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Playing the Position vs. Playing the Man
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Playing the Position vs. Playing the Man

Two different ways of navigating the Trump era.

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Dear Reader (including Roger Stone, who will now have time to catch up on past editions of this “news”letter),

“Not as outlandish as it could be.”

If the Sweet Meteor of Death ever took its appointment calendar seriously, that would be a pretty good coda for the grand symphony of asininity that has been the soundtrack of our lives these last few years.

It was a comment from the GOP’s lawyer defending the weird off-book diplomacy being run by Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland.

I should note that this is not typically the sort of defense presidents are looking for. The SNL skit sort of writes itself:

“Mr. Taylor, would you agree that if Rudy Giuliani had dressed like Liberace and brought a monkey butler dressed like a pirate to all of his meetings, that would have been more outlandish than what he actually did?”

“I…yes, but….”

 “Thank you. Now, Mr. Kent, do you see this?” 

“Um, yes. 

“What is it?” 

“I’m not sure I know the word for it.”

“Well, let me help you out. It’s called a ‘scold’s bridle’—also acceptable ‘witches bridle’  or ‘gossip’s bridle’—and it dates back to the 1500s in Scotland and England. It’s was a form of punishment for people who talked too much or said things they weren’t supposed to. Did Mr. Giuliani ask you to wear such a device?” 

“Um, no.”

“If he had, would that have been more outlandish than what he did do?” 

“I suppose so, yes.” 

“Nothing further, Mr. Chairman.”

The Next Chapter

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column stating what was already obvious to most attentive people: The president did it. He’s guilty. The quicker he moved to admitting it and apologizing for it in some way, the sooner he could put this whole thing behind him. For Team Trump, the only truly intellectually and politically defensible position on all of this is: “It was a mistake, but it’s not worth impeaching him over it.” Trump wouldn’t have to confess to the Democrats’ “bribery” interpretation. He could just say something like, “I realize now that it looked bad, but my intentions were good.”

I may think that’s a lie. But as a matter of political analysis, it’s a sellable lie. It’s also a lie that would allow Republicans to defend the president more ably without sacrificing their credibility or harming their own electoral chances. I particularly enjoyed it when people told me that I should read Andy McCarthy to understand what’s really going on, despite the fact that I had favorably quoted Andy in the column and agreed with much of his analysis.  

Anyway, it won’t shock anybody that when I wrote that, lots of people got very angry with me. Many also couldn’t get their head around the possibility that a harsh critic of Trump (me) could also manage to offer political advice that would be in the president’s best interest. That’s one of the funny things about motivated reasoning. If you suffer from it, you assume everyone else does as well. Similarly, if you’re a grifter or a spinner or a rabble-rouser, it’s hard for you to understand that other people might not be.

(I remember having a conversation with Dick Morris in which he asked me what I had “going on.” I told him what I was working on—an article, maybe a book, etc. And he kept saying, no, no, what projects do I have in the works? We went round and round on this for a bit, not understanding each other, until I finally explained that I wasn’t working on anything involving raising money from people for my own personal profit. I had no PACs, no side deals, etc. His reaction was mild bemusement.)

Where was I? Oh, right: admitting the obvious. Trump did it, and I honestly question either the honesty or intelligence of anyone who denies this. People can disagree on how bad it was (or even if it was bad at all), whether it is impeachable, etc. But if you’re still saying the phone call was “perfect” or that there was no pressure or quid pro quo, I don’t see the point in listening to you about anything Trump-related.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, to say “I told you so” to all the haters, as more and more Republicans and commentators move to precisely this view, as I predicted they would. And second, to make another obvious prediction: In the next phase—assuming no new bombshell facts are revealed—many Republicans will argue that impeachment is punishment enough. It’s akin to censure, and that should do the trick. Being just the third president impeached is a stain on his legacy that will sting.

It’s an entirely reasonable argument—indeed, many Democrats made it on Bill Clinton’s behalf 20 years ago (it was also close to my position; I was for impeachment but much less certain about removal). And both Democrats and Republicans would probably be smart to make it again, albeit for different reasons. Since there’s almost no chance of the Senate’s removing Trump, falling back on a “we meant to do that” argument will make things easier for Democrats and allow them to move on as quickly as possible. For Republicans, the line will be, or should be, “Look, I didn’t favor impeachment, but what’s done is done. The House expressed its will, on a partisan basis (insert fist pounding nonsense here). Now it’s time to leave all of this to the American people.”

Playing the Position vs. Playing the Man

One of the most interesting contrasts of the Trump era is between John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. They highlight two archetypes of Republicans in the age of Trump. I think of them as playing a position vs. playing the man (even though it’s not a perfect sports metaphor). Both men took their jobs to get things done, to be in the mix, to enhance their political positions, and all that. But Bolton had ideas, agendas, principles, etc. that were more important than being a Trumper or being seen as a Trump loyalist. He wanted nothing to do with Giuliani’s “drug deal.” He opposed the holding up of aid to Ukraine. We’ll no doubt learn more when his book comes out, but it’s obvious that he prioritized the policies he believed in. Oh, I have no doubt there were compromises and humiliating moments of suck-uppery. But the truth of it is still clear.

As for Pompeo, he plays the man. He’s been willing to lie and compromise for Trump in ways Bolton wouldn’t. I’m sure he’s tried to steer the president away from all kinds of mistakes behind the scenes. But, when push comes to shove, he puts the president’s cult of personality—and perhaps the hope of inheriting his mantle—ahead of everything else. All of this Ukraine stuff has happened because Secretary of State Pompeo allowed it to happen under his nose. He may not have liked whatever drug deal Giuliani was cooking up, but he lacked either the will, the ability, or the courage to stop it.

Ultimately, it’s the difference between two kinds of people. There’s those who—for whatever reason—start from the view, at least publicly, that Trump is right and then reverse-engineer their arguments to fit what he did. And then there’s those who may praise or flatter Trump, or excuse his behavior, but do so in pursuit of something more important to them.

These two styles can be found all over the GOP and Trump world generally. Mitch McConnell plays the position. Lindsay Graham plays the man. Matt Gaetz is a Trump man no matter what. Liz Cheney plays her position.  Tucker Carlson for the most part tries to play the position but Sean Hannity definitely plays the man. Neal Cavuto is a position guy. Lou Dobbs is almost literally high on Trump’s musk. Mulvaney was a position guy, but he seems to have crossed over. (The same is true of Elise Stefanik, who has shocked a lot of people in Washington by seemingly deciding to follow in Jim Jordan’s footsteps when it was totally unnecessary for her politically.)

Mike Pence wants the world to think there is no contradiction between these two orientations, which is why it is so painful to have the sound on when his lips are moving these days.

I think this distinction is useful for everybody interested in this fecal festival. For the audience at home, the best Trump defenders are the position-players, for the simple reason that you know they’re not going to start from the premise that Trump is always right. But for the audience at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the best Trump defenders are the ones who insist that the world has never seen a genius like Donald Trump’s. A lot of elected Republicans need more than the Trump base, so for them condemning the impeachment “process” was the safest play. That was a play-the-position move. But Trump keeps yelling at people that they should defend him on the substance—i.e., start playing the man.

This explains the weird compromise: Exaggerate how unfair the process is beyond all sanity or reason (David French wrote about this yesterday, and I did too in my column). You can curry favor with Trump by pretending this is a “coup,” “an inquisition,” an “attack on democracy” etc.  It’s none of those things. But only through these exaggerations can you ingratiate yourself to Trump by making this all seem so much more unfair than it is (and we all know Trump passionately believes in the principle of fairness).

And that brings us to where we started. So long as Trump insists the call was perfect and he did absolutely nothing wrong, playing the man means hemorrhaging credibility outside the Trump base. (And honestly, I don’t think it necessarily always helps there. Trump likes to make his defenders into beta males and supplicants and his fans eat that stuff up. How many of the MAGA hatters at Trump rallies really admire Pence or see him as a manly figure these days?) And playing the position leaves you saying things like this isn’t as outlandish as it could be.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: I haven’t seen the dogs much this week because between going to Spain, Madison, and Vegas, I just haven’t been home much (I’m on a flight home right now). But I did get a nice welcome from them when I got home from Spain right up until the moment the girls realized, “Mom’s home!? Get out of my way!” And we put in some good work for WaggleWednesday and I paid Zoë some back pay scritch-wise (Pippa and Gracie got theirs too).

Unfortunately, there’s something about the fall that has inspired Pippa to roll in foulness quite a bit lately. Our theory is that it has something to do with deer mating season. But I don’t know how exactly that would work.  She also has a grave sense of entitlement that humans are supposed to throw things for her. On that front, I have exciting news for her. The kids at Madison’s YAF chapter gave me some University of Wisconsin tennis balls for her. Sadly, they didn’t have a present for Zoë. On the other hand, if they had given me an equivalent present for Zoë, I don’t think I could have persuaded TSA that my live squirrel was an emotional support animal.


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.