Exciting Politics Are Bad Politics
Plus, how October is going to be like the haunted bedroom scene from Poltergeist.
Dear Reader (Including whoever possesses the paperwork on Trump’s last negative COVID test),
Probably my favorite scene in Poltergeist is where the “real” ghostbusters crew was all braggy about how they once videotaped a car supernaturally moving seven feet over a linoleum floor over a period of seven hours. Craig T. Nelson gives them a “yeah, whatever” face and opens the door to his daughter’s haunted bedroom. Everything’s flying around. An unplugged lamp flies through the air, docks with a lampshade, and turns on (which would be kinda porny on a planet inhabited by sentient table lamps). A toy Hulk is riding a flying toy horse.
Still doesn’t ring a bell? Okay, here:
Anyway, that creepy period of walking up the stairs to the bedroom? I think that was most of 2020. October is shaping up to be the bedroom scene and it’s going to get worse. So, so much worse.
The living will envy the dead, and not just because the dead will rise to eat that leftover Chinese food you’d been saving in the fridge. A gaunt old man in a black frock coat will stare at you menacingly as you pass him on one street corner, and as you look over your shoulder to make sure he’s not following you, you’ll bump into him on the next street corner over and over again. If, in the morning, you check your phone in bed, you’ll be like Joan Crawford and your Twitter feed will be like Bette Davis lifting the dome on the plate with the dead rat on it. Only the rat won’t really be dead, it will stand up, do a little Saturday Night Fever dance, and then tell you you’re the crazy one for not joining in. In the afternoon, you’ll take your pet to the vet and they’ll bring him inside without you because of COVID. The vet will come out a bit later and give you the bad news that your turtle inexplicably died. You’ll say, “But doctor, I don’t have a turtle. I brought my dog for a checkup.” And he’ll reply “I know, that’s what’s so inexplicable.”
Then he’ll twirl away in a dancing, laughing, frenzy as he shouts, “The margin of error was in our hearts all along!”
Okay, maybe that will be November.
What a strange trip it’s been.
I’m in a mood, and in a “news”letter such as this, written on the fly, mood is often the only muse you’ve got.
So hopefully you’ll forgive a little self-serving, perhaps distastefully self-congratulatory introspection: The thing I’m most proud of regarding how I’ve handled the last few years has been my ability not to lose my mind (the introductory diatribe above notwithstanding). Oh, I’ve lost my temper—my stupid, mood-altering, Twitter spat with Steve Schmidt this morning is testament to that. And I’ve certainly had my obsessions. I suppose the massive mashed potato Devil’s Tower in my basement office speaks to that. But the Trump era, for all its maddening … madness, has helped me find my own center. And for that, in a very weird way, I’m grateful to Donald Trump.
For years, I’ve written that I don’t like populism, excessive political enthusiasm, crowds, groupthink, popular frontism, etc. But until Trump, it was all largely academic or partisan, and therefore relatively easy. When I say “partisan,” I don’t mean untruthful. There is such a thing as healthy partisanship. Madison understood this (Martin Van Buren, too!). Parties and partisanship focus the mind on a common cause among the generally likeminded members of a broad coalition. Partisanship motivates one faction to keep the opposing faction honest and accountable. America’s obsession with hypocrisy has gotten wildly unhealthy and distorted, but in proper proportion it is good when one side points out the other side’s inconsistencies and norm violations.
So when I saw the things I didn’t like about politics in general manifest themselves on the left—the cults of unity and personality, populism, moral equivalent of war fallacies, crisis-mongering, etc.—I went after them, hammer and tongs. I still do—not just because I detest such things philosophically, but because, unlike some rabid Trump opponents, I don’t think my distaste for Trump and Trumpism is an excuse to abandon my conservatism. Before Trump, when I made such arguments, I got my fair share of applause from the right, which was nice. My first two books were entirely from this era. That’s what I mean by it being “easy.”
Then Trump started rising up the ranks of the right. At first, like pretty much every other mainstream conservative in my line of work, I thought he was an obvious buffoon, hustler, and demagogue. But then the same dynamics I’d long decried on the left ensorcelled so many on the right. There’s no need to rehash the whole Bodysnatchers phenomenon I wrote about in March 2016, but suffice it to say, things got lonelier for me—not simply in the emotional sense, but in the numerical one. For a host of reasons, the spirit of Ledru-Rollin took over: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” And there were only a few of us left to shout, “You’re going the wrong way!”
Fourteen years ago—back when it was entirely safe for me to denounce populism—I began a G-File:
Politics has a math of its own. Whereas a scientifically minded person might see things this way: One person who says 2+2=5 is an idiot; two people who think 2+2=5 are two idiots; and a million people who think 2+2=5 are a whole lot of idiots–political math works differently. Let’s work backwards: if a million people think 2+2=5, then they are not a million idiots, but a “constituency.” If they are growing in number, they are also a “movement.” And, if you were not only the first person to proclaim 2+2=5, but you were the first to persuade others, then you, my friend, are not an idiot, but a visionary.
If I were to write something like that today, I’d be attacked viciously from the born-again populists of the right. And I should be clear, I don’t think Trump supporters or populists are all idiots. Some great friends of mine and close relatives are supporters of one or the other—and very few of them are idiots (heh). But I am perfectly happy to say that Trump overperforms in certain idiotic precincts, and he has the ability to make otherwise smart people—on the left and right—say and do idiotic things.
My point here is that the rise of Trump and Trumpism was a test for me. Again, partisanship illuminates the foibles of the other coalition, but it tends to cast the foibles of your own side in shadows so thick they become hard to see. Of course, some still see them, they just choose to ignore or downplay them for the “greater good” of fighting the other side. They embrace the logic of the popular front (which can be found in anti-anti-Trumpism and, well, the Biden coalition). And, sadly, some succumb fully to the alchemy of partisanship and decide that they’re not foibles at all anymore, but glorious features.
To pick one of countless examples, Trump’s warped idea of masculinity—serially cheating on his almost equally serial wives with porn stars among others, boasting about (failed!) attempts of sexual assault, crude insults, and bullying—would, not long ago, be decried as the very definition of bad character. Now, for some, it’s something to celebrate in our “AlphaMale” president. And, as I am constantly told, to hold the Before Times conservative definition of good character is to reveal my alleged envy for his cocksmanship.
A couple weeks ago, I got a DM on Twitter from a conservative friendly acquaintance.
Jonah, what the hell is going on with you? With no exaggeration, besides my own father, you were the largest influence on my political thought growing up. And I hardly recognize you now. I really don't get it.
I wish I could say this is the only complaint of this sort I’ve gotten. But it’s sadly common, and it does legitimately make me sad. But stripped of anger and annoyance, my answer is pretty simple: I’m not going to lie. I don’t mean this in a self-righteous way, at least most of the time (no one is fully immune to seduction of self-righteousness). When everything started going nuts, I just resolved not to go along and tell the truth as best I could.
Truth is a remarkable thing. Truth can be rude or unpleasant, but it’s always a legitimate defense in any serious argument. This might seem obvious in the abstract, but in real life it doesn’t always work that way. So much of what vexes people about political correctness is that it is an attempt to bury factual truths under a thick blanket of socially constructed ones. Sometimes, in the name of good manners, it’s fine—even necessary. But the bulk of it vexes people precisely because it denies reality. If you want to define political correctness as a purely left-wing thing, that’s fine. There are defensible reasons to do so. But if we’re going to do that, we need a term to describe the kindred phenomenon of enforced conformity to various pieties on the right. Because there’s plenty of it on both teams.
If you refuse to give much weight to team solidarity, popular front exhortations, and “binary choice” diatribes, it’s easy to find inconvenient truths all over the place: The president is unfit for the job. Joe Biden has lost a step—or several. Nancy Pelosi is hyperpartisan. The Russian collusion story peddled by the most strident Democrats and journalists was wrong. But some claims that Trump and his campaign has behaved indefensibly viz a viz Russia have ample merit. The Republican party isn’t suffused with racism, but there are too many racists on the right and too few Republicans are willing to say so. Antifa is a real problem, and too few Democrats want to admit it publicly for the incandescently dumb reason that they think it would help Trump. Right-wing goon squads are a real problem, and too few Republicans want to say so for the incandescantly dumb reason that they think it would hurt Trump. Republican Voters Against Trump is a legitimate project, even if you disagree with it. The Lincoln Project is largely a Democratic fundraising operation, even if you agree with it. I could do this all day—because it’s kind of fun and because whatever price I’m supposed to pay for not following the party line I’ve already paid, and then some.
Over the last four years or so, truth has been my psychological safe harbor. I’m not claiming I have a monopoly on it. I know I don’t. All the blind men feeling the elephant were wrong, but none were liars. What I mean is that telling the truth as I see it has been the rule that has gotten me through all of this (along with friends, coworkers, family and—if it’s not too pandering—you Dear Readers). It’s entirely possible the truth I see is wrong. It’s possible that my aversion to populism, crudity, and the false security of crowds has ill-served me and the crowds are right. But all I can do is truthfully say that that’s not how I see it. I’ve been quoting this line from Solzhenitsyn for a while now: “You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”
I’ll leave the theological connotations of the “the truth shall set you free” to others. But I’ve found that resolving to tell the truth, even when it’s hard, is not only liberating, it’s a bulwark against letting the craziness win. As Orwell wrote in 1984,“Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”
When the disruption becomes the new normal.
Which brings me to the next month, which is going to be like riding a mobius strip through an animatronic insane asylum, particularly as he feels more cornered and his backers scramble to come up with a blame-shifting explanation for it. I have a theory about why Trump is tanking. All the punditry about erosion of support among seniors, debate performances, COVID, the economy, etc. has its merits. But I think one missing piece of the puzzle is simply that Trump is the incumbent and, more importantly, he’s making people crazy, pro and con. In 2016, enough people wanted a “disrupter,” but they didn’t really want a feeling of constant disruption. It’s fine to want to shake things up when the economy is doing well (as it was in 2016) and you think the “establishment” is calcified or corrupt. It’s fine to want to keep the shake-up going when things were going good and politics remained a spectator sport. But wanting a shake-up is very different than wanting to constantly be shaken around. With the economy in tatters, COVID being so not under control that the White House is literally a hot spot, and the president spending his last days before the election yammering about miracle cures, his own physical perfection, dropping F-bombs on the radio, and scorning his own Cabinet officials as failures for not indicting his political opponents, people just want to stop the madness.
Or rather, a majority of them do.
There are those who like the madness. Some get to go on TV to defend it or tell people not to believe their lying eyes. Others think this constant insanity is actually the new sanity. Or they still think this reality show they bought a ticket to in 2016 is worth extending for another four seasons. Or they’ve grown addicted to the madness of the crowds. Or they believe, sincerely, that the constant seismic disturbances are a price worth paying to prevent the evil of the other team from running things.
So yeah, these people exist. But the problem for them, and for Trump, is that for all of the boilerplate about the “silent majority,” the Pence-ian treacle about “the American people,” and the constant affirmation of their Facebook friends, there just aren’t enough of them.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The exciting news is that my wife and daughter are going on their traditional fall adventure to New England this weekend, leaving me with the quadrupeds for the long weekend. The girls are good, though Zoë’s breath has been rather stygian of late. It doesn’t affect her smile, though. If it persists, we’ll probably take her to the vet. Her simple chronic halitosis may explain a strange new habit of hers. Every night, when the family gathers around the electric hearth to watch TV, Zoë walks into the back of the house and plucks a single leaf from a house plant. She carries it into the living room, licks it a couple times, and then just … protects it. We are eager for theories. Meanwhile Pippa had a bit of a run-in the other morning. Nothing actually bad happened to her, but we were walking in the gray just-dawning light on a very foggy morning. Through the mist we spied the outline of a man and in front of him the silhouette of a dog. As we got closer, we could see it was a handsome black lab, carrying a frisbee. The lab chuffed and growled a bit: gotta protect that frisbee. But Pippa was oddly terrified and ran off literally crying. No bites were exchanged. They were never less than 20 feet apart. But clearly it triggered some bad past experience (she used to get picked on a bit at a different dog park). And for the rest of the week, she’s been hyper vigilant for the presence of mean dogs, so much so her ball retrieval has suffered a bit. But, not to worry. She’s fine and will be well-tended to. The only other development is the exciting news that Emmi is joining Kirsten’s pack. Emmi will have to remain in the Youth and Small Dog Auxiliary for a while, which has a different patrol time. But eventually, we’re looking forward to her joining the big dog crew. Gracie is doing great. But Ralph has decided to skip roll call for standard treat time and wait for the Fair Jessica to serve him separately. Oh, and the report from my mom is that Fafoon and Paddington continue to rule. No mention of the elusive Winston.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.