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.
On Wednesday, I went to National Review HQ in New York for the first time in years. Whenever I enter the building, what with all the lasers and retina scanners and pressure-sensitive floors, the music from Get Smart plays in my head. If you don’t know what Get Smart is/was then you probably aren’t a middle-aged dude who watched too much TV after school (“In other words, ‘Your base’” — The Couch).
Anyway, it was good to see so many folks from the old days as well as the young’ns populating the place. Several of the Buckley Fellows looked like someone granted George Will his wish to be 15 years old again. I finally met Mark Antonio Wright, the young man who retrieves this “news”letter from the pneumatic tube like a hungry homeless guy with an untwisted wire hanger trying to get a wet, discarded raisin bagel out of the storm drain.
“Ugh, those aren’t raisins.”
Still, while it was good to see Cooke, French, Williamson, and even that ol’ debil Lowry, I really wanted the trip to be more like Alec Baldwin’s pep-talk in Glengarry Glen Ross. “The writer with the most unique visitors gets the good story assignments. The writer with the second most, gets a set of steak knives . . . where are you going, Ms. Timpf?”
“I’m getting more wine!”
“Wine is for closers only.”
Never Trump Nevermore
Speaking of Cooke and French, they should do a podcast together called “French Cooke.” Also, speaking of those guys, they’ve done most of the heavy lifting on this notion that the Never Trump conservatives have “surrendered” to Trump. But I would like to throw in my two or three cents, as I get grief from the Left and the Right everyday about this stuff. From the Left, I’m told that if I don’t crap out my spleen in panic every 20 minutes begging the Electoral College to “stop Trump” (by asking the House of Representatives to elect Trump), it means I have surrendered entirely and that I was never really “never Trump” in the first place.
This is nonsense. Liberals love to play this game where they define conservative principles for conservatives and then say that if you don’t adhere to them as liberals want, you’re a hypocrite. This was the essence of about 65 percent of Michael Kinsley’s “If conservatives were serious . . . ” punditry.
I’ll say it again: I’m going to call ’em like I see ’em and wait and see if I was wrong about Trump.
From the Right, any time I say anything — and I mean anything — critical of Trump, I’m told it’s proof that I’m “bitter” or “biased” and that I can’t admit I was wrong about him, etc. I can go on TV and say that Trump has been brilliant at x and y but I’m still concerned about z, and all I’ll hear is the whistle of incoming ALL CAPS arrows: GET OVER IT! HE WON! GO AWAY NEVER TRUMPERS! HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPLOCK!!!111! Etc.
The thing is: Never Trump is over. Never Trump was about the GOP primary and the general election, not the presidency. The Left wants to claim it must be a permanent movement, denying the legitimacy of Trump’s election forever, or we were never serious. Well, that’s not what we — or at least I — signed up for.
But you know what is alive and well? Always Trump. These are the folks who think Trump must be defended and celebrated no matter what he does or says. In fairness, some of these people are still auditioning for jobs in the administration and know they must follow the rhetorical principle of “not one step backward.” But others are just normal Americans who love Trump and think that I’m somehow duty-bound to say I love him too, no matter what he does. Well, I didn’t sign up for that either.
Whenever I say this, someone shrieks at me about my “arrogance” or “hubris” — for reasons I truly cannot fathom. But I’ll say it again: I’m going to call ’em like I see ’em and wait and see if I was wrong about Trump. So far, I’ve said that most of his cabinet picks have been a pleasant and welcome surprise. But he’s also done plenty of things that make me feel like I had him pegged all along. We only have one president at a time — and the guy isn’t even president yet. I’ll give him a chance. But I won’t lie for him either.
For Russia, With Love
So, the other week a friend of mine — another columnist type — pointed something out to me. There are already plenty of opportunities to say “I told you so” about Trump, the problem is people don’t care. I’ve been writing for over a year about how conservatism is getting corrupted by populism and nationalism, but when everybody is a populist nationalist who do I get to say “I told you so” to?
As Charlie Sykes notes today, all of the “it’s a binary choice!” talk during the election forced Republicans not just to forgive Trump’s personal shortcomings and ideological deviations, but to embrace them. The hope was that after November 8, the same logic that forced people to embrace the lesser of two evils would also force them to recognize that the lesser of two evils is not great. That hasn’t happened. Instead, we get Mike Pence throwing shade at the free market and the supposed defenders of conservative orthodoxy defending industrial policy.
And now it’s Russia. Support for Putin among Republicans has grown by more than threefold since 2014. I wonder why? Do you think 37 percent of Republicans have studied the geopolitical situation closely and decided that Putin really isn’t such a bad sort? Is Russia Today, the Kremlin-funded cable-TV channel, really that persuasive?
Using 2012 Romney to beat up 2016 Obama is fine, but it’s not a killer argument to do that while implicitly agreeing with 2012 Obama.
Frankly, I resent the fact that I even feel the need to explain how Putin is a bad guy, doing bad things, so I’m just going to skip that part and assert it. What’s particularly galling, though, is to listen to the Always Trump pundits spin themselves into a Gordian knot trying to defend Trump’s bromantic putinphilia. Here’s a typical defense I’ve heard from many Always Trump pundits (that I’ll keep nameless, as I may see them at Fox’s Christmas party soon).
It usually starts with the charge of hypocrisy:
“First of all, wasn’t it President Obama who mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia our No. 1 geopolitical foe?”
This is a fair, clean shot. Obama did beclown himself with his sick burn of Romney. And so did his defenders. But they can at least argue that events changed and so did their opinions. In other words, Obama & Co. are not necessarily hypocrites when they denounce Russia now, they’re merely implicitly conceding they were naïve partisan asses when they thought Russia was the bees knees for so long.
But then, often in the same breath, the Always Trumper pivots, saying there’s no evidence Russia did anything wrong and there’s nothing amiss whatsoever with Trump’s fondness for Putin.
Which is it? Were Obama & Co. wrong for mocking Romney or was Romney wrong for calling out Russia?
Trump and Romney fundamentally disagree about Russia. Using 2012 Romney to beat up 2016 Obama is fine, but it’s not a killer argument to do that while implicitly agreeing with 2012 Obama.
The Perils of Whataboutism
Since it’s so close to Festivus, I will continue to air personal grievances. There has been a riot of whataboutism these days.
I suppose I should back up and explain what “whataboutism” is.
In layman’s terms, whataboutism is the practice of deflecting a criticism of you or your side by pointing to the flaws of the critic and his or her side.
Apparently, American Cold Warriors coined the term to describe the favorite propaganda techniques of the Soviet Union. As The Economist magazine put it in 2008, “Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a ‘What about . . . ’ (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).”
We saw a poignant resurgence in this classical form of whataboutism in the wake of the long overdue demise of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. “You think Cuba is bad on human rights, what about America, where [fill-in-the-blank with left-wing clichés about how terrible America is].”
But while the term “whataboutism” is of a relatively recent vintage, the practice itself is ancient and formally goes by the technical term “tu quoque,” meaning in Latin, “you also.” It’s one of the more famous logical fallacies (a derivative of the appeal to hypocrisy), and it works like this: Your doctor tells you that you need to lose some weight or you’ll have heart attack. You respond, “Oh yeah, doc, you’re not exactly a runway model either.”
Now it may be true that your doctor is just as fat as you. But that has no bearing on the legitimacy of the diagnosis. If I say you’re a slob, you might respond, “You have no right to judge” given my own messy habits. Whatever you may think of the right to judge per se (personally, I think it keeps much of civilization afloat), that doesn’t change the underlying facts. My penchant for gluttony doesn’t make me wrong when I say you’re a glutton, even if it might make me a hypocrite. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “The value of advice is not wholly dependent on the integrity of the advisor.”
So, you can see how whataboutism is closely related to the vacuous and ubiquitous catchphrase “you have no right to judge.” But, regardless, as a way to change the subject, distract the audience, and generally muddy-up important distinctions and facts, whataboutism is invaluable. It’s a way of making a moral-equivalence argument while sounding like you’re making high-minded moral distinctions.
As a way to change the subject, distract the audience, and generally muddy-up important distinctions and facts, whataboutism is invaluable.
And I should say, Trump does it all the time. When Joe Scarborough pointed out to him that Putin murders dissidents and journalists, Trump responded, “Well, I think our country does a lot of killing too, Joe.” Last summer, when the New York Times asked Trump what he thought of the brutal crackdown in Turkey that led to over 50,000 people thrown in jail, he responded. “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems . . . ”
That said, Barack Obama may still be the world champion. His insistence that Americans have no right to get on their “high horse” about ISIS’s atrocities because of the misdeeds of Christians a thousand years ago remains the ne plus ultra of whataboutist asininity.
Now, I don’t really mind whataboutist arguments across ideological lines. That is actually what a lot of intellectual fights should be about: holding the other side — and your own — to expressed principles when partisan winds change. There’s nothing wrong with holding Obama to the standards he leveled against Bush when it comes to things like the national debt or the toppling of Moammar Qaddafi. That’s the good kind of whataboutism.
For example, Charlie Cooke noted last week that liberals have been flirting with illiberalism for years and they didn’t care because they were winning. Liberals shot back that Charlie was a “Whataboutist!” trying to deflect from Trump’s singular, democracy-destroying, concentrated, and sui generis evil.
Sorry, I don’t buy that. Charlie is critical of Trump and Obama. His point is that progressives don’t mind illiberalism when illiberalism advances their aims. (If only I’d written a book or two that touched on this.) Similarly, I criticized Barack Obama’s hostility to the free market and fondness for picking winners and losers. I don’t see why I should suddenly embrace those policies when/if Trump does it.
We are in a moment of peak whataboutism on the right. As a columnist, I get it. I even partake in it from time to time. For instance, I have more than once pointed out that the very same Democrats who hied to their fainting couches over Donald Trump’s denigration of the democratic system are now hell-bent on denigrating it even more. But I was critical when Trump did it too, so my consistency is secure.
And this brings me to my grievance. What drives me crazy is when conservatives tell me I must use Obama or Hillary Clinton as the metric by which I judge Donald Trump. If I note that Trump said something stupid (no really, it happens sometimes), the retort comes back, “Well, he didn’t refer to 57 states!” or “At least Trump didn’t pronounce it ‘corpse’ man!”
Well, okay . . . ? I criticized Obama about those things, too. What’s your point?
I mildly criticized Trump’s Taiwan call on its messaging and planning, but agreed with it in principle. The immediate response was: “What about what Obama did in Cuba!?” Sure as shinola, someone will respond to the above stuff about Putin, by saying, “What about Hillary’s ‘reset’!?” or, “Don’t you remember when Obama said he’d be more flexible after the election? Did you criticize that!?!”
And my answer is: “Uh, yeah.”
During the election, the case against Hillary was the case for Trump for a lot of people and for wholly legitimate reasons. But the election is over. On the post-election National Review cruise, I was on a panel with a respected conservative who said that we should measure every Trump policy against the yardstick of “What would Hillary Clinton have done?” I’m grateful Hillary lost, of course, but that’s crazy. It’s also an invitation for my greatest pre-election worries to come true. “At least he’s better than Hillary” was a perfectly valid standard for conservatives in the voting booth. It is a suicidal standard for the conservative movement during a Trump presidency.
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Various & Sundry
Some very exciting news:
Steve Hayes has been named the editor-in-chief of the Weekly Standard. Some may quibble that a guy recently on the terror watchlist probably shouldn’t get that job, but not me. I am too eager for the annual Summer Reading issue to be replaced with the annual Beer & Brats edition. The Fall Reading issue will obviously be all about the Packers and the glory of tailgating. “Less Iraqi Kurds, More Cheese Curds!” “Ken Starr? Meh! Bart Starr, Man.” Of course, I’m kidding: Steve and Richard Starr (the editor) will do a fantastic job. But we should also congratulate Bill Kristol on more than two decades of success in building an influential and important new magazine at a time when a lot of old magazines went the way of the Dodo.
‘Less Iraqi Kurds, More Cheese Curds!’
I take particular joy from the announcement because a) Steve is a friend, and b) I’ve spent the last two years hearing from gleeful trolls (and others) that people like Steve and me were committing career suicide by not becoming cheerleaders for Trump. So, it’s nice to see the trend lines go the other way.
On that note, I’d also like to announce that I’ve renewed my contract with Fox News and I “earned” the title of Best Conservative Columnist over at Rightwing News. In a particularly brutal blow to some alt-righters, Ben Shapiro came in second (I await the Downfall video). Anyway, I’ve been a contender many times, and I generally think such lists are problematic. In any random week, there are dozens columnists (including several of my colleagues) who do a better job than I do. But given the year I’ve had, and the fact it will annoy all the right people, I’ll take it with gratitude.
Canine Update: I’ve been travelling a bunch, so I haven’t spent too much time with the beasts. I’m embarrassed to say that there’s growing evidence I’m being played by the canines. When I’m home, Zoë always tries to wake me up around 5:00 a.m., as if her bladder could be used as a paint gun. This sets off Pippa who starts crying and whining, which gets Zoë even more worked up. “We gotta go!” they shout. But, when I’m out of town, my wife usually wakes the docile and patient hounds around 6:45 and doesn’t take them out until after 7:30.
Earlier this week, I got a call from the Fair Jessica asking me if I could come home from the office because the dingo got out (as in leapt out of the car window as she was pulling into the driveway) and would not come back in.
Usually we can bribe Zoë with a car ride or meat products. But no. She put her nose under her tail like a sled dog in the snow, and refused to budge. Unless you try to catch her. And then she springs up and runs away from you. (Despite the impression of almost ninja-like lithe nimbleness I give off, I cannot catch a dog that catches squirrels if she doesn’t want to be caught.) So, I drove home to deal with a “family emergency.” I pulled up to the front yard and acted all excited to see her. She rolled on her back and let me rub her tummy. Then we just walked into the house. Apparently, she just missed her daddy.
My first column of the week was on the terrible-all-around Russia-hacking situation.
What to make of the plutocrats in Trump’s midst.
If you haven’t listened to the Russ Roberts interview with Thomas Leonard, author of Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era, you really should. It’s fantastic (if you’re into this stuff). I had a very wide range of responses to the discussion. I wrote hundreds of words in reaction to it, and then decided better of it because it sounded too much like special pleading or griping from me because so much of this was covered in Liberal Fascism. Still, Roberts, who is much, much, better read than I am was — to my real surprise — shocked to learn that Woodrow Wilson was a bad guy. If anything, Leonard goes very soft on Wilson (yes, he was a racist, but he was awful in other ways too).
Roberts was also shocked about Richard Ely, and in a way that surprised me even more. Roberts is of a libertarian bent and he knows where the bodies are buried in that world. And yet, he was caught off guard by how despicable (and yet typical) Ely was. Get that man some Murray Rothbard (or Arnold Kling!). Anyway, it’s kind of asinine to be all, “You didn’t know that!?” to a guy who is much better educated and smarter than me. But it was a shock all the same.
It is unlikely I will be filing this “news”letter next week as the full-on this-plane-is-out-of-coffee panic is setting in in my effort to finish my book. I will be in an undisclosed location writing furiously or making simulacrums of Devil’s Tower with mashed potatoes.
And now, the weird stuff, Christmas-themed.