confidence. It’s related to all sorts of notions – violence doesn’t solve anything, “blowback,” etc – that people only invoke to impose limitations on America’s scope of action.

When Civilizational Confidence Fails

It’s also related to the idea that when bad things happen, we must somehow be to blame.  Take the riot of hoplophobia running through American political elites these days. Islamists attack us in San Bernardino, and the supposedly sophisticated and serious response is to respond with a massive push for more gun laws that would have done nothing to prevent the attack — or any other mass shooting in recent years.

Logically, this is a bit like responding to a wave of bloody grizzly-bear attacks by rushing to make sure the batteries in the smoke detectors are all working.

RELATED: Why Does the Left Continue to Insist that Islamic Terrorism Has Nothing to Do With Islam?

The left is very good at exploiting and exacerbating our crisis in civilizational confidence. Consider the response from an Al Jazeera journalist who objected to the publication of Tafsheen Malik’s face. You see, she wore a burqa, and we should respect that by not showing her unobstructed countenance.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories, about Charles Napier, the military poobah of Colonial India, and one of the great symbols of civilizational confidence:

On one occasion a delegation of Hindu priests came to Napier to repeat their objection to the British prohibition of sati, the practice of widows’ throwing themselves onto their husbands’ funeral pyres, sometimes under compulsion. You Brits, they explained, do not appreciate what a venerable custom this is in India.

Napier replied:

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

Well, you know what? We respect religion-inspired modesty. But we have a custom of our own. When you slaughter more than a dozen innocent people, we blast your face on TV. Please respect that custom.

And now, if you’re one of my readers who doesn’t want to read anything critical of Donald Trump, you should either leave now or maybe skip ahead to the V&S section.

Yes, Labels Matter

Labels matter. Words matter. In my experience people who say that labels don’t matter are trying to avoid being labeled accurately.

I wrote a whole book largely on this point when it comes to liberalism. From Woodrow Wilson through FDR and JFK to Barack Obama, liberals love to insist that they aren’t driven by an ideological agenda, but are simply going where the facts and the data take them. This is a lie, but an honestly told one to the extent that many liberals actually believe it. I have a handy response when I hear very smart liberals deny they are driven by an ideological agenda. It goes something like this: “You’re wrong.”

Feel free to use it yourself.

Power: Is There Nothing It Can’t Do?

It’s worth noting that some liberal politicians have avoided calling themselves liberals, not because they don’t know they’re liberal, but because they do know the country isn’t.

Accurate labels for the Left have often proved an impediment to power, and power is the ne plus ultra of liberalism, or more properly speaking, leftism. One need only look at college campuses today, where virtually every supposedly liberal principle — diversity, free speech, “sound science,” empiricism, tolerance, democracy, the rule of law — is being set ablaze in the quest of the one thing the radicals always want more than anything else: power. (See Jonathan Last’s outstanding Weekly Standard cover story for more on this).

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The Tempting of Conservatism

Conservatives are different. We like our label, and that’s a good thing.

But you don’t have to be Charlie Sheen to understand that you can have too much of a good thing.

There’s a venerable tradition on the right of defending liberal or statist ideas by offering “the conservative case for X.” One can find plenty of examples, whether X equals Social Security or gay marriage or mass immigration or war or peace or this and even that. Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others. Some are wholly sound if conservatism is defined one way and wholly ridiculous if you define it another way. But they all involve making a serious argument based upon some serious principle.

RELATED: Trump Doesn’t Represent the Conservative Base

But we’re seeing now is not a continuation of that tradition. A lot of people are making the case that what they like is conservative simply because they like it. The “it” I have in mind is Donald Trump and whatever noxious fume comes out his mouth at any given moment.

Two months ago, I wrote that Trump’s popularity was corrupting conservatism. “We routinely forgive the rich and famous for sins we would condemn our neighbors for. Trump’s popularity apparently trumps all standards we would apply not just to our neighbors, but to our leaders.”

Trump has jumped from one position to another, rarely offering anything like an argument, and his supporters have followed him. It’s been like one long Benny Hill chase scene.

Since then, the rot has spread with remarkable speed. Please read Guy Benson’s column on the Trump cult of personality. Trump has jumped from one position to another, rarely offering anything like an argument, and his supporters have followed him. It’s been like one long Benny Hill chase scene. He’s for the Iran deal! He’s against it! He’s for letting in Syrian refugees! He’s against it! He’s for single payer! He’s against it! Higher taxes! Lower taxes! For stimulus! Against stimulus! Tomaytos! Tomahtos! Less filling! Tastes great! None of it matters! All that matters is, Trump!

If you point out any of these inconsistencies, Trump’s defenders — on Twitter, talk radio, cable etc. — fall back on one of the most juvenile arguments possible: It’s all okay because Trump is driving the mainstream media and/or the “Republican establishment” crazy.  Indeed, “Republican establishment” often seems to be defined as “any Republican who doesn’t like Trump.” Ten times a day I hear from people telling me that I don’t “get it.” They explain that my frustration with the “Trump can do no wrong” school is proof that Trump is right.

RELATED: A Donald Trump Nomination Would Fundamentally Change the GOP

If you sit there and tell me that 2+2 equals 17 and refuse to budge no matter how patiently I walk you through the math, I will get frustrated. If Donald Trump then walks in and says, “No no, 2+2 equals 35,” and you suddenly change your position to that, I will get even more frustrated.

You might find my frustration entertaining or satisfying or in some other way useful. Fair enough. Annoying people can have its rewards. And if your goal isn’t to win the presidency but to annoy a lot of people you don’t like, keep doing what you’re doing. But you want to know the one thing my frustration doesn’t prove? That 2+2 equals 17 — or 35.

#related#Then there’s the whole “But Obama” “argument.” Trump proposes something dumb, un-conservative, or unconstitutional. Conservatives criticize it. And, as sure as night follows day, as sure as Bill Clinton’s gaze follows a departing intern’s posterior, Trump boosters say, “Well Obama did X.” I can’t recall a time when more people violated the “if so-and-so jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge” rule.

Yesterday, Trump said he would issue an executive order mandating that cop-killers be executed. I am all in favor of the death penalty for cop-killers — and many other killers — and maybe there is some constitutionally permissible way the president could help in this regard (despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of such cases are not federal crimes). But I can guarantee you this: Trump has no idea what it is or even how executive orders really work. I criticized Trump’s announcement on Twitter and almost instantaneously, the response came forth, “So what? Obama issued unconstitutional executive orders too!”

First of all, Obama is not on the ballot in 2016. He gets to finish his presidency no matter what.

Second, I take a backseat to no one in my anger and frustration with Obama’s imperial presidency, but I fail to see why I should transmogrify my frustrations with Obama’s abuses and crimes into future justifications for “our Obama” to do the same sort of thing. I have my disagreements with libertarians, but at least libertarians are consistent in their opposition to abusive and arbitrary power, regardless of party.

Populism Ascendant

There’s a word to describe the support for Donald Trump, and it’s not conservatism. It’s populism. (That’s why I don’t like the headline on yesterday’s column. The point isn’t that Trump’s followers are liberal or conservative, it’s that, when it comes to Trump’s supporters, the categories of liberalism and conservatism are almost beside the point.)

Populism, crudely defined, simply means people-ism. If “the people” are for X, then X is right. This might sound like democracy, and at a rudimentary level they overlap a great deal. But democracy, rightly understood, is constrained by the rule of law. Mobs are populist, but they aren’t necessarily democratic. That’s because democracy implies some form of deliberation. Mobs are about passion.

RELATED: PC Suppression of Public Concerns Fuels the Trump Phenomenon

If you read the Federalist Papers, you know that the Founders had a very healthy distrust of un-channeled populism. That’s why we have divided government. That’s why we are a democratic republic. The U.S. Constitution begins with the single most important populist statement in human history, “We the people.” It marked a revolutionary and incandescently wonderful break with the barbarisms — refined and not so-refined — of the past. But the rest of the document is dedicated to finding healthy and principled ways to constrain and channel populism.

Back during the early tea-party days, I often said that “libertarian populism” was the first populist movement, at least since abolition, that I could get behind because it was aimed at overthrowing statism and the arbitrary rule of the administrative state. In truth, there have been other good populisms. The dethroning of aristocracy in Europe was arguably the first flourishing of populism in the modern West, and it was mostly a very good thing. But one only need study the French Revolution to understand that populism can chew through its leash and start eating its own (to use a slightly mixed metaphor). John Lukacs, that great champion of the anti-populist conservative tradition, argued that the Hungarian Revolution was an example of good populism.

RELATED: In Face of Controversy, Trump Supporters Stand By Their Man

But he also understood that fascism and Communism were examples of bad populism. When populism is yoked to a cult of personality, the mob defines success as success for their leader, principle be damned. The leader becomes a repository for resentments, a vehicle for power, both cultural and political. As Willie Stark says to the adoring crowd in All the King’s Men: “Your will is my strength. Your need is my justice.”

As Matthew Continetti notes, it is entirely possible that, win or lose, Trump will transform the Republican party into a different kind of right-wing party. He will attract new voters, banish old ones, and permanently repulse others who might otherwise have been persuaded to join our cause. As an American Le Pen, or even a reincarnation of Richard Nixon, he would no doubt call attention to issues that liberals want to ignore. He might do some things I would agree with, while surely doing other things I would find reprehensible. But he has given no indication that his lodestar would be anything other than the greater glory of Trump, and that is not a principle I can attach myself to, now or ever.

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Various & Sundry

Zoë & Pippa Update: The most significant news is that Pippa — sweet, dignified, nobly-bred Pippa — is becoming more of a problem than our half-feral white-trash swamp dog. First, she’s taken to throwing crazy hissy fits in the back of the car when we get close to the park, yipping and yapping and growling and barking in anticipation. Last weekend, she leapt over the backseat (she rides in the cargo hold of the SUV, while Zoe gets the backseat), and jumped out the window of my still moving car. Fortunately, I was moving slowly enough and the traffic was light enough at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday that she didn’t end up road kill. But I was unamused. Speaking of roadkill, the other problem with Zoë and Pippa getting along is that Pippa now doesn’t worry that Zoë will keep her in line. So she not only sleeps in the human bed alongside the Dingo, but her majesty insists on sleeping on top of or adjacent to any human who happens to be in the bed. Which brings me to the roadkill part. When she sleeps she somehow manages to go completely limp, like a boneless bag of dog. It is remarkably hard to move her, because she refuses to wake up. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like she’s doing some kind of civil disobedience technique.

I’m running very late today, so let’s just get to the weird stuff.

Actors acting like they’re actors acting

Why computer scientists are studying Tom Hanks’ face

Dune spice-filled sandworm bread for the holidays

Was destroying the Death Star a mistake?

If the Star Wars universe had libertarians

Studio execs were originally very skeptical of Star Wars in 1977

When Homer’s Odyssey took place

A curious way to save drowning victims

“Great” said nobody (except Sonny Bunch): Ron Howard leaves open possibility for Willow sequel

Science: Why we do stupid things

Science: Double dipping is actually as bad as Seinfeld said

The complex psychology of the geek

Is the future of music a chip in your brain?

That’s easy, just turn it on: How to make a lightsaber hum

Most popular US TV shows around the world

A short history of Martians

A brief history of sliced bread

Star Trek in real life

I suspect Iowahawk was responsible for this

U.S. government made it legal for citizens to mine asteroids

This headline contains almost everything that is wrong with the modern world

Sign of the Apocalypse: Washington Post style guide now accepts singular “they”

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

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