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Power Corrupts
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Power Corrupts

But not just in the way that you think.

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Dear Reader (including those of you at the Turkish foreign ministry who opt not to throw this in the garbage), 

A quick note for readers before I get started: ♫

A slightly longer note for readers before I get started: It’s come to our attention at The Dispatch that some folks are a little confused about what’s going on. So we’re going to write a FAQ/Explainer thingy over the weekend. In the meantime, here’s the short version. We’re still putting things together. There’s plaster dust everywhere. We’re still putting the kennels together for the intern pens. What you’re reading right now is the Goldberg File, a newsletter (“news”letter, to be more accurate) that I’ve been writing for a long time. The other product we put out right now is The Morning Dispatch, which appears three times a week and is a collaborative effort run by Steve Hayes that tries to report and analyze events in a way that doesn’t waste your time. We’ll be adding more newsletters (and perhaps a podcast or two) between now and January, when we launch the full website. Everything is free right now. And once the site is up, members will be able to select which newsletters they want to receive and which they don’t. If you want to know where we’re coming from editorially—the “vision thing,” as Poppa Bush used to say—please read our mission statement here.

Okay, let’s get started.

Jews in Space

Imagine a giant spaceship parked over D.C.’s skyline. It disgorges a shuttle craft that lands on the White House lawn. It’s big news. MSNBC breaks away from coverage of an Adam Schiff press conference, and One America News even interrupts its gauzy video of the Young Trump League taking in record wheat harvests under the approving gaze of Comrade Trump.

All eyes are on the shuttle craft doors as they open. If Hollywood is right, there’s a lot of technologically unnecessary dry ice mist and Technicolor strobe lighting. Down the ramp comes an extraterrestrial, but instead of a reptilian creature with tentacles whirling or a body-waxed humanoid with ridges on its forehead, it’s just a yarmulke-wearing Jewish guy in a corduroy jacket carrying a canvas beach bag full of bagels and the New York Times. Long story short, it turns out there’s a planet not far from here that is populated entirely by utterly recognizable, technologically and militarily advanced Jews. Apparently, one of the ten lost tribes of Israel made it to another Class M planet and created a high-tech Shaker Heights, with better delis and a population of a couple billion people.

I’ve written about this scenario before, because I think it’s fun and funny to think about what would happen next. After all, in an instant, our politics would change. Needless to say, Israel would be pretty psyched, and the subscription department of Commentary magazine would literally plotz. On the other hand, there would probably be some very tense meetings in Tehran. “Did we say, ‘death to Israel!’? We meant ‘Good Health to Israel!’ L’Chaim!” Over at the EU and the UN, paper shredders would start to hum, and Jeremy Corbyn would look up from his iPad to a suddenly empty room.

Power Ranging

What’s my point? Power changes how people think. If you read my book, The Tyranny of Clichés, you’d know I’m kind of obsessed with the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The conventional interpretation of this quote is that power tends to go to peoples’ heads, and they start seeing the rules as being only good for the little people.  It’s a staple plot device of everything from high school dramedies to The Godfather and The Man Who Would Be King.

 The actual quote comes from Lord Acton. He certainly agreed with the conventional interpretation—because he was, as they say in Boston, wicked smaht, and because there’s obviously a lot of truth to it. But if you read the actual letter that it comes from, Acton was making a more subtle point. He was observing that intellectuals—specifically historians—tend to make allowances for powerful people they wouldn’t make for anybody else. In a letter to a historian friend writing about the papacy, Acton wrote:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely….There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Again, Acton was talking about historians, but I think this insight has all sorts of applications

The Sino-Suck-Up Pact

For instance: What do you think would happen to the anti-Israel BDS movement if that massive space ship parked over Washington? No doubt many would hold onto their anti-Semitism. But I suspect dues would dry up, and there would be a lot more leftover donuts at the meetings.

Now, imagine that China had the size and population of Israel. In this scenario, it’s not the only Chinese homeland in the world, created in the wake of genocidal program to eliminate the Han Chinese. It’s just a little country called China. Do you think the NBA would be continuously stepping on its collective Johnson like Mick Mulvaney admitting a quid pro quo?

When LeBron James says that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Moley “wasn’t educated on the situation” in Hong Kong, what lacuna of information or knowledge do you think Lebron has in mind? The most charitable and best guess I can make is that LeBron thinks Moley didn’t realize how much the Chinese government would freak out, threatening a lot of lucrative contracts.

LeBron says he’s not making a judgement on the substance of the tweet, he’s just criticizing the fact that Moley stirred up a bunch of trouble. Well, people have a natural tendency to think annoying the powerful is a bigger deal than annoying the weak, particularly when those people have a vested interest in being liked by the powerful.

China is doing evil things that the international community, progressive elites, and organizations like the NBA would never tolerate from a smaller, weaker, and yes, poorer country. You think the NBA would promote exhibition games in the Netherlands if the Dutch government was putting Muslims in reeducation camps and tearing down mosques?

It’s totally legitimate for journalists and other critics to follow the money in the NBA story. But too often, people invest more importance in money than in power. Money is often a manifestation of power, but power is more versatile, and often more desirable, than mere money. We’re far more wired to care about status than money, because money is relatively new, while status—and status-seeking—is baked into our DNA. Lots of people are driven more for a desire for fame than money. And what a lot of rich people like most about their money isn’t the stuff they can buy, but the status and power the stuff confers.

The Trump Dynasty

Joseph Schumpeter observed that entrepreneurs are often defined by “the will to found a private kingdom, usually, though not necessarily, also a dynasty.” That’s always stuck with me, because I think many people are wired to want to be Big Men (or Women). And from the Agricultural Revolution until the Enlightenment, the way this desire manifested itself was to be some sort of ruler, either a king, emperor, or some miniature version of one—a Duke, Baron, Shogun, or some other chieftain of some fiefdom. With the end of the Divine Right of Kings, that drive started to manifest itself in other, more productive and peaceful ways. But the drive is still there, whether you’re a college president or a bureaucratic poohbah. Power is tasty because our brains evolved a sweet tooth for it. And in countries without the rule of law and cultural constraints on such ambition, you can see societies revert to these older models. As I keep saying, the best example is North Korea, where the Divine Right of Kings was only slighted updated to the Divine Right of Kims.

Even though the intellectual arguments behind the early 20th century epithet “Robber Baron” were shoddy and often dishonest, the term had political power because the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Gettys, et al. did seem to want to recreate aristocracy through the accumulation of wealth and political power. People knew what FDR meant by “economic royalists.” Not only is there a natural human desire for hierarchy based on status and power, but we also often want our kids to inherit our status. That’s how the idea of “noble blood” was born. The rich and powerful believed their status was conferred by God—or the gods or Nature—and therefore it was heritable.

One of the great and glorious things about American culture is that we have antibodies that fight this recrudescent aspect of human nature. But we’re not immune. We tend to be far more forgiving of the dynasties we agree with. So, for example, the Kennedy cult endures at a low simmer with the occasional flare-up—like a case of herpes. We care more about the Kardashians than reason alone can explain.

My friend and former colleague Kevin Williamson has written quite a bit on how Trump seems obsessed with casting himself as a modern aristocrat. There’s his obsession with the name Baron—which he took for himself when he pretended to be “John Baron,” and which he gave to his youngest son. There’s the Louis XIV furnishings of his Trump Tower aerie. He stole the family seal of another family and made it his own. And he hangs it everywhere. And, of course, there’s the way he treats his other children as princelings.

The reason Trump’s character fits like a square peg in the round hole of the office created by the Founders is that he thinks like a monarch. He sees no meaningful distinction between his personal needs and the needs of the nation. Disloyalty to him, as he so often suggests, is treason to the Nation. Just as kings believed their wisdom was absolute because God had ordained it so, Trump believes his instincts are superior to the judgements of his advisers or anybody else. And to question his decisions is an affront to the myths that sustain him.

When Trump ran for president, he famously said that he spent his life being greedy for himself and now he wants to be greedy for America. It was a good line. And if you believed his promises to forgo personal greed—including a greediness for attention and fame—it was probably reassuring.

The problem is that turned out to be a lie, even if he believed it in the moment, as he always does. He may think giving to his own charity absolves him from criticism. And it is a nice gesture—like a king giving the leftovers from a feast to the peasants. But it’s just a gesture.

That’s why his decision—and spare me Mick Mulvaney’s claims that this decision was made on the merits—to hold the G7 summit at Doral is so typical and typically appalling. It’s being sold on the basis that this is a kingly prerogative, and we should all be grateful he is doing us this favor.

But the interesting part is that Trump hasn’t been corrupted by power. His character is unchanged. This is the same man we elected. No, what’s remarkable is the corruption of so many around him, both literally and figuratively. Four years ago, if you described the facts of just the last month—the betrayal of the Kurds, the self-dealing of Doral, the skullduggery of the Ukraine affair, etc.—people like Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, and so many of my friends in the ranks of Trump praetorians would be aghast. But they’ve bent their standards to the new Standard-Bearer.

In my syndicated column today, I wrote about the role integrity plays in finance and life: “integrity lowers the price of capital.”

I really liked the column, though it makes me sad that the basic point I make would not only have been obvious to conservatives twenty years ago, as it was basically at the heart of our civic dogma and best social science. Today, for many, it’s an annoying criticism by someone who refuses to get with the program. The amazing thing is that none of the arguments for Trump offered by the “post-liberals,” the Flight 93 Claremonters, the new nationalists, and everyone else can be reconciled with what Trump did with Doral. If Trump had embraced a policy of eschewing even the appearance of self-dealing, cronyism, and nepotism, they would cite it as a sign of his integrity and good character. But because he goes a different way, they ignore it or make allowances for it as if it were a king’s divine prerogative, like prima nocte.

No wonder, then, that when Donald Trump stole a family crest to hang at his Scottish golf clubs he did make one “improvement.” He replaced “Integritas” with Trump. And so have a lot of other people.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Pippa and Zoë love fall and, it seems, they love each other more than ever. They’re playing together constantly, which is just plain adorable. They’ve come a long way from the days when Zoë wanted to kill the spaniel-interloper, and it makes me very happy. Meanwhile, while Zoë may have come to embrace the Pipster as a member of the pack, she still sees other dogs in her domain as enemies. Warning: If you play this video loudly, your own dogs and cats may respond poorly.  

Also unprecedented: We had a grand slam of treat giving, with all four of the Goldberg Quadrupeds showing up this morning. Note: Ralph, a.k.a. “my wife’s cat,” still needed to be fed by the Fair Jessica.

In other news, I’ll be at Marist College on October 23.

If you want a deep dive on the situation in the Middle East, check out the latest Remnant with Ken Pollack. (Note to hecklers: I disagree somewhat with Ken’s take on the Iran deal, but we talked about that last time so I figured it wasn’t worth getting back into all of that again.)


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.