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When Reality Is a Punch in the Face
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When Reality Is a Punch in the Face

Reflections on an old column.

Former President Donald Trump raises his fist as he exits the stage at the Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors national summit at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown on June 30, 2023, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (except those of you scrawling all over Antiquity),

“Why Hasn’t Anyone Punched Jonah Goldberg in the Face?” 

This was a widely asked question in the fall of 2010—and a headline at The Atlantic. The question was also asked by John Cook at Gawker, which did surprise me because we had once been friendly. And I can’t begin to tell you how many asked similar questions—and not always just questions—in my email inbox back then.

Why the sudden outbreak of Backpfeifengesicht aimed in my direction?

I opened a column asking, “Why isn’t Julian Assange dead?”

If you read the actual column, I wasn’t arguing for the WikiLeaks founder’s assassination. I was—admittedly a bit trollishly—pointing out that the “black ops crowd” wasn’t nearly as sinister or formidable as a lot of people imagine, especially in Hollywood. 

The vitriol aimed at me back then was a learning experience. I failed to appreciate a few things, including how deep the cult of Julian Assange ran on the left and how eager some of them were to argue against an imagined argument rather than the one I actually made. I think the column holds up pretty well, at least when read in good faith. But I can see how some folks might think I was being too glib about a serious issue, particularly if you think Assange is a real, nevermind heroic, journalist (which I emphatically do not). 

Anyway, I don’t bring this up as a tale of my personal growth and evolution as a writer. I really haven’t changed my views about Assange or about the weird way people want to believe the world is more cinematic than it really is. Whether it’s James Bond, Jason Bourne, or the IMF’s Ethan Hunt, the Hollywood version of clandestine work is as ridiculous as it is entertaining. In The Bourne Supremacy all a journalist had to do is say “Blackbriar” into a cell phone and minutes later, vans full of hyper-efficient assassins scrambled to snatch him up. Jack Bauer could not only direct phone taps and hack security cameras with a few keystrokes on his Blackberry, he could weave through miles of LA traffic in a few minutes. When he calls various government agencies, including after hours, he always gets them on the phone and not some, “Our offices are currently closed. Press 1 for English” message. 

That’s all fine for escapist fare. But if you think real life works remotely like that, your assumptions about a lot of politics are going to be really stupid and maybe dangerous. And it’s not just true of spy thriller action movies. Consider Law & Order. When the show started, crime rates were astronomical, particularly in New York City. It was easy to make good on its promise to dramatize cases “ripped from the headlines.” By the end of its run, it was ripping stories from political headlines. A crossover episode with Homicide: Life on the Street had Kenn Starr embroiled in some murder case. Of course, there were no murders involved in the real-life Lewinsky scandal (“Now who’s being naïve?”—The Couch). America isn’t Ancient Rome, where assassination of political opponents was a form of politics.

Worst deep state ever.

No, the reason I’m going down memory lane is I want to ask a similar question: Why hasn’t the deep state gotten rid of Donald Trump yet? 

Again, I’m not advocating for an exploding can of Diet Coke to rid us of the Orange Menace. That would be very bad. But you don’t have to put on hip waders and march deep into the fever swamps to discover that a lot of people think the “deep state” is out to get Donald Trump. Trump himself says it constantly.

   “Somebody said, President, what’s the toughest country to deal with? Is it Russia? Is it China? Is it North Korea?” then-President Trump told attendees at a 2020 fundraiser. “No, the toughest country by far is dealing with the United States. It’s true. These people are sick.” 

The QAnon crowd—which Trump openly embraces—believes, among other things, that the government is shot-through with Satanic murderous pedophiles who sometimes drink the blood of children to get their midichlorians or something. Tucker Carlson wants people to believe that the “deep state” branch at the FBI orchestrated January 6 and is getting ready to put patriots in some kind of domestic Gitmo. Sen. Ron Johnson believes, well, a lot of junk. I could go on and on with all of the wackadoodle crap peddled by Marjorie Taylor Greene, Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Uday and Qusay Trump. But you get the point. 

Here’s the first problem. If the deep state were remotely as powerful, wicked, and skilled as many claim, why let Trump live? I mean, Trump says he will “totally obliterate the deep state” if elected.

Well, if you’ve got the chops to keep all of those blood-drained kids secret, why not just take out the biggest threat to your super-comfortable way of life? Just redirect the space lasers—“Jewish lightning for the 21st century”—at Mar-a-Lago and be done with it. 

The truth is a lot of the non-crazy people who insist the deep state will stop at nothing to take out Trump don’t actually mean it. Here’s Ari Fleischer in 2017 saying anti-Trump forces will “do anything they can to hurt” Trump. But he’s talking about leaks, not putting a Gaboon viper in the Resolute Desk. I have no problem conceding that Trump was undermined by people in the government. I have no problems with outrage over FISA court chicanery. I’m a norms guy, and norms apply to goose and gander alike. But you can’t have it both ways—you can’t say that the deep state will do anything to stop Trump while citing as evidence stuff that falls far short of actually doing “anything.” 

Look, if it seems remotely plausible to you that saying “Blackbriar” into a cell phone can make the Gestapo suddenly appear, how do you explain that all of these people can openly declare war on the deep state without any blowback beyond some bad press? I mean, Blackbriar was just a program. These people are flat-out attacking the whole enchilada. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the first rule of a real Star Chamber is not letting people know you exist. 

Which brings me to the second problem: A lot of idiots and unwell people don’t realize that a lot of the deep state stuff is a grift. Devin Nunes used to sell deep state collectibles. There are no end of books claiming to expose the deep state and the cabal running our country. Here’s the description of The Deep State Encyclopedia: Exposing the Cabal’s Playbook:

Our country is being attacked from within. The past several years showed us that the shadow government seeks to assert absolute control over the human cattle, but what if we could stop them? What if we could take away the cabal’s power by exposing their entire playbook?

If this was their playbook, it wouldn’t be on Amazon. 

The boredom crisis.

Martin Heidegger, who wrote more about boredom than any other modern major philosopher (he even taught a course on it), described boredom as that “insidious creature” that “maintains its monstrous essence in our [Being].” Boredom for Heidegger is a potent mode of existential contemplation because it removes any grand sense of meaning and purpose while opening us up to the possibility of meaning and purpose. Hunger is both a state of being and an impetus to eat. 

Nietzsche had some similar ideas. He thought boredom explained everything from (jokingly) God’s decision to create humanity, to (more seriously) man’s creation of Christianity and other “ascetic ideals” which are “an attempt to imagine themselves as ‘too good’ for this world, a holy form of orgiastic excess, their chief tool in the fight with their enduring pain and boredom.”

I’m more sympathetic to Kiekegaard, who said that “boredom is the root of all evil.” I’m not sure it’s the root of all evil, but it’s definitely the root of a whole lot of evil. There’s a reason most revolutionary leaders come from the ranks of the leisure class. Remaking the world is exciting.  Milton’s Satan is exciting. God’s heaven is boring. 

A lot of writing about alienation is really a fancy way of describing boredom. Because the cure to alienation and boredom is the assertion of will, the taking up of causes and ideas that dispel the ennui and dissatisfaction with the status quo. Boredom is one of the chief moods of ingratitude for the real and existing good in favor of the exciting and new.

I think most ideological radicals of the left and the right are in it for the fun and excitement more than for any utopian theories about the possible. And part of that fun is feeling like you matter. That “this” isn’t all there is. Adultery and political radicalism have a lot more in common than a lot of people would like to admit—particularly radicals and adulterers. Francis Fukuyama, in his widely misunderstood book, The End of History, captured part of the problem:

Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.

The hunger for novelty, which is a big part of Kierkegaard’s gripe, leads people to overturn settled truths for exciting lies. Boredom can be a form of despair, a feeling that what we do doesn’t matter and therefore I don’t matter. And so we look at the unentertaining world around us and declare opposition to it. 

Or, we just make up a lot of bulls—.

Sometimes the B.S. is just catastrophizing about real, existing problems or political disagreements, like climate change or institutional racism. I have no idea how many people actually believed that abolishing net neutrality would destroy civilization, but I am sure the people who said it weren’t bored by their hysteria. 

More on point, you can also just make up hidden threats hiding in plain sight. Pretend that life is a movie and you’re a lead character, who sees the truth no one else does. Even better, find a handful of people in a chatroom who share your boredom and declare your battle of Agincourt against the world. Maybe even go out in the woods and “train” for the inevitable clashes to come. 

 One common strategy for this crowd is to invert reality. If for whatever reason you don’t want to openly declare that you reject democracy, constitutionalism, liberalism, Christianity, capitalism, or whatever, you can simply declare that the existing system has declared war on such things—and you—and therefore you’re a hero for struggling against the system. It’s not hard to do, given that you can always find some schmuck who said or did something to support your thesis. And even if you can’t, that doesn’t matter too much because the lack of evidence of a conspiracy is often taken as the best proof that the conspiracy runs that deep. That the lizard people haven’t revealed themselves is proof of how well-disguised they really are. 

The paranoid jackassery of fever swamp.

Let’s circle back to Julian Assange for a minute. Again, my views haven’t changed. But the conspiratorial right and left have switched jerseys. The left now hates him for the same reason the right loves him.   

Or take Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (please). I thought he was a conspiratorial, deceitful jackass when he was on the left and so did most of my peers. But now, because many on the right have opened their eyes to his invisible demons, he’s increasingly popular. But he hasn’t changed. He still claims that Wi-Fi causes cancer. He still prattles about “cell phone tumors” even though, after decades of study, there’s no evidence of such things. But because the MAGA right has convinced itself that vaccines are an insidious plot, and that his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is simultaneously a criminal mastermind and incapable of finding the toilet, RFK’s the man of the hour. Plus he’s so buff. 

There’s something deeply metaphorical in Kennedy’s demonology in that so much of it is about invisible threats—radio waves, microscopic stuff in the  vaccines, etc. It confirms, and conforms to, the steady-state of paranoia that focuses on the threats that have to be believed to be seen. It also starts from the classic assumption that what can be seen—also known as evidence—is proof of the cover-up. The official story is always the real lie. Ukraine and the United States are to blame for Russia’s invasion. The election results are confirmation the conspiracy was successful (people forget RFK Jr. was an election denier going back to 2004). The “proof” that his dad or uncle weren’t killed by their assassins is that the government says they were. 

Offer evidence as a rebuttal and the response is you’re a sucker—that’s what they want you to think—or, worse, you’re in on it. 

Kennedy is a perfect example of the dangers of demonic boredom. Born into a rich family, drunk on its own mythology of greatness (and often just drunk), he looked out upon all of his privilege and found old fashioned service boring. He had to be a paladin in an epic struggle against deeper evils. 

This is my problem with all of this nonsense. America has so many real problems. Interest payments will eclipse all discretionary spending by the end of the decade. Every year we spend more on education and get worse results. But these problems are hard, and because they are hard they aren’t exciting to deal with, because passion alone is insufficient to the task.

Crime, suicide, mass-shootings, overdoses: These are very real problems, but they’re not the result of hidden string-pullers. To some extent they’re the tangible result of demonic boredom. But to an even greater extent, our inability to fix them is directly related to all of the wasted energy on paranoid political struggles that make the combatants feel like they’re part of some epic struggle. We have enough real stuff to struggle against. It helps no one to make up monsters to LARP against. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: A note about the Twitter links. I understand that some of you can’t see them anymore because Elon Musk is trying to do to Twitter what Rawls tried to do to the major crimes squad in The Wire: destroy it from within. We’re pondering how to deal with the issue. 

Anyway, the girls are good. They hate the heat almost as much as I do. But when I take a bath, I don’t have to walk around the house in humiliating garb. Also, they don’t like the thunder that comes with the heat. The Fair Jessica thinks I should cut back on the treat videos, but the masses disagree so far. Gracie is losing a little weight, but the blood tests say that it’s not her kidneys so that’s probably good news. But we need to figure out what’s going on. She doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort, but she is constantly unamused by the Dingo and gently demanding of attention. Finally, Pippa is unmoved by Wagner.


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.