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 especially Sammie),
I had my say on the emergency declaration yesterday, and I’m sure I’ll have to say it all again not very far down the road.
But there is a point that I think needs to be made. The reason President Trump finds it necessary to declare a national emergency stems from the fact that he is not the world’s greatest dealmaker.
If President Trump had signed the budget deal last December, he would have gotten more wall funding than he did after forcing a government shutdown. For two years, Republicans controlled Congress, and no wall was built. If you want to blame the congressional GOP for that, be my guest. But then don’t give sole credit to the president for everything Congress did pass.
What I mean is there’s a weird heads-Trump-wins, tails-the-establishment-RINO-cuck-Congress-loses dynamic to how Trump’s defenders talk about his record. If Trump is responsible for getting tax cuts — or anything else — through a GOP-controlled Congress, presumably he’s also responsible for the things he didn’t get through Congress, too. But when he wins, it’s proof of his deal-making prowess. When he loses, it’s because of the Deep State, the weak-kneed establishment, Democratic obstruction, polarization, gridlock, CHUDs, whatever.
All you needed was eyes to see to know that he wasn’t going to score some great deal in that December 11 Oval Office meeting. He preemptively took credit for a shutdown, and he got a shutdown and came out the other end worse off.
The reason I point this out isn’t to gloat or say, “I told you so.” It’s to point out that Trump — and his fans — get into trouble by constantly switching rationales for his presidency. In 2016, there were two central themes to the case for Trump. The first was that he was a fighter, a counter-puncher, a paladin against political correctness and all that. The second was that he was a dealmaker who could cut through the stupid dysfunction in Washington. As he said when he announced he was running: “So I’ve watched the politicians. I’ve dealt with them all my life. If you can’t make a good deal with a politician, then there’s something wrong with you. You’re certainly not very good. And that’s what we have representing us.” Or in a presidential debate in February of 2016:
No, a good deal maker will make great deals, but we’ll do it the way our founders thought it should be done. People get together, they make deals. Ronald Reagan did it with Tip O’Neil very successfully, you didn’t hear so much about executive orders, if you heard about it at all. You have to be able to get a consensus.
And it’s worth noting that he didn’t say, “This is going to be tough and I’m going to need your help.” He didn’t say “These problems are hard and they’re going to require compromise or sacrifice.” He said it would all be “so easy.”
These two rationales overlapped each other with the promise of endless winning. He’ll fight to make deals, and he’ll make deals to win. And it worked — on the campaign trail. But campaigning and governing are different things, and as time has gone by, the two rationales have coiled around each other like a two-headed snake fighting itself.
By wanting to seem like a fighter, he makes it harder to be a dealmaker, because being a fighter has come to be defined as not giving in, not compromising, and not earning the wrath of Ann Coulter’s Twitter feed.
The Tyranny of the Gut
Trump’s definition of being a great dealmaker is merely a facet of his core belief that his instincts are superior to anyone else’s expertise, facts, or judgment. “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody’s brain can ever tell me,” Trump told the Washington Post.
To paraphrase Ben Shapiro, Trump’s feelings don’t care about anyone’s facts.
This is why my eyes roll like billiard balls on the deck of the Titanic whenever someone claims that Trump has some long-term plan to out-maneuver his opponents. We saw a riot of this stuff during the shutdown.
— David Brody (@DavidBrodyCBN) January 16, 2019
Talk to virtually any Republican senator (away from a television camera), and they’ll tell you that Trump’s insistence upon going with his gut from moment to moment makes it almost impossible to craft deals because they never know whether he’ll change his mind or honor his commitments.
There were multiple opportunities to cut immigration deals throughout his presidency, but because he responds to stimuli more than arguments or planning, he missed them all. Remember Paul Ryan’s Border Adjustment Tax? Not only would it have made Mexico pay for the wall, it would have really replaced NAFTA rather than modestly update it. The Oracle of His Gut took a pass. A year ago this week, he could have gotten $25 billion for a wall in exchange for a DACA deal. The Gut said no. Or rather, Stephen Miller went over Lindsey Graham’s head to Trump’s gut. And again, last month his intestinal homunculus vetoed a deal that was better than the one he just signed.
And so that’s why he’s declaring a national emergency. He drove past every off-ramp provided over the last two years, because his gut was giving him directions from the shotgun seat. And now, with the Democrats controlling the House, he’s out of gas on the issue. There is no national emergency now, but he steered himself into a political one. And neither he nor his cheerleaders can see the difference.
Gangsterism and Socialism
On the latest episode of The Remnant, I talked with my AEI colleague Roger Noriega about the situation in Venezuela. If you’re interested in a deeper dive than the usual fare on what’s going on — both down there and in the White House, I think it’s worth a listen. And for those of you who think I can’t praise Trump when called for, let me say that I think the Trump administration has handled the Venezuela issue very well.
But Roger made a point that helped me flesh out something that’s been gestating in my head for a while. I have no problem with conservatives who want to highlight the horror in Venezuela as a cautionary tale about socialism.
But as Roger noted, there’s a lot of explanatory power in seeing Venezuela as a gangster state. The regime behaves like a crime family, buying support like a Don who gives everyone a turkey come Christmastime. And, if you read my book, you’d know that I think the way Mafia Dons operate is one of the oldest and most natural forms of political organization. It’s how Ancient Rome worked — competing clans buying loyalty or “true friendship” in exchange for protection and, often, food. This is the politics of the Big Man, which defined most tribal societies for millennia.
What’s interesting to me is how thin the line between this form of politics and socialism (or fascism) is. The most important thing about the rule of law — including property rights — is that it insulates society from this form of politics. In “natural” societies, justice follows blood. Certain people get different treatment because of their status or class. One set of rules for the prince, another for the peon. Under the rule of law in the Anglo-American tradition, everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. A man’s home is his castle isn’t just a phrase, it’s a cultural norm that stretches from feudal England to the Fourth Amendment. Even the king or the police need a good and lawful reason to violate your rights, even if you’re a nobody.
Look, I know very well there are many kinds of socialism. But wherever socialism has teeth, it veers closer to gangsterism because it depends on the use of arbitrary power, either by the state or, in essence, the mob. If you really want economic equality, you need to take money from people who earned it and give it to, or spend it on, people who didn’t. “Fighting income inequality” doesn’t change the fact that the state is using force based upon an aesthetic conceit about how society should look.
When you hand power over to planners, technocrats, or commissars to substitute their judgement for the rule of law, you are behaving like an outlaw, because you are literally outside the law.
Now, you might object that if socialists come to power democratically and pass laws to “abolish billionaires” or otherwise confiscate wealth to give it to people “unwilling to work” or pay for the Green New Deal, it’s not unlawful. This gets thorny, and I don’t want to get deep into the weeds of Hayek’s distinction between law and legislation. But we don’t need to do that. First of all, one of the reasons we have a Bill of Rights is that the founders recognized that laws can be as illegitimate and dangerous as any monarchical whim. I would hardly be surprised if Nicholas Maduro and Hugo Chavez before him could point to some law or judicial ruling for every horrible thing they did. We know the Soviet Union had plenty of laws, but that didn’t make Stalin any less of a gangster. Once you are outside the rule of law, you live under the rule of force.
When the law moves away from neutral rules applicable to all, it moves toward arbitrary power, which is a form of tyranny. As John Locke put it, “tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.” Tyranny is just a fancy word for gangsterism, because in both cases it’s about someone’s individual will being the ultimate authority. If it is tyrannical for a single ruler to violate your rights, it becomes no less tyrannical if 535 elected legislators do it.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: The Fair Jessica is out of town this weekend at a family get-together, and the dogs are pissed. Well, not so much pissed as crazy needy, even though I took them out this morning for an extra special adventure. Expect a lot of dog-tweeting. Anyway, they had quite a week. On one outing with Kirsten, our cherished workday dogwalker and their beloved pack leader, Pippa had a grand time. Too grand. She found a rich deposit of goose poop and said “YOLO” and did her best Andy Dufresne impersonation. When Kirsten brought Pippa home, poor Jessica had to rinse her for fifteen minutes before she even bothered with the soap. As expected, the #TeamPippa hordes on Twitter took the spaniel’s side. Perhaps because of the bath trauma, Pippa was on good behavior for about 48 hours. Then on Thursday, Zoë once again got fed up with Pippa’s tennis ball act and literally said, “If I can’t play, no one can.” Okay she didn’t say it with words, but with deeds. The interesting thing about the video of Zoë burying the ball is that this is very typical behavior of Carolina dogs, though in their natural environment they often do it with their poop. Zoë doesn’t bury her poop, though she does like to kick some leaves over it. But she has a long track record of burying: bones, squirrels, chipmunks, sticks, and now, Pippa’s tennis balls. Meanwhile, Gracie is fine. And I’m sure my wife’s cat is doing okay somewhere. Oh, and reports from my Mom’s house are that Fafoon continues to judge you.
And now, the weird stuff.