The Mob Ascendant
The spirit of the mob is taking over our politics.
Dear Reader (including the entire cast of Cats),
In difficult times like this, when passions run high and trust is in short supply, I like to think about happier things. Specifically, in my quiet moments, when seeking a respite from the shouting and a replenishment of serenity, I will meditate on the fact that the only thing stopping Jeffrey Epstein’s former party pals from going down with him is the honor and integrity of Jeffrey Epstein.
That’s a nice thought.
I mean, there’s so much we don’t know about Epstein as of now. But whether the ephebophilic Gatsby is in fact a straight-up forcible rapist and Ponzi-scheme fraudster and sexual blackmailer—or if he’s merely an ephebophilic statutory rapist and party animal with questionable finances, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he’s not the type to honor confidentiality and take one for the team. Sure, he may have said, “What happens at 30,000 feet stays at 30,000 feet,” but if you were Bill Clinton or some other member of Epstein’s Mile High Club and you did something wrong, would you sleep soundly counting on Jeff to stay true to his word?
“They’ll never break Epstein. He’s a stand-up guy!”
This Ugsome Moment
Anyway, I thought I would start with something positive.
One of the things that makes politics so depressing right now is that the incentive structure is set up to reward the worst behavior of the worst actors. The “Squad”—or, as I like to call it, The Committee to Reelect the President—has every incentive to behave in exactly the way Donald Trump wants them to. And Donald Trump has every incentive—or believes he does—to behave in precisely the way the Creepers want him to. They benefit when Trump makes them the face of the Democratic Party, and he benefits, too. And so do many of the people invested in Trump, including the media, which feeds parasitically on the Trump panic it helps fuel by helping Trump fuel it. The entire incentive structure is set up so that easiest path is the one where everybody lives down to our lowest expectations.
The other night I tweeted:
As you might expect, lots of people had their complaints about this tweet. I’m not going to bother with most of them. I never said that Trump was “demanding” she leave. I said there is something internal to the logic of nationalism that demands the sort of thinking that leads to people chanting “send her back!”
American patriotism, in my Buckleyesque understanding, is creedal, while nationalism is romantic—i.e. emotional, passionate, and pre-rational. Those emotions are not necessarily sinister, but neither are they a coherent philosophical worldview. Passion can make us do crazy or terrible things. That doesn’t mean passion is bad; it just means it needs to be channeled and directed productively. “Why has government been instituted at all?” asked Alexander Hamilton. “Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”
This points to why I’ve always been skeptical of populism: Because it puts the passion of the crowd at the forefront. Allow myself to repeat…myself. Elias Canetti notes in his book Crowds and Power that, inside the crowd, “distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.”
“But,” Canetti adds, “the crowd, as such, disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it…Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it from creeping back under their private burdens.”
There’s an enforced conformity, a tribal groupthink, to crowds. They crowd out individuality and distinction. “When men exercise their reason coolly and freely on a variety of distinct questions, they inevitably fall into different opinions on some of them,” James Madison observed. “When they are governed by a common passion, their opinions, if they are so to be called, will be the same.”
This was the observation underlying Randolph Bourne’s distinction between the government and the state. The government is where people argue and negotiate competing interests. The state— which for Bourne emerged with the white-hot passion of war—is a mystical representation of “us,” where disagreement becomes a kind of treason.
That rally wasn’t about patriotism, but nationalism. Donald Trump hasn’t the foggiest clue about America’s creeds. But he does have an instinctual appreciation of the emotional triggers of nationalism. No major party nominee in American history ran down the United States of America as much as candidate Trump did in 2016. His description of America was borderline dystopian, blurring the moral distinctions between America and Putin’s Russia. He said America was run by stupid and weak people and was a “laughingstock” on the global stage. Not even the most race-obsessed left-winger would have said of America that “…our African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape they’ve ever been in before. Ever, ever ever.”
Nobody said: “Why don’t you leave if it’s so bad here?”
Now that Trump sees himself as the romantic incarnation of the nation—l’etat est moi—the new hotness is “America, love it or leave it.”
Trump may have retroactively said that he didn’t like the “send her back” chant, though there’s no evidence he felt that way at the time. But you can be sure he’ll return, like a dog to his vomit, to his favorite rhetorical trick of saying, “I’m not supposed to say it, but …” or “Donald Trump would never say…but…” He loves apophasis, the technical term for saying you’re not going to say something as a way to say what you wanted to say. “I won’t say that Jeffrey Epstein collected Sears’ Junior Miss catalogs. I would never talk about that huge stack by his night table.”
And even when he doesn’t resort to that shctick, he lets the crowd do it. When he got grief for calling Ted Cruz a “pussy,” he told a woman in a New Hampshire crowd: