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Too Old For This

On Biden’s lies, Romney’s goodbyes, and populism’s allies.

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House August 29, 2023. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (including those of you who never grew out of your teenage years),

Greetings from the banks of the Ridenbaugh Canal. I’ll save the rest of the scene-setting for the canine update.

But I have been driving a lot, listening to the news occasionally, but also to a lot of audiobooks and more obscure podcasts. When not doing that, one of the things I like to do to pass the time on the road is talk to my dogs like I’m Joe Biden. “I was arrested in Bolivia for eating a Ring-Ding with two hands while driving a motorcycle.” “You may not know this, but I came in third in a basset hound-wrangling competition at the canine rodeo.”

The dogs don’t care, because, you know, they’re dogs.

But humans don’t like to be lied to, and that’s a problem for Joe Biden, who lies a great deal. He always has. On his podcast, John Podhoretz floated a useful heuristic for spotting many of Biden’s lies. If Biden begins a story in which someone calls him “Joey,” you can be pretty sure what comes next is made up. The Amtrak conductor who grabbed his face and yelled “Joey, baby.” The various stories of his mother or father pronouncing great moral truths about racial discrimination or gay rights are often sprinkled with “Joey.” Though not always. Just this week he said he was at Ground Zero the day after the 9/11 attacks. At least he didn’t say, “As I looked into that pit from Hell, a first responder said to me, ‘Joey, are you going to get our back on health care?’”

Peggy Noonan has a theory about why Biden lies so much. He grew up in a cinematic age in which politicians were expected to speak in stories with cinematic scope. The problem for these veterans of a bygone era is that it’s just a lot easier now to fact check people on their claims. She writes:

Mr. Biden became a pol before everything was on tape, so you could make up pretty much anything and not get caught. This was true of others in his political generation. Hillary Clinton got in trouble in 2008 for claiming she’d come under fire in a diplomatic visit to Bosnia. She didn’t; there was videotape. But she started out before videotape was accessible and ubiquitous.

I think this is a good explanation, but only a partial one. It certainly helps explain why he talked about, say, FDR going on TV to reassure the public in 1929, when pretty much no one had TVs and FDR wasn’t president yet. 

Lord knows, Ronald Reagan could spin some yarns that he borrowed from movies or told as if they could have been scenes from one. And I’m old enough to remember how many Reagan critics treated these episodes as deeply disturbing and a sign that he was too old to be commander in chief. Biden, who is older than Reagan was when he left office, and who shows his age at least as much, doesn’t get the same treatment—at least not from the same corners of the culture. Fretting over Reagan’s mental capacity was once the preoccupation of Hollywood liberals and elder statesmen pundits.

The reason I think Noonan’s explanation is necessary but insufficient is that it lets Biden off the hook a bit. There are tens of millions of people and thousands of politicians who grew up in similar eras who never fabulated like Biden. Moreover, not all fabulations are equal. The kinds of stories Reagan told were usually about the goodness of America, not the greatness of Ronald Reagan. In this regard, Biden is less like Reagan than Donald Trump, who suffers from the same cinematic mind but also shares Biden’s overwhelming intellectual insecurity. Trump’s intellectual insecurity is often more transparent, probably because his insecurities are more definitional to his character. But both of them make stuff up to make themselves better and more important. At least that’s what big, burly, strong men tell me with tears in their eyes.

Aging and character.

That’s one of the problems with getting old: Your most deep-seated characteristics become more pronounced. Like aged wine, the things that make you distinctive become more developed and obvious. A lot of people age not just into their character but into their caricatures. Biden and Trump were always insecure braggarts, but those qualities command more bandwidth now as compensation for the deterioration of the cognitive tools that used to keep those qualities in relative check.

That’s one reason why I think the conversation about age can be a bit misleading. The age issue is usually a polite, euphemistic, way of talking about the capacity issue. Sen. John Fetterman doesn’t have an age issue. He does, after suffering a stroke last year, have a capacity issue. Age can drive the capacity issue, but it’s not synonymous with it.

If Biden didn’t seem to be lost so often, few would care about his age. Trump, who is also older than Reagan was when he left office, doesn’t have the same political problem even though he’s just a few years younger. That’s because he seems like the same person he was 10 years ago. Mitch McConnell’s problem is about capacity but we all use age to describe it. Ditto Dianne Feinstein. 

Ironically, Mitt Romney’s stated reason for not running again is his age, but he doesn’t seem to show any signs of decline whatsoever. I think he’s sincere about his reasons, but I also think he’s trying to advance the debate about these problems in a constructive way.

Farewell, Mitt.

I do think Romney’s age and experience is bringing out his best qualities. Sure, Romney has what he would probably call “fudge you” money. But he also recognizes that he’s part of a remnant of conservatism and public service that was once at the center of Republican politics and is now considered insufficiently radical and rude. These things combine to liberate Romney from having to play the games other GOP politicians feel they have to play. In other words, he’s okay with telling the truth.

Some of my friends have been very hard on Romney. I’m basically with Nick Catoggio, who described some of the barbs as “churlish—but not exactly wrong.” It’s fine as a matter of clear-eyed and principled analysis to point out the times Romney compromised for political expediency, particularly on the issue of abortion. What bothers me is the inverted morality of the critique. Romney, an indisputably decent and honorable man in his private and professional conduct, is dinged for his cynicism because of his concessions to political reality, particularly on the issue of abortion. Fair enough. In this Romney was very much like George Herbert Walker Bush, another honorable and decent man who compromised with the grubby demands of politics in order to continue public service.

Michael Brendan Dougherty thinks Romney suffers by comparison to the likes of Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance, who made their own deals with the devilry of politics by cozying up to Trump. As someone who has spent decades invoking longtime National Review publisher Bill Rusher’s advice, “Politicians will always disappoint you,” I cannot disagree with the general point. But unlike Romney and the elder Bush—decent men who did arguably grubby things as the price to be honorable and responsible public servants—Trump is an indecent man who does grubby things to further his dishonorable private aggrandizement. The good things Trump has done—from a conservative perspective—are the price he felt had to pay so he could be the center of attention and attain power. It’s the difference between wanting power in order to do good things and doing some good things if that’s the price for getting power.

Perhaps if—or when—Trump fully sells out on abortion (as he clearly is trying to do), Vance and Hawley will draw a line. But I doubt it. They are already apologists for Trump’s conduct on January 6—conduct Dougherty has described on the Editors podcast as “wicked”—because the logic of Trumpism is to bend your conception of the highest good to whatever is good for Trump. Given what Trump has already gotten away with—and the grotesque distortions of the party he has wrought—it seems obvious to me that a second Trump presidency would have none of the cabinet secretaries and judicial appointments that prevented the worst from happening. The new Trump administration would be infested with sycophants who have an equally deformed conception of the public good. 

Once more on populism.

This brings me to yet another disagreement with some of my friends at National Review. In their editorial on Mike Pence’s populism speech (which I wrote about here), they make many points with which I agree. It would have been better, for instance, if Pence focused his indictment more on Trumpism than a reified conception of populism as a distinct ideology. In his remarks, Pence couldn’t even name the “leading candidate” who called for the “termination” of “all rules regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution.” 

I also agree that previous “successful Republican presidential candidates had integrated populism into their political appeal for decades.”

But where I disagree with the editors is when they write, “There’s no doubt that Trump is a populist, but there’s nothing inherently populist about, say, his appalling conduct after the 2020 election, which had to do with his character flaws, not any political ideology.”

My disagreement is both subtle and total. I agree populism is not a political ideology, per se. And I obviously believe Trump’s character flaws are always central to the story. But I don’t think it is remotely accurate to say there was “nothing inherently populist” about his “appalling conduct after the 2020 election.”

First of all, Trump’s character flaws are inextricable from the populist mindset. From his earliest public forays into politics in New York, Trump’s whole approach has always been to question the legitimacy of the established order and foment the anger of the subset of the masses he knew how to pander to. 

Moreover, without Trump’s populism, there would have been no riot, no “Hang Mike Pence” chants, and no encouragement—on Fox News or elsewhere—of the lies that ignited the mob. Trump’s entire presidency was a nonstop effort to foment anger and outrage among his biggest fans against any aspects of the “the system” that were inconvenient to him. On January 6, Trump wanted the whole “Stop the Steal” crowd to swarm the outside of the Capitol. He wanted the metal detectors (“Mags”) removed. “I don’t f—ing care that they have weapons,” he reportedly said. “They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f—ing mags away.” 

Again, populism isn’t an ideology so much as an orientation toward politics. It elevates anger and resentment of the crowd or the masses or some artificial conception of “the people” above reason and the formal mechanisms of law. Harnessing popular anger can be good, but only when done within limits—like getting people to the polls, writing letters, etc. More importantly, it depends on what people are angry at. Vladimir Putin is a populist demagogue who has roused his people—overwhelmingly with lies—to support a near-genocidal war against Ukraine. On the other hand, the mainstream civil rights movement symbolized a good form of populism because it was nonviolent and its anger was righteous, legitimate, and predicated on important truths. But let us not forget that the civil rights era was also full of bad populism that endorsed revolution and violence. The American Revolution had populist elements that were harnessed and kept in check. The French Revolution devoured its children because it surrendered itself to populist rage. 

Despite years of criticizing populism, I supported the Tea Party movement because its anger, at least at first, was aimed at voting and at restoring fiscal and constitutional restraints. The worst thing about the Tea Party—aside from their total failure at restoring those restraints and enriching an enormous number of grifters—was that it taught many conservatives that being in a constant state of rage was a good in itself. Rage addiction creates a market for rage-peddlers.

It might be helpful to think of populism like fire. When controlled and deployed for specific ends, fire is a very good and useful tool. Many of the moral ends of civilization we take for granted would be impossible without humanity’s mastery of fire. From metalwork to sanitizing and extending the shelf life of food to keeping the cold and dark of night at bay, we’d still be in the middle of the food chain without it, somewhere below lions and bears and above gibbons and squirrels. But that doesn’t mean fire qua fire is good. It’s a tool, and to the extent any tool has any morality at all, it’s derived from the purpose for which it is used. Fire is vital for managing forests. But the indiscriminate use of fire is indistinguishable from actual wildfires. And the deliberate misuse of fire is a crime, called arson.

Populism is like fire in that its morality is wholly dependent on what you use it for and how carefully and prudentially you use it. 

So yeah, previous Republican presidents—and, my God, Democratic presidents—used populism to political benefit. But the worst presidents—and the worst moments of some good presidents—came when populism was misused to justify the abuse of power. This has always been the classical indictment of populism and its disciplined sibling, democracy. Without republican and characterological checks on demagoguery, it decays into despotism. The American Revolution gave us a reluctant president in Washington. The French Revolution gave the French a totalitarian terrorist in Robespierre and then a despot in Napoleon.

After years of playing with fire to their benefit, responsible Republicans allowed an irresponsible fire cult to take hold. Conservatives have not been immune to the seduction either, as is only too apparent as one institution after another becomes another fire temple. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from the first Conan movie, “Ten years ago, it was just another fire cult.”

 As Jack Butler explains, conservatives used to see themselves more like firefighters, and our reverence for the Constitution stemmed in no small part from its acknowledgment that popular passion could be dangerous. Indeed, there were conservatives, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and John Lukacs come to mind, who worried that democracy itself was, in effect, too populist and egalitarian. A liberal order could not be sustained by a democratic system that was so vulnerable to the whims of popular passion. And while I don’t go that far, I would rather live in a system that was obsessed with preserving a liberal constitutional order than one that constantly stokes the anger of the public, or a sufficient fraction of it, to pave the way to power for demagogues—on the left or right.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I’ve set up a camping chair in the shade behind my hotel, which overlooks this extremely utilitarian-looking waterway. The dogs are in the car with the windows down. Like some of the old men of Shawshank Prison, they’ve become “institutionalized” and now think the car is their den. They like going on adventures, and are happy to inspect rest areas for varmints and the like. But when it’s time to relax, they don’t want to be in the hotel room or on the grass beside me (at least not for very long). They want to get back to their rolling bunker. The weirdest thing about road tripping with them is that they are wildly excited to find our hotel rooms, zooming down the hallways stopping only to sniff at various invisible mysteries. They love barreling into the room and checking everything out. And then, at once, they’re like, “Okay this was cool. Let’s get back in the car.” They sleep fine. But in the morning if I move even a little—or heaven forbid go to the bathroom—they jump up and start wrestling in the bed and haranguing me about heading back out. I don’t get it. Then they zoom back down the hallway.

Still, I have to say, the canines have really been wonderful on this trip. There’s been no quarreling. They share a water bowl. And—knock on wood—there’s been no territoriality about hotel beds or car seats. Zoë has even conceded the front passenger seat to Pippa, something she never does at home. I’m spending one more night here in Boise and then heading to Portland. We pick up the van on Monday. I hope to get a good reunion video with The Fair Jessica.

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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.