Our Derangement Problem
It’s particularly telling when people are criticized for using facts and reason.
Dear Reader (particularly all of the members of the Mr. Peanut family),
To paraphrase advice from Groundhog Day, I’m trying not to write angry.
But some days, it’s hard.
Contrary to a lot of my detractors, I’m far more reconciled to the Trump presidency than many people think. Indeed, some of my NeverTrumpier friends think I’m too reconciled. When The Dispatchwas launched, my friend Bill Kristol responded to our editorial stance of “Trump skepticism” by saying he and The Bulwark folks were “Trump hostile.” And that’s fine. I don’t consider a constant state of hostility toward Trump to be irrational, per se. But I do think your judgment can get catawampus with your interests or the facts if you let your hostility get the better of you.
Now, just because this is an astoundingly banal and conventional insight that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Of course, it’s not always right, either. Inigo Montoya would never muster the strength to kill Count Rugen were it not for his bottomless anger and desire for revenge. But I think most of us wouldn’t want a surgeon to walk into the operating room still shaking with rage as he tried to take out a spleen. “That’s enough anesthesia damn it, just give me the damn knife.”
For a writer, however, it’s a balancing act. Wholly dispassionate writing is boring (in my case for the author as well as the reader). Here’s how I began my book, The Tyranny of Clichés:
According to legend, when George Will signed up to become a syndicated columnist in the 1970s, he asked his friend William F. Buckley, Jr.—the founder of National Review and a columnist himself—“How will I ever write two columns a week?” Buckley responded (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh it will be easy. At least two things a week will annoy you, and you’ll write about them.”
Buckley was right. Annoyance is an inspiration, aggravation a muse. That which gets your blood up, also gets the ink—or these days, pixels—flowing. Show me an author without passion for what he holds to be the truth and I will show you either a boring writer or someone who misses a lot of deadlines, or both. Nothing writes itself, and what gets the writer to push that boulder uphill is more often than not irritation with those saying wrong things righteously.
My derangement problem—and ours.
So that brings me back to the topic at hand. Trump can certainly get under my skin, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job of not letting that get the better of me. I opposed his betrayal of the Kurds, but supported his strike on Iran. I’ve praised and supported the judicial appointments, not to mention many of his regulatory and economic policies. And so on.
So while I reserve the right to continue to berate the president for his morally and intellectually slovenly rhetoric and his thumbless grasp of the Constitution and the role of the president, I don’t think I’ve been unduly harsh, merely duly harsh. Moreover, I find the principle that the man deserves some grand deference and civility on account of his office to be null and void given his stubborn refusal to respect such norms.
So why, you may ask, am I offering all of this throat-clearing as a way to calibrate my dyspepsia? Because the standard response to any public truth-telling about the president is greeted by his fans and media praetorians as prima facie proof of “Trump Dderangement Ssyndrome.”
Hugh you calling deranged?
A case in point, I appeared on my friend Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Thursday and had a spirited discussion with Hugh about the impeachment case. Given what follows, I should offer some gratitude upfront. I used to do a lot of conservative talk radio, but I’ve largely become an unperson in that world because so much of right-wing talk radio is about telling the audience what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. Hugh deserves praise for regularly breaking that pattern, not just with me but with people across the ideological spectrum.
Hugh began the show by laying the predicate that he just wanted to interview me, not debate me. But he was incapable of sticking to that standard and felt compelled to argue with me throughout. That’s fine; it’s a radio show after all. Moreover, it’s his radio show. But I did find it revealing. (I recommend listening to it rather than reading the transcript to get a better grasp of the tone and tenor of the conversation.)
As I explained more or less on air, my position on Trump’s impeachment is as follows: I think it is obvious he did it. I think what he did was clearly inappropriate and impeachable. But it’s not obvious to me that Congress should have impeached him, and it is even less obvious to me that the Senate should remove him. I think the Democrats’ process was deeply flawed, but not disqualifying for the simple reason that Congress can do whatever it wants on impeachment so long as it has the requisite votes. In other words, reasonable people can disagree whether it’s wise to remove a president for the first time for what Trump did viz a viz Ukraine, but he did it. Period. Additionally, absent affirmative evidence of his innocence—which the president tellingly and resolutely refused to provide—there’s no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt given his incandescently clear record of cutting corners and lying.
I have exerted a lot of time and energy thinking about this and I am entirely confident in my view that this is a reasonable position. If I were the anti-Trump obsessive people claim, why am I so agnostic about the wisdom of removal? Why do I credit some of the criticisms of the Democrats? The answer—or at least my answer—is that I’m going where the facts and reason take me.
Note I didn’t say I’m right. Obviously, I think I am (and outside of issues of faith, I’m not sure a position can be right without being reasonable; we should have a seminar about that at some point). I’m merely saying that my view is eminently reasonable. The facts are overwhelmingly against the president and have been since he released the rough transcript of his call with Ukrainian President Zelensky. This points to the problem with the popular talking point that impeachment is a rerun of the Kavanaugh playbook. The evidence against Kavanaugh was manufactured. The evidence against Trump isn’t.
My view, very broadly speaking, is shared by nearly everyone at National Review. My friend and AEI colleague, Yuval Levin, possibly the most level-headed and just plain wise person I’ve ever met, hews to something close to this view. Nearly every lawyer I know who doesn’t also work as a conservative pundit or for the president holds something like this position. Moreover, many of the lawyers and pundits who carry water for the president in public will concede in private that what Trump did was wrong—either legally, constitutionally, politically, or all three. I can’t tell you how many Republican senators and Congressmen I’ve talked to—away from a microphone or television camera—who will concede this basic point, even if they have a wide array of views on the wisdom of impeaching the president or the way the impeachment process worked.
I should add that, despite all of the polarization and media segmentation that distorts and divides the country, a full third of Republicans consistently say that they believe the president “probably” or “definitely” did something wrong with regard to l’affaire Ukraine.
And yet the official position of the praetorians is that my position is not merely wrong, but self-evidently deranged. Just to be clear. “Deranged” means “mad” or “insane.” This is what annoys me to the point of eye-twitching distraction.
After my conversation with Hugh ended, my wife listened to the next segment with my eminently reasonable AEI colleague Jim Talent and—to my surprise—the gist of the conversation was that I was suffering from some kind of Trump Derangement Syndrome. For the rest of the day I was barraged with accusations that I suffered from it in email and on Twitter. A few months ago my friend Brian Kilmeade accused me of the same ailment, in part, if memory serves, because I took seriously Trump’s belief in the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory.
So here’s the thing. I think this is deranged. No not clinically, but in the very way people throw around the TDS charge mean it. I don’t intend a “I know you are but what am I?” argument. I’m quite sincere. If you sincerely think my position—which again is the same position of the vast majority of informed and reasonable people I know, including many of the senators who will vote to acquit—is deranged, I think you are suffering from PTDS: Pro-Trump Derangement Syndrome. The other night on Special Report, I noted that a majority of Americans support impeachment. My friend Mollie Hemingway argued shortly thereafter that impeachment is merely “pornography for the resistance.” It may be that. Heck, watching MSNBC, it surely is that. But it’s not merely that. It’s the position of a majority of Americans. Are they all deranged?
In September, Hugh wrote a column trying to claim the middle ground as a reasonable voice on impeachment. I found it very unpersuasive in parts, but his basic point was reasonable enough: “Stay away from the fringes.” By this week, he was all in for the fringe interpretation of the facts. Oh, Hugh makes a good point that this impeachment may normalize impeachment as a partisan weapon. He even begins his column with this sagacious insight (I’m not being sarcastic):
Every decision is precedent.
That which gets rewarded gets repeated.
As a truism, I agree with this wholeheartedly. But as he made clear in our discussion, he thinks there’s nothing particularly wrong with what Trump did. When I asked him if Trump’s phone call was “perfect,” he conceded it wasn’t, but added that the substance was fine and all that kept it from deserving “perfection” was a little diplomatic tweaking or lawyerly phrasing. That’s nuttier than Mr. Peanut’s wake.
In his column this week, he argues that the only moral and statesmanlike option for Republican senators is “rapid disposition” of the trial “with a strong dose of senatorial scorn.”
I find it amazing that so many people think this is all one-sided. Like Hugh, I am perfectly willing to criticize the way the House pursued impeachment and have done so countless times. Unlike Hugh, I’m willing to acknowledge that the president invited his troubles upon himself. Literally the moment the Mueller probe concluded, Trump got on the horn and tried to bully a foreign leader to help him with a political dirty hit on an opponent and to legitimize the Russian propaganda that it was Ukraine that meddled in the election (that is what the Crowdstrike conspiracy theory is about).
If Trump is not punished somehow for it, if people like Hugh—and so many others who are far drunker on Trump’s Kool Aid—celebrate acquittal as a vindication of the president, if they echo the preposterous claim he did nothing wrong, Trump will do worse and future presidents will borrow from his precedent. After all, “That which gets rewarded gets repeated.”
Various & Sundry
Listeners of The Remnant podcast have gotten to know my research assistant and podcast producer Jack Butler. Today is his last day on the job. He’s going off to National Review to work as an associate editor. Jack did indefatigable work for me not just on the podcast, but on Suicide of the West (now out in paperback!) and countless other projects. I am deeply grateful for all of it and even more deeply confident that my friend has a great future ahead of him.
Canine update: Well, Pippa is back on injured reserve. Her limp, which seemed to be improving, is back in earnest. We’re restraining her activity as best we can indefinitely, and we’ll be going back to the vet as well. As expected, she doesn’t agree with our decision. Once she gets going, she’s oblivious to pain. Please have a good thought for her. Meanwhile, I’m starting to think my generous scritch dispensation policy is creating a culture of dependency.
Correction: In case you missed it, I did a deep dive on executive privilege on Monday. I did make one error, though. I said that privilege gives way to all core constitutional functions. That’s not quite right. Enacting legislation is a core constitutional function and it’s certainly possible that some legislation could be overruled by the courts for violating executive privilege. Impeachment is different because it’s a core constitutional check on the executive and if presidents could blanketly refuse to cooperate with impeachment on executive privilege grounds, impeachment would be meaningless. This is a point George Washington understood and Rudy Giuliani apparently doesn’t.
And now, the weird stuff.
And that’s all, folks. This has been Jack Butler, faithfully compiling the Various & Sundry for the past four-and-a-half years. I hope it has been sufficiently various and sundry for those of you who make it this far down into the G-File. It has been an honor and a privilege. But now I’m just steppin’ out.
Photograph of Donald Trump by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images.