The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

The Venezuelafication of American Politics

President Donald Trump waves to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House, July 11, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The heavy price we will pay for Trump’s presidency is that his deficiencies will leave the government, along with the political system and our civic culture, degraded.

Welcome to The Tuesday, a newsletter about politics, language, culture, and three or four other things that were bothering me over the weekend.

The Pragmatic Virtues

Some of our friends on the right were just real, real, real big on virtue a few years back. Bill Bennett, you may recall, built for himself a splendid little virtue empire: The Book of Virtues, The Children’s Book of Virtues, The Children’s Treasury of Virtues, The Book of Virtues for Boys and Girls, The Book of Virtues for Young People, The Book of Virtues Cookbook: Now You’re Cookin’ with Virtue!, Moral Compass: Stories for a Life’s Journey, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism.

(I made up the cookbook.)

Conservatives started talking a whole lot about virtue during the Clinton years, when they were outraged (Bennett gave us The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals) by the president’s hound-dogging and endless lying, and about the fact that so many of our Democrat friends seemed to enjoy being lied to, provided they were skillfully lied to, which was Bill Clinton’s specialty: “Slick Willie,” unlike “Tricky Dick,” wasn’t an entirely condemnatory epithet. That really stuck in a lot of Republican craws, it rankled and it vexed, and at the turn of the century every third Republican pundit was writing and talking as though he were Cato the Elder (Cato Censorius, ho, ho!), if not Cincinnatus. That, in turn, was hard to take for much of the general public — and a hell of a lot harder to take for the people who knew them. Not because these men had the ordinary and common moral failings (Bennett was mocked for being a gambler, Newt Gingrich for being Newt Gingrich) that we all have in varying degrees, but because so much of that virtue entrepreneurship was so obviously insincere.

And then came 2016, when the CEO of Virtue Inc. linked arms with Generalissimo Grab ’Em By the P***y. Bill Bennett sniffed that we should get off our “high horse” and get on board with Trump. Trump critics, Bennett insisted, “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.” Suddenly, all that old-fashioned virtue stuff was effete, namby-pamby, and effeminate. It was — surprise — a deficiency in virtue! It was only virtue-signaling, a simulacrum of virtue, lacking in the authentic manly virtues supposedly embodied by Donald Trump. The commissars of virtue insisted that criticism of Trump’s character was only a shallow and snobbish revulsion at his etiquette and his style, a girlish squeal at his manful and virtuous flouting of manners, convention, and other “elitist” niceties. His dishonesty was, they insisted, only a kind of pragmatic showmanship, and confounding only to those unschooled in the realities of the rough-and-tumble world of business.

Bennett suggested that Trump’s critics were only put off by his being “crude.” This line of criticism almost always and everywhere is dishonest, and obviously dishonest: Agree with the critics or not, the rap on Trump has always been about his actual character, the sort of man he is, not merely his etiquette, his accent, or how he ties his tie. But as a matter of cheap rhetoric, it is easy to shed a few crocodile tears over “the tweets” and the vulgarity while defending the program.

We talk about virtue as though it were some otherworldly thing, of little interest — or a positive hindrance — to people whose main concern is “winning” in this world rather than judgment in the next. But that gets it all wrong. As the Romans and the American founders understood, the cultivation of republican virtues is eminently practical — it is very difficult to maintain a free society without those virtues.

If you have spent very much time in the sort of places we used to describe as the Third World, you probably have noticed a paradox: These countries often have government everywhere, in your face, all the time, and yet they go largely ungoverned. For example, Venezuela and Kazakhstan both have much larger public sectors than does Germany, as measured by public-sector workers’ share of the total work force. Measured by government spending as a share of GDP, Libya has nearly twice as much government as Sweden, but it is not nearly as governed. Ecuador and Belarus spend relatively more on the public sector than the United States, Switzerland, or Japan, but they don’t have very much to show for it. In physics, there is a distinction between force and power — force is just that, a push or a pull, whereas power refers to the rate at which work is done. (Come at me, pedants.) There is an analogous division in states, which may have x number of troops at arms or y number of administrators working on a problem without x or y really telling you anything about the state’s capacity for achieving its ends. Having the manpower or the money or some other kind of brute force isn’t necessarily enough to get the work done.

(I do not mean to make a doctrinaire libertarian point here; there are well-governed countries with relatively small public sectors and well-governed countries with relatively large public sectors. Spending and payroll matter, but it matters what the spending is spent on and what the people on the payroll are paid to do and whether they do it.)

Scholars of government think a great deal about trust, consensus, legitimacy, and other related issues. One way of thinking about that whole batch of things is to consider the question of cooperation. High-trust societies tend to be high-cooperation societies and to have high levels of consensus about the direction of policy and few if any questions about legitimacy. Trust is a key ingredient in the secret sauce of the happy Nordic countries and in well-governed places such as Switzerland and Canada. When you have lots of trust and lots of cooperation, you can run programs more effectively, administer agencies with more confidence, and count on both the public and the bureaucrats to conduct themselves with a reasonable level of honesty and scrupulousness. When that succeeds, it produces a virtuous cycle: Working well creates the conditions for working better; trust and trustworthiness buttress one another; the prestige that accrues to administrative work attracts the sort of people who add to that prestige.

When trust fails, the virtuous circle turns vicious, and then the state has to find other ways to encourage or compel cooperation in order to function. The spirit of nationalism is cultivated by Beijing and by Budapest to serve that purpose — by emphasizing a common national identity (often with the aid of a common external enemy or a hated internal minority group) and a sense of solidarity and shared destiny, the state can achieve a high level of buy-in and consensus, at least for a time, in spite of corruption or incompetence. The socialist ideology of the USSR served much the same purpose, as a variation on its main theme does in contemporary North Korea.

From that point of view, it is not surprising that the two poles of American politics have drifted toward socialism and nationalism at a time when the effectiveness and trustworthiness of our public institutions is in decline. (I am here reminded of Bryan Caplan’s observation that the United States has no classical-liberal party but two moderate national-socialist parties, one a little more socialist, the other a little more nationalist.) Neither those who are in charge of the institutions of our government nor those who would like to be in charge of them can with straight faces associate their efforts with the creditability of those institutions. Nor are they intellectually or philosophically equipped to build on what trust and trustworthiness remain in them

Roger Stone committed a raft of felonies in order to protect the political interests of Donald Trump, who has now commuted Stone’s sentence as a reward for Stone’s political loyalty. Stone’s misdeeds include collaborating with the Russian intelligence cutout known as “Guccifer 2.0,” though I am inclined to credit the defense he has offered there — that he is too stupid to understand that he was being manipulated by the GRU. The specific crimes of which he was convicted go straight to the question of trust: witness-tampering and perjury. As National Review’s editorial put it: “He was justly convicted of these charges and deserved to go to jail; in our system of justice, self-parody is no defense.”

Trump’s self-serving commutation of Stone’s prison sentence is another chip off the U.S. government’s foundation of trust and legitimacy. No one can claim to be surprised by this behavior — this is exactly what any reasonable person would expect from Donald Trump and from his associates. It is what Bill Bennett would have expected if he had understood his own books or had not forgotten what they say. The heavy price we will pay for Trump’s presidency is not that we will feel bad as a people about his lack of virtue and have a good cry over it but that his lies and abuse will leave the government itself, along with the political system and our civic culture, degraded. It is not a baby step but a mighty stride down the road to the Venezuelafication of American politics, and if you don’t think we have our own Hugo Chávez out there ready to step forward and fill the trust gap with ideology and an enemies’ list, then you are not paying very close attention.

Civic virtue is not a pleasant abstraction; still less is it a merchandising opportunity. It is a necessity if we are to have an open and transparent government based on trust and cooperation. The alternatives to that are autocracy and anarchy in varying combinations and proportions.

Words About Words

You know who will send you to your dictionary every five minutes? Edith Wharton. In the first few pages of The Custom of the Country, she refers to “the batrachian countenance of Peter Van Degen” and to the “grotesque saurian head” of the same. Animal adjectives are popular with fiction writers, who need lots of them, and with political columnists, who need only a few of them, mainly asinine, mustelid, and ovine. Wharton, probably under the influence of William James’s Principles of Psychology, sometimes takes a kind of physiognomic approach to characterization. (Wharton’s relationship with the fashionable eugenics movement of her time is a complicated subject.) Many fiction writers do that, trying to almost literally (almost literally, Mr. Biden) paint a picture for readers. That is interesting: Among writers, novelists have an easy — maybe the easiest — way to describe the internal condition of a character and can tell you anything they choose about a character’s personality and motives — about a character’s character. But still they often prefer to lean heavily on exterior description of visual cues, as though they were journalists. (Which many of them are or were.) Wharton covers the interior and the exterior with equal skill, and, if you haven’t read her in a while (or at all), you have the opportunity to be delighted by some astounding sentences. Do yourself the favor.

Saurian, lizard-like, you’ll easily derive from dinosaur. Wharton uses it to suggest crocodiles and alligators. (Here is a place where Wikipedia really shines: “The clade Sauria was traditionally a suborder for lizards which, before 1800, were crocodilians. . . . Sauria can be seen as a crowned-group of all modern reptiles, including birds, within the larger total group Sauropsida, which also contains various stem-reptile groups.”) Batrachian means frog-like or toad-like. Froggy and toady are both good English words, but froggy is an adjective and toady is a noun and a verb, also very useful to political columnists, the times being what they are.

Wharton doesn’t just throw that exotic adjective out there to show she knows it. It is matched with the common verb shine to very nice effect. The setting is an opera box:

The entr’acte was nearly over when the door opened and two gentlemen stumbled over Mr. Lipscomb’s legs. The foremost was Claud Walsingham Popple; and above his shoulder shone the batrachian countenance of Peter Van Degen. A brief murmur from Mr. Popple made his companion known to the two ladies, and Mr. Van Degen promptly seated himself behind Undine, relegating the painter to Mrs. Lipscomb’s elbow.

Funny names, too. Ever met an Undine? Me, neither. But they did things differently in the 19th century. From the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Undine, also spelled Ondine, mythological figure of European tradition, a water nymph who becomes human when she falls in love with a man but is doomed to die if he is unfaithful to her.” You can see the possibilities for a novelist.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A Washington Post headline read (before being changed): “Trump the victim: President complains in private about the pandemic hurting himself.” No, no, WaPo — that is not quite how you use the reflexive pronoun. The president complains about the pandemic hurting him is just fine.

There are a few different ways to use a reflexive pronoun, and the one that seems to be confusing the Post here is the case in which the subject and object of the sentence are the same: He hurt himself, which avoids the ambiguity of He hurt him, where him could refer to anyone. This works for both direct and indirect objects: The Lord helps those who help themselves; You can see yourself in the mirror; See for yourself. The thing to keep in mind is coreference, meaning that both words in the clause refer to the same person or entity. Sometimes, as in [You] see for yourself, one of the words may be implicit. In some idiomatic expressions, the reflexive pronoun doesn’t really do much in the clause: Prepare yourself for trouble is not very different from Prepare for trouble, and He didn’t know how to behave himself is pretty much the same as He didn’t know how to behave. But Ice Cube’s line definitely needs the reflexive: “Check yo self.”

The other common use of the reflexive pronoun is for emphasis: The pope himself says so.

About that headline, consider this: The president complained about the man who was hurting him vs. The president complained about the man who was hurting himself. You have coreference in the same sentence but in pretty clearly separated clauses: The president complains, the pandemic is hurting him; you could write, The president complains that the pandemic is hurting him. But: The president is only hurting himself with his Twitter habit.

And, sometimes, you just have to flow with the go.

The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason. Why:
Lest I revenge. Myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no, alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.

 Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.com

Correspondence

About those one-armed paper-hangers, a reader asks: “Would National Review be interested in publishing my op-ed ‘As a direct descendent of John Paul Jones, here is my take on the Ford-class aircraft carrier’?”

I’d like an essay about John Paul Jones, as long as it doesn’t ramble on.

Another reader defends the old blueblood Philadelphia suburbs from charges of first-initial-middle-name pretentiousness: “I must protest this line: ‘If you go by your middle name and enjoy the Main Line affectation of C. Montgomery Burns, F. Lee Bailey, or J. Edgar Hoover.’ I was raised in Newtown Square, a close (but socially distant) observer of Main Line culture and norms. C’mon, everyone knows that middle-naming is a southern thing.”

The Main Line is what it is partly thanks to J. Edgar Thomson of the Pennsylvania Railroad. And then there are oil magnate J. Howard Pew of Ardmore, Bryn Mawr College president M. Carey Thomas, M. Night Shyamalan of Gladwyne . . . and the very man who gave us the WASP: E. Digby Baltzell, who was from Chestnut Hill, which I think is close enough to count even if it is on the wrong side of the city limit.

(Carole Springer, who lived in Chestnut Hill and covered Main Line society for 50 years, would have thrown something at me for writing that.)

Home and Away

You can buy my forthcoming book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It is the 100 percent empathy-free reading you will want for the election season.

My National Review archive can be found here.

Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.

My New York Post archive can be found here.

My Amazon page is here.

To subscribe to National Review, which you really should do, go here.

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