If the richest men and women and organizations in the world can’t afford to stand up for something, what can we expect from everyone else?
Writing in Salon under the headline, “I was a right-wing pundit,” Rich Logis confesses: “I was all-in on Donald Trump’s lies, well after Jan. 6.” And: “I was dead wrong about all of it.”
Welcome to the party, pal.
I’m not here to sneer at Salon or its contributors, but I am going to guess you’ve never heard of Rich Logis, who seems to have been a “right-wing pundit” more in aspiration than in reality. You know the type: a couple of Federalist bylines, one on FoxNews.com, and, at last count, 64 Twitter followers. The media-activism nexus, left and right, is full of reasonably bright, reasonably articulate people trying to build a career telling people what they want to hear, and Logis seems to be one of those on the right who have moved on to Grift 2.0: “Mea most maxima culpa, baby, now here’s a link to donate to my new organization.” In Logis’ case, that’s a new entity called Listen, Lead, Unite, which consists of a web page with a mission statement, a founder bio, and—the most important bit—a link for donations.
I don’t mind these guys all that much. They are the Max Fischers of the political world, always starting new clubs to give themselves something to be in charge of. (“Max Fischer-ism” plus a really strong work ethic equals “Tracy Flick-ism,” and if you didn’t get enough of Tracy Flick in Election, Tom Perrotta has revisited the character in a new novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win.) I don’t want to be uncharitable, but my first response to this shtick—“I’m a good person now, please give me money!”—is some free advice: If you couldn’t see what a grift Trump and Trumpism were from the beginning, and if you were still on board after Trump et al. attempted to stage a coup d’état, then maybe sit out a few rounds rather than promote yourself to a position of notional leadership.
Twenty years ago, Salon might have been above publishing that kind of piece. But, having spent many years as a small-town newspaper editor, I understand Salon’s situation: There are pages to fill and a readership to feed—with limited resources. For reasons that are probably as much financial as reputational, Salon doesn’t attract a lot of top-shelf talent these days. So it publishes a fair number of hacks and mediocrities and marginal types for the same reason your local newspaper does, if your local newspaper has survived this long: Those contributors are cheap—free, often enough.
But, like I said, I’m not here to sneer at Salon or its contributors. I’m here to sneer at Lindsey Graham.
No, I’ll resist the sneering. But the problem with figures such as Sen. Graham is that they are, fundamentally, just grander and more self-important versions of Rich Logis. What Sen. Graham should do is the one thing Sen. Graham can’t do: Admit the truth, i.e., the fact that he will say or do pretty much anything if he thinks that doing so will add five minutes of longevity or one degree of prominence to his political career. These so-called leaders don’t go with the flow—they flow with the go, relentlessly chasing the energy of the day, the hour, or the minute, sprinting like Usain Bolt to get out in front of whatever parade looks most promising. Before she was on the road to canonization, Blessed Liz Cheney was a reliable Trumpist who said and did—and countenanced—a lot of questionable stuff in deference to the then-president and his supporters, which she no doubt considered a kind of personal realpolitik.
There is a more serious point here: The flow-with-the-go model of politics is baked into representative democracy. Or, rather, representative democracy invariably is shaped by the tension between the conception of representative-as-proxy—“I’m just here to represent the Will of the People!”—and representative-as-leader, a role in which a representative will, from time to time, be obliged to ignore or overrule popular sentiment in service to prudence and justice. This is Edmund Burke 101: “Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Our popular culture and political discourse are, at the moment, very much shaped by social media and its dogpile populism, ruled by the panicked, rage-addled stampeding herd of independent thinkers. That has tilted the balance away from representative-as-leader toward representative-as-proxy. There is almost nothing that our politicians and aspiring pundits will not sacrifice to popular opinion, no matter how transient, ignorant, or misguided that opinion is.
The best case for populist politics is that somebody has to stand up to the arrogant and overbearing ruling class that imposes fads and errors on our common life in the mistaken belief that these are virtues that must be forced on the people for their own good, and if it takes even such a figure as Donald Trump to do that job, then so be it. That is a destructive and wrongheaded view for many reasons, the most important of which is the fact that overbearing mobs need standing up to at least as much as overbearing elites do, and if you are willing to sacrifice anything and everything on the altar of popularity based on the superstition that the People are always—or even usually—right, then you won’t have anything left with which to defend yourself when the mob turns on you. And it will.
The old republican virtues used to serve as guardrails against that kind of thing, but those virtues are very difficult to cultivate and to maintain. For example, it once was the case that many people believed it prudent to entrust a large share of the burden of leadership to wealthy men on the theory that wealth confers independence on its holders. No less a figure than F.A. Hayek argued that a liberal society requires a class of independently wealthy men upon whom it is difficult to impose orthodoxy by means of economic coercion. But as we have seen, even Jeff Bezos, on some days the wealthiest man in the world, is pretty easy to bully into submission when the fashionable people demand that a controversial book be banned from Amazon. And you don’t see a great deal of intellectual or political independence attached to such names as Zuckerberg, Walton, or Fink. You don’t see any remarkable self-respect from such rich institutions as Princeton or Yale, either.
And if the richest men and women and organizations in the world can’t afford to stand up for something, then what can we really practically expect from grinders hustling for a Salon byline or, if they should dare to dream of living so large, a desultory cable-news gig?
The proverb holds that virtue is its own reward. And it is, but it isn’t the kind of reward you can use to pay the mortgage.
Kevin D. Williamson is the national correspondent for The Dispatch.