Dear Reader [including denizens of wine caves],
The day President Trump was impeached, he went to a rally in Michigan to bask in the uncritical love of a crowd. At the rally, he suggested that John Dingell, the recently deceased long-serving Michigan congressman, might be burning in hell. (He didn’t use the term burning in hell, but that was implied by the suggestion he was looking “up” from the Great Beyond.)
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, was asked about it the next day.
She explained that the president is a “counter-puncher” who has been under attack. She also emphasized that this was a “political rally.” “It was a very, very supportive and wild crowd, and he was just riffing on some of the things that had been happening the past few days,"
Given that Dingell retired from Congress before Donald Trump was elected and passed away some 10 months before the impeachment vote, I was curious what kind of punch the congressman might have delivered from the very depths of hell.
It was explained to me that the president was responding to the fact that Dingell’s widow—who now holds her husband’s seat—had voted for impeachment, even though Trump allowed the Dingells to receive “A+ plus treatment” (Trump’s words) for the man’s funeral, including the use of military transport for a bipartisan delegation to attend services in Michigan.
Before I get to the important point, let me start with a familiar one. One of my great peeves is the way people think an explanation is an excuse. “I overslept” is an explanation for why you were late; it’s not an excuse.
(For most of my life, this is one of the things that vexed me the most about the left. Some Palestinian terrorist wipes out a bunch of kids, and the defense takes a form of an explanation about Palestinian grievances. They feel this. They experienced that. The “this” and the “that” may be true or false or some mix of the two, but none of it adds up to an excuse for murdering people.)
Trump’s defenders routinely conflate or confuse explanations for excuses. They offer explanations—He’s taking care of his base! He doesn’t apologize! He’s a businessman not an ideologue—as if A) these were really penetrating insights and B) they’re some kind of absolution for being an ass.
Saying that the president was at a rally and has been under attack is an explanation. Saying that he wasn’t really attacking John Dingell, just Dingell’s widow, is an explanation. Saying that he was just riffing because he was in front of a big crowd of supporters who like it when he’s cruel is an explanation.
None of these things is an excuse.
On that last point, I often invoke that line about how “character is what you do when no one else is watching.” I still like it and believe it. But I think it’s insufficient. Character is also what you do when lots of people are watching, particularly people who will let you indulge yourself. It seems to me a really big test of character is when a crowd of people want you to be bad and it takes some strength and will to disappoint them. President Trump has said more than once to his adoring admirers that it would be easy to be presidential, but it would bore his fans. I am sure in his mind this counts as an excuse. And that’s about as good an explanation of his bad character as I can think of. But I am sure some conservative writers will explain why I am wrong, while using a lot of fancy Greek words.
Whoop, There He Is
So far, I’ve done precisely what everyone else has done about this seemingly routine example of Trump’s boorish pettiness; I’ve buried the lede.
Trump’s primary defense for asking the Ukrainian president for a “favor” is that he used the word “us.” From his letter to Nancy Pelosi:
I said to President Zelensky: “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” I said do us a favor, not me, and our country, not a campaign. I then mentioned the Attorney General of the United States. Every time I talk with a foreign leader, I put America's interests first, just as I did with President Zelensky.
Look again at why he suggested Mrs. Dingell’s husband is in hell.
Then you have this Dingell. Dingell, you know Dingell, from Michigan. You know Dingell? You ever hear of her, Michigan? Debbie Dingell, that’s a real beauty. So she calls me up like eight months ago. Her husband was here a long time, but I didn’t give him the B treatment. I didn’t give him the C or the D. I could’ve. Nobody would have—I gave the A+ treatment. ‘Take down the flags.’”
Here he was referring to ordering flags to be flown at half-staff. He goes on, miming his instructions to staff. “While you’re taking them down for ex-Congressman Dingell … do this, do that, do that, rotunda everything.” He goes on like this for a while. “I gave him everything. That’s okay. I don’t want anything for it. I don’t need anything for anything. She calls me up …”
And then Trump explains how Debbie Dingell thanked him. But then eight months later, she voted for impeachment anyway.
Do you see what I’m getting at? I was no cheerleader for John Dingell, but let’s stipulate that affording the longest-serving representative in U.S. history, who was also a World War II veteran, certain ceremonial honors for his funeral is a proper action for the chief executive to take.
Despite saying “I don’t want anything for it,” it’s obvious that Trump does want something for it (just as saying “there’s no quid pro quo” doesn’t mean there wasn’t). Trump thinks Mrs. Dingell owes him because he used his presidential power to assist with her husband’s funeral.
Let’s assume Debbie Dingell believes what Trump did vis-a-vis Ukraine was impeachable. By what constitutional theory should she not vote to impeach him because Trump thinks flying flags at half-staff was a personal favor?
One can make too much of this, to be sure. But when I hear Trump or his defenders pretend to be outraged by the suggestion that he might have conflated state interests with his own narrow personal interests in his phone call with Zelensky I have to laugh. He sees nearly everything he does that way, including allowing funerals to proceed.
The Jewell in the Crown
I am not entirely sure whether Richard Jewell is a great movie—probably it is—but I am certain that it is a fascinating cultural document. For in addition to telling a startling true story, it acts as a feature-length thought experiment into the question: What would Hollywood look like if it were stridently, self-righteously conservative instead of comparably liberal?
I don’t think it’s a great movie, but it is a good one. But my real disagreement with Suderman is his premise that this is what Hollywood would produce if it were unabashedly conservative.
The so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, for all its flaws and pseudonymous Communist screenwriters, was actually pretty conservative. It was patriotic. It upheld all sorts of moral codes of decency. It might have been too nationalistic in its support of big government, particularly during the New Deal, but—hey—there are lots of conservatives today who are nostalgic for that junk.
Richard Jewell—the movie—is not any of those things. It’s an angry affair, wallowing not in righteous conservatism but in a righteous sense of conservative victimhood. Clint Eastwood’s primary target isn’t left-wing Hollywood but the news media, with a second punch to academia. And it scores perfectly defensible direct hits on both counts. But subtextually, it’s also an implied shot at Eastwood’s fellow filmmakers, because their tastes and assumptions align almost perfectly with most of Hollywood’s.
But that’s my point. Eastwood’s movie is reactionary—not in the Marxist sense, but the literal one—it works only as an indictment of the non-conservative institutions today’s conservatives feel besieged and aggrieved by. It’s a form of protest at what America has allegedly become. It’s only possible to make a Richard Jewell movie like this in a world where Hollywood—and other elite institutions—are not conservative. A world where all of Hollywood is actually conservative wouldn’t produce a movie like this because such a movie would make no sense.
I am sympathetic to Eastwood’s indictment. But I’m also dismayed by the degree to which the self-pity and victimhood baked into the movie make it “conservative.”
There’s a tremendous amount of whininess to conservatism these days. It starts at the top, with a president who sees whining as just another tactic to get what he wants. “I do whine because I want to win and I'm not happy about not winning and I am a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win,” he once explained. Once you notice it, it’s remarkable just how much of Trump’s rhetoric about “presidential harassment” is part of this broader strategy.
But it doesn’t begin or end with Trump. When drug addiction was seen as mostly a problem for blacks and the “underclass,” conservatives talked a lot about zero tolerance, tough love, and individual responsibility. In the wake of the opioid crisis, the rhetoric has changed remarkably. Suddenly, it’s supply-side problem, not a demand-side one.
Similarly, during previous periods of economic disruption, conservatives were far more confident in rugged individualism, bourgeois values, and the importance of lifting yourself up by the bootstraps. Today, it’s easier to find conservatives blaming economic hardships on “the system,” globalists, libertarians, the establishment, and the evils of the “meritocracy.” The system is rigged, don’t you know, so your problems aren’t your fault.
Now, I am not saying that the old Horatio Alger and tough-love talk was always right, nor am I saying that all of the complaints about our political and economic institutions are all wrong. Context matters. But it is remarkable how so many on the right are making their own versions of the “root causes” arguments they once mocked. I don’t think race explains all of this. But if I were black (or a woman), I’d be more than a little vexed by the new standards.
It was remarkable to listen to Rep. Jim Jordan and other Republicans try so hard to turn impeachment into an attack on “real Americans.” The unsubtle message is: “Trump is you.” Lest you think I’m imagining things:
Lindsey Graham detested Donald Trump in 2016, and now he thinks hostility to Trump is a form of snobbery. He’s hardly alone. It’s a form of pandering to grievances that speaks of to a remarkable loss of confidence in our country and in conservative values that is widespread on the right.
As I note in my column today, a lot of conservatives have to work from the ludicrous premise that Donald Trump did nothing wrong and that the forces arrayed against him rank alongside the crucifixion of Jesus and the Salem witch trials in the annals of injustice. This is preposterous, even if you believe Trump has serious reasons to complain about how he’s been treated. Whether you think Trump deserves to be impeached or not, the simple fact is he’s brought a great deal of his grief upon himself. But conceding this incandescently obvious fact muddies the water of the victim narrative the right has become besotted with. Every day someone tells me that Trump critics dislike only his “style,” as if he’s done everything else right.
Even if that were true—it isn’t—his style is a bland euphemism for his character, which includes everything from bragging about sexual assault to mocking a widow about her possibly hell-bound husband. That’s not the “style” of the people who voted for him. Trump isn’t Richard Jewell and neither are they.
Various & Sundry
For years, if Rush Limbaugh mentioned me on air—which he used to do on occasion (almost always positively)—I’d get flooded with email alerting me to it. Interestingly, I got one email, about three days late, letting me know he mentioned both Steve Hayes and me. It was a silly and factually inaccurate swipe in which he suggested we have something to do with the Lincoln Project. I have nothing to do with that, and neither does The Dispatch. What we’re gearing up to do is offer fact-driven news and analysis from a conservative perspective, heedless of party line or personal loyalty to the people we golf with. It’s telling that Limbaugh now sees such an effort as something to deride not with facts but with innuendo and guilt by association.
Canine update: We left the beasts behind with a sitter. The moment they saw the luggage, they knew what was up and started plotting their revenge. As you can see, they are holding a grudge. Word is they’re doing fine, though. In fact, it may be for the best that they’ll do fewer big adventures while we’re gone. That way Pippa can mend from her exertions. Plus, we’ve learned that they are very concerned about the plastic bottle menace, so it’s probably for the best they wait for it to subside.
And now, the weird stuff.
Photograph of Donald Trump at his Michigan rally on Wednesday by Scott Olson/Getty Images.