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The Ties That Blind
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The Ties That Blind

With no other frame of reference, young conservatives are starting to think it’s normal to be jerks.

Former President Donald Trump arrives at an event at the Mar-a-Lago Club April 4, 2023 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (excluding the runaway black hole that is being chased through space by baby stars as we speak),

“There were all these kids in suits with red ties hanging down past their d**k.”

A friend of mine told me that in 2017 after visiting CPAC. He was talking about many of the young dudes and bros—college students and twentysomethings—who wanted to dress like Donald Trump. Of course, the reason Trump wears extra-long ties is to disguise his girth. Most of the kids had no such problem, but they took their sartorial cues from Trump nonetheless. 

Now that I have your attention, herewith a brief philosophical detour.

Conservatism, a partial introduction.

As I’ve written many times, one of the central philosophical tenets of conservatism can be summarized by the phrase “human nature has no history.” 

The basic idea here is that humans in every generation are made from the same stuff.  Technology, politics, customs, and art can and do change, but humans always start out the same—as babies, with the same factory-installed software and firmware. 

You can be a devout Christian, Jew, or Muslim and believe this. You can also be a passionate atheist. Put a (male and properly vaccinated) baby in a time machine and send it back a thousand years to live with Mongols, and it will grow up like a Mongol, riding horses and pillaging villages. Pluck a (male or female vaccinated) baby from the steppes a millennia ago and drop it off with a family in 2023 Milwaukee, it will grow up watching Netflix and eating too much cheese. 

In short, we’re shaped by institutions, starting with the family. 

This doesn’t mean we’re blank slates. Human nature is malleable, but not infinitely so. Plenty of regimes tried to create “new men”—New Soviet Man, New Aryan Man, etc. Such efforts failed to achieve their ambitions, but that didn’t mean their test subjects weren’t warped or deformed in the process. Change the incentives in a system and people will respond to those changes within the limits of their nature. That doesn’t mean everyone will respond in the same way, of course. Some will reject the game, some will play half-heartedly, and some will throw themselves into it with total commitment. But as a general rule, the ones who fully commit to the system will reap the most rewards within the system. 

Innate talents will always explain some of the variability. Someone born with Michael Jordan’s genes will be a better basketball player, even if he doesn’t give it his all, than someone with, say, my genes who tries his best. The genetic lottery is real. But if Jordan had a twin who was more interested in beer or chess than basketball, odds are he wouldn’t make it to the NBA or achieve as much. The advantages and disadvantages of nature are as real as those of nurture. 

Conservative and liberal realists alike agree with all of this for the most part. One thing that separates them boils down to arguments about how much a more generous nurture —via the state—can compensate for fortuitous nature. In other words, if we tackle root causes and eliminate structural this or that, we will arrive in the sunny uplands of “equity,” not just political “equality.”

This disagreement doesn’t get discussed much in part because it makes people uncomfortable to talk about innate talents, but also because it gets eclipsed by the more comfortable question of how much society or the state should intervene to level the advantages of fortuitous nurture. Being born to prosperous parents with bourgeois values is probably the greatest single unearned advantage anyone can have. This fact bothers some on the left, and so they construct rhetorical cathedrals and ill-conceived policies to rebut it. 

The God complex.

John Rawls’ “original position” is a thought experiment that asks how you would design society if you didn’t know whether you would be born rich or poor, handsome or ugly, female or male, healthy or sick, smart or dumb, a member of the majority ethnic or religious group or a member of a minority one. It’s easy to ponder how you would like society to be designed if you also get to choose to be born rich, healthy, smart, and a member of a privileged class. It’s quite a different question if you think there’s a good chance you could be born an anemic serf with a low IQ. 

I’ve always thought this was a brilliant and useful thought experiment, even though I disagree with many of Rawls’ conclusions and assumptions. 

One of my fundamental criticisms involves the epistemological hubris that the whole thought experiment rests upon. What I mean is, I’ve always thought that progressive ideologies—very broadly speaking; I’m including all sorts of undemocratic and illiberal -isms—think it’s useful to think of society as a blank slate (not surprisingly, societal blank-slatism and anthropological blank-slatism usually go hand in hand). Many intellectuals of the left have a habit of thinking the state should do what God would do if He existed. In the past, some intellectuals of the right had a habit of thinking the state should serve as the instrument of God’s will—and they were the only ones who knew what God’s will is. Alas, that assumption is coming back in vogue in some quarters.  

The problem is that even if you could ask Rawls’ question of a super-advanced AI machine —or of a burning bush—you’re still left with the “problem” that you have an existing society, full of humans and human institutions built up around habits, values, and incentives that can’t just be replaced with something “better.” Figuratively speaking, the very definition of all forms of tyranny is confidently thinking you can simply force societies’ square (and oblong, triangular, etc.) pegs into round holes designed on paper or in your imagination. 

If you have any experience with management—or being managed—you can understand that just because someone discovered a better way of doing something doesn’t mean it’s easy (or, sometimes, possible) to do it. Sometimes, the old way of filing TPS reports will not die. That’s one of the reasons Moses kept the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years —to shake off the old TPS report habits, as it were. And sometimes—often, actually—the better way on paper reveals itself to be the wrong way in real life. Hence Edmund Burke’s scorn for “sophisters, economists, and calculators” who think they can easily force abstract constructs of the mind on the crooked timber of humanity and the dense forests of society from whence they were formed.

The Jacobins and Bolsheviks thought if they simply started the calendar at “Year Zero” they could get a total do-over for how society and its inhabitants operate and behave. The problem was that no matter how hard they shook the Etch A Sketch they couldn’t get the blank slate they craved. At least Plato thought it would take three generations of vigorous social engineering to create new people and a new society. He was wrong, too. 

I promise I’m almost done with this weird digression. Another central philosophical tenet of conservatism, which partly flows from the above, is that you can’t make a perfect society. Thomas More called his perfect society “utopia” as a joke—it literally means no place. It was also a play on eutopia, which means “good place.” 

Edmund Burke, the father of Anglo-American conservatism, was among the first and best expositors of this point. He looked upon the unfolding events in Revolutionary France and saw in them an impossible effort to create a perfect society at the expense of a relatively good one. In 1790 he proclaimed:

The French have proved themselves the ablest architects of ruin that ever existed in the world. In one summer they have done their business for us as rivals in a way more destructive than twenty Ramillies or Blenheims. In this very short space of time they have completely pulled down to the ground their monarchy: their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures. They now are lying in a sort of trance—an epileptic fit—exposed to the pity or derision of mankind, in wild ridiculous convulsive movements, impotent to every purpose but that of dashing out their brains against the pavement. Yet they are so very unwise as to glory in a revolution which is a shame and disgrace to them.

This is all Conservatism 101 stuff. Cold war conservatives found in Burke a kind of prophecy about the follies of communism, and rightly so given that the Bolsheviks saw themselves as inheritors and perfecters of the Jacobin tradition. I grew up intellectually on this strain of Burke’s thought. It was in many ways the well-spring of conservatism, flowing in some measure into every tributary—neoconservatism, “paleoconservatism,” social conservatism, libertarianism, and plain old conservatism. I still revere it and consider it central to my entire worldview. 

But that’s not the Burkean wisdom that conservatism needs most right now. Warnings about utopians and radical social levelers are always worth heeding, but the primary problem facing the right is not the threat of some external foe trying to impose overly abstract principles on society. It’s the utter contempt for having (inconvenient) principles at all, starting with basic small d-democratic decency.

I spent most of my life arguing with people who believed we can have a utopia and/or who denied we actually live in a eutopia we should be grateful for. Now, my “side” is overrun with people who think we do not live in a good country and the only way to make it “great” again is through nothing less than idolatry.  

Interestingly, Burke did not consider his warnings about French utopianism to be his most important contribution. 

Burke considered his speeches on India and the misdeeds of the British Empire and the East India Company to be his greatest political and intellectual achievement. In one of his last letters before he died, he asked his friend French Laurence to write a history of the Warren Hastings impeachment and related efforts to serve as his “monument”:

Let not this cruel, daring, unexampled act of publick corruption, guilt, and meanness go down—to a posterity, perhaps as careless as the present race, without its due animadversion, which will be best found in its own acts and monuments. Let my endeavours to save the nation from Shame and guilt, be my monument; The only one I ever will have. Let every thing I have done, said, or written be forgotten but this … If ever Europe recovers its civilization that work will be useful. Remember! Remember! Remember!

There’s nowhere near the room to get into all of the weeds about the Hastings impeachment and Burke’s critique of the East India Company or the excesses of the British empire—excesses that caused the most profound critic of the French Revolution to express profound sympathy for the American Revolution.

But one part of his indictment is essential. Burke was appalled by the abuses in India and expressed profound sympathy for the colonial subjects. But he also warned that those excesses and abuses were bad for the British. A whole generation of young men were being deployed to India and being corrupted by the experience. 

Our conquest there, after twenty years, is as crude as it was the first day. The natives scarcely know what it is to see the grey head of an Englishman. Young men (boys almost) govern there, without society, and without sympathy with the natives. They have no more social habits with the people, than if they still resided in England; nor, indeed, any species of intercourse but that which is necessary to making a sudden fortune, with a view to a remote settlement. Animated with all the avarice of age, and all the impetuosity of youth, they roll in one after another; wave after wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting. 

Burke’s point wasn’t just that the English were doing bad things to the non-English Indians, but that they were doing bad things to their own souls: 

“English youth in India drink the intoxicating draught of authority and dominion before their heads are able to bear it, and as they are full grown in fortune long before they are ripe in principle, neither nature nor reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for remedy of the excesses of their premature power. The consequences of their conduct, which in good minds, (and many of theirs are probably such,) might produce penitence or amendment, are unable to pursue the rapidity of their flight.”

In other words, English boys and young men were going off to India and learning to be arrogant, cruel, and selfish. And, worse, because such service was the key to future positions of leadership, that experience would eventually serve to corrupt and coarsen the English at home. 

Corrupting habits of the heart.

Which brings me back to those stupid ties. Everywhere I look these days, I see young conservatives believing they should behave like jerks or like the body parts they cover with those red ties. Because they have no frame of reference, no meaningful political experience or memory of politics prior to this shabby era, they think being shabby is normal and smart. Last week, the New York Republican Club issued a moronic and monstrous statement in solidarity with Donald Trump. In response to my criticism these domestic birds of prey behaved monstrously and moronically. (I won’t link to it because attention is the currency they covet.) I’ve since learned that the D.C. chapter of the Young Republicans is equally asinine, embracing the goons and dupes who stormed the Capitol as martyrs and political prisoners.

Indeed, they’ve literally ditched the Republican elephant in favor of a silhouette of Donald Trump. 

I don’t call attention to this because I think they are somehow worthy intellectual adversaries or anything like that. Rather, I call attention to it because it’s evidence that the corruption of conservatism isn’t just bad for conservatism—which it obviously is—but because it’s bad for these kids. Surrounding yourself with people who think it’s a sign of courage and strength to be coarse or bigoted is how you become coarse and bigoted. 

Of course, it’s not just the kids. After all, they’re just mimicking their elders while adding the “impetuosity of youth.” I’ll leave it to Nick Catoggio to walk you through the asininity last night in Tennessee. But two nights before, the Republican candidate for the Supreme Court lost in Wisconsin by 11 points. His response: whiney rage.

Wisconsin nice, like English gentility, is for suckers. 

Every day another striver among the colonizers of the new right insists that the only way to respond to Alvin Bragg’s assault on the “rule of law” is to … do exactly what they claim he did. And why not? Affronts to the imperial majesty require “toughness” and “strength” and reprisal in the name of “retribution.”

Personal loyalty—and the rewards of patronage—eclipse any principle. No surprise that Donald Trump wants Laura Loomer—too crazy and bigoted for Marjorie Taylor Greene!—among his cadres. 

Republican campaigns and congressional offices are crammed with young people who, under a different, earlier set of political and professional incentives, would in all likelihood grow up to be fairly decent and competent Republican operatives, policymakers, and politicians. But now they have an investment in the politics of obnoxiousness, conspiracy mongering, and fan service because that is their only comparative advantage. They brag about how the era of decent leaders has been overthrown and celebrate their own indecency in the process. Thinking about how to win over people who disagree with them is just a relic of the old weakness. The new strength is being cruel or insulting to get cheers from the people already on your side. 

There’s a reason so few of these tough guys are defending Trump’s underlying behavior in the Bragg indictment—because he’s guilty, and because they don’t care. They think it’s cool. 

Obviously, this is bad for conservatism and suicidal for the Republican Party. But it’s worse for them. Going through life thinking it’s smart and brave to be intellectually or politically thuggish is bad for your soul. 

It profits the man nothing to lose his soul for the world, but to own the libs?

Various & Sundry 

Canine update:  The Fair Jessica handled the treat videos at the beginning of the week. She definitely has a strong fan base for her style—and soundtrack selection. But she also prompted a debate: Should treats be tossed to the beasts, or should the beasts be hand fed? Passions run high on both sides. In other news, a jogger with a dog ran past us as we were pulling into the dog park. Pippa, always quick to suspect mean dog status, at first refused to leave the car until the coast was clear. Then mirth and merriment ensued. This morning, she demanded extra belly rubs. Also, today, Kira applied for membership in the pack. It may take some time to grant approval. After some assurances, she joined the festivities. Beyond there wasn’t too much excitement on the quadruped front. 


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.