The Defining Ethos of MAGA
It’s ‘never admit fault.’
A guy falls off the edge of the Grand Canyon. As he’s falling, he sees this little twig on the edge of the canyon and grabs it. But then the roots start coming out, and he realizes he’s going to fall again. He looks heavenward and says, “God, why me? I’m a good man. I work hard, I pay my taxes, I take care of my family, I’m a good citizen. Why me?"
And then a thunderous voice says, “Son, there’s just something about you I don’t like.”
By Bill Clinton’s own account, it was his “favorite joke.”
He told it well, and the first—maybe even the second—time I heard him tell it, I laughed. But I grew to hate it, precisely because it was his favorite joke.
Shortly after he was impeached, a reporter asked him the following question:
“Sir, will you tell us why you think people have been so mean to you? Is it a conspiracy? Is it a plan? They treat you worse than they treated Abe Lincoln?”
He responded by telling that joke, and the press corps loved it.
I defecate you negatory: This was a real question. So, I’m gonna have to stop the meter, pull over, and talk about this for a minute.
It’s not entirely clear who the reporter, Sarah McClendon, meant by “they.” But whoever “they” were, given that Lincoln was, you know, assassinated, this seemed like a stretch. But by any definition of “they,” this was what some historians might call “very stupid.” Lincoln was called an “idiot” and the “original gorilla” by George McClellan, who was also the commander of his armies. The abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton referred to Lincoln as “Dishonest Abe.” Another famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison Jr., responded in the days after Lincoln’s murder that his assassination was “providential” because it handed the presidency to Andrew Johnson. Republican Sen. Charles Sumner, a confidante and ally of Lincoln’s, opposed Lincoln’s renomination for a second term because he thought Lincoln inadequate to the job. Sen. William Fessenden, another Republican, said Lincoln was “weak as water.”
After Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address—a pretty good piece of oratory if you ask, well, anybody—a Pennsylvania reporter wrote, “We pass over the silly remarks of the president. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”
I could go on. But Mark Bowden already has here.
Also, I should note that these comments all came from, politically speaking, Lincoln’s friends. I think it’s fair to say his enemies were a good deal harsher.
Okay, let’s get back on the road, as it were. I hated Clinton’s favorite joke for several reasons. First, anytime you hear someone tell a joke over and over again, it can get annoying. Second, I hated it because Clinton always told it in the context of his political troubles, essentially about himself. It was thoroughly and completely self-pitying. He did everything right, but life was unfair to him. And last, I hated the joke because Washington was full of Sarah McClendons who saw Clinton’s travails precisely this way. They literally thought it was both unprecedented for people to be so mean to a president in general and a frick’n mystery that anybody would be mean to Clinton at all.
Now, I’m not saying that Clinton earned every harsh word and political attack of his presidency. No president does. I’m even willing to admit that I was unjustifiably uncharitable to him at one point or another. I’m certainly happy to concede I think the country—and the Democrats—would be in a better place if his style of difference-splitting triangulation and centrism was more in fashion today. The progressive base’s capture of the Democratic Party has been bad for America and the Democrats. It’s also been bad for the Republicans, because it has fueled the right-wing base’s capture of the GOP (and vice versa). But the simple truth is that Bill Clinton invited the lion’s share of his problems with his own actions. No one made him diddle an intern or use his Arkansas state police detail as a nookie patrol. Even outside his sexual escapades, his arrogance, ambition, and self-indulgence invited countless problems.
And that’s what I hated about that joke. He used it as an analogy about himself, and in the joke, God—the almighty Lord above, supreme and unfillable judge of justice in this life and the next—was effectively suffering from Clinton derangement syndrome.
From the outset of the Trump years, I periodically argued that “character is destiny.” Trump is a man of bad character, and since people generally don’t change—especially septuagenarian narcissistic billionaires who punish or ignore people who tell them what they don’t want to hear—his character will manifest itself in the end. I understand that there are lots of people who think Trump’s presidency was a smashing success. And while there were some policy successes that I’m perfectly happy to acknowledge and even celebrate, I think I was proven entirely right. He ended his presidency as, quite literally, the biggest sore loser in American history (I’m open to suggestions for competitors). He attempted to steal an election and permanently besmirched America’s record for the peaceful transfer of power. He’s unleashed and enabled vile forces and villainous actors. If you think he will be remembered well by history, you must believe that historians will, as a group, go the way of John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, and other figures who sacrificed their intellects and reputations to a cult of personality.
There have been any number of attempts to rebut my claim that Trump is a man of bad character. I found them all to be either exercises in sophistry (as I explained here), or fan service (here’s Frank Miele, author of the Why We Needed Trump trilogy(!) carrying water for his portfolio), or just bonkers denials of reality. David Horowitz replied to me, “[Trump] has an amazing family. He’s loyal to a fault.” I’ll leave Trump’s family out of it, save to note that Trump cheated on his third wife with a porn star with a newborn at home, and his kids enriched themselves while working for the government. As for his loyalty, maybe ask David Perdue who Trump has stopped supporting for governor solely because his impending loss will make Trump look bad.
Anyway, I bring all of this up to make a simple point. What united virtually all of the attempts to rebut my claim that Trump was a man of bad character was rank instrumentalism. He’s doing things we like, and that’s what matters. And while I’ve long conceded that “transactional” arguments in favor of Trump were intellectually defensible, it’s worth noting that instrumental defenses move the goalposts.
“But he’s getting things we like done” isn’t a rebuttal to the charge of bad character, it’s a confession that you don’t in fact care about character. I made this point often during the Clinton years, and it infuriated his defenders. Fun story: In July 1998, I appeared on Larry King’s show with former Clinton adviser David Gergen.
Right before our segment ended, I responded to the argument that because Clinton is a "good" president on technical issues he should get a free pass on how he had conducted himself during the Lewinsky affair: “You can’t say ‘Well, Bill Clinton is like a good mechanic, and therefore we should leave him alone.’” That's like saying ‘Joey Buttafuoco is a good mechanic, we should leave him alone.’” My bit of rhetorical flourish horrified Gergen. He said, “Joey Buttafuoco? ... Get word to the control room.... turn the cameras back on! We can’t let that stand.”
My basic point was that instrumentalist arguments for politicians, which are defensible in ordinary circumstances, are wholly inadequate in extraordinary ones. This was, for a while, considered a defining argument on the right and a preposterous proposition on the left. After all, this was in the pre-#MeToo era. A Time magazine writer said “I'd be happy to [orally service Clinton] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” and leading liberals saw nothing wrong with playing Baron-and-the-milkmaid with the interns—so long as you were a liberal president getting things done.
It really is amazing how the right and left have changed positions on the sex stuff. It’s one of the few things I’m sure Al Franken agrees with me about. We don’t need to explore the left’s puritanical zeal here. But I should note that it is something of an ironic victory for the right, given how much conservatives made of sexual propriety 25 years ago. Of course, the right doesn’t see it that way because, in an era of negative polarization, whatever one side prioritizes the other side deprioritizes. Instead, as I wrote last week, everyone just gets themselves worked up over how the other side is hypocritical—and each side is right.
But there’s something else going on. Again, I hated that Clinton joke because it represented a total refusal to acknowledge any fault on his part. Heck, when Clinton finally confessed to his own Cabinet that he’d been lying—and encouraging his Cabinet to lie for him—Donna Shalala dared to say something like, “I don’t care about the lying, but I’m appalled at the behavior,” and Clinton dressed her down. He said that by her logic, Richard Nixon would have been president instead of John F. Kennedy in 1960. So even amid an apology, he refused to really concede what he’d done was all that bad.
This attitude suffuses much of the GOP today. Take the admittedly ludicrous example of Madison Cawthorn. I can’t even list all of the mistakes he made that caused him to lose his primary. And you can score his misdeeds any way you want. Maybe you don’t care about the repeated attempts to bring a loaded gun on a plane, or the crotch-grabbing video, or the hairbrained attempt to switch districts, or the claim that the GOP caucus behaves like its lives in a bathroom stall in Studio 54 circa 1981, or the many charges of sexual misconduct. In an Instagram post, he blamed the “establishment” and the “Uni-party” for coming after an “America First” hero like himself.
He then added ominously—and of course stupidly—“The time for gentile politics as usual has come to an end.” Apparently, he didn’t mean the time for non-Jewish politics as usual to come to an end. He just didn’t know how to spell “genteel.” He then added, “It’s time for the rise of the new right, it’s time for Dark MAGA to truly take command. We have an enemy to defeat, but we will never be able to defeat them until we defeat the cowardly and weak members of our own party. Their days are numbered. We are coming.”
We’ll save discussion of Dark MAGA for another time. But as insipid and possibly insidious as Dark MAGA may be, the broader point is that this dufus can’t admit that his problems were entirely of his own making. And he’s not alone. This is one of the most powerful consequences of Trump’s presidency. He spent his entire presidency refusing to admit any mistakes. He couldn’t even concede that Covfefe was a typo. His phone call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky—which led to his impeachment—was “perfect.” Utterly incapable of admitting a mistake even when it would be to his benefit politically, he turned every misstep into proof of a “witch hunt” or “fake news.” (I mean, he’s still bragging that he passed a test for dementia as if it proved he’s a genius.)
In many ways, this is the defining ethos of MAGA now. Never admit fault. Claim all criticism is a conspiracy of the media, the Deep State, or this mythological Republican squish establishment that supposedly still controls everything. Any concession of fault, any acknowledgement that some criticism has validity, is cowardice and surrender. J.D. Vance insists Marjorie Taylor Green “did nothing wrong” when she spoke at a white nationalist rally. Matt Gaetz, one of the few congressmen who plausibly could have been at one of Cawthorn’s cocaine orgies, refuses to admit any wrongdoing, in part because he thinks jackassery is what he was elected to provide. Elise Stefanik, well, she’s learned this stuff well.
The order of the day for most GOP primary candidates is that you can’t even admit that Donald Trump lost the election, in part because Donald Trump has institutionalized the idea that he couldn’t possibly have lost.
Trump would never tell Clinton’s joke, not because he doesn’t share the same self-pitying arrogance, but because he could never concede, even in jest, that God might dislike him. He’d just call that “fake news.” But the joke is on us.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The Fair Jessica is still out on the West Coast for her adventure with Lucy, so I’ve had a lot of quality time with the quadrupeds and quite a few welcoming committees. The big story is still the mounting fox menace. Almost every night, the fox screams at Chester or other perceived threats. On Wednesday, there was a particularly loud dialog between Chester and the fox around 4 a.m.. Of course, as luck would have it, I had to get up at 5 for a TV hit. So I walked the girls up the block—saving a better walk for when I returned. We got up to the corner when, all of a sudden, the fox leapt out of the bushes and started barking at us. Pippa was scared. But Zoë was confused. “I am Zoë, Destroyer of Worlds. Who are you, strange cat-dog, to menace me thusly?” she chuffed.
But even though I knew Zoë could probably take a fox in a fight, I didn’t think it would be to anyone’s benefit. So we turned around. But then the fox started following us. And even Zoë was like, “That thing is crazy. Let’s regroup and strategize.” I’ll admit it was a little scary, mostly because I thought about the possibility of rabies (the Capitol Hill fox tested positive if you recall). And then last night, the fox got into another shouting match with Chester, and then I saw a second fox. And they both started yelling. The girls are now in a constant state of readiness for the vulpine threat. Beyond that, the girls are good, though we’re all dreading the hot weather this weekend.
And now, the weird stuff