He Doesn’t Know the Job

Donald Trump has tried to bend the presidency toward his will instead of letting it shape him.

Dear Reader (Including those of you who had your last shreds of hope snatched from you when you discovered the staging of the Leeroy Jenkins meme),

President Trump isn’t plotting a coup, but that is not the defense of the man you might think it is. More on that in a moment. 

First, let’s say you took the job of basketball coach for your kid’s rec team. 

You like basketball, but you aren’t a master of the rules and it’s not like you know how to design plays, motivate kids, or do anything that’s generally considered basketball-y. So why did you take the job in the first place? It doesn’t matter—at least, not for these purposes. Maybe the school or your church asked you to do it when no one else would. Let’s just say you did it for good reasons. There was a need and you stepped up. 

What would you do? You might buy a book on coaching, or on the fundamentals of basketball. You might seek advice from people who’ve coached before or who know more about the game than you do. In short, you’d do some homework, because you don’t want to let the kids and the community down and—reasonably enough—you don’t want to embarrass yourself.

This is a very short and admittedly partial example of what Yuval Levin is getting at when he notes how, traditionally, institutions were things that “shaped character.” To do the job right as a basketball coach, you have to bend yourself to the task. You’ve gotta carve out huge amounts of time, and muster scads of emotional energy, learn a whole bunch things you didn’t know or even necessarily want to know, all to serve other people. 

Now imagine you took the coaching job, but all you did was spend every practice talking about how great you are and how biased the refs are. At every game you barely paid attention to the action on the court, and spent most of your time posturing for the fans in the stands. 

This is what Yuval says has happened to too many of our institutions. We want to bend them to us rather than bend ourselves to them. We use them to preen and perform on. 

Now, honestly, which one of these two scenarios does Donald Trump represent? 

I ask, because if he took the job seriously—as seriously as a conscientious basketball coach might—he’d know how to answer this question: “Win, lose, or draw … will you commit here today for a peaceful transferral of power after the election?”

This isn’t complicated. This isn’t ideological. This isn’t next-level anything. Trump doesn’t know the job because he doesn’t want to know it. 

If you’re a basketball coach and you don’t know what a layup is or what someone means when they say “set a pick,” you don’t know the job. If you don’t know how to answer a question about whether you will commit to a peaceful transfer of power—and you’re the frick’n president of the United States of America—you don’t know the job. And if you’re coming up on your fourth year on the job, it means you never cared enough to learn it.

Now, I don’t think he was saying he will deploy or demand state violence if the returns don’t go his way (though that is not to say that he won’t welcome it or encourage it). My point here is he just didn’t recognize the terms. I think he thought “commit to a peaceful transfer of power” was just a quirky way of asking whether he will contest the election results—a question he’s been asked many times and his answer Wednesday didn’t break much new ground.

There’s just one problem: They aren’t the same question. Going to court to fight over ballots does not represent a lack of commitment to the peaceful transfer of power. The Florida recount fight might have been ugly, but it did not lead to an unpeaceful transfer of power. 

If Donald Trump had the slightest patriotic inclination to let the institution of the presidency shape him, he’d know this. He’d know that he was being asked to disavow using violence to cling to power. But he doesn’t know the job. He didn’t know the history of “America First” or “the Silent Majority” when reporters first introduced him to the phrases, either. He didn’t—and doesn’t—know what the Trans-Pacific Partnership does or how tariffs work. He doesn’t know the job.

If his superfans weren’t so eager to cling to the idea that this man always knows what he’s doing, they’d loosen their grip enough to acknowledge he screwed this up because he doesn’t know the job. 

I admit that loosening the grip must be hard when you’re so deeply invested in the notion that Trump is the Great Defender of Our Eternal Principles.™ I mean Sy Sperling wasn’t just the president of the Hair Club for Men, he was also a client. So you’d expect the President of the United States and Defender of the Constitutional Faith to familiarize himself with the product line in the Prager U course catalog too. But his thumbless grasp of the roles and responsibilities he volunteered to take on is just fine in a world where institutions are solely self-serving.

So much for what he didn’t say. What he did say was still very bad. “Get rid of the ballots and … we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer. Frankly, there’ll be a continuation [of power].”

That’s heinous. 

There are legitimate problems and challenges with mail-in ballots. But Trump has made it very, very clear that he doesn’t care about grappling with the legitimate issues. (Heck, he’s all but begging seniors in Florida to send in their ballots.) He doesn’t care about the legitimacy of ballots or the election, he just cares passionately that—should he lose—his loss will be seen as illegitimate. If he cared about the job, he’d mobilize resources to make sure the election was free and fair. He ain’t doing that.

On August 17, he said: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that.” 

Again, imagine what you would think about a basketball coach who talked this way before every game. Is that how you want your kid to think about sports? Or life? If not, why are you holding the president to a lower standard?

One last crucial point: It’s fine to argue that Trump wasn’t calling for violence. Again, I don’t think he was. But this kind of talk can still lead to violence. My “defense” of Trump here is that he was too ignorant to understand what he was being asked. But such ignorance can have consequences. There’s a reason presidents are supposed to shut down any talk of violence in elections: Because there are a few thousand years of history supporting the worry that political passion leads to violence.

Right now, parts of the right are celebrating vigilantism at least as much as parts of the left are celebrating street violence. A president who understood that question about the peaceful transfer of power, and who understood the demands of the presidency, would have leapt at the opportunity to give a forceful answer to that question given the state of the country. But he doesn’t know the job. And sometimes, not knowing the job has consequences. 

Various & Sundry

It’s a little after 8 a.m. here in Los Angeles. I’m about to wake up the kid so we can check out some empty college campuses. We’re gonna take a gander at USC, UCLA, and maybe Occidental this morning and then Claremont-McKenna this afternoon.  

Canine update: There was no treat video this morning because A) I’m in California, and B) The Fair Jessica says there was some problem with the crane camera or something. She says maybe tomorrow. But here’s yesterday’s to tide you over.

Earlier this week, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of Zoë in a full-on nightmare. She was lying down but all four legs were running. She made a lot of little yips and even a couple of loud yipes. I’m always fascinated by dog dreams. What are they dreaming about? I mean, we know what Pippa dreams about. But what could be so scary to Zoë? A giant squirrel looking for payback? I dunno. 

Anyway, the report from home is that they’re all good and that they miss me, which is nice. 

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

The week’s first Remnant, with my partner-in-crime David French talking his new book

Let’s Make a Deal, SCOTUS Edition

Actually, maybe let’s not make a deal?

The week’s second Remnant, with two-time Tevi

For all this talk of the “true founding,” what about the true version of the 1619 Project?

And now, the weird stuff

Australian hotel puts up signs banning emus. BREAKING: Emus can’t read

Nixon’s half-eaten sandwich turns 60

Test to see if you can accurately spot bots on social mediajust ignore the self-aggrandizing “teachable moment” stuff they throw in

Mimicking electronic music on analog instruments

Australia’s greatest meme has been identified

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

‘Should’ Is For Suckers

The age-old distinction between ‘can’ and ‘should’ goes down the drain.

Hi,

Well, like the rocket ship I once made out of some cardboard boxes, that went nowhere.

David French, Adam White, Ilya Somin, and yours truly all floated roughly the same idea (and George Will seems to be on the same page): That a handful of Republican senators should strike a “Gang of 8”-style deal with a handful of Democratic senators to trade a more deliberate confirmation process in exchange for a vow to oppose court packing and perhaps other power-grabbing ideas popular among Democrats.

The small differences, or even the details, don’t really matter now. The whole concept went down like a dove pinned underneath a lead balloon, hurtling toward earth so fast that no one had the chance to ask how the balloon got up there in the first place.

This is my peeve about the phrase “dropped like a lead balloon”: How did the balloon get aloft enough to drop so dramatically?

And that—with just a bit of stretching—brings me to my chief complaint with some of my critics.

Many seem truly flabbergasted that anyone might bother to float such an idea at all.

Here’s my friend Noah Rothman, for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration:

“Would it be a display of hard elbows to confirm a new justice this late into a presidential election year? It would. Is it a reckless abuse of power? In no conceivable way. The nation’s founding charter describes the procedural approach to a vacancy on the high court. And for the third time in four years, that process, which is controlled by Republicans, is being adhered to.”

I think this is fairly representative of many of our good faith critics. (I say “our,” but I’m only speaking for myself here.)

So let me start by saying that I think Noah’s position here would be entirely defensible—save for one little phrase. He says “In no conceivable way.”

I don’t think appointing a justice after voting has already begun is anything like an impeachable abuse of power. That’s dumb, and Democrats who spout the idea are making fools of themselves.

But is it really not an abuse of power in any conceivable way? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “abuse of power.”

The word hypocrisy muddies many conversations because we sometimes mistake it for mere inconsistency. And sometimes we use it as a substitute for flat-out lying. What people are calling “hypocrisy” on the part of Lindsey Graham and others is better understood as simple and outright deceit. Or, if you prefer, vow-breaking. Graham claims that the legitimately outrageous behavior of Democrats during the Kavanaugh hearings lets him off the hook for his assurances that he would never support a nomination during an election year, never mind during an election that is already taking place.

(Yes, I’m going to keep pointing this out. Voting has already started in many states. Count down the days to November 3 all you like; as a legal and political matter November 3 is already here and many voters cast ballots not knowing this would be an issue.)

The only problem with this argument: Graham also made these assurances after the Kavanaugh hearings. If all bets were off after that travesty, why repeat the promise—and ask people to hold him to it? 

This strikes me as an abuse of power. It’s certainly an abuse of the public trust and public responsibility. And he’s hardly alone in this regard.

Then there’s the actual process: Conducting serious hearings amid the final weeks of a presidential campaign is an abuse of power. The hope and expectation among conservatives is that Trump’s nominee—presumably Amy Coney Barrett—will be the crucial vote for overturning Roe and other long-sought conservative priorities. I share that hope and expectation. But rushing a nominee through the process on a nakedly partisan basis while literally scoffing at all of the norms and precedents you once said were vital to the legitimacy of both the court and the senate is an abuse of power. Maybe it won’t destroy the court’s credibility. But I don’t think any reasonable person can argue it won’t hurt it.

It’s something of a cliché on the right to point out—as I often have—that the Founders didn’t think our system could work without a virtuous citizenry. Less remembered is that the Senate itself was supposed to be the repository of our very best and brightest. John Adams likened it to a “cage” that would bind the natural aristocracy to the cause of the Republic. Who believes that crap now?

The argument in favor of doing whatever you have the power to get away with—now championed by so many of my friends—is the purest form of political pragmatism. Bertrand Russell long ago pointed out the problem with this kind of thinking:

“In the absence of any standard of truth other than success, it seems evident that the familiar methods of the struggle for existence must be applied to the elucidation of difficult questions, and that ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.” 

No one is grabbing ammo quite yet, but in constitutional terms the observation is relevant. If all that matters is power, then prudential arguments are nothing more than spin. If you have the power to do X, you can do X—debates over “should” are for suckers. How will that position help down the road when Democrats try to do everything they can in the face of hollow GOP objections that they “shouldn’t”?

Matthew Franck, writing for The Dispatch, argues that fairness to the nominee should be an overriding concern. How fair is it to the nominee to all but shout, “She’ll be a reliable hack, so we need to get her in there as quickly as possible”?

Neither Franck nor any of my friends are making that argument, of course. But you know who is? Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Pence has already suggested that holding any hearings at all is optional. The important issue is to have a full complement of justices to handle the election litigation. Yesterday, President Trump said that “you need nine justices up there” because mail-in ballots are a “hoax.”

The naked insinuation is that the ninth justice—his appointee—would have his back in this regard. How fair is that to a nominee? How is that argument not even conceivably an abuse of power?

And you know who else will be making that argument? Democrats. The ads write themselves.

I have fewer objections to the practical arguments against making the sort of deal we proposed. Ramesh Ponnuru makes some fine points. And fortunately for me, I don’t have to deal with many of them because the possibility of a deal is gone now that Mitt Romney came out in favor of launching the process.

I don’t really begrudge Romney, by the way, because he has a long record of following his conscience. But the reaction to Romney on the left illuminates the mess we’re in. Romney was the first senator (ever!) to vote to convict an impeached president from his own party and he took incredible amounts of grief for it. For leftists, that’s all down the memory hole because they—like so many on the right—cannot get their heads around the statesmanlike idea of following your conscience even if it conflicts with your partisan priorities or interests.

Which brings me to one practical criticism I think is worth addressing: The main objection to a deal, at least from friends, is that you could never trust the Democrats to honor such a commitment.

However I did not propose making a deal with “The Democrats™.” I suggested a deal among specific senators, some of whom are Democrats and some of whom are Republicans. While I don’t much trust “the Democrats,” (or “the Republicans,” for that matter) I do trust that if, say, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, Jon Tester, or Debbie Stabenow publicly vowed not to vote to pack the Supreme Court, they would feel obliged to honor the vow if they wanted to get re-elected down the road. It’s not total confidence or anything; politicians often say things they don’t mean or won’t honor when inconvenient. Just look at Lindsey Graham.

The objection from John Podhoretz and countless others is that there is no legally binding way to hold senators to their promises. I agree! But if we are going to stipulate that the only legitimate constraint on politicians is the strict letter of the law, and it’s naïve folly to suppose other constraints—honor, reputation, whatever—might obtain, then we’re even farther along to maxim guns than people realize. I am wholly open to the possibility that my idea was unrealistic, but I don’t think the folks heaping scorn on the notion realize that their snarking cynicism in this regard isn’t the laughing matter they think it is, but rather is a profound and depressing commentary on how far we’ve fallen.

Still, in my defense, the senators most likely to break their word are also the senators least likely to make the promise in the first place. Such a deal would not be very popular with the Democratic base, never mind Very Online progressive Twitter. But for senators who need moderate, centrist, or even (the dreaded) conservative voters, making such a deal would probably be in their political interest. And if it’s in their political interest to give their word, it’s not outlandish to suppose that it might be in their political interest to keep it.

Indeed, part of my problem with this “you can’t trust the Democrats” formulation is that it assumes all Democrats are either interchangeable and equally venal or that they all follow orders from the Democrat High Command—as if such a thing exists. If the response was, “You can’t trust Chuck Schumer,” or “You can’t trust Harry Reid,” I’d say you’re probably right. But if “Democrat” is instantaneously synonymous with “the villainous oathbreaker” in your eyes, then you’re probably every bit as much of a power-maximizing partisan as the Democrats you have in mind.

I mean, take a moment to think about how Democrats view Republicans right now. They look at Lindsey Graham and many others, and draw the exact same conclusion: You can never trust Republicans. And in all honesty, can you blame them?

Oh, one last point. I think Noah and others make some fine arguments about how it’s silly to negotiate away the bird in the Republicans’ hands for the hypothetical birds in the Democrats’ bush. It would indeed be very difficult for Democrats to actually pack the court or add some extra senators by granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico. But if that’s true—and I think it is—some of the people tittering at our proposals might also consider the fact that it would also be very difficult for the Democrats to hand the country over to Antifa or usher in socialism or destroy religious liberty, gun rights, and free speech. You can’t simultaneously argue that we’re one election away from giving Democrats unfettered power to fulfill all of their evil wishes and also argue that, for the purposes of greasing the nomination skids, a Democratic victory wouldn’t give them the power to do very much.

And remember: Whatever power they do gain after the election, you’ve already granted that there is no relevant principle militating against whatever it is they could get away with, because you’ve already conceded that “should” is for suckers.

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Taking Racism Seriously—And Literally

Let’s talk about Princeton.

Dear Reader (Including this panda eating a carrot),

Some of you may have seen the episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry tries to return a jacket. He says he wants to return it for “spite” because he didn’t care for the salesman who sold it to him. 

He’s told he can’t return a jacket simply for spite. The manager is called in.

Manager: “That's true. You can't return an item based purely on spite.”

Jerry:. “Well So fine then … then I don't want it and then that's why I'm returning it.”

Manager: “Well you already said spite so ..."

Jerry: “But I changed my mind ...”

Manager: “No … you said spite. Too late.”

Princeton University finds itself in a similar scenario. Christopher Eisgruber, the president of the school, wrote in a letter, quite emphatically, that Princeton is systemically racist and that racism is “embedded” at the school:

“Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies,” Eisgruber wrote. “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures of the University itself.”

In response to this wholly unsolicited confession of profound sin, the Department of Education is opening an investigation into whether or not Princeton has been falsely claiming in official documents that it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race.  “Based on its admitted racism, the U.S. Department of Education is concerned Princeton’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity assurances in its Program Participation Agreements from at least 2013 to the present may have been false,” the letter says. “The Department is further concerned Princeton perhaps knew, or should have known, these assurances were false at the time they were made.” (Kudos, by the way, to Tiana Lowe, who broke the story). 

I love this so much I want to rent a limo I can’t afford, take it to the prom, and maybe get a tattoo celebrating my love.   

I’ve been on a tear lately about how much the rhetoric or narratives that define our politics don’t line up very well with reality. Our cities aren’t ablaze, black Americans today aren’t victims of “genocide,” opposing masking protocols doesn’t make you Rosa Parks, Joe Biden isn’t so impaired “he doesn’t even know he’s alive,” protests that are “fiery” aren’t mostly peaceful, Antifa goons aren’t “Biden voters,” Section 230 doesn’t allow Mark Zuckerberg to break into your home and make a sandwich out of your liver, etc.

In general, I don’t think government should be in the business of policing all this stuff. But the situation with Princeton is different. Its officers, presumably including the president, sign legal documents assuring the government that it adheres to all the relevant civil rights laws and regulations. They have whole departments dedicated to such compliance. 

So when Eisgruber announces to the world—in a carefully prepared public letter bearing his signature—that Princeton is a hotbed of “embedded racism,” why shouldn’t the government take him seriously (never mind literally)? If the CEO of, say, McDonald’s, publicly said, “Our factories are systemically unsafe, our burgers full of salmonella,” you might want the USDA to investigate, right? If the head of GE said, “Fraud is embedded in the very structures of our business,” not only would its stock fall like a wet bag of manure onto a concrete floor, but Congress, the SEC, and Lord knows who else would investigate immediately.  

Now, you might say that racism is different from salmonella and fraud—and you’d be right! Any fair interpretation of our national bout of St. Vitus’ Dance over racism would hold that racism is far worse. It’s America’s original sin. It threatens to destroy us as a country. It holds back millions of children from fulfilling their potential. It’s an unalloyed evil, not just in some abstract sense, but something that gets people killed—not just at the hands of police, but in our health care system. The fight against racism was so important, many leading epidemiologists declared it the great exception to social distancing policies. At least, that’s what MSNBC tells me every day.  (And I’m not saying there’s no truth to any of that, I’m just saying the truth is wildly exaggerated.)

So when the president of arguably the best university in the country says that his school is shot through with racism—some of it intentional—why shouldn’t we take it seriously? 

The racism Catch-22.

This is the Seinfeldian dilemma Princeton finds itself in. Eisgruber wants to pander to a constituency and a quasi-religious culture that demands self-abasement and confession to the sin of racism. But he doesn't want Princeton to be held to account for it—not in any serious legal way.   I can’t wait for Princeton’s lawyers to argue, in effect, “Did we say racist? We take that back.” And, then Betsy DeVos gets to reply, “It’s too late. You said ‘racist’ so …”

The free speech defense, by the way, doesn’t really work: Under the law, you can’t admit to violations of the law—“I murdered someone!”—and then hide behind free speech when the government takes you at your word. 

Princeton’s problem is the problem at the heart of so much of the whole systemic racism debate (and so many others). Rhetorically, the crisis of racism is at an 11 on a 1-10 scale. But in reality, the problem is lower (reasonable people can debate how much lower). Don’t believe me? Earlier this month, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka was widely praised for saying, “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach.”

Genocide? Like the Rape of Nanking or the Holocaust? Really? Even if you take the broadest estimates of unjustified police homicides and quintuple them, you are still barely past the starting line in the marathon-length race to the standard of “genocide.”

The Department of Education is demanding all sorts of documents from Princeton, and you can be sure that, if produced, there will be precious little concrete evidence that Princeton is racist. And, if any evidence of racism is produced, it is far more likely to be proof of the kind of discrimination Harvard is almost surely guilty of: anti-Asian bias. 

And here’s the thing: That’s good news! Not the Asian discrimination obviously, but the fact that evidence is so scarce. So much of the rhetoric around racism contends that “nothing has changed,” or even that the problem is worse than ever. That is just flatly untrue. Princeton was very racist, but things have changed. The very regulations that the DoE wants to enforce—and that Princeton has surely complied with—are evidence of that. The best thing you can say about the current obsession with racism is that it demonstrates how much our tolerance for it has decreased over the years. 

Think of child labor—not, like, for your own pleasure or anything, but as a historical phenomenon. When child labor was normal and widespread, very few people denounced it because it was normal and widespread. As we grew more prosperous and enlightened, the barbarity of the practice became less defensible, eventually becoming indefensible and, finally, illegal. Now, opposition to child labor has become dogmatic (in the best sense of the word), and even a little offends almost everyone. That’s how progress works. 

Again, I’m not sure I want the government to get involved in holding people accountable for their irresponsible rhetoric. This Princeton case is a special circumstance. But in general, I’d love to see more of this kind of thing because everyone is losing their goddamn minds buying into rhetorical bullshit as if it accurately described the real world we live in. 

The COVID crackdown.

Bill Barr is getting a lot of grief for, well, a lot of things. I still think a lot of criticisms of Barr are exaggerated, but I’m done trying to defend him because he seems so determined to go out of his way to invite criticism. And some of his conduct has been bad. The attorney general is supposed to care about the appearance of his conduct, and he seems perfectly willing to appear like a partisan personal lawyer for the president. He may be right about some of the problems with the Justice Department—I think he is—but he’s creating a problem as well. If Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch crossed the line of propriety—I think they did—so has Barr. 

But that’s not what I want to talk about. In his Hillsdale remarks, Barr said:

“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s—you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

This is already ripening into a conservative talking point. Though I will say that Hugh Hewitt does a pretty good job of cleaning up Barr’s remarks.  But even so, there’s still a mess. Hugh writes:

But the lockdown, in terms of pure numbers, given how much bigger our country is, is other than slavery the most numerous imposition on people's individual liberty. 

I have a few problems with this. 

First, it should be noted that there is no “national lockdown.” Whatever lockdowns there are have been imposed at the state and local level. Ironically, if there had been a “national lockdown,” it would be Donald Trump who would have been responsible for what Barr calls the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history” -- other than slavery. 

Second, as Hewitt basically concedes, numerical imposition is kind of a dumb standard. The internment of the Japanese was qualitatively much worse than a pandemic lockdown. But if we’re going to parse statements, it’s not true that the “national lockdown” comes in second only to slavery. In 1860, when the slave population reached its height, there were just under 4 million slaves and 500,000 free blacks in the U.S. So why would the “national lockdown” come in second to slavery when it affected roughly 330 million Americans? If numerical imposition is a serious standard, the “national lockdown” is number one and slavery isn’t even second. The abuses of civil liberties under Woodrow Wilson probably affected more people in sheer numbers than slavery did. Heck, mandatory seat belts, helmet laws, mandatory vaccines, etc., surely affect more than 4 million people. 

But that’s the point: It’s not a serious standard. I’m not saying that the various lockdowns and other inconveniences imposed by government at any level aren’t impositions on civil liberties. But when you compare the response to a pandemic—for all its easily conceded flaws—to slavery, Jim Crow, or the internment of Japanese Americans, you are making a moral analogy that doesn’t work logically—or morally. 

As I’ve written here many times, pandemics are one of the few exceptions to the regular order of liberty in classical liberal political theory. During war, national disasters, and pandemics, government has a right and obligation to do what is necessary for the general welfare and the safety of the citizenry. If a policeman commandeers your car to stop a terrorist, that’s not in any way equivalent to a policeman who steals your car so he can have fun in Vegas. George Washington ordered quarantines to fight yellow fever. I shouldn’t have to explain that inconveniencing citizens to fight a plague is qualitatively different than locking up innocent Americans to fight the “Yellow Peril.”

Saying “except for slavery” while talking about lockdowns—that were conducted in compliance with the Trump administrations guidelines by the way —sneaks in a bogus moral and legal standard that doesn’t apply to public health measures. 

If it was just a bad argument or poor communication, that would be one thing. But this whole push to turn the COVID response into a great moral struggle in the name of civil rights is grossly irresponsible. By name-checking slavery, Barr is insinuating that the two things are on the same moral spectrum at least to some degree. I don’t think he believes that—it’s pretty clear he doesn’t. But he does want people to believe there is some shared quality of illegitimacy at work. And there isn’t. At all.

You’d think an administration that preaches “nationalism” and “America First” at every turn would want to promote real national unity and scientific consistency to its response. They chose to go through door number 2. Trump spent the summer tweeting “Liberate Michigan!” and similar nonsense. Just this week, he suggested that his performance should be judged by the death toll “if you take the blue states out.” I’m all in favor of beating up Cuomo and anybody else who mishandled the pandemic, but either the president is responsible for the national response or he’s not. He can’t cherry-pick successes and suggest “I did that” while cherry-picking failures and say “that was them.” I mean, he’s perfectly happy to include jobs created in blue states when the employment numbers come out. 

“America First! … Except for the most populated states that didn’t vote for me” is one funky kind of nationalism, if you ask me. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The girls are still enjoying the weather a great deal. But I still think they’re showing their age more and more, especially Pippa. She still insists on leaving the house with a tennis ball in the morning, but she’s less eager to do anything with it other than carry it around. I think it’s because she wakes up creaky and needs some time to warm up. By the afternoon, she’s all about the adventure and shenanigans, but then she pays the price for it later and stiffens up overnight. It’s a delicate balance; exercise is so important for dogs—my view is 90 percent of behavior problems stem from a lack of exercise or stimulation. But finding the line between enough and too much is hard.  Even treat time this morning was kind of a disaster. The Fair Jessica thinks we should curtail the tradition for a while. They’re also both exceedingly needy when I come home everyday, which is kind of nice (you can see how much I need a haircut here). Gracie is, too

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

The week’s first Remnant, a dose of optimism with Ron Bailey and Marian Tupy

GLoP Culture returns, with Oscars, podcast, and Tenet talk

Why our federal system needs an Electoral College

The members-only Midweek Epistle

The week’s second Remnant, the long-awaited return of Sen. Ben Sasse

Let’s not kid ourselves about the Israel-UAE-Bahrain deal

And now, the weird stuff

“If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.”

Dentist sedates patient, extracts tooth while riding on hoverboard, promptly jailed

Just in case you ever wondered what that weird spatula you always see chefs using is actually for

Exactly what you want when you go to Taco Bell: wine?

I guess this is what you resort to publishing when you go bankrupt

Photograph of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The Folly of Prediction

Plus, the dangers of panicked elites.

Dear Reader (Unless you receive this “news”letter through long protein strings),

I was in a hotel in Pendleton, Oregon, on 9/11. I was there because Cosmo the Wonderdog had attended my wedding and I’d had to pick him up, along with my car, from the San Juan Islands and drive back home after my honeymoon. Pendleton was my first stop. 

(Though, Cosmo was not in the actual wedding ceremony in any way. My then-soon-to-be mother-in-law said she would boycott the event if Cosmo was a ringbearer, never mind best man—even though he was the bestest boy.)

Jessica couldn’t come with me to pick up Cosmo, because she had to get back to her relatively new job as John Ashcroft’s chief speechwriter at DoJ.

For a long time, 9/11 felt like a more significant break with the past than getting married. The Fair Jessica and I had been together for a good while before we tied the knot (it took years of wooing to wear her down enough to marry me). But 9/11, as the cliché went for years after, seemed to “change everything.” 

Nineteen years later, it doesn’t really feel like that anymore. I say this not to minimize the impact on people who lost loved ones, not at all. However, for most Americans I think it’s fair to say 9/11 has receded in importance. The war on terror that was sparked that day seems to have fizzled in the years since. There are still a few folks who insist that the West is in a civilizational battle with Islam, but that’s at best a niche hobbyhorse among a few specialists and, at worst, a putrid harbor for crankery. That’s not to say the threat of Islamic terrorism isn’t still with us—it’s just that it doesn’t consume people the way it once did and, I would argue, rightly so. The Iraq War still sparks controversy, but it’s not the cultural touchstone it was even a decade ago. 

My point is, the view—once widely held, including by me—that 9/11 was the beginning of a new Cold War now seems wildly overblown if not a bit naive. 

What’s remarkable to me is that all such predictions tend to be wrong. As I’ve written before, the single best and most concise explication of this point is a famous memo written by Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Linton Wells. Here’s how it begins:

  • If you had been a security policy-maker in the world's greatest power in 1900, you would have been a Brit, looking warily at your age-old enemy, France. 

  • By 1910, you would be allied with France and your enemy would be Germany. 

  • By 1920, World War I would have been fought and won, and you'd be engaged in a naval arms race with your erstwhile allies, the U.S. and Japan.

  • By 1930, naval arms limitation treaties were in effect, the Great Depression was underway, and the defense planning standard said "no war for ten years." 

  • Nine years later World War II had begun. 

Disaster porn.

I wrote earlier this week about a different way to think about centrism. If you read my (underrated) book The Tyranny of Clichés, you’d know that I’ve long had a lot of antipathy for passionate centrists and haughty independents. But the often marshmallow-soft and pliable definitions of centrism and independence were a product of ideological difference-splitting. This new kind of centrism is more psychological than ideological. Think of a compass for our ideological landscape, with Trump and Trumpism defining the north, and all the craziness that defines the hard left/Resistance hysteria, BLM and Antifa apologists, anti-racist extremism, etc. as the south. The people sitting at east and west may be ideologically committed progressives or conservatives—but what they’re not is apocalyptic, conspiratorial, or in a constant state of panic. As I wrote:

In this climate, the new centrists can be ideologically conservative or progressive according to the old definitions, but east and west share a common discomfort with the constant demand to catastrophize our politics in order impose orthodoxy on everyone. And amid the cacophony, such centrism can be quite lonely.

What put this in my mind was the bizarre popularity of this ridiculous piece published last weekend by Michael Anton (he of “Flight 93” fame, or infamy, depending on your point of view). Anton thinks Democrats are plotting a coup (or at least he wants you to think so). Anton deftly cherry-picks examples of Democrats saying alternately paranoid things and/or reasonable things in a hypothetical exercise. He ascribed ominous portent to the fact that Biden has said—“thrice”!—that the military will “escort [Trump] from the White House with great dispatch” if Trump illegitimately refuses to concede.  

He also takes examples of current and former Trump administration figures acting responsibly or speaking reasonably and spins them into proof of a Deep State cabal undermining Trump’s sober, wise, and patriotic leadership. Sitting Defense Secretary Mark Esper advised against using the Insurrection Act against George Floyd protesters and rioters. The horror!

Reasonable people can disagree with Esper—I don’t—but it was an utterly defensible and even normal view for a defense secretary to hold. But to Anton’s ear this amounted to Esper saying, “Mr. President, don’t tell us to do that, because we won’t, and you know what happens after that.”

Never mind that Esper didn’t say that; that’s Anton’s tendentious interpretation, deployed to mount supposition upon supposition to conjure paranoia about an open conspiracy to launch a coup. The war game exercise he cites may have been dumb—I honestly don’t know. But taking what people hypothetically said in a game of make-believe in response to imagined scenarios and saying, “See! This is their plan!” is boob-bait. If you asked me what the military would or should do if Trump clearly lost the election but moved to invalidate it to stay in power, I too would say they should escort him from the building. That doesn’t mean I’m plotting a coup. 

The idea that this war game was a PSYOP intended to deny Trump a legitimate election is best understood as Anton’s own effort at a PSYOP. He writes:

These items are, to repeat, merely a short but representative list of what Byron York recently labeled “coup porn.” York seems to think this is just harmless fantasizing on the part of the ruling class and its Democratic servants. For some of them, no doubt that’s true. But for all of them? I’m not so sure.

That “I’m not so sure” sounds oh so reasonable and measured. But the thrust of the piece—titled “The Coming Coup?” —is that Anton is in fact sure that there’s a potential coup in the works—or again, that he wants you to be sure. Not only is that wrong, it’s every bit as dangerous as the coup porn he’s weaponizing. (And it looks like he’s having some success. Congrats, Mike.)

The sleight of hand in Anton’s argument should be familiar at this point. He takes it as a given that everything Trump does is above board, legitimate, and reasonable. So any reaction to Trump’s own constant conspiracy-mongering and attempts at game-rigging—including the most ridiculous examples—amount to evidence that the “other side” is the crazy party. 

This is a common trope among professional Trump apologists. Trump is like the nutty drunk uncle at Thanksgiving dinner who does and says outrageous things. But because Uncle Don’s behavior is priced in, your parents get mad at you for taking the bait, setting him off, or “overreacting” to him, rather than getting mad at his predictably ridiculous antics. “Why are you making such a big deal about him using the turkey as a pith helmet?” 

The central assumption of anti-anti-Trumpism is that Trump should be exempt from the standards everyone else should follow because it’s absurd and somehow unreasonable to expect him to behave. Trump is Trump—“he’s a disruptor!”—and you’re the weird one if you make a big deal out of it.   

But Anton takes this familiar gaslighting a step further: York’s “coup porn” description strikes me as accurate. But Anton then pretends (and yes, I think he’s pretending) that Trump is not only normal, but that the “porn” is real

Now, I’ve argued for several years now that Trump’s irresponsible contempt for norms, institutions, and the truth invites an irresponsible contempt in response. It can take the form of indefensible leaks and maddeningly insipid media grandstanding. If you think Trump’s impeachment was entirely unwarranted—I don’t—you can throw that in there too. 

The “collusion” brouhaha is a good example of how these debates are now defined by those with the most passionate intensity rather than those with the evidence. Trumpists want you to think any suspicion that Trump was in cahoots with Putin is proof of unhinged conspiratorialism. They honestly think—or claim to honestly think—it’s insane that anyone would believe that a Putin sycophant who publicly asked the Russians to hack his opponent, appointed Paul Manafort his campaign manager (currently in jail, in part for working illegally with Russians), and whose campaign met with a Russian emissary to collect dirt on his opponent would ever—ever!—work with the Russians. 

The Resistance types, meanwhile, went wildly overboard with their conspiracy theories, making the entire national conversation a battle between promoters of competing cartoons. On the one side were believers in the ridiculous caricature of Trump as the patriotic hero who’d never put his own interests above the country’s, and on the other were subscribers to the idea he was a Manchurian, or more accurately, Muscovite candidate. 

Oh, and it’s a bit off-topic, but you’ve got to love that it appears that Rudy Giuliani has been exposed as a useful idiot of Russian intelligence. 

Elite panic

Or maybe it’s not off-topic. On 9/11 Rudy Giuliani emerged as a true statesman, having concluded what George Will called “The most successful episode of conservative governance in this country in the last 50 years.” In recent years, though, he’s become a peddler of hysteria and conspiracy theories, convinced that he’s a vital general in an all-out war, not with Islam, but with … what? Other Americans. 

In 2001, if you had predicted that Giuliani would be acting like a cautionary tale about the perils of day drinking, saying and engaging in credibility-draining nonsense in service to President Donald Trump, the nurse would think it was time for your shot. 

Which is to say that the future is pretty much never what you think it’s going to be. 

But more importantly, we live in a country where the people most certain about what the future looks like are the most committed to a black-and-white, good-versus-evil vision of some kind of Götterdämmerung.

Giuliani’s transformation is rather typical of a vast swath of elites who are clustered at the antipodal ends of that compass I mentioned. The thing about going as far north or south as possible is that you end up someplace cold and inhospitable. Whether it’s the Antarctic or the, uh, Arctic, these apocalyptic rabble rousers can only find warmth in stoking the flames of anger and division. 

Earlier this year, James Meigs wrote a brilliant essay on “elite panic.” He was writing in the context of natural disasters—floods, earthquakes, pandemics, etc. Elite panic sets in:  

When authorities believe their own citizens will become dangerous, they begin to focus on controlling the public, rather than on addressing the disaster itself. They clamp down on information, restrict freedom of movement, and devote unnecessary energy to enforcing laws they assume are about to be broken. These strategies don’t just waste resources, one study notes; they also “undermine the public’s capacity for resilient behaviors.” In other words, nervous officials can actively impede the ordinary people trying to help themselves and their neighbors.

Meigs also noted that “Elite panic frequently brings out another unsavory quirk on the part of some authorities: a tendency to believe the worst about their own citizens.”

We’ve seen quite a bit of this during the pandemic. But I think his observations have broader applications. I think we’re in the midst of what could be called a “cultural disaster.” I don’t mean this in the apocalyptic sense, I mean it descriptively. Social media, the rapidity of change in sexual mores and norms, the long tail of our racial past, the surplus of overeducated workers, automation—the list goes on and on. These forces have rolled over existing institutions like a hurricane, uprooting homes and churches, and sending them downstream on floodwaters. It’s worth remembering that every upsurgence in populism in American history came at a time of disruption—economic, technological, or both. 

The response from many elites—at times including myself—has been a version of the panic Meigs describes. National elites, senators, talk show hosts, pundits, authors, movie stars, and others think that the rebuilding effort must be led from above, usually from Washington. And just as Meigs describes during earthquakes, they think they know better than the people on the ground how to adapt and fix things. They clamp down on information by only telling one side of a story, usually with ample exaggeration and fear-mongering. What better way to control the untrustworthy masses?

Real problems and challenges—racism, campus rape, police abuse, global warming, social media censorship—are routinely recast as existential crises demanding social engineering from above, on the assumption that the people closest to the actual problems are too dumb, too bigoted, or too corrupt to deal with them. Worse, relatively trivial incidents are blown up into slippery-slope fear mongering. 

George Orwell once noted that during World War II, elites were much more likely to veer from defeatism to triumphalism about the course of the war than average Britons. If the military had a victory, the intellectuals would do a straight line prediction that they would continue to have victories. If they had a defeat, they predicted the reverse. Meanwhile, normal Brits took the wins and losses in stride, buoyed by a confidence that things would work out in the end. I think this was partly due to the fact that elites have the luxury time and sometimes the professional requirement of fretting about trends, patterns, tea leaves, etc. That’s what elites do. Normal people muddle through and tackle problems as they encounter them. 

In all my travels this summer, I talked to a lot of “normal” people—a phrase folks in my line of work often use to describe the saner among us who don’t obsess about Beltway arguments and abstract Twitter feuds. Their views varied. But one thing that united most of them was a generalized contempt—whether from the left or the right—for the people screaming on their TVs when they occasionally tuned in to the “news.” 

I don’t know what the future holds—again, no one does—but I’m relatively optimistic about it because I think there are a lot more of those people than our panicked elites imagine.

Various & Sundry

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re already some kind of subscriber to The Dispatch. But if you’re not a full member, you have a chance to test it out free of charge. We’re running a 30-day trial of the full product line. Obviously, we hope some—heck, many! —of you will like the wares enough (including the members-only Wednesday G-File) that you’ll sign up at the end of the trial period. If any of the above speaks to you, I think you’ll like what we’re offering.

Canine (and Feline) update:  The biggest change after our long absence is that Ralph has become radically more tolerant of me, particularly at treat time. Usually, he would wait for the Fair Jessica to arrive to take his ration from her. But now he is perfectly willing to accept treats, and even a little affection from me. He even showed up first today. And he’s becoming more strident as well. But Gracie is still queen. 

I’ve been getting a lot of complaints from members of #TeamZoe that she doesn’t get enough camera time. I hear you. The problem is that it is almost impossible to get Zoë to pose when we’re outdoors. She has perimeters to patrol (indoors is a different matter). But because of Pippa’s ball addiction, she’s veryeasy to stage. We’re still trying to ratchet down the fetching with Pippa, but she gets enough to prevent going through withdrawal.

Bonus Content: As many of you know, my mom has some very exotic cats, including the Empress Fafoon. These are her half-siblings

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

The Midweek Epistle: “Oh, sure Lindsey, I’ll sit down with Bob Woodward eighteen times.”

The Dispatch Podcast, in which the gang discusses Jeffrey Goldberg’s (no relation) investigative reporting on Trump

The week’s first Remnant, with my old friend Iain Murray

What’s a centrist anymore?

The week’s second Remnant, with my other old friend Andy Ferguson

Could Trump actually hack a Hispanic vote?

And now, the weird stuff

NASCAR driver suspended for... not making a political Facebook post?

The Patron Saint of Beer was secretly an epidemiological genius

Who knew it was possible for a fast food chain to jump the shark?

It's weird seeing a (comparatively) young Gordon Ramsay

What if Metallica sounded happy?

Photograph by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

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