The Most Serious Attacks on the Founding Come From the Right

Plus, thoughts on the evolution of language.

Dear Reader (including those of you who had a vision of the Terminator when Sen. Tammy Duckworth wrote, “These titanium legs don’t buckle” in an op-ed), 

I googled the phrase “Trump defends the Founders” and got some interesting results. The first page of results was almost entirely filled with links to editorials by liberals explaining that “Trump is the president the Founding Fathers feared” as a headline to a column by Richard Cohen put it. 

It should surprise no one who thinks there’s merit to that argument, but that’s not what I want to talk about. 

I googled the phrase because I was looking for examples of people claiming that Trump is a grand defender of the founding and our constitutional heritage—I’ll get to all that in a moment. 

But these arguments from liberals—which have been thick in the air for four years now—are a good amuse-bouche for the repast to come.

If you step back for a moment, you’ll plummet to your death if you’re standing on the edge of a roof. But if you do it figuratively, the fact that so many liberals like to invoke the Founders to condemn Trump is a bit odd, given that we’re in the middle of an insane panic about the moral degeneracy of the Founders because some were slaveholders. 

But even before the current spectacle of St. Vitus’s Dance, liberals had an annoying schizophrenia about the wisdom of the Founders. I’ve probably written a dozen columns about the habit of liberals to talk about the “living Constitution” when on offense, but whenever conservatives suggest amending the Constitution, the same liberals suddenly retreat to extolling the genius and wisdom of the Founders and their sacred text. When they want to do something the Constitution doesn’t allow, the Founders were naïfs who couldn’t imagine the needs of a complex modern society. It’s a living document that takes new meaning in every generation, you fools! But when a conservative wants to amend it—the only legitimate way to change its meaning—suddenly it’s an outrage:

“I respect the wisdom of the Founders to uphold the Constitution, which has served this nation so well for the last 223 years,” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) proclaimed from the saddle of his very high horse in 2011, in opposition to a balanced-budget-amendment proposal. “Let us not be so vain to think we know better than the Founders what the Constitution should prescribe.”

It’s weird how no one is trying to cancel Leahy for his unconstrained admiration for a bunch of slaveholders.

Conservative cancel culture.

Anyway, as I said, I was googling for examples of conservatives celebrating Trump as the Great Protector of our Constitution and the principles of the founding. This has always been a refrain of Trump’s defenders, sometimes for defensible reasons given the importance of judicial appointments. 

But it’s gone into overdrive since his Mt. Rushmore speech, in which he denounced “cancel culture” as an “attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty.” He vowed to “expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children, end this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life.” “Make no mistake,” he added, “this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.” 

Never mind that Donald Trump has no problem with cancelling people he dislikes—including yours truly. This is bigger than that, this is about preserving and defending the glorious principles of the founding! And there has been no shortage of over-the-top praise for Trump’s alleged tour de force. To take a couple examples among dozens, Newt Gingrich proclaimed it a masterstroke for repudiating “the anti-American worldview.” In this moment, “President Trump understood that the greatest threat was the rise of the anti-American left—and its desire to destroy American history, symbols, and culture.”

Conrad Black (who was pardoned by the president last year, and who in 2010 wrote that “no taxation without representation” and the Boston Tea Party and so forth were essentially a masterly spin job on a rather grubby contest about taxes) announced that, “Trump delivered the greatest speech of his career on Friday evening at Mount Rushmore, devoted altogether to celebrating the idealism of the American Revolution.” It takes a subtler mind than mine to see how Donald Trump can turn the grubbiness of the American Revolution into idealism.  

But here’s the thing: As terrible as the idiot mobs tearing down statues are, the more serious—at least more intellectually serious—attack on the founding and its principles isn’t actually coming from the left. It’s coming from the right. 

I just finished a “debate” of sorts with Patrick Deneen for Newsweek in which Deneen echoes his book-length denunciation of the culture of liberty ratified by the American founding. Patrick, a brilliant and decent guy, is one of the leaders of an intellectual movement very popular on the right that says the Founders blew it. Trump extols our “magnificent liberty.” Deneen argues that we must “transcend liberalism’s cramped idea of liberty.” Just to be very clear: The “liberalism” he refers to here is the liberalism of the Founders. For Deneen, the effort by George Will and others to frame the American tradition as one dedicated to liberty is “comparable to Pravda’s efforts to color the Russian tradition as exclusively communist.” Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari, Yoram Hazony and numerous others heap scorn on the “Lockean”—by which they mean liberty-obsessed—understandings of the founding. 

I may have missed it, but I don’t think any of these dedicated opponents of the “magnificent liberty” Trump was extolling have offered much criticism of his speech. To be sure, one reason for that might be tactical. Trump is also an avatar for the nationalist and integralist crowd’s culture war agenda. Sohrab even thinks that Trump is a force for “social cohesion”—though in fairness he wrote that before the president was impeached, one of Trump’s Supreme Court appointees recognized that being trans or gay is a protected status, face masks became a flashpoint in the culture war, and mass protests and riots shutdown cities. If the claim that Trump was a force for social cohesion seemed weak and fragile back then, now it looks like what remains after you take a sledgehammer to a bowl of overcooked pasta. 

Another possible reason for remaining silent on Trump’s ode to “magnificent liberty” might be that these conservative opponents of magnificent liberty understand that Trump didn’t actually mean it, but his homage to it is a useful counterweight to the opponents of magnificent liberty on the left. Embedded deep in this idea is a recognition that talking about freedom is a winning issue with Americans because Americans actually value freedom a great deal. This goes to the heart of one of my main disagreements with Deneen and Hazony, who seem convinced that John Locke is the author of all the woes of the West. 

I think Locke made valuable and important contributions to the West and to the American Founders, but I think his enemies today exaggerate his influence more than his fans do. John Locke no more created liberalism than Adam Smith created capitalism. Oscar and Lilian Handlin make a powerful case that Locke is more of a stand-in or shorthand for a whole bundle of ideas in wide currency at the time. Locke isn’t mentioned in the Federalist Papers. Locke wrote extensively about slavery, but as the Handlins note, there’s no record of any Founder invoking him during the debates over slavery at the time. When writing my book, I searched the National Archives database for references to Locke during the founding era. I was shocked by how paltry the results were. There’s ample evidence that his work in epistemology and psychology—then called “natural philosophy”—impressed the Founders greatly. But the Second Treatise on Government—basically the Necronomicon of evil libertarian thought among his detractors—simply wasn’t the Book That Changed Everything.

I don’t say any of this to disparage Locke, but simply to note that Locke reflected ideas and principles that were already thick on the ground at the time, in England and, later, America. American culture is still a liberty-loving culture—not as much as I’d like, of course. But just as 99 percent of the socialists out there screaming about the evils of capitalism have read little to no Marx, most of the Americans who cherish liberty know next to nothing about Locke, and they still cherish liberty just the same. Certainly Donald Trump is not deeply versed in his writings.   

Anyway, I don’t have a grand takeaway from this very weird disconnect between these very serious opponents of the magnificent liberty Trump extolled nor their lack of opposition to Trump for extolling it. You can make of it what you will. But I do think it is very strange that many of the same conservatives who sound like the cast of Team America—“America F*** Yeah!”—when Trump talks about the founding, and who sound like Woodrow Wilson in their give-no-quarter to the “leftwing fascists” Trump denounced, are so accommodating of an intellectual movement that agrees with the left-wing fascists on some very big ideas. Sure, they disagree about who should be in power—and what should be done with that power—once the great error of liberalism is corrected, but both sides agree that the liberalism of the Funders was, indeed, a terrible mistake and should be replaced by one faction’s definition of the Highest Good. 

I don’t want to see any of these illiberals canceled. They are conducting themselves far better than the Jacobins in the streets. They’re behaving lawfully, politely, and decently; they’re making arguments, criticizing the regime (in the proper sense of the word), and trying to persuade people to change the role of government. I think they’re a threat to the system of magnificent liberty the Founders bequeathed to us (arguably more of a threat than Drag Queen Story Hour). But one of the features—not bugs—of that system is that we tolerate such speech and, when warranted, we engage with it. That’s one of the bedrock guarantees that defines our system. Ironically, it doesn’t necessarily define the system they seek to replace it with.

I could care fewer.

I’m writing this by the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. I’m sitting on a bench in a little park, surrounded by ravens and cigarette butts. The butts are normal sized, which sounds like something one of the first proctologists to set up shop in the Alaskan frontier might report home in a letter. But the ravens are huge. They look like crows, but about three times the size. They make very strange sounds as they walk around me. Given how smart they are, I’m really hoping the one closest to me isn’t saying, “We take on the newcomer on my command. Go for the eyes first.”

At the center of the park is a statue of two natives and their sled dog. In years past, a typical tourist might refer to them as Eskimos, but that term is now widely considered pejorative. “Inuit” or “native” is preferred. 

A lot of people don’t know this. I didn’t until I started coming up here regularly. It reminds me of a conversation I had with John McWhorter earlier this week on my podcast. McWhorter is a brilliant linguist and I’m a huge fan of his, figuratively and literally (I gotta get back on the no-carb diet). But as I explained in our conversation, I sometimes consider him something of an intellectual frenemy, because he’s such an eloquent defender of linguistic legerdemain, neologistic innovation and the repurposing of words. If legitimizing the use of double negatives, defending the figurative use of “literally,” and celebrating the mainstreaming of slang terms were the primary tools Communists he’d be Henry Wallace, Noam Chomksy, Oliver Stone, and Jane Fonda rolled into one. 

I’m joking, of course. Because the evolution of language isn’t a threat to our way of life, even if it sometimes feels like it. And because, unlike those apologists for totalitarianism, McWhorter is right (and a good dude). Moreover, a lot of my complaints about grammar and usage are hypocritical. I may gripe about the misuse of “literally” and I may occasionally sound like Sam Kinison screaming at Thornton Melon when people incorrectly say “less” instead of “fewer,” but if infinitives were made of wood, I’d be a professional lumberjack because I split them so often. And if having fun with language were a crime, I’d be showering with my soap-on-a-rope in the Big House.  

Language is a vast storehouse of meaning that as often as not defies reason and logic. It is more art than science. We all understand that a painting or sculpture can have meaning beyond the literal. Symbols don’t have to be rational, and neither do phrases. “I could care less” read literally means, well, that you care to some degree. But that’s the opposite of what the phrase means.

I asked McWhorter about the word “Jew,” which has some tricky linguistic connotations. If I say “Jewish lawyer,” I’m describing a lawyer who is Jewish. But if I say “Jew lawyer” it sounds pejorative. “Jew boy” is an epithet. “Jewish boy” is descriptive. There’s no logical reason why this should be the case, save by the “logic” of history and culture. McWhorter noted this kind of thing is common, even if the Jew/Jewish thing has some specific weirdness to it. For instance, “Chinaman” was once a descriptor. Now it’s a slur. Why? Because that’s how it worked out. 

It’s silly to quarrel with this general phenomenon, but I do think there are some abuses that should be fought. Policing language is one of the most powerful tools for policing thought. Some stuff that passes for political correctness is really just the effort to create good manners in a diverse society. But much of it is just thought-policing. A lot of people don’t know that “Eskimo” is considered offensive. It’s one thing to politely point it out. It’s another to use it as an excuse to unperson someone by calling them a bigot. 

Anyway, I bring this up in part to plug my conversation with McWhorter because I enjoyed it so much. But also because I think it highlights my main disagreement with McWhorter. I agreed with his basic argument that language is always changing and it’s folly to get too worked up about it. But as a small-c conservative, I think there’s a benefit to pushing back on the pace of change at times. There’s even more benefit to pushing back against those who seek to use language as a trap to delegitimize people unfairly. Language can work as a kind of gnosis, and one of the chief weapons the cultural left uses is their monopolistic claims on language. They invent a new meaning on their own, and then use that new meaning to out, shame or cancel those who didn’t get the memo. I don’t think for a moment McWhorter disagrees with that, but I didn’t get a chance to discuss that aspect of the culture wars with him.

Anyway, I’ll talk about that more on the solo Remnant I’m about to record.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: The girls are with their “aunt” Kirsten again and loving it. My assistant Nick—the new Jack Butler—is tending to the cats and reports they’re fine. I wish I could have the dogs up here with us because they’d love it and because I’d love to see if Pippa remembers any of her Alaskan youth. Fortunately, my wife’s family has many dogs, including this spectacular puppy Bruno. Expect more pictures in my Twitter feed. 

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

The week’s first Remnant, with John McWhorter, a guest I’ve wanted to talk to forever

My Special Report appearance from Tuesday

My misgivings with the glandular patriotism of Trump’s Mt. Rushmore speech

The members-only Midweek Epistle on gratitude, the foundational conservative virtue

The week’s second Remnant, with education expert Andy Smarick

And now, the weird stuff.

Column-ception: A meta-column posted, in column format, to inform you about my missing column

Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess?

Oh… my God.

To Pimp a Butterfly makes cheese grow faster than Led Zeppelin IV

The Gnostics were so obsessed with Plato that they made a version of the Republic to fit their beliefs

Circa 1790: U.S. president George Washington in consultation with his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. A painting by Constantino Brumidi. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images.)

The Shot Heard Round—and Round and Round—the World

Thoughts on gratitude for the founding of America.

Howdy,

Like most Americans, I spent a lot of Fourth of July weekend taking pictures of my mom’s cats. But I did find the time to tweet. 

One tweet in particular got a lot of attention:

Many of the responses were quite depressing. I have no serious problem with people saying I was being simplistic or glib—it’s Twitter after all. That’s like complaining my diorama of the Battle of Waterloo using guinea pigs in period garb didn’t capture all of the facets and nuance of the conflict: correct on the merits but a bit shabby given the limits of the medium. 

Many Canadians and Brits of a certain stripe smugly claimed that they have all sorts of rights, too. So why make a big deal about the founding? Others pointed out that the American Revolution had more to do with taxation than inalienable rights, which has a much relevance to me as the pedantic noting that my guinea pigs aren't carrying the standard .70 caliber smoothbore flintlocks of the period. 

But the complaints that bothered me the most were those that scoffed at the idea we should feel any gratitude toward the founding. 

That said, Adam Gurri of Liberal Currents asks a fair question:

He is right. Which is why I wrote an entire book (now out in paperback!) dedicated to this very task. 

So let me start with what I mean by gratitude: I mean gratitude

We protect what we are grateful for. We are less inclined to do so for things for which we are ungrateful, or even resentful of. Of course, you can hate the founding and even America and still cherish the Bill of Rights. But you can see how such hatred, if given free rein, could lead you in the opposite direction. At the very minimum, championing ingratitude toward the founding cuts off one important source of support for the fruit of the founding.

In other areas of life, I don’t think my claim would be very controversial. If you had good parents who worked hard to provide for you and teach you right from wrong, your gratitude for their sacrifices would be one of the benchmarks of how you define good character and decent decision making. Again, it’s not the only one. Right conduct can be deduced from other principles. But the fear that you are betraying something at the heart of what your parents expected of you is an important restraint on bad behavior. 

If you worked your way up through a business or institution and became its leader, your sense of gratitude for what it has done for you and others would be one of the guideposts for managing it with integrity and aiming to pass it on in good order when you retire. Gratitude creates a sense of obligation. Ingratitude breeds a spiteful spirit and indifference. I’m not a Christian, but I find it difficult to imagine a good Christian who would be ungrateful or indifferent to Jesus’s death on the cross. The sacrifices of martyrs, not just for Christianity, but for any faith or righteous cause fortifies our sense of commitment to that cause. Sure, guilt plays a role, but guilt is often simply the word for knowing you’re not living up to your obligations.  

I suspect that if I wrote that no one should have a sense of gratitude for Martin Luther King Jr.’s sacrifices, many of the same people would denounce me from the opposite direction. 

Now, I’m not arguing that one should feel personal gratitude to the founders who risked a traitor’s death when they signed the Declaration, the final words of which were, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” I have no problem with that argument, but I don’t spend my days thinking, “What Would John Adams Do?”

My point is that we should feel grateful for the founding, because it was a massive advance for all of humanity.

The shot heard round the world.

I understand that race is the most important issue—even the only issue—for a lot of people today. But it wasn’t then. The 1619 Project people can claim the American Revolution was intended to protect slavery all they like, it won’t make it true. Similarly, people can dust off their Charles Beard and claim that the founders were nothing more than taxophobic landowners uninterested in real human liberty until they’re blue in the face. 

But it’s worth remembering what people at the time thought of the American Revolution. In response to the Declaration, Austrian Empress Maria Theresa conveyed to George III her “hearty desire to see the restoration of obedience and tranquility in every quarter of his dominions.” Her son Joseph, a nominal co-ruler, told the British ambassador, "The cause in which England is engaged ... is the cause of all sovereigns who have a joint interest in the maintenance of due subordination ... in all the surrounding monarchies."

As Henry Fairlie recounted in The New Republic more than 30 years ago, the revolt in America horrified the despots of Europe: “The rulers feared that their subjects would see the American action not as a rebellion against a rightful monarch in his own territories—there had been plenty of rebellions against European sovereigns—but as the proclamation of a revolutionary doctrine of universal application, as the Declaration indeed announced it to be.” A. P. Bernstorff, the Danish foreign minister wrote to a friend, “The public here is extremely occupied with the rebels [in America], not because they know the cause, but because the mania of independence in reality has infected all the spirits, and the poison has spread imperceptibly from the works of the philosophes all the way out to the village schools. … I am grateful for the American founding. I am grateful for the Declaration of Independence. I am thankful that I was born in this country. I am grateful for the founders and their revolutionary—in every sense—break with the past.” 

Fairlie quotes at length from newspapers and letters across the continent, demonstrating how the American cause was seen as one of universal appeal and a sharp break from the arbitrary rule of even enlightened despots. In England, public sentiment was obviously mixed, but many saw how the colonists were in fact fighting for the best traditions of English liberty (which is why Edmund Burke was always sympathetic to their cause). “When the news of the Boston Tea Party reached England,” Fairlie writes, “the London Packet called such resistance lawful and even honorable against ‘tyrannic’ measures. After Lexington and Concord the London Evening Post said that ‘the prevailing toast in every company of true Englishmen is, 'Victory to the Americans, and re-establishment to the British Constitution.’”

All of the smug Twitter gadflies boasting that England and Canada have their liberties, no thanks to the American founders, have no idea that the American cause inspired Englishmen and their loyal colonists in Canada to recommit to those very liberties. As one Danish historian observed,  “the Declaration of Independence had a decisive impact on the course of events leading to the attainment in 1849 of Denmark's first democratic constitution.” 

The American founding did something profoundly radical. For thousands of years, every nation had some notion of heredity status, royalty, nobility, aristocracy. The Founders did away with that. By all means, we can condemn their decision not to carry that democratic logic all the way and end the institution of slavery. But can’t we also be grateful for the enormous stride they took in the right direction? 

Similarly, the Founders took the best parts of England’s traditions of liberty and codified them. They took mere cultural norms of liberty that previously had been in open conflict with other cultural norms of tyranny and said, “These are our principles.” They refined them, elevated them, and turned them into rights for all the world to emulate. Again, they fell short on the issue of slavery. As I keep saying, the choice the Founders faced at the Constitutional Convention wasn’t between a Constitution without slavery or one with it, but a choice between a workable Constitution or no Constitution at all. 

And it was the principles in that document, as well as the Declaration, that gave moral and intellectual force to the cause of abolition. That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the Declaration as a “promissory note” that was long overdue. 

I am grateful to the Founders for that gift. I suspect King was as well, because it gave him the best ammunition possible to persuade white Americans that they were falling short on their own highest ideals. After all, if white Americans were as dedicated to “white supremacy” as so many radicals claim, they would not care about those ideals. True believers in white supremacy, whether we’re talking about Hitler or the idiot poltroons of the alt-right, recognize this fact better than the radicals of the new alt-left, which is why they disparage constitutionalists as “paper worshippers,” “vellum supremacists,” and “parchment fetishists.”

The founders are guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to slavery—not all of them, but enough of them. But that hypocrisy is a gift we should be grateful for. You can only be a hypocrite if you have ideals. If you believe in nothing other than your self-interest, it’s very difficult to be a hypocrite. But if you have ideals, noble and revolutionary ideals, it’s very easy to be a hypocrite because ideals are hard to live up to. But that’s the great benefit of hypocrisy, it highlights where you are falling short. It would be nice if the Founders had been angels, but they were the first to concede they weren’t, which is why they set up a constitutional order designed to protect against the worst aspects of human nature. That constitutional order, and the principles that inform it, is the greatest weapon for justice and progress toward a more perfect union you could reasonably ask for in the 18th century. And it is—or at least should be—the best tool for those grateful for our liberties and eager to live in a just society. 

And despite its flaws, real or perceived, I think we should all be grateful for it.

Photograph of the Howard Chandler Christy painting The Signing of the Constitution of the United States, with George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images.

Isn’t It Romantic?

With forays into Jaws, and why our culture thinks with its heart and not its head.

Dear Reader, (Including those of you who had a crush on Jennifer instead of Bailey from the WKRP crew, you traitors),

“That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

That’s a line from Chief Brody in Jaws. An old dude—named Harry—annoys Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) by making fun of the chief’s mild aquaphobia while he is trying to spot a shark that will likely eat another kid.

Brody responds, “That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

Now, I’ve seen Jaws many, many times. And it’s not like I had actually forgotten the scene. But it wasn’t until I saw it at drive-in last weekend that I connected the dots to Bad Hat Harry Productions, the production company founded by Bryan Singer, responsible for many of the X-Men movies, The Usual Suspects and the TV show House. They weren’t hard dots to connect. The company’s original logo was literally a drawing of the Jaws scene.

So those are easy dots to connect, and I failed. If I were a member of a pop culture-obsessed offshoot of the Yakuza, I might have to remove the tip of my pinky as penance. Fortunately, that’s not the case.

But I’ve got other dots to connect (warning: Dot connection addiction is dangerous—you have to know where to draw the line). As I mentioned on the podcast the other day, watching Jaws during a pandemic was interesting. Obviously, the movie is not an intentional allegory about a virus that wouldn’t hit until nearly five decades later. But it’s hard not to see some of it that way. In particular, nearly every scene with the mayor feels awfully familiar. Watch this:

Dreyfuss is basically an epidemiologist explaining that the shark doesn’t care about the crucial summer months for Amity’s economy. And there’s the mayor playing, well, not quite Donald Trump, but certainly one of dozens of Republican politicians looking for excuses not to listen to the scientists. Dreyfuss says he found the tooth of the shark in the hull of a boat. And despite being informed that the owner of the boat, one Ben Gardner, was—to use a scientific term—eatenby the shark, the mayor won’t believe any of it because Dreyfuss can’t produce the tooth. I mean, maybe Brody could have brought Ben Gardner’s head?

Anyway, what really gets the mayor’s goat (presumably so long as the goat doesn’t go swimming) is the “fake news” contained in a vandalized billboard.

Remember, a bunch of people have already been eaten by the shark. But closing the beaches—not the bars, not the restaurants, just the beaches—is too terrible a thing to contemplate, so the mayor and most of Amity’s residents simply pretend there’s no shark. It feels amazingly familiar.

The one scene where the mayor isn’t analogous to our moment is when the moral enormity of his reluctance finally hits him and Mayor Vaughn comes to his senses.  

We haven’t had that scene—not really. Some of the politicians and pundits who ridiculed those who took the pandemic seriously in March have changed their tunes. But none of them, as far as I know, have admitted to any serious failure, moral or intellectual. Most of the people who said “it’s just the flu”or something similar have either stuck to their guns or just gone silent. And, until about a month ago, this asininity was disproportionately a partisan affair. But you can’t have asininity without an ass—and an ass, just like the old French General Assembly, is divided on a left-right spectrum (let’s forgo the easy quips about what this says about the center).

Prior to the George Floyd protests, Jaws worked mostly as a parable for a big chunk of the Republican party, starting with Donald Trump. Shark repellent is for cucks and cowards! This is just a typical shark season, you stupid galeophobes! You just want to use this shark to defeat Mayor Vaughn in the next election!

But then the tables turned. The Richard Dreyfusses, righteously dismissive of the bourgeois and commercial concerns of the gentry, suddenly insisted it was fine to get in the water. Hell, while you’re at it, defund the lifeguards and tear down the lifeguard towers!

Not only did they say it was fine to get in the water, they said it was fine to stay in the water indefinitely. Was there a single prominent public health expert who initially supported the protests but, after say, the second week, said, “Okay you made your point”?

 If there was, I missed it.

Covid, Chapter 2.

I never thought Donald Trump deserved much blame for the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in the U.S., or even for our faltering early responses. America rarely gets anything right on the first try. As Winston Churchill reportedly said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they've tried everything else.”  

President Trump often says that he saved millions of lives by closing down travel from China. He didn’t really close down travel as much as he claims, but what he did was better than nothing—and given that he was condemned for it by Biden and many other Democrats he has every right to brag about it. But the move surely didn’t “save millions of lives.”  The EU didn’t ban air travel from China (or anywhere at all) until mid-March. They’re doing much better than the U.S. Oh, and Italy closed down travel from China before the U.S. did, how much good did it do them?

The only point to closing borders during a pandemic is to buy yourself some time. We wasted whatever time Trump bought us. When he says he saved millions of lives, it is only to make it sound that we’re lucky to have lost “only” 131,544 Americans (as of this writing). That’s a quarter of the global reported COVID-19 deaths. America, the richest country in world, with 4.25 percent of the world population, is punching way above its weight

This chart alone tells the tale:

The romantic pandemic.

In Suicide of the West I argued that perhaps our biggest problem is romanticism. Romanticism is a complicated term because, for even the fairly educated layman, it conjures everything from painting and poetry to Lifetime Movies of the Week. Even Isaiah Berlin, who literally wrote the book on Romanticism, considered offering a clear definition of the term to be a “trap.”

For our purposes, Romanticism as a philosophical movement was all about the primacy of emotions and feelings, a rebellion against reason and rationalism. Romanticism, Joseph Schumpeter observed, “arose almost immediately as a part of the general reaction against the rationalism of the eighteenth century that set in after the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.” Hegel described it as “absolute inwardness.” When Blake wrote, “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” the cage he had in mind were the coldly scientific rules and codes of the Enlightenment. The hero of Franz Sternbald’s romantic novel Wanderings declared: “Not these trees, not these mountains do I wish to copy, but my soul, my mood, which governs me just at this moment.”

Donald Trump is an amazing example of one form of the romantic spirit. He often says his instincts are more important than expertise and experience. He even recently told Sean Hannity that he always believed talent is more important than experience. He famously explained in a deposition that the best metric for measuring his net worth was how he feels about himself any given morning. (I’m not even going to get into the Romantic roots of modern nationalism, including Trump’s version of it). His response to the pandemic has been a textbook case of romanticism trumping (no pun intended) reason. The virus will just “disappear” because he feels that it will. He scorns masks because he feels that wearing one is a sign of weakness.

But our problems are so much greater than Donald Trump. One of Jonathan Haidt’s “Great Untruths” is “Always Trust Your Feelings.”

A word about feelings.

Let me interrupt my extemporaneous diatribe for a moment. 

I’m okay with telling people “Always listen to your feelings” because I think your feelings and instincts tell you important things. A lesson I learned too late in life is that fear alone is never a good reason not to do anything. You need to ask yourself why you fear something. Sometimes your fear is well-placed, other times it’s not. You need to use your intellect to figure out the difference.

Which is to say, there’s a difference between trusting and listening, because when you listen you still have the option to say “No.” Think of all the things you’ve learned to do or succeeded in doing because you didn’t listen to your feelings. Would you have learned to swim? To dive into water? Ride a horse? Pet a dog? Gotten or stayed married? And then there’s the problem of bad feelings. Suffice it to say, that if everybody did whatever their feelings told them to do in a particular moment, groin punching would be our national sport (“Tonight on ESPN, The Ocho!”).

Woe, woe, feelings.

Okay so where was I? Oh right, Haidt’s “Great Untruth.” I think so many of our problems these days stem from the fact that Americans, regardless of ideology, trust their feelings too much. If you find yourself throwing punches or having what looks like a nervous breakdown, because a private business asked you to wear a mask during a pandemic, you’re listening to your feelings too much. If you think it’s outrageous to open churches in a pandemic but awesome to occupy City Hall—because that will end racism or something—you should stop trusting your feelings.

More broadly, so many of the policy disputes we have these days seem to have less to do with things like math or experience and more to do with feelings. It just feels like disparities in male-female pay across a wide variety of occupations can be explained solely by sexism. It just feels like we should be able to afford a Green New Deal. It just feels like abolishing the police should work.

I think intellectual honesty requires admitting that people have been saying “Go with your gut” for a very long time. Even Obi Wan Kenobi said “trust your feelings” a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (personally given how far away the nearest galaxy is, I always thought the second “far” was gratuitous). And, I suspect that feelings always played a bigger role in policymaking than we might like to think. I mean, FDR set the price of gold based on what numbers he thought were lucky.

The difference now is that we’re not just telling people to trust their own feelings. We’re creating a worldview that other peoples’ feelings are sovereign. The intentions of the offender do not matter, only the feelings of the offended. Even when the offenses happened doesn’t matter. Five minutes ago or five years, it’s all the same. An official at Boeing was just forced out of his job for being “wrong” about something 33 years ago

Instead of clear rules, rationally conceived and universally applied, the new rules are opaque, emotionally conceived and subjectively applied. If we lived under some fickle absolutist king, who arbitrarily decided what was offensive, outrageous, or even criminal, we’d all recognize the illiberalism of it. But when a mob arbitrarily rules the same way, we call it social justice. It’s really just the tyranny of feelings.

Various & Sundry

Goldberg update, four-legged and two: I finished writing this from the front passenger seat of the family funwagon barreling toward NYC. We’re spending the Fourth with Grandma and Fafoon (I’d watch that cop show). The quadrupeds are in good hands with Kirsten and she will be sending proof of life both this weekend and next week when we go to Alaska. Pippa continues to roll sporadically in stygian foulness. Zoë continues to make outsized threats to critters. Ralph is warming to me, Gracie remains demanding. And I gotta go.

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

Pull out your Remnant bingo cards, everyone; it’s time for “The Parties Are Weak!”

Politics infects everything: NBA Edition

The week’s first Remnant, with return favorite Kevin Williamson

The members-only Midweek Epistle, in which the culture suddenly comes over to my side on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson

My appearance on Dan Crenshaw’s podcast, Hold These Truths

The week’s second Remnant, with the mellifluous Niall Ferguson

What if we voted like Belgians for a day?

The Maoist Nature of the New War on Wrongthink

Plus, some thoughts on German words and the concept of Einfühlungsvermögen.

Dear Reader (especially those who take a shot whenever Trump tweets “LAW & ORDER”), 

Let’s start with something a bit gloomy, if you don’t mind. 

Nothing evokes a nice gloomy feel like the German language. The Germans, a people forged under the gray skies and dark shadows of the Black Forest, are a gloomy people, which is why they have such wonderful words to describe gloomy things. 

(For instance, there’s schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. And fremdschamen, the feeling of being embarrassed for someone else who doesn’t have the good sense of being embarrassed for themselves (think of that feeling you get watching Michael Scott humiliate himself in The Office, or President Trump answering a question from Sean Hannity. See below). And there’s my favorite: futterneid—that feeling of jealousy you get when someone is eating something you want to eat. When I go out to dinner with my wife and she orders better than me, my futterneid fuels the Fair Jessica’s schadenfreude.)

So let’s consider the word Einfühlungsvermögen.

Einfühlungsvermögen means “empathy.” And that English word is just over a century old. It entered the English language in 1909 as a translation of Einfühlungsvermögen. It’s an adaptation of the shorter term Einfühlung, a concept pioneered by the German historicist Johann Herder, one of the founders of German nationalism. Einfühlung literally means “feeling one’s way in.” And it was one of the core concepts of the German historicist school, which is responsible for many bad ideas we won’t discuss here. 

But Einfühlung, in isolation, is not a bad idea. What Herder meant by “feeling one’s way in” was that for a historian to understand a particular society, one must grasp on both an intellectual and emotional level the cultural currents of the time. One cannot just look from outside the fishbowl using the scorecards of the moment and judge a society from some modern, abstract, standard. You must dive in and understand people and cultures on their own terms first. This is something the best historians do. They make the reader feel like they understand why people did the things they did without the benefit of knowing how events turned out. 

For example, when people condemn the Founders for keeping slavery intact in slave states, they tend to ignore the context the Founders were living in. The choice they faced wasn’t a Constitution with slavery or a Constitution without it. The choice was a Constitution with slavery—or no Constitution at all. 

I’m open to arguments that this isn’t true, but not from someone who doesn’t understand that this is the way the Founders—many of whom opposed slavery—understood their choice.  

Societies are complex things: Most of the rules that govern them cannot be found in legal texts. These rules are embedded in customs, norms, traditions, and manners that are as often as not unwritten—and even when they are written, most people don’t refer to those texts for guidance. Most of us know not to talk with our mouths full because our parents taught us basic manners, not because we read some Dear Abby column. 

A certain kind of modern feminist looks at a stereotypical housewife of, say, the 1920s and feels a kind of contempt or pity for her plight, but not empathy. I understand the feeling. But to understand the housewife you need to understand that she didn’t necessarily share your attitudes about what constitutes a meaningful and rewarding life. Condemning her for falling short of standards she did not hold can be a kind of bigotry.  

One thing I find remarkable is that many progressives understand all of this quite intuitively when it comes to other countries. Many of the same people who have contempt for the 1920 housewife will comment about a 2020 housewife in, say, Gaza, “Who are you to judge them? It’s their culture!” 

Well, the past is another country, too. And given that the American past is part of your own country, maybe you can have just a bit more Einfühlungsvermögen for it.

The new war on wrongthink.

Anyway, what got me thinking about all this was something I tweeted about last night.

What particularly annoyed me is the use of the word “scandal.” A scandal is “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.” The actions by Tina Fey and Jimmy Kimmel were not scandals when they happened. They were comedy bits on television that went, to my knowledge, unremarked upon at the time. If unremarkable events of the past—not secret events, not unknown events, but simply run-of-the-mill events of daily life—can retroactively be turned into scandals by a mob of moral scolds, we’re in store for some rough times. 

Think of it this way, men dressing as women for comedic effect is a very old staple. Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Flip Wilson, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx: The list goes on and on. It is not unimaginable, given the role of transgenderism in our culture today, that in the years—or days—ahead, we’ll have a similar moral panic over dressing in drag (at least by cis-men) and be told that this is—and was—some kind of hate crime. Will Dustin Hoffman ask AFI to take Tootsie off its 100 best films list? Will Tom Hanks get embroiled in a “scandal” because someone dug up an old VHS of Bosom Buddies? Will Mrs. Doubtfire go the way of Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation? And don’t get me started on the intersectional chimera that is White Chicks.

It’s one thing to say, “We should stop doing X.” It’s quite another to say the people who did X when X was entirely normal are now pariahs. 

There is something vaguely Maoist about the mood out there. During the Cultural Revolution the young firebrands attacked and humiliated older Communist leaders for the sin of not being sufficiently imbued with the spirit of revolution, or something. The “Black Line” theory of artistic interpretation—which led to the deaths and imprisonment of countless artists and intellectuals —basically held that if you once wrote or painted something “wrong” by the current revolutionary standard, you should be forcibly reeducated, even though what you wrote or painted wasn’t wrong when you painted it. Indeed, most of the victims of the Black Line were Communists in good standing who simply got screwed when the revolutionary game of musical chairs changed its tune. 

Trump’s choice.

Since we’ve busted out the Wayback Machine, let’s turn the dials to the final days of August 2019—also known as “last August.” It was a simpler time. No one had heard of COVID-19 yet. Michael Bloomberg’s bid for the Democratic nomination would not be announced for another three more months and the president wouldn’t be impeached for almost four. The hot controversy of the moment was President Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. should annex Greenland (it should). And—who can forget?—So Much Fun by Young Thug topped the Billboard charts. 

And a young-at-any-age columnist by the name of Jonah Goldberg wrote a column arguing that Joe Biden’s best bet was to run a “front porch campaign.” 

I bring this up for three reasons. 

First, to note that I was right.  

Second, to highlight my prescience, because I’m even more right now. 

Third, I’m not going to dwell long on this point because everyone has already made it. Biden isn’t quite hiding in his basement making a woman suit like Buffalo Bill, but he is mostly staying out of the limelight and his poll numbers keep increasing. Yeah, yeah, insert all the caveats about the polls here. But whatever form your skepticism—or bat guano conspiracy theory nuttery—about polling takes, I think pretty much everyone can agree that it’s better for a politician when his or her popularity goes up. Even President Trump implicitly concedes this, because whenever his polling marginally improves, he celebrates it. 

In a normal time, Biden is a bad presidential candidate—which is why he did so badly the last two times he ran. He’s still a hugely flawed candidate. You never know when he’s going to say “that refrigerator won’t vote!” or “I bark flowers like the best of them.”

But up against Trump, most of his flaws matter less or are just a wash. They’re two irritable old white guys who often say very strange things. The chief difference is that Biden is less offensive to the voting blocs he and Trump both need to win (as I write in my column today). 

I keep hearing Trump-friendly pundits argue that there’s plenty of time left, the polls don’t mean much now, all is well, a lot will change between now and November, tweeting “LAW & ORDER” over and over again will save him as the vandals push moderate voters rightward, remain calm all is well, etc. I’m skeptical about all of this for a bunch of reasons. But they’re all defensible positions given that we don’t know what’s in store. 

But there’s one argument from Trump spinners and pro-Trump pundits that I think is just wishful thinking. I constantly hear that what Trump needs to do is make the election a choice between him and Biden rather than a referendum on Trump. Once Biden comes out of the basement, Trump will be able to define him, and define him in a way that makes voting for Trump more attractive than voting for Biden.  

There are many problems with this theory. First, as I write today, Trump seems clueless about how to define Biden. Second, it assumes that once he figures it out, he’ll succeed. Third, Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton. Trump benefited from decades of pent-up dislike for Clinton and a vast armory of anti-Clinton ammo he and his surrogates could take off the shelf. Biden is much more likeable than Clinton and while some of the ammo against Biden has merit, it only has real purchase among people who are going to vote for Trump already. 

But these are all secondary. The primary problem for Trump is that he wants the election to be a referendum on him. “Want” may be the wrong word here. Maybe “he needs to make it about him” works better. Or maybe it’s simply that he’s incapable of not making it about him.

Last night, Sean Hannity might as well have been Jerry MaGuire pleading “help me, help you.” He teed up a softball so soft it might as well have been made from Charmin, asking Trump “what’s at stake in this election as you compare and contrast and what are your top priority items for a second term?”

Here was Trump’s answer:

Well, one of the things that will be really great, you know the word experience is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word experience is a very important word. It’s an—a very important meaning.

I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden, I’m president of the United States. You know the story. I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our First Lady and I say, ‘This is great. But I didn’t know very many people in Washington. It wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York. Now I know everybody, and I have great people in the administration.

You make some mistakes. Like, you know, an idiot like Bolton. All he wanted to do was drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.

Never mind the word-salad-thrown-out-of-a-window style. Look at this. Forget the fact he seems not to have given a moment’s thought to what he would do in a second administration. He seems not to have given a moment’s thought about how to make an argument for a second term. For Trump, a second term is four more seasons of the Trump Show

Now, I could be overreading one idiotic answer, but there’s a broader context. For Trump, the most important and interesting issue is always Trump. When Trump attacked Gold Star parents, he couldn’t understand why he should stop because they attacked him first. Remember when his unpopularity cost a whole bunch of Republicans their seats in 2018? His explanation was that they lost because they didn’t “embrace” him. At his Tulsa rally, the most important issue was Trump. At the coronavirus task force press conferences? Trump. When asked by Hannity to lay out an agenda, a choice, between two governing agendas or philosophies, his answer was—put through the Trump Translator—“Now that I have more experience, I’m even more awesome.”    

This is the guy you want—no wait, forget want. This is the guy you expect to run a campaign guided by a strategy that is not a referendum on Trump? Really? What about the last four years makes you think Trump wants that? What about the last four years makes you think that even if you could persuade him to want it, that he could actually pull it off? He wants a referendum on him because he wants everything to be about him, not his ideas, not his agenda, not Joe Biden: Him. 

Saying the election will change in his favor once he makes it about a choice, not a referendum, is like saying his presidency will change once he decides to be “presidential.” That’ll happen once Godot shows up to replace Brad Parscale.   

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Everything is more or less as it should be with the doggers, though they’d all prefer it be a little cooler. Zoë even risked getting her tail floof wet yesterday in the process of cooling off. The biggest problem is that Pippa is still on this “roll in foulness tour” this summer and it’s becoming a huge drag. The other day she rolled in blood. No word on where she found it. She’s also definitely entering her middle years. The waggle is still there, to be sure. But it takes a bit more to coax it out. Relations between Gracie and Zoë have improved. Gracie has taken to colonizing the dog bed, and Zoë lets her. But Zoë still draws the line at letting Gracie in my lap during business hours, which is why Gracie immediately comes petitioning the moment the dogs leave the house. Once they return, Zoë takes the spot back

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

The week’s first Remnant, with frequent guest Chris Stirewalt

The continuing self-flagellation of Jeff Sessions

The week’s second Remnant, taken from a Dispatch live event with Chris Wallace

“Sleepy Joe,” or no?

And now, the weird stuff

Man singlehandedly fights off the coronavirus

The Steamed Hams skit but it’s Lego

How Twitter verification works

Bloopers from classic old movies

A documentary following the life of a Geisha-in-training

Still from Tootsie ©1982 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

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