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Up from the Rubble, Up from the Rabble
There is some truth to the cliché holding that liars think everybody lies, that cheaters think everybody cheats, that thieves think everybody else steals, etc. Understood as an emotional self-defense strategy, that has a great deal of explanatory power: We may talk about having the “fear of God” in us, but what people actually fear is social rejection, which is why people with a paralyzing fear of public speaking are considered entirely normal while people with an insistent terror of eternal damnation are judged fanatics and crackpots. We tell our children that there is nowhere to hide in “But everybody else is doing it!” when that isn’t quite true. A vice is not a problem — an unusual vice is a problem. An unusual virtue, or an unusual practice of personal discipline, can be an even bigger problem — ask someone who doesn’t drink how often some interested party inquires, politely or not: “What’s wrong with you? Are you an alcoholic in recovery? A Mormon? A moral scold? On a diet?” Subtext: “Are you implying that there’s something wrong with me?”
Rugged individualists — that’s us.
Beyond the social consideration, the phenomenon that old fraud Sigmund Freud called “projection,” a term and concept popularized by his followers, offers a degree of moral exculpation as well. Business swindlers and political hucksters are particularly prone to it, usually affecting a jaded, man-of-the-world attitude: “I didn’t make the rules!” or “That’s just how business is done!” or “Politics ain’t beanbag!” You know the type: They like to repeat a phony Sun Tzu quote they read on Facebook and pretend to be a character from Glengarry Glen Ross, never having actually read Sun Tzu or seen a David Mamet play. (They don’t know Mamet — they know Alec Baldwin’s performance in a movie based on one of Mamet’s plays.) Or maybe they’ll quote the lawyer from whom the president draws so much inspiration, Roy Cohn: “I don’t care what the law is — tell me who the judge is.”
This is the usual empty-headed law-of-the-jungle stuff: familiar, tedious — and abandoned with a whimper the second a bigger dog comes along.
And so it is no great surprise to find President Donald Trump and cronies complaining about election fraud even as President Donald Trump and his cronies were recorded in a telephone call attempting to suborn election fraud, threatening the Georgia secretary of state — a Republican, note — with criminal prosecution unless he should “find,” discovering by some black art, enough votes to swing the state’s election Trump’s way.
I have on many occasions criticized the abuse of the word coup in our politics, but that is what this is: an attempted coup d’état under color of law. It would be entirely appropriate today to impeach Trump a second time and remove him from office before his term ends.
No one who has participated in this poisonous buffoonery should ever hold office again. There was a time when there was a plausible if sometimes self-serving rationale for working for the Trump administration — that the president is a clueless poseur surrounded by crackpots and frauds, and that he desperately needs good counsel from responsible adults. But the Trump administration is not currently under the guiding influence of any such responsible adults — and there simply is no defending what it is up to. This cannot be excused or explained away.
Trump’s media cheerleaders, who like to call themselves constitutionalists and patriots, are no such thing. They are, for the most part, profiteers who will justify anything if it helps them to hold on to one point of audience share as they peddle their various blends of snake oil. “Woe unto them that call evil good and justify the wicked for gain.”
There was never any reason to trust them in the first place, but the events that have transpired since Election Day provide superabundant reason to understand them as an impediment to the conservative movement they purport to champion and a danger to the country they purport to love. If history remembers them at all, it will be as grovelers and hustlers, holding out for one last payday, a ride on Air Force One, or, in some cases, a presidential pardon.
I suppose the conservative movement might have to build a future without too much input from Lindsey Graham and Sean Hannity. The republic will survive that loss, I am confident.
It is worth keeping in mind that the mess of pottage they have received as their end of the bargain is pretty thin gruel. They mocked Mitt Romney and John McCain as “gentlemen losers,” but very little of that “winning” they talked about came to pass. The Trump administration is a thoroughgoing failure on the president’s own terms: The administration has managed to reorder worldwide trade relations — by witlessly facilitating the creation of a new trade pact between China and the European Union, an alliance of the world’s second- and third-largest economies at the expense of the one that remains, for now, the largest. China is in a stronger geopolitical position today than it was in 2016, and the United States is diminished. Trump focused on the trade deficit, which is the wrong policy, but he can’t even get that right: Our trade deficits are larger than ever. On immigration, there is no big, beautiful wall paid for by Mexico, nor has there been any broad reform of U.S. immigration law. The president spent the critical early days of the coronavirus epidemic trying to tweet the virus into submission because he feared a declining stock market would hurt his reelection chances. He has uttered more lies himself than can be counted, and he sent his minions out to tell countless more. He has dishonored, disfigured, and debased everything he has touched. It has been a shameful spectacle.
So, no, not a Mitt Romney–style “gentleman loser.” Just a regular loser, one who is too dim and too lame to understand that the “gentleman” part isn’t the problem and never has been. The Republicans who were all too willing to swap their honor for a little bit of political power have been, like most people who have done business with Donald Trump over the years, ripped off. And there is no moral-bankruptcy court in which to try to recover a portion of their losses.
There are some Republicans who lament that the Trump movement has transformed the Republican Party into a profit-oriented conspiracy cult. Many Democrats insist that this is not the case and prefer to believe that the Trump movement simply revealed what the Republican Party already was and long had been. Whatever is at work here, it isn’t ideology: Many of the worst Trump sycophants haven’t been fire-eating conservatives but East Coast moderates such as Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie; unlike, say, Ted Cruz, Trump himself is not a product of conservative institutions, and such conservative ideas as he has were acquired the day before yesterday, when he jettisoned his prior enthusiasms (“I am very pro-choice,” etc.) in his bid for the presidency. For my own part, I believe that the Republican Party has been both mutilated and laid bare at the same time. It will be a very long time before it can with a straight face once again call itself the Party of Lincoln, though it may aspire to be that once again. Party of Lincoln? The Republican Party would have to undergo the political equivalent of one of those reality-television makeovers if it wanted to stand so tall as to be the Party of Gerald Ford.
The modern Republican Party, whatever it was, is gone, even if much of the staff and the incorporation papers remain.
The next question: What will be built on its ruins?
Words About Words
Umbrage is one of those words that survive almost exclusively in one expression, in this case taking umbrage, a second cousin to in high dudgeon. Umbrage shows up in Middle English via French from the Latin umbra, meaning shadow.
(The less-shadowy outer edge of a shadow is the penumbra, wherein certain constitutional rights may be discovered lurking.)
In the shadows, there are doubts: A shadow of suspicion may fall over a man, and an unwelcome and possibly threatening development may leave certain events and developments under a shadow. A dubious character is shady — and that is true beyond a shadow of a doubt. It is from that skeptical aspect of shadows that umbrage went from its ancient meaning, shade, to its later meaning, cause for doubt, which eventually slid into offense. (Something very modern in that: “I doubt this claim” very easily became “I am offended by this claim!”) Because of that connection, the rarely seen umbrageous sometimes is used to mean prone to take umbrage while it survives in literature as providing shade: “Not far away was the bank of a canal, bordered by a magnificent avenue shaded by a double row of immense umbrageous trees.” (Garrett Putman Serviss, Edison’s Conquest of Mars, 1898.) Or: “The chief beauty of trees consists in the deep shadow of their umbrageous boughs, while fancy pictures a moving multitude of shapes and forms flitting and passing beneath that shade.” (Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844.)
It’s like a game of shadow catch: If somebody throws shade, you take umbrage.
People get confused by “12 a.m.” vs. “12 p.m.” Which one is supposed to mean noon and which is supposed to mean midnight? The correct answer: The way to say noon is noon and the way to say midnight is midnight. The Latin word for noon is meridiem, or middle of the day. The hours of the morning, which come before noon, are ante meridiem (a.m.), and those that come after noon are post meridiem (p.m.). But meridiem itself can be neither ante meridiem nor post meridiem. The minute after noon is 12:01 p.m., and the minute after midnight is 12:01 a.m.
If you want to meet someone at noon, then write noon. If you want to meet someone at midnight, then write midnight. And if you have the kind of social life where your friends are unsure whether you want to meet at noon or midnight, you must be exhausted.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
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My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru has caught me in an error: That Alexis de Tocqueville quotation I used last week was not said or written by him. Different versions of the same quotation (about democracy enduring until politicians discover they can bribe the people with their own money) have been attributed to de Tocqueville, Ben Franklin, and Frédéric Bastiat, among others. If nobody wants to take credit for it, I might claim it as my own. I’ll put it in Democracy in America: A Very Qualified Success.