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Critical Trump Theory
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Critical Trump Theory

Many on the right have embraced the idea that the system is rigged against the former president.

FormerPresident Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, New Jersey, on June 13, 2023. Trump appeared in court in Miami for an arraignment regarding 37 federal charges regarding his mishandling of classified material after leaving office. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (especially any of you with insight into Joe Biden’s “God save the queen, man” signoffs),

Let’s start with this pardon talk (feel free to skip this section if you want the angrier stuff). 

Lots of people I respect—and many I don’t—are already making the case that Donald Trump should—eventually—be pardoned. Rich Lowry thinks so. As does my colleague Sarah Isgur. GOP presidential candidates are already being grilled on the question of a pardon. Nikki Haley says she’d be “inclined” to pardon him if convicted. Vivek Ramaswamy, Trump’s class beadle, wants everyone to sign his pledge to pardon him. 

Lowry and Isgur make the case from a high-minded and defensible desire for the greater good. Pardoning Trump, like Ford’s pardon of Nixon, “has a chance of sapping some of the poison out of the system,” Lowry writes. 

I’ve even made a similar argument for Biden pardoning Trump. But the hitch I’ve always added is that Trump would first need to admit wrongdoing and abandon any effort to run for public office again. 

Heck, since we’re all just fantasizing here, my ideal scenario would be for me to win Powerball. In addition to that, it would be for Biden to extract this highfalutin plea deal from Trump and then decide not to run again himself. This would be an act of real statesmanship, a profile in courage far greater than Ford’s—which even Ford believed cost him the election. The reason Biden should announce he’s not running is obvious—and I don’t just mean because he shouldn’t run again anyway. If he preemptively pardoned Trump, he’d invite serious primary challenges that would cost him reelection even if he stayed in the race. Better to take one for the team and leave the stage a hero. More important, taking Trump off the board would seem like “election interference.” Refusing to run would eliminate that complaint. 

After all, the only real rationale for Biden to run again—according to many liberals—is to keep Trump from being president again. If he could get that accomplished without running again, he’d gut the case for his reelection, but he’d also go down in history as a self-sacrificing patriot. 

I get the arguments against this. But I think the risks of Trump being reelected and the risks of a second Trump presidency are so high, it’s far better for Biden to take a page from Fox’s Dominion strategy and cut a deal now. 

But all of that is a different argument from any of the ones being mooted right now. It’s important to note that the case for a pardon pushed by Vivek the Beadle Ramaswamy and the talk radio right is very different from the one contemplated by Lowry and Isgur. 

The MAGA case for pardoning Trump rests on the bogus claim that the indictment is outrageous and illegitimate. That’s nonsense. Meanwhile, as Lowry and Isgur both concede, going by the evidence we have, Trump’s is pretty obviously guilty. In other words, the high-minded argument for a pardon would let Trump off the hook for the good of the country. The dumb case for a pardon is that it would be a rebuke of the justice system for daring to try to hold Trump accountable at all. 

I agree with Mike Pence that all of this pardon talk is wildly premature and I think he should be praised for saying so. But if I were him—or any of the other candidates—I’d twist the knife more. I’d say that I’d be open to pardoning Trump, after the process is allowed to play out and he’s found guilty. But, of course, I’d expect Trump to show contrition—as DOJ guidelines and tradition call for. If found guilty, he must apologize for his wrongdoing and fully admit to the scope of his crimes. Surely, Trump is man enough to admit when he’s wrong, particularly if he’s going to ask for a pardon, which is an act of forgiveness. And surely, if Trump cares about America and draining the poison from our politics, that would be a small price to pay. 

This gets at the fundamental dysfunction of Republican politics today. According to both Trump and his defenders, any misfortunes he encounters are the fault of others. He is blameless. His every wrong is right. This is the lie in every Trump controversy from the Access Hollywood tape to his two impeachments and everything in between. 

Systemic anti-Trumpism.

Take a step back and look at the fundamentals of the pro-Trump arguments in nearly all of these chapters. Trump violates norms and the immediate conclusion is that the norms are wrong. Trump says or does something outrageous and the blame lies in those who are outraged. The institutions—law enforcement, Congress, the media—that try to hold Trump accountable are at fault. 

What you are seeing is a novel form of critical theory, call it “structural anti-Trumpism.”

The irony is delicious. For years now, the right has been denouncing “structural racism” and similar notions as antithetical to American values. For what it’s worth, depending on the specifics, I agree with many of those denunciations. 

But what is the core argument of “structural” or “systemic” or “institutional” racism as deployed by the left in everyday political combat? It’s that our society is so saturated with bigotry that it is impossible for black people to get justice so it’s better we not even try (similar arguments are made for women, gays, and other members of the coalition of the oppressed). Better we “defund the police” than risk compounding racial injustice. Progressive prosecutors would rather turn a blind eye to crimes than put another black man in jail, regardless of how guilty he is. The system is irredeemable. 

Amazingly, many on the right have embraced this logic when it comes to Trump. According to the Critical Trumpist Theorists, it’s long been obvious that the electoral system is rigged against him. The proof? He lost. And any contest Trump loses must be rigged. Polling too, is saturated with anti-Trump bias. But virtually every institution and individual not firmly pro-Trump is now systemically anti-Trump. When then-Attorney General William Barr told Trump the election fraud stuff was “bullsh-t,” his boss replied, “You must hate Trump.” Indeed, structural anti-Trumpism explains why Trump speaks of himself in the third person so often. He is a concept, an abstraction, and opposition to him is the ghost in the machine of the system. Some of his defenders sound like Ibram X Kendi. Neutrality on Trump is not enough, you must be either anti-anti-Trump or pro-Trump. 

Again, I have profound disagreements with critical race theory, but at least the arguments for CRT rest on centuries of actual racism, from slavery to Jim Crow. The problem with CRT is not that it is wrong about everything, but that it thinks it’s right about everything. I don’t think CRT radicals are right about the need to tear down all of our institutions and the rule of law, but I can understand why they feel that way. What I can’t understand is why you’d feel that way for the benefit of Donald Trump. 

The real culture of losing. 

A while back, Ron DeSantis started talking about how the GOP “must reject the culture of losing that has infected our party in recent years.” 

As far as I can tell, he never spelled out exactly what he meant. But most people reasonably assume it was one of his patented passive aggressive attacks on Donald Trump. 

Obviously, DeSantis has a point. 

Embracing Trump and Trumpism cost Republicans dearly. In 2018, the GOP lost 41 seats in the House. It was an entirely predictable—and widely predicted—event, fairly normal for any president in his first term, but all the more so given the chaos of Trump’s first two years. 

Trump had a different take. He said the GOP lost control of the House because Republicans from vulnerable, purplish districts, refused his “embrace.” 

He called many out by name—Mike Coffman, Mia Love, Barbara Comstock, et al—gloatingly insisting that if they’d only embraced Trump or accepted his embrace, they’d have won. “Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost.  Too bad.  Sorry about that, Mia.” 

This is part of the culture of losing. 

In 2020, Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden. In response, Trump incepted into the minds of his fans the structurally anti-Trumpist idea that the election was rigged. He invited hordes of grifters and shrieking banshees to amplify the claim as he tried to steal the election. One result of that manifestly unpatriotic effort was to convince Republicans that there was no reason to investigate why they lost—because the official Republican position was that they didn’t lose. 

That’s the culture of losing, too. 

In the special runoff election in Georgia for two Senate seats, Trump’s lies took on a life of their own. Some of his allies told Republicans not to vote. “Do not be fooled twice. This is Georgia, we ain’t dumb. We’re not going to go vote on January 5th on another machine made by China,” Lin Wood declared. “Why would you go back and vote in another rigged election? For God’s sake, fix it. You got to fix it before we’ll do it again.”

Both Republican candidates lost winnable seats and handed the Senate to the Democrats. 

Culture of losing, again. 

In 2022, Republicans should have taken back both the House and Senate. Biden was unpopular. Leading Republicans, including Kevin McCarthy, promised a “red tsunami,” not just a “red wave.” But, because Trump prioritized candidates who sucked-up to him, all of his preferred supplicant Senate candidates lost, save for J.D. Vance. 

This is what Ron DeSantis is getting at, I think. Though because of the culture of losing—let’s give it a nice German compound name, die Verlustkultur—spelling out what you mean is verboten. You have to hint, lest you offend the delicate flowers who can’t stomach the idea Trump is the problem, not the solution. 

The fundamental flaw with DeSantis’ version of the “culture of losing” isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s that it’s superficial. He’s right that there’s “no substitute for victory,” but he’s largely making that case because he’s a politician who thinks there’s no substitute for his victory. There’s nothing wrong with that. Candidates are supposed to want to win. 

But losing elections isn’t the die Verlustkultur, it is the result of it. 

My friend Andrew Breitbart liked to say that “politics is downstream of culture.” Some even call it, “The Breitbart Doctrine.” 

But Andrew was merely paraphrasing Daniel Patrick Moynihan who famously said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

Moynihan was right. But the principle can work in reverse, too. Politics can also change a culture in a negative way, and ruin itself. Moynihan understood this, which is why he actually cared about policy (even if he didn’t always vote as if he did). 

The political right has convinced itself that winning is a sign of failure. The system is so rigged against “us” that if you win, it must be the result of some sinful capitulation. Losing is proof that you are pure, that you stuck to your principles. Winning is appeasement. Success is proof you sold out. These people are caught in a mobius strip of dysfunction, a non-falsifiable worldview that basks in the idea that they are heroes because they lose. 

In Suicide of the West, I wrote at great length that the thing poisoning our culture is romanticism: The neo-Rousseauian cults of identity and authenticity, the idea that civilization is corrupt and corrupting, that progress is decay and retrogression to tribalism is a form of moral renewal are tearing our country apart. I now regret that I didn’t explore how so many politicians of the right want to be both Byronic and tragic heroes. They want to play by their own rules, their own code. And they want to lose in their quest to prove the righteousness of their effort. 

Just look at the House Freedom Caucus. They recently undercut Kevin McCarthy’s debt-ceiling deal with Biden—widely, and rightly, seen as a win for McCarthy—because a partial victory turned to ash in their mouths, feeling like a total failure. Remember Jim DeMint saying he’d rather have 30 real conservatives in the Senate than 60 moderates? I get the point he was trying to make. But underlying it was the romantic notion that he’d rather lose all the time in righteous displays of purity than occasionally win. Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that he’d rather be king of a rump GOP than an important player in a majority party that isn’t his personal cult of personality. 

The right was flirting with victimology long before Trump came down the escalator eight years ago today. But Trump pushed it from the fringe to the center of GOP politics. And a lot of opportunistic activists and intellectuals seized the moment to craft a whole philosophy to go with the die Verlustkultur. All of the civil war and secession talk is the product of a fatalistic worldview that the system is permanently rigged against them. Better to take your ball and run home than not win every play. Rather than work within the constitutional order and occasionally lose some fights, many on the new right want to scrap the constitutional order itself. They call for “regime change” because they can’t have their way. 

Many of these ideas were lurking in the dark corners all along. But Trump brought them into the light. And he did so not by embracing a culture of losing but by creating a cult of lying. That’s the amazing thing about all of these people prattling about how much better the pre-modern world was: They’re all post-modernists, thinking that words are magic. They aren’t merely labels for reality, they’re tools to reimagine reality as they’d want it. 

At the heart of every passionate defense of Trump is a lie. Some are small, some are large. But they all depend on some fundamental distortion of reality. He’s a genius. He’s a patriot. He’s loyal. He’s decent, innocent, heroic, wise, honest. These are all lies. 

Liberalism, science, and civilization depend on truth. Facts are the bricks upon which all real progress depends. You can say it’s possible to build a skyscraper from straw, but it will collapse if you try. But you can build a worldview out of lies, so long as you avoid testing it against reality. Vladimir Putin believed his own lies, but reality answered with facts in the form of corpses. 

What DeSantis calls the culture of losing is merely the political consequence of the lies poisoning the groundwater of the right and our broader culture. And his refusal to tell the full truth about Trump shows how powerful that dysfunction is. Large swaths of the right like to be lied to. They want Fox to “respect the audience.” They want to believe that Trump is innocent and heroic and all that stands between them and total victory are the corrupt forces telling them truths they don’t want to hear. The only remedy to lies is truth and the only lasting cure to the culture of losing is refusing to accommodate the lies. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Everyone is fine. Technical problems kept me from getting a welcoming committee video upon my return from our great event in Houston (lots of folks were disappointed I didn’t bring the beasts with me). But the beasts were happy to see me, even though I failed to bring home some special meat products like they hoped. Not much to report really. Though Kirsten did finally succeed in getting some rare mutual pooch smooching on “film.” Also, Clover and Pippa continue to look like they got into the edibles again. The Fair Jessica’s treat videos always invite invidious comparisons to my own.

This Sunday is Father’s Day but my daughter left for Alaska this week. Still she left me a very nice hand-drawn card as per tradition. Some people were put off by the fact that she was inspired by a Father’s Day card she saw at the store. But she was honest about it and I didn’t care. Maybe lighten up.

Also, in keeping with Father’s Day, here’s my eulogy to my Dad, the Hop Bird. I can’t believe it was 18 years ago.

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.