Government By Rabble-Rousing
It's not statesmanship to try whipping the people up into a frenzy.
Note: This is the G-File, Jonah Goldberg’s newsletter. If you saw this without subscribing and want it in your inbox, sign up here.
Dear Reader (especially those of us who knew Donald Trump was a Florida Man all along),
Lest I be accused of dodging the big issue of the week, let’s talk about Conan. Among the myriad reasons I love the outpouring of love for this Very Good Boy who helped kill a terrorist is that it highlights something I’ve been obsessively writing about for more than 20 years: Dogs are different. Unlike all other “companion” animals—cats, horses, parrots, monkeys, hawks, Packers fans (I kid), etc.—dogs chose to partner with humans. When I first started making this argument, it was just that—an argument. Now science has pretty much confirmed what was obvious to those who paid attention. Dogs have the ability to read human facial expressions; wolves don’t. Dogs are wired to love humans. They volunteer for duty. All other animals have to be conscripted. Horses, birds, monkeys, and even cats can be bent to serve humans to one extent or another, but it is not natural for them. It is natural for dogs. It’s what they want to do. Some breeds are more eager to please than others, but as a species, they are our compadres.
I’m against all forms of animal cruelty. But we can also make distinctions, apply cost-benefit analysis, or simply make informed judgements. I don’t want to get into a big discussion about animal rights versus human obligations. I just want to point out that we have a special obligation to dogs. Our ancestors cut a deal with dogs, and the contract is still binding. This is particularly the case for dogs that are asked to fight alongside us and protect us. They are doing it because they believe we are family. The question of their intelligence is secondary to the fact of their love. In the past, America treated its military dogs dishonorably. It is not a sign of America getting “softer” that we’ve changed that. It is a sign that we’ve come to recognize that we have a moral obligation to hold up our end of the bargain.
It started as a meme, but I would be happy to see Conan awarded a medal by the President of the United States. Not because Conan would care (he probably just wants his rope toy and some quality time with his human). But because it would signify that we recognize the pure doggy goodness of dogs, and the fact that we got the better end of the bargain we made with them back during the great war between homo sapiens and the rest of nature.
The Other Big Story
The House voted to launch an impeachment inquiry, though in a way that lets some vulnerable Democrats pretend they didn’t.
I wrote a column this week arguing that the best way forward for Trump was to move off the “perfect phone call” and “no quid pro quo” stuff and admit that it happened and that it was a mistake but not one he thinks warrants impeachment. The reaction was fascinating. My analysis wasn’t very different from Rich Lowry’s and Andy McCarthy’s—both more favorably inclined to Trump than I am. It was also similar to Mulvaney’s argument in that press briefing, though his “get over it” comment was ill-advised. Yet pro-Trumpers thought my column was outrageously anti-Trump. Anti-Trumpers thought it was outrageously pro-Trump. It was neither. It was just my honest analysis of what I think is reality.
If you want my moral judgement, it’s simply this: I think what he did was very bad, and if the Senate could remove him for it after a fair trial, that would be fine with me. I disagree with Rich and Andy’s “no harm, no foul” argument, because the offense was what he attempted, not whether he succeeded (the Watergate burglars didn’t get away with it either). Impeachment wouldn’t overturn an election. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t become president. She’d still be yelling at the TV. It’s just that president Pence would be on the screen.
But back to analysis. I care a lot more about the GOP holding the Senate than about Trump fending off impeachment. And the current strategy is a disaster for Senate Republicans, who need both the Trump base and Trump-alienated independents and Republicans. Trump wants total loyalty from Republicans, but the best way to earn that loyalty is to show some loyalty in return. Asking vulnerable Republicans to mouth ineffective and counterproductive talking points isn’t an act of loyalty, and it’s not in Trump’s political interest.
Trump will need every Republican senator he can get. Asking retiring senators like Lamar Alexander to defend a lie is asking too much. Asking non-retiring senators who can’t win with the Trump base alone to defend an explanation that isn’t true is folly if it will cost them the voters they need to get reelected.
And the fact is, when push comes to shove, these senators are going to say it anyway if that’s what getting reelected requires (it’s what Rob Portman is doing already, and he’s not even up for reelection). It would be better for Trump and the senators if it looked like he was giving them permission to do it. And it would be worse for them if he punished them for stating the obvious.
I’m not making value judgements here. It’s just how I see the situation, and shouting, “Shut up, Never Trumper!” or “Shut up, Trumper” isn’t a rebuttal.
As I discuss on the latest episode of The Remnant, I think the GOP’s process arguments are mostly ridiculous. When I say this, I get two reactions. The first is what I call the “Ugly American” strategy. When a prototypical ugly American is in, say, France and encounters someone who doesn’t speak English, the response is to simply speak English MUCH LOUDER. Similarly, some people respond to my eyerolling at claims this is a “Soviet-style impeachment” by shouting even louder: “It is too Soviet!” Or “It’s a show trial!” Or “It’s a star chamber!”
The GOP has been very effective in making people think that Republicans were frozen out of Schiff’s hearings. They weren’t. Moreover, while it would be unfair if Republicans had been frozen out of these hearings, that still wouldn’t rise to the level of a Soviet show trial (there’s no such thing as a Soviet impeachment process, for God’s sake). What makes show trials evil is that the state compels false testimony and manufactures fake crimes in furtherance of a predetermined verdict that usually ends in death or imprisonment. Nothing remotely like that has happened here. There’s zero evidence that anyone forced Alexander Vindland, William Taylor, and the rest to lie. In fact, so far, there’s zero evidence they’re lying at all, and there’s ever-mounting evidence they’re telling the truth. It is wildly depressing that the party of anti-Communism has willfully memory-holed these basic distinctions. Talk about Soviet-style tactics.
The GOP complaint boils down to two things: 1) These hearings weren’t open to the public, Republicans not on the relevant committees, and the television cameras; and 2) The president couldn’t have lawyers in the room. I largely agree that this was unfair or ill-advised on the Democrats’ part. But such procedures are hardly uncommon, even during impeachments.
And by the way, grand juries are far more “unfair” by comparison. The target of the investigation can’t bring their lawyers into the room. The proceedings are secret and usually sealed forever. That’s all okay, because the accused gets his day in court after the fact-finding, and so will Trump.
Republicans say that the Clinton impeachment was much fairer. I don’t get it. Ken Starr investigated the Clintons for years, using grand juries and other non-transparent techniques. He then delivered to Congress a whole road map to impeachment, collected largely in secret. Republicans didn’t complain about that. They didn’t even call it a Starr chamber, never mind a Star Chamber.
Government By Rabble-Rousing
The Morning Dispatch has a great section on the rise of “performative politics.” It strikes a chord with me because it jibes with arguments I’ve been making for a while now. In my book, I write about how one of the chief drivers of our political dysfunction is how we’re increasingly following politics as a form of entertainment. When you go to the movies, you root for the hero. Once you’ve bonded with the hero, you can forgive all sorts of terrible things you would never forgive in real life—from torture to wanton killing. The emotional sweet tooth in our brain loves it some vengeance, whether in comedic or dramatic form.
Longtime Hill guy Brendan Buck tells the Morning Dispatch that a lot of quality Republicans are retiring because “[t]houghtful legislating is not rewarded anymore.” He goes on:
We are now in an era of entertainment politics, and if you want to work your way up through the system, the answer no longer is learning policy, putting your time in at the committee level, becoming a legislator. The way to get ahead now is to go on television and use hyperbole and say crazy things. And so, it is no surprise that it is some of our more thoughtful legislators who are deciding to leave.
A lot of cable news addicts watch thoughtful discussions about public policy and respond like Homer Simpson when he accidentally stumbles on Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon:
But instead of wanting “more funny,” voters (or at least viewers) want politicians who “own the libs” or “destroy the cons.” They want reality show theatrics and shocking plot twists about conspiracies. The more kayfabe, the better.
Like so many of our problems, this was a long time in coming, which brings me to….
The Roused Majority
This week marked the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, in which he launched a political campaign to activate his side of the political divide to pressure the other side on his behalf. I watched a piece by Tom Brokaw on the anniversary this morning and he treated the whole chapter as a Very Bad Thing for America and as a part of the great This Is How We Got Trump narrative.
I understand where Brokaw is coming from, but I don’t entirely agree. At the time, the media had such a stranglehold on the national discourse that there was an argument for going over their heads, particularly given his reason for wanting to muster national support in the first place: to pull out of Vietnam with honor. (It may have been a bad plan. But it was a serious and worthy objective.) The difference today is that rabble-rousing has gone from being an extraordinary tactic for extraordinary times to being a full-time racket for both parties and the remora institutions that monetize rabble-rousing.
People like to think of history as a river, but the metaphorical truth is that it’s more like a whole series of rivers, streams and other tributaries that sometimes run in parallel for decades or centuries without ever running into each other. But once they do intersect, the new river breaks its banks and sets a new course. I once heard John Keegan, the great military historian, explain that it was the convergence of three independent factors that made the Comanches and other Plains Indians arguably the deadliest warriors in human history: their own unique culture and mastery of the landscape, the introduction of the horse by the Spanish, and the introduction of the Remington rifle by the Americans. This created a warrior deadlier than any the world had seen before.
The Silent Majority speech wasn’t new. It was part of a long-running degradation of American politics that went back to the beginning of the 20th century. Will Herberg, one of my intellectual heroes, wrote a brilliant essay in 1954 on “Government by Rabble Rousing.” Much of his discussion centered around Joseph McCarthy (a subject I’ll be returning to in a future “news”letter). Herberg wrote:
"McCarthyism" is the logical outcome of the system of government by rabble-rousing initiated in the first years of the New Deal—only, in "McCarthyism," the rabble-rouser is not a cultured and aristocratic gentleman, but a crude and rather primitive plebeian, not a Pericles but a Cleon. McCarthy, like Roosevelt, wants action and goes directly to the people to get it. McCarthy, like Roosevelt, is impatient with the restraints and limitations of what are called proper constitutional channels. When McCarthy wants a change in the Administration's foreign policy, he does not, as Senator, raise it for deliberation in the Senate; he appeals to the people to swamp the White House with letters and telegrams. He rouses the "rabble" for direct action, in contempt of constitutional channels and procedures. But how far different is that from the mode of operation of the Roosevelt regime in the 1930s?
I would argue that this goes back to Wilson (FDR was a Wilson retread, after all). But you get the point. Herberg rightly noted that the Founders set up a system that guarded against two threats to liberty—too little democracy, a.k.a. tyranny or despotism—and too much democracy, which would put inalienable rights at the mercy of popular passion. It turned out that the system could handle a lot more democracy than the Founders originally thought. But that doesn’t mean there’s no limit to how much popular passion our institutions can handle (which is why I argue for abolishing primaries in my column today). Eventually various rivers converged, and we’re watching our institutions respond to the flood.
I’ve been calling Congress a Parliament of Pundits for a while now. Many legislators care more about landing an appearance on Morning Joe or Fox and Friends than actually doing their jobs. They’re more worried about being attacked on talk radio or cable by a primary opponent who is better at sounding angry. Some even see Congress itself as merely a stepping stone to their real career goal—a gig on cable television or maybe a radio show.
When Nixon gave his Silent Majority speech, the news was controlled or dominated by three TV networks and a handful of newspapers and magazines, most of which were headquartered within less than a mile of each other. Today, those gatekeepers either lie in sodden ruins beneath the floodwaters or have modified their business plans to be floating platforms for performative politics, adjusting their views to go with the new currents. Social media has institutionalized rabble-rousing as the dominant form of political organization and media, and the more conventional media often follows its lead.
The president, the leading Democratic contenders, and much of the media are enthralled by Twitter, convinced that it—not Congress—is the real arena of American politics. By thinking this, they make that closer to the reality. This is the river we’re on. Where it takes us and what it converges with next is anyone’s guess.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: As many of you know, we have a fantastic midday dogwalker, Kirsten, who takes the beasts and their friends deep into the woods and lets them scamper in a secret location. To get a sense of how great she is, consider this text from her the other day: “Pippy got a free bath, she rolled in something rancid. ZoZo may or may not have eaten some of a half submerged deer carcass, I was shrieking and waving my arms but she may have snatched a bite or two...i think Pip rolled in buzzard poop. Thank god its friday!
Also thank you for the spiders! I love them so much.”
Pippa got a second bath from us, because the stank was still there. She got another bath this morning because, once again, she rolled in something foul, or perhaps fowl. I don’t know what it is about the fall that brings this out in Pip. Zoë seems to have figured out the correlation between rolling in gunk and baths and decided to forgo the practice.
I can’t wait for daylight savings time, even if I think it’s a ridiculous public policy. The sun doesn’t rise until about 7:30 these days, and the dogs and I are accustomed to heading out by 6:15 or so. The iPhone camera has some great features, but night vision isn’t one of them. Otherwise goodtimesarebeinghad.
Sign up for The Dispatch here.
Why Trump should apologize (it would help him!)
And now, the weird stuff.