“Generals are always preparing to fight the last war” is one of the hoariest maxims in politics.
(One of the whore-y-ist maxims is “I won’t take a salary because I believe so passionately in your candidacy. I’ll just take a percentage of the media buys.” But that’s a subject for another day.)
I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like what we’re witnessing right now. For President Trump, time is a flat circle. And painted on its side—presumably in a one-dimensional font—is “2016.”
And I kind of get it—he won in 2016 by doing what he did, so you could understand why he thinks doing that again should work. In a weird way, he’s kind of being scientific. If a process yields desired results, repeating the process should yield them again. (Indeed, all of his weird habits and shady business practices are the result of decades of “winner’s bias.” Who can tell him “you can’t do that” when doing that has always worked for him?)
So sure, let’s bring a shocking guest to the final debate to psych out Biden. Worked last time.
Let’s hammer on a convoluted thing about laptops and emails that implicates our opponent. Worked last time.
Let’s get crowds to chant “lock him up.” “Lock her up” paid off before.
Weirdly, his most effective argument in 2016 only returned last night, when he revived his “I’m not a politician” talking point.
More about that in a second.
What’s remarkable to me isn’t that Trump wants to do the time warp again. It’s how much everyone else is stuck in 2016 too. I mean, it makes sense that generals get stuck on what worked for them last time. But when there’s an actual war, the soldiers and civilians aren’t fighting the last war—they’re experiencing the one they’re in. Nobody getting rolled over by a Panzer in 1941 said “this is just like World War One!” Images of a smoldering Hiroshima conjure many emotions and thoughts; none of them are feelings of déjà vu for the Japanese invasion of French Indochina (the previous Japanese war, for those of you who were curious).
Let’s start with the most obvious example. I won’t rehash in great detail how the “The polls were wrong in 2016!” mantra has always been overstated. An average of the final national polls in 2016 indicated a Clinton victory of 3.3%. She won the popular vote by 2.1%—which is squarely within the margin of error. Meanwhile, pollsters called 47 out of 50 states correctly.
But here’s the thing: Unlike almost everyone else, pollsters aren’t fighting the last war. The primary reason they got a couple of swing states wrong is that they didn’t include enough non-college educated whites in their samples (another is that, unlike this year, there simply wasn’t a lot of good state-level polling). Virtually every reputable pollster has bent over backward to remedy this. So sure, the polling could still be wrong. But it’s unlikely it will be wrong for the same reasons as 2016. Pointing out that Trump is doing better than Hillary was at this time in 2016 in this state or that is interesting. But there’s no reason to assume he will similarly over-perform those polls the way he did in 2016, at least not for the same reasons.
John Podhoretz likes to joke that the space-time continuum was thrown off when Warren Beatty was given the wrong envelope at the Oscars in 2017. He announced that La La Land won best picture when, in fact, Moonlight had. With that small snafu, we were tossed into some alternate reality. I have made more than my fair share of jokes that it was President Trump’s laying of hands upon The Orb that made everything so weird. There’s also the familiar trope about how the writers of the reality show we’re all stuck in are constantly trying to one-up each other with the wacky plot twists to make our reality so implausible that even fans of Japanese game shows and Mexican soap operas are like, “Whoa, that’s too much.”
If I wanted to get very eggheady, I’d shave my dome and paint it white. Figuratively speaking, if I wanted to get eggheady, I’d argue that this feeling of imbalance and perpetual angst is the downstream consequence of institutional decay. Whether it was the Catholic Church sex scandals or the Boy Scout ones, the ugliness of the Iraq war, the society-changing effects of the birth control pill, mass immigration, social media, or the creative destruction of e-commerce, the simple fact is that the pace of disruption has gotten faster than our ability to create new norms and institutions to compensate. And one result of this is no one really trusts authority anymore. Norms are for other people to follow, not us. But we can talk about all that later.
For the purposes of this conversation, the disruption wasn’t The Orb or Twitter or Warren Beatty’s envelope: it’s Trump himself. I think it’s fair to say that pretty much everyone was shocked by Trump’s win in 2016, including Trump himself. Even his fans who claimed to be confident he’d win were still shocked by the reality of it. There’s an old idea in politics, summarized by Mario Cuomo’s dictum that you “campaign in poetry but govern in prose.” Obama ran on “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” and “No red states, no blue states, just the United States,” but he governed like a fairly conventional, very liberal—and after his first two years—ineffectual president.
It’s hard to find any poetry in Trump’s campaign style, but I suppose you could call it a form of slam poetry—a kind of constant staccato of anti-melodic shouts and irritable mental gestures transformed into slogans. The relevant point is that he never really transitioned to the prose. His inability—not refusal, but inability—to leave that mode for any sustained period of time had the effect of freezing everything in place psychologically. Events kept moving, but people’s brains kind of stayed in place, like when you walk the wrong way on a moving sidewalk. The left never accepted that he was president, and the president never gave them much reason to change their mind. Stuck in a paradoxical limbo, Trump kept campaigning for a job he already had, acting like an outsider when he was the ultimate insider, hurling criticisms and conspiracy theories at the government he runs. The slam poetry was too much fun, and the prose was too boring and too difficult an alternative. The shock of his victory should have been like a blinding flash of light that soon fades as our eyes adjust, but Trump and his biggest fans and foes alike kept trying to keep the klieg lights on for the last four years.
That’s why we’ve been stuck in an ethereal in-between state, the ghost of 2016 saturating everything: because it hasn’t ended. It’s burned into our retinas like a ghost image that distorts reality. When someone does an “impossible” thing, it raises doubt about all the other supposed impossibilities. “The polls were wrong in 2016” is just one facet of the larger will-o-the-wisp that proves we don’t have to take any authority’s word for anything. “2016 proved that,” don’t you know.
Constant of Change
But let’s get back to the real and the now. Emotional states are interesting and important, but your emotional state can’t change reality forever. In the cartoons, Wile E. Coyote can stay aloft when he runs off the cliff until he looks down, but in real life his state of mind wouldn’t affect his hang time at all.
I noted earlier that Trump finally reprised his “I’m not a politician” routine last night, which was a big part of his appeal in 2016. Here’s the problem: He is a politician now. Unconventional, sure. But he’s the President of the United States. He endorses candidates, holds rallies, and is, y’know, running for reelection.
And reelection is the key. It may feel at times like we’re stuck in 2016, but that’s just a feeling. In 2016, Trump oddly fit Max Weber’s definition of a charismatic authority, at least among his fans. One of the features of charismatic leaders is that people project upon them the qualities they want in a leader (Barack Obama fit this paradigm in 2008 as well). So moderates looked for evidence that Trump was a moderate and found it. Social conservatives looked for proof he was one of them, and they found it. People who wanted a great manager and exemplary businessman looked at Trump and said, “There he is!” Sometimes it worked backwards as well. People who just wanted to like Trump started there, and reverse-engineered arguments to fit him. He’s a genius, a nationalist, a patriot, an alpha male; the rationalizations came so fast that they ceased being rationalizations and became articles of faith and subjects for a McNaughton painting.
Some people—many people—living happily in the Upside Down of perpetual 2016 still feel this way. But there aren’t enough of them, no matter how many times Mike Pence describes them as “the American people.” There’s just been a whole bunch of reality since 2016. Schrödinger’s cat may be alive or dead. Opening the box may determine which. But whatever the process may be, once you open the box, the cat you find—live or dead—is the cat you have. There’s no mystery left to what a Trump presidency would be like. What we’ve seen is what we’ve gotten. Reality, like the coronavirus, eventually intrudes. Not on everybody, but on enough people.
The folks in the neverending 2016 have a problem seeing—and therefore believing—that large swaths of “the American people” don’t see what they see. So they rush to 2016 fantasies about shy Trump voters coming to the rescue. Surely the silent majority sees what they see, but they can’t tell pollsters because they’re afraid, or because they’re Trumpian geniuses determined to humiliate the experts once again. Never mind that the “shy Trump” voter thing didn’t really happen in 2016. Never mind that the same shy Trump voters are willing to tell pollsters that they think Trump’s better on the economy, they just won’t tell pollsters—or non-human surveys—they’ll vote for him.
Of course, Trump can still win. But if he wins it won’t be for the reasons he won in 2016. Because it’s not 2016 anymore and never will be again.
On L’Affaire Toobin
So I got a lot of great feedback on my admittedly and unabashedly juvenile members-only (no pun intended) midweek G-File on Jeffrey Toobin’s toobin’ mishap. But I also got a good number of complaints. Maybe I should have warned readers better about what I was about to whip out. The blowback hasn’t quite reached the level where it will be known forevermore as The Dispatch’s Toobin Missile Crisis. But I do want to address people’s concerns.
As I wrote in that “news”letter, I am trying to model better behavior. It’s one of the reasons I joined Steve in launching The Dispatch. It’s why I wrote Suicide of the West the way I did. It’s why I try to resist my well-hewn muscle memory to “own the libs” at every opportunity.
At the same time, the G-File has always been a weird thing. It was born at National Review as a way to let me do my thing the way I wanted to do it. I was like Dr. Johnny Fever in WKRP in Cincinnati, and Rich Lowry was like Andy Travis letting me say “booger” on air. I could write about immanentizing the eschaton or my favorite women’s prison movies. Or both. It was my thing.
When we started The Dispatch, I offered to change the nature of the G-File because it doesn’t really fit neatly within our overall editorial approach. Steve was adamant that we not change it at all. So, if you want to assign blame here, I will be happy to have it fall on Steve. Trump said last night, “I take full responsibility. It’s China’s fault.” In the same spirit, I take full responsibility for my figurative onanistic frenzy about Toobin’s literal onanistic frenzy. It’s Steve’s fault.
Still, I can understand why, say, some David French readers felt like David Remnick on a Zoom call: “This is not what I signed up for!” So I do apologize for any offense I gave. I can’t promise nothing like it will ever happen again. I mean if, say, Corey Lewandowski gets caught on Google Chat rogering a goat—“I was just trying to push it over the fence!”—I can’t swear I won’t surrender to my poo-flinging monkey ways once again. But I do promise I will warn readers up top so they can make an informed decision.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: I am very pressed for time. Zoë still loves her leaves—one per night. Some ask whether there’s something chemical about the leaves. Maybe. You tell me. It’s a Meyer Lemon tree that is slowly rebelling against indoor captivity by shedding leaves. This morning we had a little drama. Some of you may not know this, but many dogs will not go down stairs if it involves passing a cat. The weird thing this morning is that neither Zoë nor Gracie were on the stairs but they each approached from a different angle at the top of the stairs and neither would say “After you.” So they just stared at each other for about five minutes until we broke the log jam. Pippa is feeling better, but there’s something about the fall air that makes rolling in deer … stuff even more irresistible. So she’s had about 4 baths this week. I’d say it’s the canine equivalent of drug-seeking behavior, but she always seems so miserable at bath time. Also, Fafoon doesn’t say hello.
And now, the weird stuff
Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images.