John Bolton vs. Donald Trump
The president’s supporters are making contradictory arguments about what’s wrong with Bolton’s book.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who think that changing the acronym from CHAZ to CHOP reveals an unfortunate guillotine-related onomatopoeia),
Author’s Note: For reasons too complicated to elaborate here, I did not file a Wednesday G-File. Suffice it to say, I could not flee a crime scene and bang out a Midweek Epistle. I only bring this up because today’s G-File is a double-header intended to get me out of arrears with you, my dear readers. Part 1 will please many conservatives, Part 2 will please far fewer….
My column today is on this bizarre talking point that policing qua policing is the poisoned fruit of Southern slave patrols in 18th and 19th century slave states.
Now, I think the fact that some slave patrols in a handful of Southern states did become the basis of some police forces is interesting. I’m even open to the idea that it’s significant, though I’d like to see some more dots connected.
What I mean is, I think a common sense exploration of the situation on the ground today would reveal that, say, the Atlanta Police Department doesn’t take this history very much into account on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, I suspect that the average sergeant at roll call would get into a good deal of trouble if he or she said, “Let’s be careful out there! And, remember, you are modern-day slave patrollers in blue! It’s a noble tradition!”
But you can read more about all that in my column. What I find interesting is this style of argumentation, in part because I am sometimes prone to—or guilty of—doing the same thing.
I have said a few thousand times that if I were to write Liberal Fascism today, I’d do it differently. This is not a repudiation of the book—I stand by most of the major points. But my mind has changed a bit about how political ideologies and political psychology interact.
More relevant to the point here: One problem with how my book was received was that I was not as clear about some points as I should have been, which made it easier for some critics to make their bad faith arguments about it. Specifically, while I think progressivism has much to answer for as a historical movement and is wrong on a host of policies, I don’t think (unlike Dinesh D’Souza, who rewrote my book for the worse) that the Ghost of Progressivism Past is indistinguishable from the Spirit of Progressivism Present.
For instance, one of the things I pointed out in Liberal Fascism is that much of progressivism was born of—let’s not call them fascist—a host of militaristic, racist, and eugenic ideas.
As I point out every few minutes in this “news”letter, the New Deal was expressly built around the military-industrial organization of the First World War and William James’s ideas about the “moral equivalent of war.” FDR boasted about this openly, as did nearly all of the intellectual praetorians of the New Deal. The NRA’s “Blue Eagle” program—modeled on Wilson’s War Industries Board—and the Civilian Conservation Corps were openly and proudly militaristic. CCC “enlistees met at army recruiting stations; wore World War I uniforms; were transported around the country by troop trains; answered to army sergeants; were required to stand at attention, march in formation, employ military lingo—including the duty of calling superiors ‘sir’—read a CCC newspaper modeled on Stars and Stripes; went to bed in army tents listening to taps; and woke to reveille.”
“In war, in the gloom of night attack, soldiers wear a bright badge on their shoulders to be sure their comrades do not fire on comrades,” FDR said of the Blue Eagle, “On that principle those who cooperate in this program must know each other at a glance.”
Many New Deal agencies, the famous “alphabet soup,” were continuations of various boards and committees set up 15 years earlier during the First World War. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was an updated version of the War Finance Corporation. FDR’s public housing initiative had its roots in a World War I power project. (As FDR explained when he formally asked Congress to create the thing: “This power development of war days leads logically to national planning.” The Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, had its roots in a World War I power project. The Supreme Court defended the constitutionality of the TVA in part by citing the president’s war powers. I can—and did—go on like this for pages.
White man’s wages.
Consider the minimum wage. Its roots go deep into eugenic theory. Sidney Webb, the famous Fabian socialist and longtime eugenicist, was concerned about what to do with the “unemployable classes.” Such dregs should be sequestered, put in colonies and camps, or kept at home to prevent them from participating in the market. “Of all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Webb observed, “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them unrestrainedly to compete as wage earners.” Webb defined the unemployable as:
...the sick and the crippled, the idiots and lunatics, the epileptic, the blind and the deaf and dumb, the criminals and the incorrigibly idle, and all those who are actually “morally deficient” … and [those] incapable of steady or continuous application, or who are so deficient in strength, speed or skill that they are incapable of producing their maintenance at any occupation whatsoever.
Such thinking formed a kind of elite consensus among Progressives. Richard Ely, the founder of the American Economic Association, favored labor camps for “the morally incurable.” Those “who will not work and will not obey,” Ely asserted, “should not be allowed to propagate their kind.” The fundamental challenge posed by the unfit was the mere “existence of these feeble persons.”
But at least in England, eugenics didn’t have much of a racist hue to it, because nearly everybody was of the same, well, hue. In America, however, race and immigration made eugenic arguments even more poisonous. An academic named Woodrow Wilson lamented in his A History of the American People that white workers couldn’t “live upon a handful of rice for a pittance,” and so couldn’t compete with Chinese labor, “who with their yellow skin and strange debasing habits of life seemed to them hardly fellow men at all but evil spirits, rather.” Ely even scoffed at efforts to alleviate famine in India. Why not “let the famine continue for the sake of race improvement?”
Thomas Leonard, in his invaluable book, Illiberal Reformers recounts:
John Graham Brooks, Unitarian minister and first president of the National Consumers League, put it plainly: standards of living were a “question of race.” The League’s white label, Brooks said, guaranteed garment consumers that their clothing was made under conditions that maintained “the white as against the cooly [sic] standard of life.”
One solution to the twin threat of the unfit and the yellow and black peril, offered by the cream of the progressive intelligentsia, was a minimum wage. As the sociologist E.A. Ross famously put it, the Coolie “cannot outdo the American but he can underlive him.” Ely changed this to “Reilly can outdo Ah San, but Ah San can underlive Reilly.”
So the idea was to offer a minimum wage that would guarantee that employers would only hire white workers. After all, given the biological superiority of the white man, who would bother to hire a Chinaman if you had to pay the same price. “A legal minimum wage,” Leonard explains, “applied to immigrants and those already working in America, ensured that only the productive workers were employed.” And the theory held that the white workers would be the productive workers. It was a strange argument given that nearly all of these people conceded that the Chinese laborers were extremely hard working and industrious.
Such thinking survived far longer than many progressives want to acknowledge. The Davis-Bacon Act, which required federal contracts go to unions and pay “prevailing wages”—a sacred cow today on the left—was sold in no small part on the grounds that it would prevent black laborers from getting good jobs.
Anyway, I can go on like this for a very long time. But I think you get the point.
Now, do I think Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are racist eugenicists because they want a federal minimum wage? No.
But by what logic is that a ridiculous thing to say in a world where black police officers in New York or Minneapolis are modern-day slave patrollers?
We live in a bizarre moment where people are replacing common sense with a literary sensibility. In literature, it’s very easy to connect such dots. In real life, the implied transitive property of myth and symbolism just doesn’t exist. The Davis-Bacon Act may have been born of racism, and it still may be bad policy, but it’s not racist anymore.
Indeed, as a conservative, I am happy to argue that the minimum wage is bad for poor black people (and poor white people), partly for the reasons the eugenicists suggested: It’s a barrier to entry for the people most desperately in need of work and skills. For centuries, parents paid skilled tradesmen to take their children into service as an apprentice—for free—because doing so put their kid on a path to a livelihood. In a time of automation, making it more expensive to take a flier on an untrained young person strikes me as a bad idea. But I don’t think it’s an intentionally racist one.
The New York Times’s 1619 Project is a perfect example of the triumph of literary thinking. America did not begin in 1619 as a matter of fact, logic, or history--nor did it fight the Revolutionary War to protect slavery. But as a literary device the 1619 argument works quite well, precisely because facts, logic, and history are irrelevant to the real task: emotional foreshadowing: “This is when it all began.” But even if the 1619 project were true, what, exactly, would that mean about America today? The nihilistic buffoons attacking George Washington’s statue and spray painting “1619” around seem to think 1619 says a lot about a country that fought a civil war, abolished slavery, and elected a black president. They’re dangerous idiots.
This is my objection to Howard Zinn and all those who knowingly or unknowingly ape his arguments. Yes, America did bad things in the past, just like every other country in the world. But for the Zinnians, the bad things never recede into the past, they never get smaller in the rearview mirror as we drive toward a more perfect union (admittedly, often in a zigzagging pattern). Instead, as we improve as a nation, the sins of the past bizarrely get larger in our imaginations. And that’s the point, it’s all so imaginary.
The Bolton show.
Peter Navarro, the author of If It's Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks, whose grasp of economics was once described as “nuttier than Batman’s basement” is terrific sycophant for a trade economist.
There’s no need to dwell on him, but he did offer an interesting critique of John Bolton. He described Bolton’s book as “deep swamp revenge porn.”
Even though I use ExpressVPN (promo code Remnant!), I shall refrain from checking Pornhub.com to see if that is an actual category of porn. Though Rule 34 suggests there should be scads of videos of vindictive sex in the Everglades.
Now, I know that revenge porn is a thing. Mr. Pedia (Wiki to his friends) defines it as “the distribution of sexually explicit images or video of individuals without their consent.” Typically, it involves immoral men videotaping their sexual exploits and then putting them on the web. It’s a grotesque and shabby thing to do. And, if you’re a Trump lickspittle, the analogy has some merit.
But here’s the problem. In most cases of revenge porn, the images in question are, you know, real.
But Navarro, like most of the administration’s spinners, wants it both ways (another common leitmotif in porn, I’m told).
After getting the revenge porn line out a couple times, he told Fox News “I do think the 'Big Lie Bolton' moniker does suffice.”
So, which is it? Is it “revenge porn” or a “Big Lie?” It can’t be both.
By the way, the term “big lie” (große Lüge) comes from Adolf Hitler. In Mein Kampf, Hitler explains that “Big Lies” are “colossal untruths” that are so shocking that the public “would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” In fairness to Hitler (a phrase I don’t often write), he was attributing the practice to the perfidious Jews. Then again, his scapegoating of the Jews was part of his own Big Lie campaign. (As historian Richard Striner argues, it’s a good example of Hitler’s projection of his own sins on his enemies, because uttering colossal untruths was at the center of his rule.) He believed that people were more likely to believe large lies than small ones, and that spouting them was a way of establishing, in Eric Hoffer’s words, “fact-proof screens between the faithful and the realities of the world.” The people who bought the Big Lies were according to Hoffer, the “True Believers.”
Now, Trump is not Hitler—Hitler loved dogs, for starters and, as I often point out, Hitler could have repealed Obamacare—but he is certainly a practitioner of die große Lüge (and die kleine lüge and die mittelgroße Lüge). The key criterion for what constitutes “fake news” isn’t whether it’s fake, but whether it’s inconvenient to Trump and the True Believers.
Anyway, back to Bolton. The backlash against Bolton is fascinating to me, and not just because the book could have been titled The Room Where It Happens: A White House Memoir of Why Jonah Goldberg Was Right All Along.
Over the last 72 hours, virtually every possible attack has been leveled at Bolton, including those that contradict each other. We’ve been told that his book is a pack of lies and that it is full of classified information. As with revenge porn, it can’t be both. We’ve been told that Bolton’s a “traitor” or that he is “unpatriotic”—because he didn’t testify during the impeachment trial. He’s disloyal, disgruntled, a warmonger, and a grandstander just out to sell books. And, of course, my favorite attack, drenched with pogonophobic bias: “His mustache is ridiculous!” With the exception of the claim he’s lying, all of these things can be correct—though I’m not saying they all are—without changing the fact that they’re almost all surely true.
My favorite response is that this is really just old news and that we knew all of this about Trump. Of course, “this” doesn’t mean the fresh details, great and small—that he greenlighted China’s use of concentration camps, that Trump didn’t know whether Finland was part of Russia, etc.—we didn’t know that stuff. But we did know that he is an ignorant narcissist who can’t grasp the concept that his personal interests are not synonymous with the national interest.
What is amazing to me is that this argument is rolled out as a defense of the president of the United States.
I know Bolton a little, and I know plenty of people who know him very, very well. He is open to many criticisms, though some of the more popular ones are off-base (he’s not a neoconservative, for instance). I’ve been describing my Carolina dog, Zoë, as the “John Bolton of dogs” for years because during the Bush administration Bolton was described as “kiss up, kick down sort of guy.”
But I’ve never seen any evidence that he’s a liar. In fact, precisely because Bolton is very smart, savvy, and abrasive, he understands better than anyone that he can’t be effective if he gets caught in lies. That’s why he constantly takes notes. It’s why he does his homework and is meticulous in his lawyerly attention to the facts and bureaucratic detail. You can dispute his interpretation of facts—I’ve done that myself—but whether it’s because of his integrity or his alleged lack of it, he deals in truths.
What is remarkable to me, still, is that people can’t or won’t process the fact that Trump is the man Bolton describes. I believe Trump asked Xi to help him get re-elected not just because I believe Bolton, but because I saw Trump ask China to help him take out Joe Biden on national TV. I believe Trump didn’t know Finland was part of Russia (though I suspect he got the idea from Putin), because just the other day he said he never heard of Juneteenth until this week (even though he’s signed proclamations honoring it for the last three years). He didn’t know what TPP was or what it did. He thought, in 2018, that relations with Russia have never been worse. He said in 2016 that black communities were in worse shape than they have “ever been in before, ever, ever, ever.” And four years later, he said, “Nobody has ever done for the black community what President Trump has done.” He thinks China—not American consumers—pay the entirety of his tariffs on Chinese goods. He believes he’s good at epidemiology because his uncle was a physicist. He thought Andrew Jackson could have stopped the Civil War. He thought Canada burned down the White House a half-century before Canada existed. He was surprised to learn Lincoln was a Republican. He makes such mistakes off the cuff, and even off a TelePrompTer.
As of now, Trump’s former national security adviser, secretary of defense, chief of staff (and DHS secretary) and secretary of state have all said, to one extent or another, that he’s unfit for the job he holds. Yes, yes, I know they’re all deep state operatives or some other supposedly disqualifying epithet. Because the definition of a deep state operative has come to be, “[s]omeone with firsthand experience with the president who then offers an informed and truthful opinion about President Trump.”
The biggest irony of all is that Bolton is far closer to the man they think Trump is. Bolton is a fighter. Bolton stands up for his views, which are deeply grounded in an informed and even patriotic understanding of America, even when they are unpopular. He relishes trolling liberal elites. He is unapologetic about protecting America’s national interest, even if that means working with unsavory regimes—so long as they are loyal to America (which is why he’s not a neocon). Sure, he likes the limelight, but that can’t possibly be a problem for people who love Trump’s style. The difference between Bolton and Trump is that Bolton understands that to be effective you need to do your homework. One might even say it’s the minimally patriotic price of public service. That’s why, even when he’s wrong, he always knows what he’s talking about, including when he’s talking about Trump.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So I was out of town most of the week and had to rely on archival material for dog tweets, to the chagrin of many. Though I can always buy goodwill with Puppy Pippa Pics. And the Fair Jessica did try her hand at treat videos. But I am home now and the dogs are with me. They got their treats this morning, though we are out of much of our supply of Scout & Zoe’s treats (a new advertiser on the Remnant, btw: discount code Dingo). We’re trying to save the freeze-dried minnows for the cats, who love them. I just don’t have too much to report. Everything is pretty much back to normal with them. Pippa Leroy Roy Jenkins’d Zoë again. Pippa is still in a rolling-in-foulness phase, which is extremely frustrating. Anyway, TFJ will be back this weekend, so hopefully I’ll get a good welcoming committee video.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Oliver Contreras/For the Washington Post/Getty Images.