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Something Short of Tragic
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Something Short of Tragic

Figures like Donald Trump reap the rewards for pursuing vice over virtue.

Former President Donald Trump. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images)


I wrote my Los Angeles Times column on the sadness of Donald Trump’s life right now. I won’t reprise the whole thing here. I just want to use it as a jumping-off point. 

While I find Trump’s existence pitiable these days, I can’t really muster much actual pity in the technical sense. Pity involves notions of compassion and sorrow for another’s misfortune, and there are few people in public life I’m less inclined to allocate such feelings for. Even on issues where I am nominally on his side, I think he deserves all of the trouble he has invited upon himself. 

For instance, I do not think Congress should make his tax returns public because I think punitively releasing tax returns is a bad practice, even when done against people I think have it coming. 

This is a liberal—in the classical sense—point. I have no sympathy for murderers whose procedural rights have been violated by police or prosecutors, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s okay for the state to break the rules when it comes to guilty people. Conversely, I have a great deal of sympathy for the desperate migrants at the southern border, but that doesn’t mean I think we should throw all immigration laws aside. Rules matter. And they matter the most in the hard cases because it’s always easy to apply the rules in easy cases. 

Donald Trump lied over and over again about his tax returns. He said he’d release them, then didn’t, claiming he couldn’t because he was being audited. He probably lied about the audit; he certainly lied that being audited prevented him from releasing them. He broke all sorts of rules—admittedly informal rules, but rules nonetheless—and as we’ve seen over and over again, when one “side” breaks the rules, it gives the other “side” psychological permission to break other rules in response. Trump invited the predicament he’s in. He wants the rules to benefit him, never to bind him. I’m willing to defend the rules, but not the conduct that invited the rule-breaking.

That’s one of the sources of his pitiable plight. There are rules to friendship that he has never observed or felt bound by. He is, by his own telling, a man without real friends. He knows famous and powerful people, and likes to use them in various ways—for flattery, publicity, status, bragging rights, sex, or financial benefit. But these relationships are all transactional. He may feel betrayed when these FINOs (friends in name only) act in ways not in his interest, but that’s what you get when you use people as instruments of your ambition; they end up using you, too. And that sense of betrayal is sad because it’s evidence he doesn’t understand what actual friendship is. 

The Pursuit of Happiness 

The more I think about it, the real sources of happiness come from different forms of identity. I don’t mean identity in the political jargon sense, but in the real-world sense of the different facets of the person you are. The more roles you have in life, the richer your life will be. Think about the different parts you play, starting with family: husband or wife, father or mother, daughter or husband, brother or sister. Then there are your friendships from different phases of your life or different aspects of your current life: high school, college, old jobs and current ones, neighbors, your kids’ friends’ parents, church, mosque or synagogue, bowling league, cigar shop, whatever. 

In all of these realms, you’re a somewhat different person, shaped by different shared experiences and different sets of obligations, institutional or otherwise. Every husband is one person to their wife and another to their buddy at the bar. Every daughter is different with their mother than with their sister or roommate. 

Ideally, you’re not a completely different person in every different context. There needs to be some moral or characterological core that holds relatively constant. Maybe that core is what we mean by integrity.  

I might be wrong about the source of happiness, but I think the lack of these different kinds of identity is a great source of unhappiness. If your only source of identity is who you are at work, or school, or on Saturday nights with your friends, you’ll eventually discover that’s not enough. Saturday Night You will not only have six other days of the week to contend with, but eventually your friends will find other sources of meaning and identity that outrank Saturday saturnalia. Most of us know this kind of person, in my experience usually men, who feel betrayed by buddies who start prioritizing work, or marriage, or fatherhood over keeping the good times rolling. Living for the weekend is great for a while, but it’s not actually a life. 

The larger point is that a rich and satisfying life involves checking a lot of boxes, not checking the same box over and over again until the combination of the ink and the pressure punches through the paper of your checklist. Moreover, some of these boxes require subordinating yourself to something greater than yourself. Virtually all meaningful institutions demand some sacrifice of yourself and your immediate wants to the greater good of the institution. The family is the first and most obvious example of this. You can’t be a good father or husband, mother or wife, if you expect your family to always put your needs first. But it’s also true of every remotely significant institution I can think of, from the military to Congress to softball teams. In some institutions you can be the leader who shines by example or authority. But in other institutions you have to be at peace with being a follower if you’re going to get anything out of it. Not every parishioner can be the pastor, not every employee can be the boss. 

The pursuit of happiness is not trod on a single road, but on many roads that branch out from you like spokes on a wheel. 

Trump and Reno

I’ve been thinking about this stuff a lot for a while, but two articles called it to mind. The first was Olyvia Nuzzi’s profile of Trump alone at Mar a Lago, surrounded by an entourage of sycophants, mystified and depressed by the fact that his FINOs have abandoned him. The saddest thing about the man is he can’t understand the sources of his own sadness. 

The other article was this essay by R.R. Reno over at First Things. Long-time readers might recall that I am not a big fan of Reno—nor he of me. When my book Suicide of the West came out, he proclaimed that “Jonah Goldberg exemplifies the decadence and dysfunction of today’s public discourse.” It was a dumb and dishonest review, as I wrote here. What bothered me most was Reno and his coterie were among those intellectuals who welcomed the arrival of Donald Trump as a curative to our political decadence rather than recognize it as the apotheosis of it. 

Which is why I found his latest essay so ironic.  He begins by saying “Capitalism is best understood as the modern ambition to order and value all available resources solely on the basis of market principles.”

This, of course, is not true (as my friend David Bahnsen demonstrates in his response). But even if it were true, such a claim doesn’t do what he would like. As I wrote at length in my decadent book, capitalism is great for the things capitalism is great for. But I know of no serious capitalist who favors leaving every question to the market. I agree—and, again, wrote at great length in the book he apparently didn’t read—that the family is not a market institution (even though the market depends on families) and should not be treated as such. 

More broadly, contemporary society is drenched in examples of political combatants—on both sides—prioritizing things other than market efficiency. The environmental movement, for good and ill, is a response to capitalism and Americans are fine with taking chunks of our natural resources off the market. The culture wars are not about capitalist efficiency. Arguments about elections, civil rights, etc. all touch on market concerns but they aren’t about capitalism per se. 

But whatever the problem with contemporary society is, Reno sees the market as the villain. For instance, later in the essay, he makes a very good point that “sports mania” has led to a rise in Sunday morning high school sporting events and that this is a major threat to church attendance. He proposes “illiberal” legislative remedies to deal with it. I think that’s entirely defensible and really not particularly illiberal if you understand liberalism in the context of a democratic republic. But I am at a loss as to why capitalism is to blame for such scheduling conflicts. I’m not going to search for examples, but I am fairly confident that many openly socialist and communist nations scheduled athletic events during traditional church-going hours.

The market is superior to any other economic system for allocating economic resources, but it is not perfect and not every resource is purely an economic resource.  That is why people like me who defend capitalism tend to put it at the end of the phrase, “liberal democratic capitalism.”  

I could go on. But what really struck me was how Trump is precisely the kind of capitalist Reno should despise. To the extent Trump has any meaningful connection to Christianity it is through the “prosperity gospel,” which should be anathema to Reno. More broadly, Trump has spent his entire life worshiping at the altar of Mammon. He considered money the primary measure of success, meaning, and authority. The only thing more important than money was his own celebrity, which for Trump was deeply bound up with money. If Trump didn’t exist, he would be a strawman for all of the moral and spiritual ills that Reno attributes to our alleged market fundamentalism. He felt—feels—no meaningful obligation to norms of family, friendship, fair play, honest dealings, or the constitutional order itself. But because Trump’s manifest decadence proved useful to undermining the “old consensus” Reno despises, he found nothing to get worked up about. 

Anyway, back to my initial point. There are all manner of people who are jealous of Donald Trump, but I think he’s a cautionary tale. He spent his life prioritizing profit and personal fame over every other consideration. He refused to engage in the simple reciprocities of friendship and community, if such reciprocity required he subordinate his ego and desires to some other good. This is why he’d rather be the head of a ruined rump of a GOP than an important player in a viable party. He wants to be the Big Man in every room, every relationship, every institution. He had no use for notions of good character because good character impeded his covetous grasp like thick mittens on the hands of a groper. 

Sure, he was a black swan in that it actually got him the presidency, but it also revealed the real man. The presidency was like a magnifying glass that leant him the image of being a Big Man, but with the lens gone, his smallness is on display. Nuzzi, in her New York magazine profile of him, writes: “As president-elect on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, he entertained everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Bill Gates. Post-presidency, on the second floor of Mar-a-Lago, he has welcomed QAnon believers and Holocaust deniers.”  Why? Because these are among the last dregs of people willing to tell him how great he is without bursting into laughter. Sure, he will always have Sebastian Gorka, but what solace is that? 

Trump may yet have a comeback, and that would be a tragic turn for America. But assuming he continues to spiral down the drain, Trump will never himself be a tragic figure as he sits alone wondering why the “quality people” want nothing to do with him. A tragic figure is someone who meets a sorry end despite his virtues. Trump, by his own choosing, never had use for virtue. His pathetic end—in this life and certainly in the history books—is the direct result of his admitted vices. As I’ve said from the beginning of all this, character is destiny.

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.