The Riddle of a Republic

What's the real difference between being a democracy and a republic?

Querido lector,

I’m writing this on a train from Madrid to visit my daughter, who’s spending her junior year of high school here. Given that I just flew over the Atlantic without getting much sleep, this “news”letter may forget to feed the cat because Tuesdays smell like paprika.

[Shakes head, starts over]

What I think I was going to say is: Please cut me some slack if this gets weird.

I think everyone using phrases like “coup,” “sham,” “star chamber,” and “lubricated xylophone” needs to calm down. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the Democrats’ impeachment drive is ill-conceived, procedurally unfair, politically daft, etc. But it’s not an assault on the Constitution or the rule of law. The Sixth Amendment has nothing to do with impeachment, and Congress can run an impeachment process pretty much any way it wants.

It’s funny: Nearly all of the prominent people currently insisting that what the House is doing is an outrage against the Constitution are literally the same people who said that the president cannot be faulted for exercising his constitutional power even in unsavory ways. Well, if it’s okay for Trump to fire James Comey and do all of the other unseemly but constitutional stuff he’s done, it’s certainly okay for the House to exercise its impeachment power any way it wants, even in ways some might find unseemly. Again, this doesn’t mean Congress should use its constitutional power in unsavory ways—but neither should the president.

But I don’t want to talk or argue about all that—or even type about it. I don’t really want to write about Trump one way or the other. But I need to bring him up one last time to make a point that has been driving me a little crazy.

I’m going to back into it….

A Republic, Not A Democracy?

One of the oldest arguments ever to grace a comment section, chat room, online forum, or even a dead-tree newspaper letters-to-the-editor section goes something like this. “So-and-so says that we are a democracy. We are not a democracy; we are a democratic republic.” This basic point takes many forms, including ALL CAPS. The Founders are often quoted or invoked. The Strategic Exclamation Point Reserve is routinely depleted.

For years, I agreed with most of the arguments associated with this claim, even though in hindsight I’m not sure I always knew exactly what I was agreeing with. One popular version I certainly subscribe to: The Founders never intended for America to be a pure democracy. The founders were equally fearful of too much democracy and too little. Our system was set up to defend us against the rule of tyrants and mobs alike.

But here’s the problem: That’s not exactly what “republic” or small-r “republican” means—or at least meant at the time of the founding.

The CliffsNotes answer is that republics were forms of government where the nation or the state was owned publicly—i.e. by the people—rather than by a single ruler or group of rulers. It comes from the Latin res publica, a public thing, or, more colloquially, a “common wealth.”

As my friend, AEI colleague, and go-to law-guy Adam White recently told me, the problem with the whole “this is a republic not a democracy” thing is that the meaning of a republic has changed over time. Three hundred years ago, “republic” was the hot word for, well, democracy. Or to be more precise, it was the buzzword for what we basically mean by democracy today.  It was a way to contrast with monarchy or empire or other forms of tyranny where the nation was treated as the private property of a person or a class. A republic was the democratic alternative to a country living under the Divine Right of Kings or the Emperor’s Mandate of Heaven.

These days, however, when we talk about a “republic”—as in, “This is not a democracy it’s a republic!!!!” we make it sound like anyone who calls America a “democracy” is uninformed, and that “republic” stands in for all the other good stuff democracy allegedly lacks—the rule of law, individual liberties, etc. 

I’m not saying it doesn’t mean that stuff or can’t mean that stuff. Words take on new meaning all the time. And Madison clearly had something like that in mind back in the day anyway. But he distinguished between a republic, where the people elected other people to make decisions on their behalf, and a “pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.”  

Virtually no one has that definition of democracy in mind today when talking about the need for more democracy. Even the democracy-zealots who want to lower the voting age or eliminate the Electoral College and the Senate are still talking about electing representatives to make decisions on our behalf.

It’s sort of like what’s happened with the word “federalist.” Back during the fight over ratification, the Federalists were the guys in favor of a strong(er) central government, and the Anti-Federalists were the folks pushing more localism and independence from the central government. Today, “federalist” refers to one who believes in the latter.

Trump Wasn’t Democratically Elected—And That’s Okay

I am a defender of the Electoral College. I’m also a defender of the grand compromise that gave each state two senators to offset the power of states with large populations. I like all of the federalist stuff (in today’s understanding). It doesn’t bother me that Trump won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote. People who think that the Electoral College is illegitimate have a defensible intellectual argument; I just think they’re wrong. But even if you think the Electoral College is a relic, retroactive complaints are still ridiculous. Trump is absolutely right when he says that he won according to the established rules, and if we didn’t have an Electoral College, he would have run a very different race. Saying he shouldn’t be president because we didn’t have the standards you wanted when he ran is like saying the Nationals shouldn’t have won the World Series because you think the MLB should have a different scoring system that would’ve helped the Astros.

The Dead Language of Liberty

But here’s what bothers me. Trump and his supporters constantly say that impeachment would “thwart the will of the American people”; it would “overturn a democratically elected president,” “negate the votes of 62 million people,” etc.

This all overlooks the fact that, measured on purely democratic terms, Trump didn’t win the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton did. Again, I don’t care.

But what is really shocking and bizarre when you think about it—or at least when I think about it—is that we literally don’t have a vocabulary for what the Trump Team could more accurately and justifiably say. There is no “republican” word that has the same moral resonance of “democratic.” Saying he’s the “republicanally elected president” just sounds absurd.

Take Trump out of it, because everyone brings so much extraneous baggage to every discussion of him. Bill Clinton wasn’t really democratically elected either. He won a plurality of the popular vote. Again, that’s fine. If you win 270 electoral votes, you win, regardless of how the popular vote plays out. But during the Clinton impeachment, it was the same thing. “Democratically-elected president,” “the will of the people,” etc.

The only words that comes closer to reality would be “legitimately,” or “lawfully,” or “rightfully” elected. But using such words doesn’t convey the moral power we invest in “democratically.” If Trump were to say, “I was legitimately elected” or, “They’re trying to depose a lawfully-elected president,” it would be technically accurate. But psychologically and politically, it would only serve to remind people he wasn’t democratically elected.  Worse, if your best defense is to consult the rules, you open yourself up to the entirely fair argument that those trying to impeach the president are following the very same rulebook: the Constitution.

Nationalism, populism, republicanism, and democracy emerged in the modern era as responses to the end of the divine authority of Kings. They are not synonymous terms, but they all share a basically mystical belief that, if a majority of people say they want X, then X must be right, good, just, and even wonderful. This is nonsense. And the Founders knew it was not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense.

This may all sound like silly semantics and the like. But I think there’s a hugely important point here. If you believe, as I do, that the stuff we now invest in the word “republican”—protecting the rights of minority communities, including, as my friend Kevin Williamson says, the smallest minority: the individual—is not just good and important, but is usually better and more important than democracy (at least when they come into conflict), then the fact that we have no common language to invoke the authority of these ideas is deeply disturbing. Democracy as a mechanism is hugely important. But in my book, democracy as a source of meaning and authority takes a back seat to Constitutionalism, the Bill of Rights, and the tenets of classical liberalism.

And yet, everyone seems determined to talk about all of that stuff as “tools” and “processes” while treating democracy as a Golden Calf.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: We left the girls behind yesterday. As usual, it was hard. They’re being minded by Declan Garvey, one of our new hotshot reporters at The Dispatch. He jumped on the opportunity, I think, because he’s going through dog-withdrawal. We’ll see if this will be more than he bargained for. We’ve gotten leaving town down to a science. We take out the luggage and pack, whenever possible, only when they’re not around. But they still figure it out, particularly Zoë, who gets very needy whenever she suspects we might be leaving. Though Pippa was behaving oddly the morning we left, but I think that’s because she smelled coyote or was afraid of some big dogs she saw in the distance. Zoë, meanwhile, has been having a blast because she’s gotten to see Sammy, her oldest B.F.F., a lot lately. There was also the Grace-On-The-Stairs incident. People who don’t have both cats and dogs in their homes may not know this, but there are very complex rules about dog and cat interactions. And one of the oldest rules is that dogs may not descend stairs past a cat. Even Zoë obeys this ancient custom.

ICYMI…

Last week’s G-File 

Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren have certain similarities 

This week’s first Remnant, with Rich Lowry 

This week’s mid-week G-File

This week’s second Remnant, with Chris Stirewalt

[working with Apple podcasts to get Episode 149 on the page; it’s showing up everywhere else]

And now, the weird stuff. 

Debby’s Tuesday links

Best-selling music artists by year, 1969-present

Wolf and cub

Talking dog? 

Oooh, what a lucky man, he was! 

Oh no 

RIP RFK stadium 

The first song in musicals 

When you do man on the street interviews with Captian America and run into Ant-Man 

Darude Etude 

The chickening continues

Teenage Mutant Nazi Turtles

Journalism is not dead

'Dead' dog brought back to life

Good dog

Technocrats and Technobabble

On the appeal of sounding like you're smart.

Dear Anthropophaginians,

One of the big challenges I’ve been dealing with amidst the launch of The Dispatch is an ingrained distrust of Internet jargon and the people who try to monetize it. A million years ago, when I was starting National Review Online, it was like the Wild West for Internet consultants of every stripe. They were like spammer phone calls made flesh. I developed a powerful animosity toward anyone who couldn’t explain what they wanted to do in language I could understand. If I asked a perfectly reasonable question and got carpet-bombed with indecipherable jargon in response, I assumed I was being conned or, perhaps, that the salesman had conned himself. “Oh, you don’t understand? You can monetize the pings to the framfra by streamlining backward overflow and product intergortion—excuse me—integration.”

I understand that the gearheads in the backroom use a lot of jargon. But that’s true for almost every product under the sun—or under soul-sucking, vitamin-D depleting, fluorescent lamps in some windowless lab somewhere. Chefs, surgeons, shoemakers, even journalists have their own lingo. But it’s rare that the sales staff use that stuff with laymen—if they’re good at their jobs. I found that in those Wild West days, a lot of folks thought they could exploit the relative ignorance of the customer and bluff their way through conversations.

It later dawned on me that at least some of them were actually trying to sell the illusion of competence itself. That’s what a lot of business executives do, after all. They bring in consultants like McKinsey, not so much to get the best advice, but to be able to tell their board or their stockholders that they went with the best advice. That way, when the ABC News reporting standards hit the fan, they don’t deserve to be blamed. “Hey, it’s not my fault! We were just going with the smartest advice we could find!”

In other words, sometimes the product really isn’t the product. Consider Bennington College. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the most expensive college in the country. Whenever some other school raised its tuition above Bennington’s, they would immediately see their raise and raise again. The reason: Being the most expensive school in the country offered a slight marketing advantage. Some fathers liked to brag to their golf buddies that their kids “had to go” to the most expensive school in the country.  The ability to make such boasts was more valuable than what you might save sending your kid to the second-most expensive school.

Being the priciest school was what economists call a “Veblen good.” When people pay through the nose to show off how “woke,” they are, that’s called “virtue signaling.” But that’s not the only kind of signaling out there. And there’s a market for every kind of signaling under the sun. Which brings me to…

On Warren’s “Plan.”

…which brings me to what no less than Bill Galston calls “the longest suicide note in recorded history”: Elizabeth Warren’s healthcare plan.

Lots of folks have dunked on her $52 trillion dollar “plan” to socialize the healthcare industry in the United States. I think David French and Brian Riedl’s efforts are among the best. But ideologically, I’m closer to Noah Rothman’s exasperation. It’s insulting that people are expected to take it seriously at all.

As I wrote in my LA Times column, the point of her plan—and Warren’s whole “I have a plan for that!” schtick—isn’t really about socializing medicine. It’s about selling the idea that she is the serious candidate for serious people who think that political seriousness is proven with PowerPoint presentations, graphs, charts, etc. 

There is a segment of the public, highly concentrated amongst the ranks of liberal professionals, that thinks all culture war fights are not only illegitimate but that it’s only the right that engages in such things.

The thing is, the very idea that all of the important questions about how to organize our economy and society should be deferred “upwards” to a bunch highly credentialed experts has been one of the oldest and most defining culture war fault-lines since the Founding Era. It goes back to the squabbles between Adams and Jefferson. In the 19th century, populism was fueled by the idea that elites—bankers, railroad magnates, etc.—in places like New York had too much power over the lives of people in what today would be called “flyover country,” but back then might have been called “train-pass” country.

The Progressives at the beginning of the 20th century wanted to remove as many political and economic questions from the people or the private sector as possible and hand them to “disinterested” experts and “social engineers” (then not a pejorative term). The New Dealers continued the effort. They wanted an “industrial general staff with dictatorial powers” to run the economy, in the words of Stuart Chase. FDR explained in his “Economic Bill of Rights” State of the Union Address that a return to the depoliticized, free-market policies of 1920s would be a surrender to “fascism” at home just as we were defeating it abroad.

Progressives’ great marketing trick was pretending—often starting with themselves—that they had the unimpeachable authority of “science” on their side. This pretense, which Friedrich Hayek derided as “scientism,” held that some expert in Washington was smarter than the market. They sold this idea by drowning opponents with social scientific jargon.

As Tom Cruise said when the Scientologists were applying the electrodes, let me be clear: It wasn’t all ridiculous. Public health experts and civil engineers really did have important and life-saving ideas about public hygiene, sanitation, etc. I am not arguing that wonks are making it all up and don’t know anything. What I am saying is that what “science” tells us about how to organize society is very complicated, diversely interpretable, and often extremely ambiguous.  Moreover, the capacity for experts to delude themselves into thinking their agenda isn’t shot through with political or ideological biases is profound. Science doesn’t say that socialized medicine is the only solution to our healthcare system’s problems. But socialized medicine is a cultural and ideological priority for many of the sorts of people who like to pretend they’re only following the facts and data where it leads. In other words, they start with the object of their desire and reason backward from it, grabbing charts and slapping buzzphrases on their plans as a way to sell it. But they aren’t actually selling socialized medicine; they’re selling the idea that you can be a really serious and realistic person who favors socialized medicine.

Marxists were brilliant at this. Marxism was, at its heart, a religious enterprise that used scientific jargon to draft its catechisms and incantations. As I often joke, they were like the Reasonablists—the cult in Parks and Recreation that worships a lizard god named Zorpwho called themselves “Reasonablists” because it would make anyone who criticized them sound “unreasonable.” It’s the same reason Scientologists call themselves a “Church” and a “Religion.”

Elizabeth Warren isn’t a Marxist, but her “plan” is a tribute to this technique. She quotes experts! Makes assumptions about revenues and projects cost-savings in future years! How could you criticize that?

Of course, she could have written the whole thing the same way and then ended it with, “and if outlays exceed expected revenues due to non-compliance of some stakeholders, we shall push them into Zorp’s volcano mouth” and the whole thing would be just as plausible.

The idea that this plan could survive two seconds upon contact with political reality is absurd. History is full of examples of priests wielding sacred texts as a way to impose order on the unfaithful. Moses returning with the tablets, Muhammed’s disciples riding forth to conquer the infidels, the Bolsheviks waving Das Kapital around (note, I do not consider all of these morally or theologically equivalent enterprises). But the idea that the U.S. Congress (not to mention corporate America, the insurance and hospital industries and, oh yeah, the voters) would bow like Neanderthals before a flashlight when faced with her healthcare scheme as if it was some woke-wonk Necronomicon—watch out guys, she’s got a plan!—is so effulgent in its asininity that it offends me personally.

Word Power

Okay enough of all that. Let’s get back to using words for fun and profit.

I think the most honest form of word fakery—fake languages like Klingon or Valyrian aside—is technobabble.

What is technobabble?

Here’s how Memory Alpha—apparently one of the best websites to kill time at while waiting for your virginity to somehow miraculously self-correct (I kid, I kid)—explains technobabble:

Technobabble (also known as Treknobabble) is a moniker describing the pseudo-scientific terminology of Star Trek. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, some of the actors dubbed it "Piller-filler" after executive producer Michael Piller. (Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, p. 252) According to Piller, the latter term originated with Brent Spiner, whose character of Data gave many technobabble speeches. Writers would frequently write "(TECH)" in draft scripts "as a sort of cry for help" to the science advisor André Bormanis, who would then come up with appropriate terminology.

I enjoy technobabble as much as the next guy, if the next guy enjoys it a moderate amount. (For what it’s worth, Technobabble.biz bills itself as the best Star Trek technobabble generator on the web, and who am I to doubt that—or waste time trying to disprove it?) Though I prefer the variants that stick close to what the science fiction guys call “rubber science.” That’s when the fake science sticks as close as possible to plausibility that the audience doesn’t say, “Oh come on!” the way even glue-huffing bonobos do when watching The Core. All science fiction is fiction, after all. But it’s more enjoyable when the writers don’t make the suspension of disbelief so heavy a lift you get a hernia just from paying attention.

But technobabble is a kind of outlier in the art of what I’m going to call gnostic language. (Note: I am not referring to the mystical language of Gnosticism. I think that stuff is fascinating, but that’s a subject for another day.)

What I mean is the use of language to create the impression that the speaker or writer possesses some special knowledge, some superior insight into the truth or membership in a privileged club.

Shibboleths are one tool of this kind of thing. The story of the shibboleth comes from the Bible (Book of Judges, Chapter 12).  The Gileadites kicked the asses of the Ephraimites in a big battle. When the surviving Ephraimite refugees tried to cross the river Jordan and go home, the Gileadites set up a checkpoint. They asked all the pilgrims if they were Ephraimites. If they answered, “No,” the Gileadites replied, “Okay, say the word ‘shibboleth’.”

The Ephraimites, you see, were the opposite of Cindy Brady and couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound. So the Gileadites knew that if the person said “siboleth”—without the “sh”—then that person was lying. The Gileadites killed 42,000 people because they couldn’t put “sh” in front of “it” or “inola.”

Shibboleth has come to mean any word, phrase, pronunciation, or reference that distinguishes one group from another. In The Wire, Snoop and Chris asked drug dealers if they could identify Baltimore club music. If they couldn’t, that meant they were interlopers from New York, deserving of the Ephraimite treatment. Every subculture has its share of shibboleths, from sports to computer science to video games (just ask Leeroy Jenkins).

Of course, shibboleth is just a fancy word for things like code, lingo, jargon, etc. Which brings me to another form of gnostic language—sesquipedalian obscurantism. This is the craft of using big, rare, and complicated words to say stuff you could just as easily communicate with smaller ones.

I’m torn about this kind of thing. As a logophile—sorry, word-lover—I have a weakness for anyone who eschews “big” for “Brobdingnagian.” I should say, I have a weakness for anyone who can do it artfully. William F. Buckley was, of course, the master of this stuff. But what made him good at it was knowing when to use his superpower and when not to. Most of Buckley’s most famous quotes use short and commonplace words—in part because most of his most famous quotes come from his writing, not the verbal Cathedrals he’d construct in mid-air during conversations on Firing Line. The first panel I was ever on with Buckley left me stammering because I did not immediately remember what “lachrymosity” meant (it was a question about Bill Clinton’s ability to cry for political advantage).

For an example of what I mean, here’s a joke. Two cannibals stumble on a body in the woods and immediately dig in from either end. One shouts “I’m having a ball!” The other replies, “Boy, you eat fast!”

That joke isn’t nearly as eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious if it’s:

“Anthropophaginians perambulating a deux whereupon they aleatorically happenstance an esculent cadaver and commence to masticate in a antejentacular repast. “I’m gormandizing a gonad!” one sightseer gasconades ebulliently.

His socius in the biarchic peripatetic sodality exclaims, “Callant! You manducate with swith alacrity.”

I think a remarkable amount of politics—electoral, social, academic, interpersonal—is really about shibboleth formation, policing, and signaling. Political correctness is just one obvious and easily recognized form. But it manifests itself in every realm of life and drives so much of the culture war(s). Twitter is one giant mosh pit of gladiatorial shibboleth squabbling. Many academics convey their authority to the uninitiated and membership in the guild more by mastering terminology than by quoting their CVs. This is different from using “code words,” because the whole point of a code word is that both the speaker and the listener understand it’s code. Many shibboleths work more like humor; if you’re in on the joke, even subconsciously, you get it without having it explained. Anyway, I could go on—and intended to—but I’ll just close with another old joke that applies both to this self-indulgent sillography as well as to Ms. Warren’s plan.

A blind guy is handed a piece of matzoh and says, “Who writes this stuff?”

Various & Sundry

I’ll be at the University of Wisconsin next week, and word on the interwebs is that some alt-right trolls will be attending, like they did at my appearance with Dan Crenshaw on Monday night. If friendly faces can attend as well, that would be great, particularly if the faces are attached to the person.

I’m leaving for Spain for a few days to see my daughter, but I intend to write a Friday G-File as well. Look for the Canine Update there.

My conversation with Rich Lowry about nationalism and his book on the topic is out, and I just recorded a new one with Chris Stirewalt which should be posted Thursday.    

Government By Rabble-Rousing

It's not statesmanship to try whipping the people up into a frenzy.

Note: This is the G-File, Jonah Goldberg’s newsletter. If you saw this without subscribing and want it in your inbox, sign up here.

Dear Reader (especially those of us who knew Donald Trump was a Florida Man all along),

Lest I be accused of dodging the big issue of the week, let’s talk about Conan. Among the myriad reasons I love the outpouring of love for this Very Good Boy who helped kill a terrorist is that it highlights something I’ve been obsessively writing about for more than 20 years: Dogs are different. Unlike all other “companion” animals—cats, horses, parrots, monkeys, hawks, Packers fans (I kid), etc.—dogs chose to partner with humans. When I first started making this argument, it was just that—an argument. Now science has pretty much confirmed what was obvious to those who paid attention. Dogs have the ability to read human facial expressions; wolves don’t. Dogs are wired to love humans. They volunteer for duty. All other animals have to be conscripted. Horses, birds, monkeys, and even cats can be bent to serve humans to one extent or another, but it is not natural for them. It is natural for dogs. It’s what they want to do. Some breeds are more eager to please than others, but as a species, they are our compadres.

I’m against all forms of animal cruelty. But we can also make distinctions, apply cost-benefit analysis, or simply make informed judgements. I don’t want to get into a big discussion about animal rights versus human obligations. I just want to point out that we have a special obligation to dogs. Our ancestors cut a deal with dogs, and the contract is still binding. This is particularly the case for dogs that are asked to fight alongside us and protect us. They are doing it because they believe we are family. The question of their intelligence is secondary to the fact of their love. In the past, America treated its military dogs dishonorably. It is not a sign of America getting “softer” that we’ve changed that. It is a sign that we’ve come to recognize that we have a moral obligation to hold up our end of the bargain.

It started as a meme, but I would be happy to see Conan awarded a medal by the President of the United States. Not because Conan would care (he probably just wants his rope toy and some quality time with his human). But because it would signify that we recognize the pure doggy goodness of dogs, and the fact that we got the better end of the bargain we made with them back during the great war between homo sapiens and the rest of nature.

The Other Big Story

The House voted to launch an impeachment inquiry, though in a way that lets some vulnerable Democrats pretend they didn’t.

I wrote a column this week arguing that the best way forward for Trump was to move off the “perfect phone call” and “no quid pro quo” stuff and admit that it happened and that it was a mistake but not one he thinks warrants impeachment. The reaction was fascinating. My analysis wasn’t very different from Rich Lowry’s and Andy McCarthy’s—both more favorably inclined to Trump than I am. It was also similar to Mulvaney’s argument in that press briefing, though his “get over it” comment was ill-advised. Yet pro-Trumpers thought my column was outrageously anti-Trump. Anti-Trumpers thought it was outrageously pro-Trump. It was neither. It was just my honest analysis of what I think is reality.

If you want my moral judgement, it’s simply this: I think what he did was very bad, and if the Senate could remove him for it after a fair trial, that would be fine with me. I disagree with Rich and Andy’s “no harm, no foul” argument, because the offense was what he attempted, not whether he succeeded (the Watergate burglars didn’t get away with it either). Impeachment wouldn’t overturn an election. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t become president. She’d still be yelling at the TV. It’s just that president Pence would be on the screen. 

But back to analysis. I care a lot more about the GOP holding the Senate than about Trump fending off impeachment. And the current strategy is a disaster for Senate Republicans, who need both the Trump base and Trump-alienated independents and Republicans. Trump wants total loyalty from Republicans, but the best way to earn that loyalty is to show some loyalty in return. Asking vulnerable Republicans to mouth ineffective and counterproductive talking points isn’t an act of loyalty, and it’s not in Trump’s political interest.

Trump will need every Republican senator he can get. Asking retiring senators like Lamar Alexander to defend a lie is asking too much. Asking non-retiring senators who can’t win with the Trump base alone to defend an explanation that isn’t true is folly if it will cost them the voters they need to get reelected.

Trump’s own new—very good—campaign ad implicitly admits he isn’t perfect. Why is it so outrageous to let senators say that?

And the fact is, when push comes to shove, these senators are going to say it anyway if that’s what getting reelected requires (it’s what Rob Portman is doing already, and he’s not even up for reelection). It would be better for Trump and the senators if it looked like he was giving them permission to do it. And it would be worse for them if he punished them for stating the obvious.

I’m not making value judgements here. It’s just how I see the situation, and shouting, “Shut up, Never Trumper!” or “Shut up, Trumper” isn’t a rebuttal. 

Soviet Impeachment?

As I discuss on the latest episode of The Remnant, I think the GOP’s process arguments are mostly ridiculous. When I say this, I get two reactions. The first is what I call the “Ugly American” strategy. When a prototypical ugly American is in, say, France and encounters someone who doesn’t speak English, the response is to simply speak English MUCH LOUDER. Similarly, some people respond to my eyerolling at claims this is a “Soviet-style impeachment” by shouting even louder: “It is too Soviet!” Or “It’s a show trial!” Or “It’s a star chamber!”

The GOP has been very effective in making people think that Republicans were frozen out of Schiff’s hearings. They weren’t. Moreover, while it would be unfair if Republicans had been frozen out of these hearings, that still wouldn’t rise to the level of a Soviet show trial (there’s no such thing as a Soviet impeachment process, for God’s sake). What makes show trials evil is that the state compels false testimony and manufactures fake crimes in furtherance of a predetermined verdict that usually ends in death or imprisonment. Nothing remotely like that has happened here. There’s zero evidence that anyone forced Alexander Vindland, William Taylor, and the rest to lie. In fact, so far, there’s zero evidence they’re lying at all, and there’s ever-mounting evidence they’re telling the truth. It is wildly depressing that the party of anti-Communism has willfully memory-holed these basic distinctions. Talk about Soviet-style tactics.

The GOP complaint boils down to two things: 1) These hearings weren’t open to the public, Republicans not on the relevant committees, and the television cameras; and 2) The president couldn’t have lawyers in the room. I largely agree that this was unfair or ill-advised on the Democrats’ part. But such procedures are hardly uncommon, even during impeachments.

And by the way, grand juries are far more “unfair” by comparison. The target of the investigation can’t bring their lawyers into the room. The proceedings are secret and usually sealed forever. That’s all okay, because the accused gets his day in court after the fact-finding, and so will Trump.

Republicans say that the Clinton impeachment was much fairer. I don’t get it. Ken Starr investigated the Clintons for years, using grand juries and other non-transparent techniques. He then delivered to Congress a whole road map to impeachment, collected largely in secret. Republicans didn’t complain about that. They didn’t even call it a Starr chamber, never mind a Star Chamber.

Government By Rabble-Rousing

The Morning Dispatch has a great section on the rise of “performative politics.” It strikes a chord with me because it jibes with arguments I’ve been making for a while now. In my book, I write about how one of the chief drivers of our political dysfunction is how we’re increasingly following politics as a form of entertainment. When you go to the movies, you root for the hero. Once you’ve bonded with the hero, you can forgive all sorts of terrible things you would never forgive in real life—from torture to wanton killing. The emotional sweet tooth in our brain loves it some vengeance, whether in comedic or dramatic form.

Longtime Hill guy Brendan Buck tells the Morning Dispatch that a lot of quality Republicans are retiring because “[t]houghtful legislating is not rewarded anymore.”  He goes on:

We are now in an era of entertainment politics, and if you want to work your way up through the system, the answer no longer is learning policy, putting your time in at the committee level, becoming a legislator. The way to get ahead now is to go on television and use hyperbole and say crazy things. And so, it is no surprise that it is some of our more thoughtful legislators who are deciding to leave.

A lot of cable news addicts watch thoughtful discussions about public policy and respond like Homer Simpson when he accidentally stumbles on Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon:

But instead of wanting “more funny,” voters (or at least viewers) want politicians who “own the libs” or “destroy the cons.” They want reality show theatrics and shocking plot twists about conspiracies. The more kayfabe, the better.

Like so many of our problems, this was a long time in coming, which brings me to….

The Roused Majority

This week marked the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, in which he launched a political campaign to activate his side of the political divide to pressure the other side on his behalf. I watched a piece by Tom Brokaw on the anniversary this morning and he treated the whole chapter as a Very Bad Thing for America and as a part of the great This Is How We Got Trump narrative.

I understand where Brokaw is coming from, but I don’t entirely agree. At the time, the media had such a stranglehold on the national discourse that there was an argument for going over their heads, particularly given his reason for wanting to muster national support  in the first place: to pull out of Vietnam with honor. (It may have been a bad plan. But it was a serious and worthy objective.) The difference today is that rabble-rousing has gone from being an extraordinary tactic for extraordinary times to being a full-time racket for both parties and the remora institutions that monetize rabble-rousing.

People like to think of history as a river, but the metaphorical truth is that it’s more like a whole series of rivers, streams and other tributaries that sometimes run in parallel for decades or centuries without ever running into each other. But once they do intersect, the new river breaks its banks and sets a new course. I once heard John Keegan, the great military historian, explain that it was the convergence of three independent factors that made the Comanches and other Plains Indians arguably the deadliest warriors in human history: their own unique culture and mastery of the landscape, the introduction of the horse by the Spanish, and the introduction of the Remington rifle by the Americans. This created a warrior deadlier than any the world had seen before.  

The Silent Majority speech wasn’t new. It was part of a long-running degradation of American politics that went back to the beginning of the 20th century. Will Herberg, one of my intellectual heroes, wrote a brilliant essay in 1954 on “Government by Rabble Rousing.” Much of his discussion centered around Joseph McCarthy (a subject I’ll be returning to in a future “news”letter). Herberg wrote:

"McCarthy­ism" is the logical outcome of the system of government by rabble-rousing initiated in the first years of the New Deal—only, in "McCarthyism," the rabble-rouser is not a cultured and aristocratic gentleman, but a crude and rather primitive plebeian, not a Pericles but a Cleon. McCarthy, like Roosevelt, wants action and goes directly to the people to get it. McCarthy, like Roosevelt, is im­patient with the restraints and limitations of what are called proper constitutional channels. When McCarthy wants a change in the Administration's foreign policy, he does not, as Senator, raise it for deliberation in the Senate; he appeals to the people to swamp the White House with letters and telegrams. He rouses the "rabble" for direct action, in contempt of constitutional channels and procedures. But how far different is that from the mode of operation of the Roosevelt regime in the 1930s?

I would argue that this goes back to Wilson (FDR was a Wilson retread, after all). But you get the point. Herberg rightly noted that the Founders set up a system that guarded against two threats to liberty—too little democracy, a.k.a. tyranny or despotism—and too much democracy, which would put inalienable rights at the mercy of popular passion. It turned out that the system could handle a lot more democracy than the Founders originally thought. But that doesn’t mean there’s no limit to how much popular passion our institutions can handle (which is why I argue for abolishing primaries in my column today). Eventually various rivers converged, and we’re watching our institutions respond to the flood. 

I’ve been calling Congress a Parliament of Pundits for a while now. Many legislators care more about landing an appearance on Morning Joe or Fox and Friends than actually doing their jobs. They’re more worried about being attacked on talk radio or cable by a primary opponent who is better at sounding angry. Some even see Congress itself as merely a stepping stone to their real career goal—a gig on cable television or maybe a radio show.

When Nixon gave his Silent Majority speech, the news was controlled or dominated by three TV networks and a handful of newspapers and magazines, most of which were headquartered within less than a mile of each other. Today, those gatekeepers either lie in sodden ruins beneath the floodwaters or have modified their business plans to be floating platforms for performative politics, adjusting their views to go with the new currents. Social media has institutionalized rabble-rousing as the dominant form of political organization and media, and the more conventional media often follows its lead.

The president, the leading Democratic contenders, and much of the media are enthralled by Twitter, convinced that it—not Congress—is the real arena of American politics. By thinking this, they make that closer to the reality. This is the river we’re on. Where it takes us and what it converges with next is anyone’s guess.  

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: As many of you know, we have a fantastic midday dogwalker, Kirsten, who takes the beasts and their friends deep into the woods and lets them scamper in a secret location. To get a sense of how great she is, consider this text from her the other day: “Pippy got a free bath, she rolled in something rancid. ZoZo may or may not have eaten some of a half submerged deer carcass, I was shrieking and waving my arms but she may have snatched a bite or two...i think Pip rolled in buzzard poop. Thank god its friday!

Also thank you for the spiders! I love them so much.”

Pippa got a second bath from us, because the stank was still there. She got another bath this morning because, once again, she rolled in something foul, or perhaps fowl. I don’t know what it is about the fall that brings this out in Pip. Zoë seems to have figured out the correlation between rolling in gunk and baths and decided to forgo the practice.

I can’t wait for daylight savings time, even if I think it’s a ridiculous public policy. The sun doesn’t rise until about 7:30 these days, and the dogs and I are accustomed to heading out by 6:15 or so. The iPhone camera has some great features, but night vision isn’t one of them. Otherwise goodtimesarebeinghad.

Sign up for The Dispatch here.

ICYMI...

Why Trump should apologize (it would help him!)

This week’s first Remnant, with Adam White

This week's second Remnant, with Fear

Bring back smoke-filled rooms

And now, the weird stuff. 

The Superman curse

Beware dogmen 

Finally

A dream to some...a nightmare to others! 

What

SpongeBob and Patrick on themselves

The Exorcist curse

The silence of Ben Sasse on the West Omaha Rock is deafening 

Deepfakes are getting better...

Strong 2019 energy

The most popular websites over time

Ahnuld on himself

Library raccoons 

Totally understandable 

Hellvetica 

The other dog

Survivor

Quid Pro Quo Vadis?

Senator Rand Paul is leading a parade of misunderstanding about quids pro quo.

Note: This is the G-File, Jonah Goldberg’s newsletter. If you saw this without subscribing and want it in your inbox, sign up here.

Dear Reader (including the American tank crews heading to Syria in the name of bringing our boys home), 

Some people like to get jiggy with more than one person, and CBS is on it!

The digital arm of the Tiffany network has a new documentary called Speaking Frankly: Non-Monogamy that tackles the taboo of polyamory (being in sexual relationships with more than one person).

I like the headline of the associated article better: “Not just ‘one big orgy’: Fighting the stigma of consensual non-monogamy.”

The thing I like is the word “just.” If I defend watching women’s prison movies by saying, “Hey, it’s not just about the hot girl on girl action,” I’m not denying the HGONG is a big part of it. I’m just saying there are other worthwhile things about the incarcerated female oeuvre besides that stuff. “The cinematography in Caged Heat was pathbreaking!” “Linda Blair’s portrayal of the wrongly imprisoned ingénue in—the entirely different—Chained Heat franchise was surprisingly moving!”

The genius of the “just” in the headline is that the reader is tipped off that, while the article will give the reader some defensible excuses to keep reading, there’s the possibility of orgy talk ahead. After all, sex sells, which is why Bill O’Reilly loved to denounce porn and smut on his TV show while running a constant loop of porn and strip club B-roll under his narration of disgust.

There’s a lot to make fun of in the article. For instance, the authors write about a guy living in Brooklyn named Mahdy:

Mahdy, who did not want his last name to be used, met his first partner about 14 years ago and married her in 2011. One year later, the couple met another woman, and the three formed a triad. But it could have fallen apart after the second woman ran into problems with her immigration status, he says.

Mahdy ended up divorcing his wife so his wife could then marry the other woman in their “triad” (it’d be so much cooler if “triad” referred not to their three-way relationship but to their collective membership in a Chinese gang). Whatever you think about the morality of this arrangement, you gotta love the guy not wanting his last name used, yet being happy to be photographed for the article. Only a master detective could figure out who he is now.

Seriously. Who, exactly, is he hiding his identity from? I mean, how many other dudes named “Mahdy”—who look exactly like the guy in the picture—can there possibly be in Brooklyn? When he goes into the office on Monday and someone says, “Hey I saw that article about you,” is he going to reply, “No, no. That’s a different Mahdy! What makes you think that was me?” 

Love & Marriage

Lest I lose my social conservative union card, I should at least mention that I don’t support this. I think polyamory and polygamy are objectively bad cultural norms and institutions that shouldn’t be encouraged. I should also note, as I discuss in my book, that polygyny is natural (so is monogamy by the way; human wiring can be contradictory).

Most societies throughout human history have been formally polygynous. But, the packaging on many products at Whole Foods notwithstanding, “natural” and “good” are not synonymous terms. If by “natural,” you mean the way humans lived prior to the arrival of monotheism, the rule of law, Judeo-Christian ethics, air-conditioning, etc., then lots of terrible things are “natural,” including infanticide, rape, murder, human sacrifice, and slavery. That doesn’t make any of those things good. Unless you’re a disciple of Rousseau’s “noble savage” piffle (he didn’t use the phrase, by the way), you should understand that civilization is a battle against nature, specifically human nature. Men in particular have wiring that inclines them to desire as many sexual partners as possible. Gene dissemination (heh) is an evolutionary numbers game for dudes. For women, the evolutionary calculation is different, because they carry a disproportionate burden in the form of actually giving birth and ensuring their kids are cared for.

This asymmetry led to the practice of very wealthy and powerful men having many wives, which is why there are still harems in many parts of the world. (There is a comparatively tiny handful of places where women took many husbands, a.k.a polyandry.) Again, I think this system is very bad for a bunch of reasons. But even if you don’t think that, the simple fact is that monogamy is a better system in terms of the total benefits for society. Polygamy is a bad deal for non-elites, male and female, and for children generally. Monogamous societies are more prosperous, more democratic, and more egalitarian.

And so the stigma against “triads” doesn’t really bother me. I’m not for pelting these people with rocks or caning them in the public square. But I’m fine with the culture and the law erring on the side of marriage as a duo.

Stigma & Tradition

Here’s one of my favorite Chesterton quotes:

Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

I was reminded of it by this cleverly asinine tweet:

Tradition, shorn of nostalgia, metaphysical sentiment, and cant is simply another word for what worked. Note: I didn’t say “what works,” because some traditions outlive their utility in both a practical and a moral sense. For instance, slavery was ubiquitous after the agricultural revolution (and rare before it). Over time, it became clear that it was both economically blinkered (Adam Smith pointed this out centuries ago) and, more important, morally repugnant (Smith pointed this out too). 

In other words, skepticism toward tradition is perfectly fine, even desirable. But as Chesterton notes in the parable of the fence, tradition also requires a certain amount of deference. If you don’t know why a tradition has taken root, go do some frick’n homework before heaping scorn on it. Smart people figured out stuff like cooking meat is healthier than eating it raw, and thus all traditional cuisines were born. If you start from the premise that tradition is just “peer pressure from dead people,” there will be a lot more dead people, because food poisoning sucks. There’s a rich tradition of telling people not to eat mushrooms with red caps. But hey, free thinkers, go for it. 

Quid Pro Quo Vadis?

This was all intended to be lead up to a stem-winder about taboos and stigma and how our culture is obsessed with toppling such things. I was going to ignore Trump entirely. But then I saw this tweet:

I wrote a column a couple weeks ago about how Trump’s erratic and impetuous decision making, combined with his—and his fans’—insatiable need for uncritical support have made “Trump is always right” the only safe harbor for his defenders. Whatever intellectual or philosophical label you go by—conservative, libertarian, populist, realist, nationalist, post-liberal Catholic integralist, whatever—Trump can always be counted on to do something that will conflict with your worldview. Thus, the unspoken doctrine of Trumpian Infallibility (and its philosophical corollary “The Democrats are Worse!”), emerges as the only plank that Trump can’t yank out from under you. 

This op-ed by Rand Paul—Mr. Consistent Libertarian—is a perfect illustration of the point. Paul starts by arguing that there’s nothing wrong with quid pro quos, and Democrats are dishonestly trying to scary you with a lot of fancy Latin mumbo jumbo:

Democrats want people to be alarmed by a Latin phrase, but, really, making foreign aid contingent on behavior is actually the defining reason that countries supposedly give aid — to influence the behavior of the receiving country.

Bask in the common sense realism, people! Foreign aid always has strings attached! We make countries buy weapons from “the American military-industrial complex,” we demand anti-corruption reforms “such as when former Vice President Joe Biden demanded the prosecutor looking into his son’s company be fired.”

Never mind the false insinuation that Biden—of whom I have never been a big fan—was motivated by a desire to protect his corrupt son (there’s no evidence for this, though there’s plenty of evidence Hunter is shady). Paul is making a perfectly legitimate point about foreign aid. There’s only one problem. The quid pro quos he’s describing are usually done in accordance with the national interest and, often, congressionally-authorized public policy. The charge against Trump is that he was using congressionally-approved military aid to leverage a quid pro quo for his own personal and political self-interest. Indeed, if Bill Taylor’s testimony is to be believed, Trump didn’t necessarily care if the Ukrainians actually investigated Biden; he just wanted a public statement from them saying Biden was being investigated. In other words, he just wanted to dirty up Biden’s name. (Trump also wanted to get to the bottom of the “server,” presumably hidden in a secret vault beneath Kiev, that contains proof that Russia was innocent of meddling in the election. I wrote about that here.) 

The idea that Trump was actually interested in Ukrainian corruption is only believable under the doctrine of Trumpian infallibility. Where else has he ever shown the slightest interest in state corruption—at home or abroad?

If you believe that Rand Paul would be making this argument if, say, Barack Obama pressured Mexico to dig up some dirt on Mitt Romney ahead of the election, you are so caught up in whataboutist spin that you might be in danger of scrotal torsion.

But wait! There’s more!

After establishing that there’s nothing wrong with quid pro quos, Paul pivots to the “but Democrats are worse!” trope:

But Democrats opine that Trump made foreign aid (welfare) contingent on investigating a potential rival, which makes the whole quid pro quo exchange somehow an impeachable offense.

Paul goes on to explain that Hillary’s a quid pro quoer! Obama’s a quid pro quoer! He wants the Senate to investigate the Steele dossier and the terrible quid pro quosity therein. I have no problem with such an investigation—though it’s worth noting there are already two such investigations taking place as we speak. Paul writes:

If Democrats want the American people to believe Donald Trump did something wrong in asking Ukraine to investigate the $50,000 a month that Hunter Biden was receiving, they will first have to admit that their fearless leader Hillary Clinton actually did much worse by paying a foreign spy, Christopher Steele, money for dirt on Trump.

I’m open to the idea that Hillary did something wrong—it’s been my default position for two decades—but Hillary wasn’t president of the United States when she supposedly cut a check for the Steele Dossier.

The idea that a guy who fancies himself a strict constitutionalist and libertarian (albeit with a long record of hiding behind principles when politically convenient) can’t see the difference here would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. 

Hillary’s Paranoid Style

Since we’re on the topic, a quick observation about Clinton.

She recently invited a lot of scorn for her insinuation that Tulsi Gabbard is a Russian asset. In the same conversation, she also said some really batty stuff about flashing videos and the dark web:

Well, I think there's going to be two parts and I think it's going to be the same as 2016: ‘Don't vote for the other guy. You don't like me? Don't vote for the other guy because the other guy is going to do X, Y and Z or the other guy did such terrible things and I'm going to show you in these, you know, flashing videos that appear and then disappear and they're on the dark web, and nobody can find them, but you're going to see them and you're going to see that person doing these horrible things.’

The interesting thing about the response to all this is that people are shocked by it. The thinking seems to be that her 2016 loss broke her in some way and she’s descending into her Madness of Queen Hillary phase.

But here’s the thing: She’s always been like this. She didn’t keep Sidney Blumenthal as her personal Wormtongue solely because she liked to watch him dislocate his jaw to swallow rodents whole. Blumenthal was an irrepressible conspiracy theorist, going back to his JFK theorizing. There’s a reason his nickname was “grassy knoll.” When she was in the White House, long before she uttered the words “vast right-wing conspiracy,” she was obsessed with the vast right-wing conspiracy. In 1995, Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane wrote a 332 page conspiracy theory about right-wing conspiracy theorists describing the sinister network she saw around every corner.  In her (first) memoir, she accused William Rehnquist of being part of cabal determined to destroy her husband’s presidency. Despite knowing about her husband’s Caligulan exploits, her first response to every new allegation of infidelity against her husband was to assume it was just the work of her enemies.

It’s entirely possible she’s getting worse. Heck, that would be understandable given the circumstances, but she didn’t have far to fall to hit this new low.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Longtime readers know that Pippa has a history of being afraid of dogs in glowing collars. The worst case was early on in her time with us when, predawn, she and Zoë were surprised by two corgis with bright glowing collars. Zoë’s immediate response was to attack the frightening beasts (I intervened very quickly). Pippa took a different tack and ran almost a half-mile, across various streets, all the way home from the park. So it was with some trepidation that we got her a glowing collar of her own. But fortunately, it doesn’t freak her out. Meanwhile, the girls are fine, though Pippa was a bit vexed when her friend Obi took her tennis ball. Also meanwhile, Zoë’s best friend Sammi has learned the art of playing dead to avoid Zoë’s ruff-housing.  I don’t have as many good videos this week, because I was travelling so much and when I was home, we’ve been going out in the dark. But the treat videos—a new staple—are in ample supply.

Our real concern is that we have to leave town to visit with our daughter over Christmas break and our usual dog and house-sitters are unavailable. We’re really reluctant to put them in a kennel, even a good one, because Pippa is a worrier and Zoë has a history of coming out of stir in her pre-civilized feral state. We’re not sure what we’re going to do. Suggestions welcome.

ICYMI...

Last week’s Friday G-File 

The G7 lesson for Republicans and Trump 

This week’s first Remnant, with...[scary music] David French! 

On Crowdstrike, Ukraine, and the server

This week’s second Remnant, with Marian Tupy

And now, the weird stuff. 

Debby's Friday links

Cigarette cockroach

A good dog

The spice must flow

The Spanish Habsburgs

Octopus dreams

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

I'm not crying, you're crying

(See above) 

Good parents or bad parents? You decide

Behold! 

Rats...

Tentacle drones

It's now raining forever because of this video

Bigfoot found...

Busted

Your scientists spent so much time thinking about whether they could, they didn't stop to think whether they should

Is this true love

Foes team up to find dog

Stairs now famous

Famous stairs now parodied

A hitmen paradox

Power Corrupts

But not just in the way that you think.

Note: This is the G-File, Jonah Goldberg’s newsletter. If you saw this without subscribing and want it in your inbox, sign up here.

Dear Reader (including those of you at the Turkish foreign ministry who opt not to throw this in the garbage), 

A quick note for readers before I get started: ♫

A slightly longer note for readers before I get started: It’s come to our attention at The Dispatch that some folks are a little confused about what’s going on. So we’re going to write a FAQ/Explainer thingy over the weekend. In the meantime, here’s the short version. We’re still putting things together. There’s plaster dust everywhere. We’re still putting the kennels together for the intern pens. What you’re reading right now is the Goldberg File, a newsletter (“news”letter, to be more accurate) that I’ve been writing for a long time. The other product we put out right now is The Morning Dispatch, which appears three times a week and is a collaborative effort run by Steve Hayes that tries to report and analyze events in a way that doesn’t waste your time. We’ll be adding more newsletters (and perhaps a podcast or two) between now and January, when we launch the full website. Everything is free right now. And once the site is up, members will be able to select which newsletters they want to receive and which they don’t. If you want to know where we’re coming from editorially—the “vision thing,” as Poppa Bush used to say—please read our mission statement here.

Okay, let’s get started.

Jews in Space

Imagine a giant spaceship parked over D.C.’s skyline. It disgorges a shuttle craft that lands on the White House lawn. It’s big news. MSNBC breaks away from coverage of an Adam Schiff press conference, and One America News even interrupts its gauzy video of the Young Trump League taking in record wheat harvests under the approving gaze of Comrade Trump.

All eyes are on the shuttle craft doors as they open. If Hollywood is right, there’s a lot of technologically unnecessary dry ice mist and Technicolor strobe lighting. Down the ramp comes an extraterrestrial, but instead of a reptilian creature with tentacles whirling or a body-waxed humanoid with ridges on its forehead, it’s just a yarmulke-wearing Jewish guy in a corduroy jacket carrying a canvas beach bag full of bagels and the New York Times. Long story short, it turns out there’s a planet not far from here that is populated entirely by utterly recognizable, technologically and militarily advanced Jews. Apparently, one of the ten lost tribes of Israel made it to another Class M planet and created a high-tech Shaker Heights, with better delis and a population of a couple billion people.

I’ve written about this scenario before, because I think it’s fun and funny to think about what would happen next. After all, in an instant, our politics would change. Needless to say, Israel would be pretty psyched, and the subscription department of Commentary magazine would literally plotz. On the other hand, there would probably be some very tense meetings in Tehran. “Did we say, ‘death to Israel!’? We meant ‘Good Health to Israel!’ L’Chaim!” Over at the EU and the UN, paper shredders would start to hum, and Jeremy Corbyn would look up from his iPad to a suddenly empty room.

Power Ranging

What’s my point? Power changes how people think. If you read my book, The Tyranny of Clichés, you’d know I’m kind of obsessed with the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The conventional interpretation of this quote is that power tends to go to peoples’ heads, and they start seeing the rules as being only good for the little people.  It’s a staple plot device of everything from high school dramedies to The Godfather and The Man Who Would Be King.

 The actual quote comes from Lord Acton. He certainly agreed with the conventional interpretation—because he was, as they say in Boston, wicked smaht, and because there’s obviously a lot of truth to it. But if you read the actual letter that it comes from, Acton was making a more subtle point. He was observing that intellectuals—specifically historians—tend to make allowances for powerful people they wouldn’t make for anybody else. In a letter to a historian friend writing about the papacy, Acton wrote:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely….There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Again, Acton was talking about historians, but I think this insight has all sorts of applications

The Sino-Suck-Up Pact

For instance: What do you think would happen to the anti-Israel BDS movement if that massive space ship parked over Washington? No doubt many would hold onto their anti-Semitism. But I suspect dues would dry up, and there would be a lot more leftover donuts at the meetings.

Now, imagine that China had the size and population of Israel. In this scenario, it’s not the only Chinese homeland in the world, created in the wake of genocidal program to eliminate the Han Chinese. It’s just a little country called China. Do you think the NBA would be continuously stepping on its collective Johnson like Mick Mulvaney admitting a quid pro quo?

When LeBron James says that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Moley “wasn’t educated on the situation” in Hong Kong, what lacuna of information or knowledge do you think Lebron has in mind? The most charitable and best guess I can make is that LeBron thinks Moley didn’t realize how much the Chinese government would freak out, threatening a lot of lucrative contracts.

LeBron says he’s not making a judgement on the substance of the tweet, he’s just criticizing the fact that Moley stirred up a bunch of trouble. Well, people have a natural tendency to think annoying the powerful is a bigger deal than annoying the weak, particularly when those people have a vested interest in being liked by the powerful.

China is doing evil things that the international community, progressive elites, and organizations like the NBA would never tolerate from a smaller, weaker, and yes, poorer country. You think the NBA would promote exhibition games in the Netherlands if the Dutch government was putting Muslims in reeducation camps and tearing down mosques?

It’s totally legitimate for journalists and other critics to follow the money in the NBA story. But too often, people invest more importance in money than in power. Money is often a manifestation of power, but power is more versatile, and often more desirable, than mere money. We’re far more wired to care about status than money, because money is relatively new, while status—and status-seeking—is baked into our DNA. Lots of people are driven more for a desire for fame than money. And what a lot of rich people like most about their money isn’t the stuff they can buy, but the status and power the stuff confers.

The Trump Dynasty

Joseph Schumpeter observed that entrepreneurs are often defined by “the will to found a private kingdom, usually, though not necessarily, also a dynasty.” That’s always stuck with me, because I think many people are wired to want to be Big Men (or Women). And from the Agricultural Revolution until the Enlightenment, the way this desire manifested itself was to be some sort of ruler, either a king, emperor, or some miniature version of one—a Duke, Baron, Shogun, or some other chieftain of some fiefdom. With the end of the Divine Right of Kings, that drive started to manifest itself in other, more productive and peaceful ways. But the drive is still there, whether you’re a college president or a bureaucratic poohbah. Power is tasty because our brains evolved a sweet tooth for it. And in countries without the rule of law and cultural constraints on such ambition, you can see societies revert to these older models. As I keep saying, the best example is North Korea, where the Divine Right of Kings was only slighted updated to the Divine Right of Kims.

Even though the intellectual arguments behind the early 20th century epithet “Robber Baron” were shoddy and often dishonest, the term had political power because the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Gettys, et al. did seem to want to recreate aristocracy through the accumulation of wealth and political power. People knew what FDR meant by “economic royalists.” Not only is there a natural human desire for hierarchy based on status and power, but we also often want our kids to inherit our status. That’s how the idea of “noble blood” was born. The rich and powerful believed their status was conferred by God—or the gods or Nature—and therefore it was heritable.

One of the great and glorious things about American culture is that we have antibodies that fight this recrudescent aspect of human nature. But we’re not immune. We tend to be far more forgiving of the dynasties we agree with. So, for example, the Kennedy cult endures at a low simmer with the occasional flare-up—like a case of herpes. We care more about the Kardashians than reason alone can explain.

My friend and former colleague Kevin Williamson has written quite a bit on how Trump seems obsessed with casting himself as a modern aristocrat. There’s his obsession with the name Baron—which he took for himself when he pretended to be “John Baron,” and which he gave to his youngest son. There’s the Louis XIV furnishings of his Trump Tower aerie. He stole the family seal of another family and made it his own. And he hangs it everywhere. And, of course, there’s the way he treats his other children as princelings.

The reason Trump’s character fits like a square peg in the round hole of the office created by the Founders is that he thinks like a monarch. He sees no meaningful distinction between his personal needs and the needs of the nation. Disloyalty to him, as he so often suggests, is treason to the Nation. Just as kings believed their wisdom was absolute because God had ordained it so, Trump believes his instincts are superior to the judgements of his advisers or anybody else. And to question his decisions is an affront to the myths that sustain him.

When Trump ran for president, he famously said that he spent his life being greedy for himself and now he wants to be greedy for America. It was a good line. And if you believed his promises to forgo personal greed—including a greediness for attention and fame—it was probably reassuring.

The problem is that turned out to be a lie, even if he believed it in the moment, as he always does. He may think giving to his own charity absolves him from criticism. And it is a nice gesture—like a king giving the leftovers from a feast to the peasants. But it’s just a gesture.

That’s why his decision—and spare me Mick Mulvaney’s claims that this decision was made on the merits—to hold the G7 summit at Doral is so typical and typically appalling. It’s being sold on the basis that this is a kingly prerogative, and we should all be grateful he is doing us this favor.

But the interesting part is that Trump hasn’t been corrupted by power. His character is unchanged. This is the same man we elected. No, what’s remarkable is the corruption of so many around him, both literally and figuratively. Four years ago, if you described the facts of just the last month—the betrayal of the Kurds, the self-dealing of Doral, the skullduggery of the Ukraine affair, etc.—people like Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, and so many of my friends in the ranks of Trump praetorians would be aghast. But they’ve bent their standards to the new Standard-Bearer.

In my syndicated column today, I wrote about the role integrity plays in finance and life: “integrity lowers the price of capital.”

I really liked the column, though it makes me sad that the basic point I make would not only have been obvious to conservatives twenty years ago, as it was basically at the heart of our civic dogma and best social science. Today, for many, it’s an annoying criticism by someone who refuses to get with the program. The amazing thing is that none of the arguments for Trump offered by the “post-liberals,” the Flight 93 Claremonters, the new nationalists, and everyone else can be reconciled with what Trump did with Doral. If Trump had embraced a policy of eschewing even the appearance of self-dealing, cronyism, and nepotism, they would cite it as a sign of his integrity and good character. But because he goes a different way, they ignore it or make allowances for it as if it were a king’s divine prerogative, like prima nocte.

No wonder, then, that when Donald Trump stole a family crest to hang at his Scottish golf clubs he did make one “improvement.” He replaced “Integritas” with Trump. And so have a lot of other people.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Pippa and Zoë love fall and, it seems, they love each other more than ever. They’re playing together constantly, which is just plain adorable. They’ve come a long way from the days when Zoë wanted to kill the spaniel-interloper, and it makes me very happy. Meanwhile, while Zoë may have come to embrace the Pipster as a member of the pack, she still sees other dogs in her domain as enemies. Warning: If you play this video loudly, your own dogs and cats may respond poorly.  

Also unprecedented: We had a grand slam of treat giving, with all four of the Goldberg Quadrupeds showing up this morning. Note: Ralph, a.k.a. “my wife’s cat,” still needed to be fed by the Fair Jessica.

In other news, I’ll be at Marist College on October 23.

If you want a deep dive on the situation in the Middle East, check out the latest Remnant with Ken Pollack. (Note to hecklers: I disagree somewhat with Ken's take on the Iran deal, but we talked about that last time so I figured it wasn't worth getting back into all of that again.)

ICYMI...

Trump's Kurdish betrayal 

This week's first Remnant, with nobody

Mid-week G-File! 

This week's second Remnant, with Kenneth Pollack

Integrity lowers the cost of capital 

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

The end of time came sooner than they thought

Hey, Aqualung

This one works too well

Graveyard prank

What directors find scary

Michigan vanishings

Bloody hell! 

No, it does not look like a Renaissance painting

On the nose

This seems unsafe

I'd like to be...

Illegal beer

Wheeeeeeeee

Nice

Fall comedy

What is this

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