Yesterday, a bunch of people—at least I assume they were people—emailed me a piece by Scott Alexander. They wrote: “What do you think?” “Would love to see a G-File on this.” “Click this link to meet Russian girls who really dig you!” Whoops, sorry, that was a different email.
Anyway, I read these emails with some dread. I had planned to write about Bill Kristol’s trial balloon that anti-Trump Republicans become Democrats, but it sounded like Alexander’s piece was worth addressing. So, I read it this morning. And the good news is: I can write about both. Let’s start with Alexander’s“Modest Proposal.”
Alexander, a truly brilliant writer I’ve learned a great deal from, makes the case that the GOP should spend more time talking about class. I’m going to quote a long passage, but please don’t hold that against my own word count since this is going to be a very long G-File. He writes:
So here's my recommendation: use the word "class". Pivot from mindless populist rage to a thoughtful campaign to fight classism.
Yeah, yeah, "class" sounds Marxist, class warfare and all that, you're supposed to be against that kind of thing, right? Wrong. Economic class warfare is Marxist, but here in the US class isn't a purely economic concept. Class is also about culture. You're already doing class warfare, you're just doing it blindly and confusedly. Instead, do it openly, while using the words "class" and “classism”.
Trump didn't win on a platform of capitalism and liberty and whatever. He won on a platform of being anti-establishment. But which establishment? Not rich people. Trump is rich, lots of his Cabinet picks were rich, practically the first thing he did was cut taxes on the rich. Some people thought that contradicted his anti-establishment message, but those people were wrong. Powerful people? Getting warmer, but Mike Pence is a powerful person and Trump wasn't against Mike Pence. Smart people? Now you're burning hot.
Trump stood against the upper class. He might define them as: people who live in nice apartments in Manhattan or SF or DC and laugh under their breath if anybody comes from Akron or Tampa.
He goes on to make a number of interesting points and useful recommendations. Not only do I agree with a lot of them (though not all), I’ve made some of these arguments myself many times. For instance, his suggestion that the GOP declare war on wokeness is a nice summary of stuff I’ve been writing for decades:
But now it's because wokeness is a made-up mystery religion that college-educated people invented so they could feel superior to you. Why are they so sure that "some of my best friends are black" doesn't make you any less racist? Because the whole point is that the only way not to be racist is to master an inscrutable and constantly-changing collection of fashionable shibboleths and opinions which are secretly class norms. The whole point is to make sure the working-class white guy whose best friends are black and who marries a black woman and has beautiful black children feels immeasurably inferior to the college-educated white guy who knows that saying "colored people" is horrendously offensive but saying "people of color" is the only way to dismantle white supremacy. You should make it clear that this is total balderdash, you could not be less interested in it, and you will continue befriending colored people of color regardless.
So, what’s my problem? Well, he’s basically saying Republicans should follow Bill Kristol’s advice. Not 2020s Bill Kristol, but 1990s Bill Kristol.
“The Cultural Elite.”
Let’s hop in the Wayback Machine. There was a time when Vice President Dan Quayle—remember him?—dominated the political conversation by calling out “the cultural elite.” “The changes in our country,” Quayle argued, have "created a cultural divide in our country. It is so great a divide that it sometimes seems we have two cultures, the cultural elite and the rest of us.”
At its apex, the cultural elite argument got subsumed into the Murphy Brown brouhaha. Murphy Brown was a sitcom about a rich, attractive, powerful female newscaster—named Murphy Brown—who had a son out of wedlock and chose to raise him by herself, something that was at least somewhat controversial back then. The sophisticated form of Murphy Brown critique—one I still subscribe to—is that cultural elites who are rich in economic and social capital celebrate ill-advised behaviors they can afford but can be calamitous for people less well-off.
To use one of my favorite illustrations of this point, Madonna famously warbled “Papa don’t preach, I’m keeping my baby.” But the thing is, Madonna can afford to be a single mom. When on tour she had an entourage of hundreds and admitted in an interview, “I don’t have any problems with [diapers] because I have never changed one.” The fictional Murphy Brown had a live-in painter who doubled as a nanny.
Anyway, Quayle criticized Brown, and the backlash from the cultural elite taught him that “to appeal to our country’s enduring basic moral values is to invite the scorn and laughter of the elite culture.”
While the Murphy Brown bit wasn’t Kristol’s idea, the larger war against the cultural elite absolutely was. Kristol was the vice president’s chief of staff and, as The New Republic famously put it, “Dan Quayle’s Brain.”
Many liberals excoriated Kristol as a hypocrite since he was clearly—by their definition—a member of the cultural elite himself. The headline of a piece by Newsday’s Nina Bernstein captured the stupid gotcha argument well. “Neo-Con ARTIST; Turns out the man who orchestrated Quayle's attacks on New York - and Murphy Brown - grew up in the city, right in the middle of the cultural elite.” A long profile of Kristol in The New Republic by Hanna Rosin was more generous and fair-minded. “There is, of course, something ironic about this ultimate protege of the cultural elite invoking a populist revolt against it,” Rosin wrote. “But this irony is one of which Kristol is undoubtedly aware. Kristol, after all, went from dining with the Trillings at his parents' West Side Manhattan apartment to high school at Collegiate, an elite private boys' school in New York, to Harvard.”
Defending Quayle, Kristol told the New York Times, “He's used the term to refer to people who look down on middle-class bourgeois values. It’s a shallow sophistication, not generic culture. It's bicoastal snobbery, and I think that's worth criticizing.”
The “irony” that Rosin identified—and that Bill fully understood and could defend—is precisely the stuff of Alexander’s essay. He rightly argues that class as a purely economic term has very limited analytical value in America today (and, I would argue, it was ever thus). After all, some 85 percent of Americans think of themselves as middle class in some way. Alexander is right that Trump is rich, but he’s culturally lower class, a bridge-and-tunnel billionaire (allegedly) who carries a massive chip on his shoulder about people who claim to be the elite. The people who tried to paint Kristol a hypocrite were unwilling or unable to understand that cultural power in America is often—though certainly not always—only tangentially about money.
Admittedly, the cultural divide back then was more defined around feminism than race, though there was plenty of racial stuff at play. Kristol admitted in interviews that the L.A. riots were the touchstone for the cultural elite campaign. "In all honesty, the whole cultural offensive started with one line in a speech, and it was spurred by real life - the L.A. riots," Kristol told Bernstein, insisting that it was the vice president's idea to speak on the breakdown of families and values as a cause of the violence.
The cultural elite campaign was, as I think Bill would admit, an updating of his father’s arguments against the “new class.” As Remnant listeners will know, these were themselves a distillation of arguments made by Joseph Schumpeter and James Burnham, among others. A defining feature of all new class critiques is that the people positioned at the commanding heights of society use culture—ideas, entertainment, education, etc.—to protect their power.
“Power for what?” Irving Kristol asked in a famous Wall Street Journal essay in 1975. “Well, the power to shape our civilization—a power which, in a capitalist system, is supposed to reside in the free market. The ‘new class’ wants to see much of this power redistributed to government, where they will then have a major say in how it is exercised.”
The elder Kristol (an intellectual hero of mine, by the way) acknowledged that the new class is “idealistic,” by which he meant that they sincerely believe the stuff they say. It’s just that they “are persuaded that they can do a better job of running our society and feel entitled to have the opportunity.”
This is where I take Alexander to be coming from.
Perhaps the best illustration of Alexander’s point is discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions. I don’t think Harvard and MIT are bigoted against Asians the way, say, Progressive Era intellectuals were. But they are bigoted against people who don’t subscribe to the tenets of social justice or wokeism. Many highly qualified Asian American applicants to elite schools are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and they still cling to the bourgeois notion that education is desirable for economic success (i.e., getting a good job). Their parents care a lot more about how well their kids do in calculus than how their kids can describe the evils of white supremacy.
But college administrators care a lot about that stuff, and they weed-out kids who don’t know the shibboleths and buzz-phrases of social justice. And Alexander is wholly right that conservatives should take dead aim at such behavior. For instance, I’ve been writing for years that whatever you think about immigration policy, it is shameful and outrageous that the right has abandoned the glorious Americanness of the immigration story to the left.
In fairness to the new class types, they believe in upward mobility. But they’re rigging the system in a way that requires obeisance to wokeness.
So what do I disagree with Alexander about? I have some minor nits to pick. For instance, I think his discussion of prediction markets is… interesting, but as a political program it feels like the idea needs more time in the oven. Also, I don’t think economic class warfare is necessarily Marxist. A better way to put it would be that Marxism is about economic class warfare, but not all forms of economic class warfare are Marxist.
Which brings me to my main critique: What does Alexander think the last 40 years of GOP messaging have been about in the first place? The cultural elite stuff was pretty much exactly what Alexander is talking about. Family values, the Pledge of Allegiance, compassionate conservatism; all of these fit broadly into a similar program. (Plenty of people on the left will tell you that this stuff made Trump inevitable. I disagree, but we’ll have to leave that for another day.)
Alexander does concede that, “You're already doing class warfare, you're just doing it blindly and confusedly.” But I don’t think suddenly using the word “class” is as clarifying as he thinks it is—never mind some sort of silver bullet. Moreover, a lot of Republicans have been voiding their pie holes lately about “the working class” and the need for the GOP to become a “workers party.” And just to be clear, Republicans have been appealing to the middle class nonstop for 40 years.
Alexander, by his own admission, has an excuse for not appreciating this sufficiently, given that this is not his natural turf.
Still, I think Alexander is making the same mistake Rubio, Hawley, et al, are guilty of. They seem to think winning over the new Trump voters or “Obama-Trump” voters is the whole ballgame. What’s lacking is the cost-benefit analysis. Let’s stipulate that populism attracts many voters who normally don’t vote. So far, most of these voters aren’t very reliable when Trump isn’t on the ticket. Meanwhile, these crude populist appeals have cost the GOP historically extremely reliable voters in the suburbs.
It’s certainly possible that if current trends continue, the GOP could come out ahead in this strategy. But that looks unlikely so far, particularly when you consider the larger cultural context. First, if the left is correct that the culture/class messaging of the pre-Trump GOP lead inexorably to Trump, it’s worth considering what horrors fully committing to Trumpy populism might yield (I mean beyond the storming of the Capitol by a violent mob).
I think all serious political observers agree that the Democrats have a massive asymmetric advantage when it comes to controlling the centers of cultural power in America. Pursuing a strategy that essentially says, “We’re the party of the powerless and culturally aggrieved,” doesn’t strike me as a great way to hold on to many traditional (general election) GOP voters, never mind convert enough new ones to make up for the growing shortfall. And again, the prospect of success—i.e. Trumpifying the majority of the country—might be scarier than failure.
While I agree with Alexander that higher education needs disrupting, I’d still like to see conservatives mount a Gramscian counter-march through the institutions to take back the commanding heights of the culture, rather than simply embrace a strategy of permanent warfare against them.
The Red Dog strategy.
Which brings me back to Bill Kristol. I can think of few people better suited to help lead that kind of effort than Bill. He understands academia, enjoys strange new respect in the liberal media, and has a deep understanding of how the corporate and philanthropic world works. But instead, Bill and some of his colleagues are thinking about a march into a very different institution: the Democratic Party. I agree entirely with Michael Brendan Dougherty’s take on this idea. It’d be great if it could work. As I constantly say, the point of the conservative movement is to move the center of gravity rightward. Alas, I need to qualify this these days. When I say rightward, I mean in the traditional conservative sense of upholding bourgeois notions of morality, citizenship, and good conduct, a free market economy, and limited government—not rightward in the sense of Matt Gaetzian boob-bait populism and “own the libs” asininity.
“If Kristol and friends could make a move into the Democratic Party, blunt its left-wing edge, and moderate it on several issues, then the legacy of the Never Trump movement would be to dramatically push the center of gravity in America to the right,” Michael writes.
The first problem is I don’t think it would work, for the same reasons that Michael lays out:
But I think the fatal problem for this project is that the center-left does not have the moral or intellectual capacity to resist the woke revolution. This is being proven over and over again in other institutions, whether it is the ACLU or the New York Times. Older, institutionally oriented liberals are simply incapable of resisting the demands or fending off the fatal attacks of younger left-wing staff. Why would the Democratic Party — almost alone — stand firm against the woke revolution that is roiling everything else?
From neocon to neolib?
I could be wrong, but I suspect that Bill is being driven in part by nostalgia for the role of the neoconservatives of his father’s generation who surged into the GOP and conservative ranks in the 1960s through the early 1980s. Whether I’m right or wrong about Bill’s thinking, I am confident I’m right that the analogy doesn’t work. The neocons had great influence on the right, but, as William F. Buckley Jr. observed, their impact wasn’t primarily ideological. Buckley argued that the neocons brought fresh arguments for old and established conservative positions. Pre-neocon conservatism was too brittle, or too “Aristotelean” in Buckley’s telling. The neoconservative refugees from the left helped conservatism by providing the newer (and new class-ier) language of “sociology” and social science. Irving used to say that one of the great accomplishments of neoconservatism—I’m paraphrasing—is to provide hard data demonstrating that the things your grandmother told you were right.
That’s not the contribution the anti-Trump Republicans like Bill are looking to make, nor is it one that Democrats and the New Class have any desire to hear. The neocons were, for the most part, intellectual conservative reinforcements (paleocon protestations notwithstanding). Indeed, joining conservative ranks arguably changed the neocons more than the neocons changed conservatism. Bill Bennett, Irving Kristol, Michael Novak, Father Neuhaus, Charles Krauthammer, and others all became decidedly more conservative after they switched sides.
Joining the Democratic Party would, of political and psychological necessity, require a similar transformation leftward. One need only look at Jen Rubin, Max Boot, and Steve Schmidt to see how quickly that can happen. Now, Bill is no Jen Rubin. Contrary to his detractors, Bill is still a philosophical conservative (and a very decent man). But simply by virtue of the political calculation he’s made—and his elevation of partisan and anti-Trump politics over other considerations—it’s been very hard to find examples of him publicly fighting for conservative principles these last few years if doing so could be construed as providing cover for Trump’s GOP. Let me be clear, I agree with him almost entirely about Donald Trump’s unfitness and the damage he’s done to conservatism and the GOP. But tactically, strategically, and—as the Straussians might say—prudentially, I disagree with him.
From his days as an aide to Bill Bennett (now very Trumpy) to his work in the 1990s, including the founding of The Weekly Standard, Kristol was always simultaneously a conservative intellectual and a political player on the right. For much of his life, there was little tension between these two roles. Now that’s changed—and the tension between them is very real.
Which brings me to my most fundamental disagreement with Bill. It’s essentially personal, as the rise of Trump and Trumpism has been profoundly clarifying for me. As I’ve recounted many times, I watched as many friends, professional peers, and role models found it too difficult to break from the team when the demands of partisanship required loyalty to Trump. Some did so openly in the name of party loyalty. Some did so less openly out of rank careerism and opportunism. The least objectionable of them justified their decision in the name of instrumentalism—“Trump’s flawed, but we can use him.” But even many of these people eventually found themselves drunk on green room Kool-Aid and simply converted to Trumpism. It’s one thing to admit Trump’s vices while pocketing his victories. It’s quite another to cast his vices as virtues and to tout the victories as proof of such virtue.
Bill rightly rejected all of that, and chose to use his skills as a political player to oppose Trump. Again, I have my disagreements, but I do not think less of him for his choice.
But my own response was nearly the exact opposite. I’ve never had a tiny fraction of the influence Bill had in the political game, but I resolved to become even less invested in the game.
I opted to make peace with being in the remnant, and resolved to get through this by simply telling the truth as I saw it. I’m not saying everyone else is lying (though many are). I’m saying that the need to stay “relevant” caused a lot of conservative intellectuals and pundits—and of course countless politicians—to redefine the truth to fit the political facts on the ground. I don’t want to adjust my sails to the partisan political winds. I’ve railed against populism and popular front politics for 20 years and I’ve tried to stay consistent about that, even when all the financial and career incentives seemed to point the other way. I wasn’t like Whittaker Chambers in Witness who was confident that he was joining “the losing side,” but I was open to the possibility.
To that end, I’ve spent half a decade insisting that I’m not going to bend my understanding of conservatism and political morality to fit a populist personality cult, and I have weathered relentless vitriol as a result. And that’s why this “Red Dog Democrats” idea, wherein the NeverTrump crowd leverages some degree of political influence to drag the Democratic Party a few feet rightward (an effort that I don’t see working), leaves me so cold. I refused to sign up for that kind of thing on the right, so I cannot fathom why I would do it for the left. In other words, if Trumpism is no reason for me to change my mind about telling the truth about what is right, neither is anti-Trumpism.
But if Bill can pull it off without compromising too much of himself in the process, I wish him all the luck in the world. That’s just not the game I want to play.
Various & Sundry
Firstly, a note on last Friday’s G-File. A bunch of people really didn’t like it and chewed me out for it. The primary criticism was that it was just a stream of consciousness rant without some grand point. To this charge, I plead guilty. Indeed, I literally said in the second paragraph that it would be a moveable feast of nonsense, or words to that effect. If that’s not your cup of tea, “Just bail out now, rather than sending me an angry email about how, like a basset hound asked to do the job of an English setter, I never got to the point.”
And yet, many of you sent me precisely that kind of email. Well, consider today’s long, dense, pull-my-finger joke free epistle as compensation—or punishment—for your complaints. Careful what you wish for, people.
Canine update: Something is amiss with Pippa. I’m not sure what, but this morning she refused to catch roast beef, which has to be a bad sign. She’s also been pretty limpy of late, preferring to simply carry her beloved tennis ball rather than fetch it. That’s fine by me, as long as she’s on the mend.
In other news, the weather finally got warm enough for a renewal of dog TV—what we call the upstairs window the girls love to look out.
Oh, one last thing. I’ve told you about Chester, our neighbor’s bruiser of a cat. Well, because my wife has taken to giving him treats when he comes around, he’s coming around a lot. Funny how that works. This morning, I went out the front door instead of the door many of you know as the portal to those “welcoming committee” videos. When I opened it, Chester was standing there like the bouncer of a speakeasy.
Both dogs stopped dead in their tracks. Pippa eventually made a break for it, giving Chester a wide berth. But Zoë is the anointed defender of the castle. In Neo-Assyrian culture she would be known as “Expeller of Evil.” She couldn’t decide what to do about Chester. I held her tight on the leash and pulled her past Chester who stood his ground like Gandalf before the Balrog. We got down our front steps and Zoë turned around and delivered an “Aroo” that rattled the windows and seemed like it should be accompanied by a huge plume of fire. I couldn’t tell if it was at Chester—“This intrusion shall not be forgotten brindle demon!”—or at me for denying her God-given right to police the perimeter.
And now, the weird stuff