The Tuesday

U.S.

We’re All Jacobins Now

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds an American flag at a campaign rally in Milford, N.H., in 2016. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Across a great spectrum of issues, from trade to military policy to entitlements, the policy preferences of the populist Right broadly overlap with those of the populist Left.

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about language, culture, politics — and treachery! To subscribe to “The Tuesday” and receive it in its unsullied email form, please follow this link. And if my email inbox is anything to judge by, I probably should add: Socialism! Socialism! Socialism! Send me your money!

Our Pre-Revolutionary Moment

American politics used to be stuck in the 1930s, with the Republicans always sure that a military buildup was necessitated by the ascendancy of some new Hitler in some distant land and the Democrats always convinced that we are on the verge — or in the midst — of a New Great Depression that can be countered only by a New New Deal. We haven’t quite got out of the 1930s yet — see, e.g., the “Green New Deal” — but perhaps it is time to look around for some other points of comparison.

Conservatives used to think a great deal about the French Revolution, with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France serving as the ur-conservative document. Comparison with 1789 remains terribly apt. I am not ready to go long on guillotine stocks just yet, but consider this passage from François Furet’s Interpreting the French Revolution:

Here I am using the term ideology to designate the two sets of beliefs that, to my mind, constitute the very bedrock of revolutionary consciousness. The first is that all personal problems and all moral or intellectual matters have become political; that there is no human misfortune not amenable to political solution. The second is that, since everything can be known and changed, there is a perfect fit between action, knowledge, and morality. That is why the revolutionary militants identified their private lives with their public ones and with the defense of their ideas. It was a formidable logic, which, in laicized form, reproduced the psychological commitment that springs from religious beliefs. When politics becomes the realm of truth and falsehood, of good and evil, and when it is politics that separates the good from the wicked, we find ourselves in a historical universe whose dynamic is entirely new. As Marx realized in his early writings, the Revolution was the very incarnation of the illusion of politics: It transformed mere experience into conscious acts. It inaugurated a world that attributes every social change to known, classified, and living forces; like mythical thought, it peoples the objective universe with subjective volitions, that is, as the case may be, with responsible leaders or scapegoats. In such a world, human action no longer encounters obstacles or limits, only adversaries, preferably traitors. The recurrence of that notion is a telling feature of the moral universe in which the revolutionary explosion took place.

I have often pointed readers toward Julia Azari’s very useful discussion of the paradox of strong partisanship with weak parties, published in Vox in 2016 and, as of this writing in the weest of hours, still the only interesting article Vox ever has published. What is even more remarkable is that this bitter, tribalistic partisanship has arrived on the American scene at a moment when there is a broad, deep, and bipartisan consensus in support of an array of very stupid policies. I was not the only observer in 2016 to note that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were giving substantially identical speeches in similarly honking Outer Borough accents to the cheers of very similar crowds: The similarity was remarked upon by, among others, Donald Trump, who thrilled to Senator Sanders’s denunciations of purported billionaires’ plots to impose open borders on the United States at the expense of the American blue-collar worker. Both men spoke bitterly of their desire to raise taxes on private-equity investors and hedge-fund operators, those great villains of our time. Senator Sanders, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn, has perforce got woke about immigration and has altered his rhetoric somewhat, but the fundamental assumptions supporting his thinking remain unchanged.

And why should they change? One must appreciate the fact that Benito Mussolini evolved from man of the Left (a socialist newspaper editor) to man of the Right (nationalist and anti-Communist, a cultural traditionalist allied with religious orthodoxy) without changing his policy agenda much at all. Only the enemies’ list changed, and even that did not change very much.

Across a great spectrum of issues, from trade to military policy to entitlements, the policy preferences of the populist Right broadly overlap with those of the populist Left. For example, both sides speak of “economic patriotism.” In this Friday’s issue of National Review, subscribers can read about the evolution of “economic nationalism” from the Trump iteration to the Biden version, which has not required very much substantive change at all — no surprise, considering that the Trump version had so much in common with the vision offered by Barack Obama and his New New Nationalism, which was a lot like the old New Nationalism and the unreconstructed nationalism that preceded it.

The policy arsenal is mostly the same — tariffs, domestic-preference rules, subsidies, etc. — and the goal is the same, too. And it is important to understand what that goal is, because it sets on its head criticism from right-leaning advocates of central planning such as Oren Cass, who complain that ordinary market operations favor short-term profit-seeking at the expense of desirable long-term investments. In reality, it is precisely the political actors who are willing to neglect the long-term economic interests of the United States in exchange for achieving a short-term goal: maximizing employment and wages between today and the next election, with very little interest in what happens after that. Of course, no politician admits that his goal is goosing the labor market in the short term at the expense of the overall health of the economy, but that is what almost all proposals offered in the name of “economic nationalism” are plainly designed to accomplish.

That they generally fail to accomplish this brings us back to M. Furet.

The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution, which in turn inspired the Bolshevik Revolution — as Furet and others note, the Russian revolutionaries in many cases explicitly modeled their organization, tactics, and aspirations on French examples. And if the political process that gave rise to Soviet totalitarianism seems to us entirely alien to the one that gave rise to the United States, bear in mind that there are many men who in no obvious way resemble their grandfathers even though they carry their genes. Steve Bannon, recently pardoned of felony fraud charges, cheerfully describes himself as a right-wing “Leninist,” by which he means eager to smash what stands (the least conservative of sentiments) and seize power for himself and his allies — the politics of jihad.

And in Lenin’s economic thinking, we can see the germ of our current tribalist-partisan soft civil war. Lenin, who might very well have been a Vox contributor in our time, believed, as Furet’s revolutionaries believed, that the techniques, capacity, and competency to solve most existing social problems already were in existence, that these could be applied in a scientific manner, that policy and processes could be perfected with empirical tools — and that the only reason this had not already been done was the fact that power resided in the wrong hands rather than in the right ones: his. There is no scarcity or trade-offs, only saboteurs and traitors.

In a much-quoted passage, Lenin wrote that the management of industrial operations already had achieved a state of “high technical perfection” that “the united workers themselves could very easily set in motion by engaging technicians, superintendents, or bookkeepers.” He argued that any business could be run by “anyone who can read and write and do simple arithmetic.” His model society was the business corporation made universal: “The whole of society will have become an office or a factory, doing the same work and receiving the same wages” (as quoted in René Fülöp-Miller’s The Mind and Face of Bolshevism).

All that is needed, from that point of view, is better bosses. The right bosses.

Genuine politics requires a grounding in the real world, with its good-enough second-best outcomes, its compromises and tradeoffs, its limitations, its no-good-choices dilemmas. Furet was right to call the pre-revolutionary settlement the illusion of politics, which is what we Americans currently are engaged in: politics as role-playing game, politics as group therapy, politics as exorcism.

This leads to some unconstructive political positions: On January 31, National Review Online published a very interesting and intelligent essay by American Enterprise Institute scholars Dalibor Rohac and Ivana Stradner, excoriating German CDU leader Armin Laschet for his accommodating position toward Russia and China. “The presumptive German chancellor is a man of little patience with those who see the promotion of democratic values as integral to foreign policy,” they write, and much of their criticism is moralistic. Among his other sins, Rohac and Stradner charge Laschet with supporting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline even “amid a chorus of U.S. and European critics.” Nord Stream 2 will benefit the Russians, but it also will benefit — at least as Armin Laschet and Angela Merkel before him have calculated — the Germans, who, like many of our European allies, have not been much disposed to entertain moralistic pronouncements from Washington about how they conduct their foreign and economic relations in recent years.

The Germans, and the Europeans at large, want to have options, especially in the shadow of an increasingly unstable and nationalistic United States. The moralistic account is this: Vladimir Putin is wicked, Xi Jinping is wicked, and whatever may benefit them must therefore be wicked, too. The political account is different: German leaders perceive their interests as being at odds with Washington’s preferences in this matter; and, being accountable to the German people rather than to the American people, they pursue their interests as they understand them. The moralistic account produces a moralistic response: Hector, threaten, abominate.

The political account should produce a political response that speaks to the German situation as it is, treating the economic and political limitations of that situation as a fact rather than as a sin, and therefore taking Germany’s understanding of its own interests into account as something other than a nuisance issue of secondary importance. The political approach might produce a political solution. The moralistic approach will produce, at best, momentary catharsis. Because Americans are a politically unserious people, the offer of emotional catharsis can get you elected president.

The tribalistic dynamic is expressed much more intensely in our domestic political rivalries, and it drives the retreat into conspiracy theory, which is mainly an exercise in identifying and condemning the “traitors” mentioned by Furet. Democrats insist, and many of them are indeed daft enough to genuinely believe, that the Republican agenda at large is driven not by a collection of cultural attitudes expressed in preferences about tax rates or energy policy or the Waters of the United States regulation but exclusively by something sinister — white supremacy, for example, or bad-faith positions that they were bribed into by scheming corporate bosses acting behind the scenes. For their part, many Republicans believe . . . a lot of absolutely bananas things right now, but also that the Democrats are acting in pursuit of a hidden agenda, probably funded by George Soros, etc. Of course there are white supremacists on the Republican side, just as there are socialists, anti-Semites, and self-described Jacobins on the Democratic side. But as regrettable as that is, such malefactors are not the source of our present discontent.

One would think that Lenin’s superstition — that the ready-made solutions are all there waiting to be implemented, requiring only pure hearts and some political will — would have been dispelled in both parties by their experiences in power. Barack Obama came into office with his party controlling both houses of Congress, but his promise to fundamentally transform the United States came to very little — and exactly the same thing was true of Donald Trump. But, of course, the partisans have an answer for that: “The traitors have infiltrated our operations! Saboteurs and wreckers!”

Thus the We the People vs. the Establishment rhetoric that so completely dominates our politics on both sides of the aisle.

I do not expect the American Left to question the premise that “human action no longer encounters obstacles or limits, only adversaries,” because the American Left is, always has been, and always will be both utopian and juvenile. But an American Right that consistently fails to grapple with reality, as in the case of so many contemporary Republican elected officials and prominent right-wing media voices, is incoherent. It is no longer conservative in any meaningful sense, but, as expressed in the rhetoric of so much of the Right today, self-consciously revolutionary.

Utopianism-in-arms does not have an especially admirable historical record.

Words About Words

I recommend to you Regina King’s terrific new film, One Night in Miami, about a fictitious encounter between Malcolm X, Cassius Clay (as Muhammad Ali was still then known), Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke at the Hampton House in Miami following Clay’s victory over Sonny Liston. It is currently on Amazon. The film, King’s first as a director, is based on Kemp Powers’s play of the same name, which I wish I had had an opportunity to see.

The four men embody four great American archetypes: Malcolm X the puritan, Jim Brown the stoic, Sam Cooke the mogul, and Cassius Clay the huckster. It is a wonderfully written and enormously intelligent film and full of lively language. The English actor Kingsley Ben-Adir is particularly fine in his portrayal of Malcolm X as a wounded idealist. Eli Goree does what can be done in the impossible position of portraying Cassius Clay.

The film gives some attention to Clay’s decision to change his name when joining the Nation of Islam. At first, he is called Cassius X but, in the end, becomes Muhammad Ali, the name by which we know him. The ritual of taking a new name with a new religious vow is very powerful, and Clay’s rechristening, or I suppose dechristening, as Muhammad Ali is understandable in the context of his time and milieu. But it also is ironic: He exchanged the name of a celebrated abolitionist from his home state of Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay, a founding member of the Republican Party, for the name of one of history’s great slavers. Muhammad Ali of Egypt was an Albanian by ancestry, and his cruel conquest of Sudan was driven in no small part by his desire to possess more slaves.

The name Muhammad Ali was chosen for the boxer by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Perhaps he did not have the Egyptian slave-hunter in mind. There have been other people named Muhammad Ali. And there was a Belgian-American named George Washington, who invented instant coffee.

Some years ago, I was visiting St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, and my tour guide remarked that the alabaster columns had been a gift from Muhammad Ali.

“The real Muhammad Ali,” he hastened to add.

But the great boxer was, for all his showmanship, about as real as they come.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader asks for an opinion on a vs. an in front of words beginning with h. Why an historian but a human being?

The confusion comes from the fact that the relevant variable is not the presence of the letter “h” at the beginning of a word but rather the pronunciation of a vowel sound at the beginning of a word. British people, and some Americans, pronounce historic as ’istoric, hence the an. Likewise, honor would be pronounced the same way if it were spelled onner, so we say and write an honor. But human starts with a definite consonant sound, or rather one of two definite consonant sounds: either the usual hy- or, in some accents, a bare y-, yoo-man, something like Donald Trump’s Queensly yuge.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. It will leave you with a heart full of murder.

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In Closing

The dream of right-wing conspiracy kooks has been shattered in the United States — there was no military intervention resulting in the arrest of hated political enemies. But the dream has come true in Myanmar, the unhappy country formerly known as Burma, where the military has seized power after claiming its preferred political candidates were cheated by election fraud. That so many self-described “patriots” on the right look to such developments with pangs of envy — and there is no sense in denying that this is the case, given recent events — is embarrassing. It is also the reason why the American Right is likely to remain incoherent and ineffective for the foreseeable future. You can have the Constitution, or you can have the coup d’état — you cannot have both, and cooperation between those who insist upon the former and those who desire, with varying degrees of frankness, the latter must be straitly circumscribed, inasmuch as the two factions are pursuing dissimilar and incompatible ends.

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