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Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies
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Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

Trump is only telling voters what they want to hear.

A supporter of former President Donald Trump holds a "Trump Won" sign at a candlelight vigil outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on January 6, 2022, in New York City. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (except for you killjoys at the Department of Transportation),

One of my favorite scenes in Raid on Entebbe—the good 1977 movie, not the remake—is when a character played by Allan Arbus (Sidney Freeman from M*A*S*H) explains to a fellow hostage how at home he doesn’t keep kosher, “but in Uganda, I keep kosher.”

Welcome to Uganda, metaphorically speaking. 

Okay, let me explain.

We just finished recording an episode of The Dispatch Podcast in which we had a spirited conversation about whether or not the Trump era proves that Republican voters never cared as much about policy or ideology or “issues” as people like Steve Hayes and yours truly once assumed. I’m not going to wade into all of that here—Sarah and I agreed to have a further conversation about it over at The Skiff sometime soon. 

But in short, my answer was yes and no because it’s not a yes or no question. The Trump era definitely demonstrates, beyond all possible dispute, that for some people issues were always less important than they claimed. This is incandescently true of many politicians and “influencers” who have flipped, flopped, flipped again, pirouetted, spun, and generally contorted themselves like a rubber-boned Yoga master having an epileptic seizure while still trying to navigate a high-security laser-sensor field in a bank heist. Sen. Lindsey Graham alone has inserted his head into his own ass and then pulled it out of his mouth like a lantern more times than I can count. And he’s hardly the worst offender. 

Pick an issue—free trade, the importance of character, debt, deficits, health care, abortion, immigration, etc.—and I can point to some famously “principled” conservative who has changed directions like a drunk driver doing doughnuts on a frozen lake. Gerald Seib has a good piece in the Wall Street Journal on the profound shifts in Republican rhetoric and policy in recent years.  

Of course, the politicians are changing their positions because they’re following voters —or at least think they are. Whether or not Republican voters have changed as much as it sounds is a thornier question than it may seem. Clearly some have. But what’s even clearer is that what Republican voters want to hear has changed a lot. 

Republicans used to be the party of sunny Reaganite optimism. Now it is the party of running America down, competing over who can sound more dyspeptic or flat-out apocalyptic. Meanwhile Joe Biden—who can still catastrophize with the best of them about matters of race and climate change—is the guy going around talking about how you should never bet against America. Of course, when Trump was in office, the situation was somewhat reversed. Trump glorified how great America was doing, but only on matters he thought he could take credit for. Anything that stood in his way, including things that are fundamental to the American experiment (a free press, constitutional restraints, dissent, rhetorical opposition to tyranny around the globe, etc.) he would denigrate if he thought it would serve his purposes. And either out of fear, cynicism, or of some momentary Trump-induced change of heart, countless Republicans would go along with it or stay silent. 

I planned to rant quite a bit about the best example of this tendency—at least this week—provided by Sen. Rand Paul. Donald Trump declared, in ALL CAPS of course, that presidents should have blanket and complete immunity for any crimes they commit as president. Contrary to the claims of many of Trump’s defenders, he was not arguing (as his lawyers are in court) that a president can be tried for crimes only after he’s impeached and convicted by Congress. Trump’s stated position is that presidents are literally above the law and can use power however they see fit, even if —in his words—it “crosses the line.”

Now, obviously, he’s making this argument to work the refs at the Supreme Court. But it really can’t be ignored that Donald Trump is running to be the president of the United States again. And he has a plausible shot at succeeding. 

I cannot be more emphatic: This is wildly, profoundly, fundamentally, un-American, unconstitutional, and—therefore—unconservative. Everything about our constitutional order screams “Wrong!” at the idea that a president has—or should have—absolutist, monarchical power, unaccountable to the rule of law. 

Oy, Rand.

Which brings me to Rand Paul, who has carved out for himself an undeserved status as a passionate and principled “libertarian” and opponent of unchecked state power. In 2013, he filibustered an Obama nomination because he couldn’t get the administration to promise never to use drones to kill Americans on American soil. He was particularly vexed by the possibility that the president might have the power to drone an American at a Starbucks in Houston or some such. He made it sound like he considered this a vital issue and real threat, often waving away the crux of the actual argument. Can a president take out an American engaged in an imminent 9/11 style attack on America? Instead, he tried to make it sound like Obama might just take out some random Republican for fun. 

Of course, Paul has trotted out his “principled” constitutionalism on all manner of other issues. And sometimes he was absolutely right. “President Obama is not above the law and has no right to issue executive amnesty,” he said in 2014. “His actions blatantly ignore the separations of powers and the principles our country was founded on. I will not sit idly by and let the president bypass Congress and our Constitution.”

But when asked this week whether he thought a president should have blanket immunity to any and all crimes, he responded, “It’s a very specific legal argument and I’m afraid I’m just not up on it enough to be able to comment.”

So, when it comes to the president’s authority to take out an enemy combatant engaged in an imminent attack on America, Paul sees bright lines and babbles about the rule of law for nearly 13 hours to prove how principled he is. But when it comes to a president simply claiming blanket, permanent, authority to commit crimes he cannot comment without consulting Black’s Law Dictionary and the Federalist Papers? 

What a fraud. 

There is no plan.

So what does this have to do with keeping kosher in Uganda? I’m getting to it. But let’s revisit two of my bedrock convictions. First, that there’s nobody behind the curtain orchestrating events. There’s no star chamber, no cabal of Jews or Deep Staters or billionaires “running” the show around us. And, second, trying to direct events as if you are part of such a cabal is folly. 

Both of these ideas are central to my understanding of conservatism—and life. You can’t force events to go exactly as you want them to, in part because it’s impossible to predict how events will unfold. Really smart political gurus can, on occasion, predict reactions of certain constituencies or institutions a few steps ahead. But even the best of such people get surprised, all the time. Trump’s success in 2016 is proof enough of that. The same applies in international affairs, economics, sports, and every field of human endeavor. If it were possible to predict the future the past would have a lot fewer wars and revolutions. Predicting reactions is hard, but predicting reactions to reactions is harder still. Predicting reactions to counter-reactions and counter-counter-reactions is nearly impossible. Throw in human error, individual ambition, misunderstanding, weather, technological failures, and a thousand-thousand other contingent variables and predictions about the direction of society or the international stage becomes impossible. 

In case you’ve never seen it, Lin Wells’ Defense Department memo on predicting the future is a classic for a reason. At the beginning of every decade, the consensus among experts about what the foreign policy challenges would be in the coming years was wrong. 

Nick Cattogio had a great piece Thursday on how the deplatforming of Trump has backfired horribly:

Post-coup, post-riot, the media has decided that carrying his public remarks live and focusing obsessively on his daily provocations risks repeating that mistake and producing a similar outcome. But by doing so they’re inadvertently blinding those same casual voters to the fact that Trump is much more sinister a figure today than he was eight years ago. They’ve overcorrected—and ironically, despite their good intentions, they’re helping him get elected again.

I think Nick’s right. Keeping Trump off Twitter was a gift to Trump twice over. First, because it kept his crazy out of people’s faces. But it also allowed Trump and his diehard fans to luxuriate in their victim status at the hands of the elite, big tech, the establishment, etc. “They’re silencing me!” is one of the most bankable marketing ploys on the right. 

Now, I thought the decision to kick him off Twitter after January 6 was the right call at the time. He had encouraged violence through his account and the possibility of him doing it again was a real consideration.  I was more conflicted about the permanent ban (since lifted). 

This is just one of countless examples of people making mistakes—in good faith and bad—about how to deal with Trump. Mitch McConnell understood that Trump deserved to be impeached and convicted, but he opted to vote against conviction because he thought the political problem of Trump had been solved. So why not make the best of a bad situation and get right with Republican voters?  That plan backfired, too. 

I bring this up because there’s an argument out there on the right that says Trump’s legal problems are all part of a devious “plan” by Democrats to run against Trump because they know they can beat him. My friend Andy McCarthy has made the most forceful case in this regard, but he’s hardly alone. Erick Erickson calls it “Operation Coronation.” Now I like, respect, and agree with these guys on many things, including the consequences of the Alvin Bragg indictment and the dynamic it unleashed. 

Where I disagree, profoundly, is the idea that this was a fully fledged, coherent plan that is, in Andy’s words, “working to perfection.” I do not believe that Bragg was following some script delivered from the Biden White House or Justice Department or DNC. Bragg ran on prosecuting Trump. Bringing charges against Trump was a mistake for all sorts of reasons, but not for Bragg. He got everything he wanted from it politically.  But I don’t believe that Democratic grand strategists are sitting in Wilmington, Delaware, or Washington like a bunch of Monty Burnses tenting their fingers and saying “Excellent. Operation Coronation has begun!”

Maybe I’ve spent too much time in CNN green rooms talking to Democratic strategists in real time as these events have unfolded, but when they ask me, “Do you think this will finally get rid of Trump?” it’s hard for me to believe that they’re in on the plan to make him the nominee. 

Joe Biden couldn’t plan a non-humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan or a way to spend trillions to buy political support successfully, but he has the mental acuity and powers of prognostication to orchestrate the nomination of Donald Trump? I’m not buying it. 

Moreover, is Jack Smith in on the plan? If he is, he’s pretty persuasively playing the part of a zealous prosecutor who would dearly love to get a conviction before the election. If he’s not in on the plan, how can you have confidence that the plan will succeed? 

Now, I do think Democrats did have a plan in 2022 to boost MAGA candidates in the midterms because they’d be easier to beat, and it succeeded. Andy gives this more weight as evidence Democrats are rerunning the plan for the presidential context than I do. It certainly helps his theory. So maybe he’s right: This is all a brilliant scheme by Democrats to defeat Trump again. 

There’s still a problem: It might not work. Obama had a plan to humiliate Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner—and it worked. It also reportedly helped persuade Trump to run. And, then he won. Unintended consequences for the win. 

If Andy is right and this is the plan, Democrats should be ashamed of themselves. If you sincerely believe there’s a chance that Donald Trump is an existential threat to democracy—never mind a new Hitler—it is grotesquely unpatriotic to help him get close to the presidency, just because you think you’d have an easier time beating him. If Biden thinks Trump is Hitler, he should do everything in his power to run against Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis, even if that makes his reelection chances dimmer (which it would). 

We don’t have rules for the easy decisions in life, because easy decisions are easy. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t follow the rules during times of peace and normalcy. It just means that the stakes for small deviations from the rules are small, so it’s easy to get complacent and forget why these Chesterton fences exist in the first place. 

But the rules really matter for the hard decisions, for moments of peril and chaos. That doesn’t mean the rules will always serve you well. Nor does it mean the rules can never be broken. Lincoln broke the rules—on censorship, habeas corpus etc.—because he found himself in a unique situation that threatened the survival of the country. Sometimes the essence of statesmanship is knowing when to break the rules for a greater purpose. That’s not an argument against having rules, though. If Barack Obama droned an American citizen without due process to prevent a terrorist from detonating a nuclear bomb in an American city, I’d be fine with it and so would most Americans. But droning an American citizen for opposing Obamacare would be an outrageous crime deserving of criminal prosecution. 

Getting to Uganda.

Okay, with all of that out of the way, let’s talk about keeping kosher in Uganda. In 2016, as it became clear that Trump wasn’t going to just go away, I often said “this will end in tears no matter what, so you should just do the right thing.” Figuratively speaking, the landscape of the Trumpified right is Uganda. And I don’t just mean that Trump’s theory of presidential power is remarkably similar to Idi Amin’s. It’s a time of political and ideological peril and uncertainty, for conservatism, the GOP, and the country. All of these endorsements of Trump by Republicans—many of whom despise him—are akin to political hostage videos. 

If these were normal times, I’d have a lot more patience for ideological and political deviationism. For instance, Ronald Reagan was a free trader, but he found it politically necessary to protect Harley Davidson. Concessions to political reality are unavoidable in politics and not something to get all worked up about in normal times. 

But these are not normal times. 

When the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination is forthrightly telling us he should be free to violate the law as he sees fit, and the supposed champions of constitutional fidelity like Rand Paul and Mike Lee do not object, it’s necessary to get worked up about such concessions to the new political reality. The mere fact that Trump tried to steal an election and, after failing, insisted that the Constitution should be suspended to put him back in power, should have been enough for these people to turn their backs on him—if they had the principles they claim to have. 

But they didn’t. They have all the reasons in the world, but no excuses. 

It’s no big deal if you’re not kosher at a nice restaurant in a first world country. When you’re a hostage of an autocrat in a third world cesspool, you should stay kosher. The rules matter most when the rules are most difficult.  

But, as much as it may strain the analogy, that’s not the moral of the story. Because if all of the enablers and rationalizers— voters, politicians, and “influencers” alike—had stayed kosher when it was really easy to stay kosher, we wouldn’t be in this situation. Trump’s novelty run for president would have been laughed off the stage and screen and we wouldn’t be subjected to “constitutionalists” and “libertarians” running away from the consequences of their long-stated, but easily abandoned, convictions.   

This isn’t just a point about the right. Alvin Bragg made an easy decision to bend the rules because it was politically advantageous. Liberal media outlets lavished Trump with attention when he didn’t deserve it because it was financially advantageous, for the same reasons that conservative media outlets made one concession to Trumpism after another to pander to their audiences. Voters who once believed fervently in all manner of things let themselves be seduced by an entertaining grifter until they were seduced out of their own beliefs. Abandon enough of the rules for long enough and you forget that they’re rules at all. 

And this is my biggest problem with all this talk of the “plan.” It reduces people, including millions of voters, into victims of someone else’s scheme. In reality, they’re voting for Trump because they want to. Yes, many of them are decent people who believe the lies they’ve been told. But that doesn’t change the fact that they want to be lied to. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I was gone for a couple days this week, but that barely put a dent in the girls’ winter joy. Zoë also had some excitement the other day. While the Dingo works hard to maintain perimeter security, deterring mean dogs and the like. But sometimes some threats require a more proactive approach. Foxes in particular require sorties deep into their territory. So the other morning, she saw a fox quite a distance away and tore off after it. I was not at all concerned that she would catch the creature. A 100-yard headstart for a fox might as well be a 1,000. But Pippa was very concerned to lose her bodyguard. She momentarily pretended, as she often does, to join the chase, but quickly decided to hang back with me. The Dingo returned, quite pleased with herself that she had degraded the fox menace. 

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.