Where Waldo Isn't
Plus, thoughts on the Insaner Times through which we are living.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who secretly hoped I’d get at least slightly mauled by bears so my wife could say “I told you so”),
I know I’ve been gone a long time. But in my defense, I had an opportunity to get out of Washington, D.C., in August to do really cool stuff with friends and family. Virtually any opportunity—road kill sweeper in Mexico, proctologist at a leper colony in Burma, etc.—is worth taking if it gets you out of the nation’s capital in August. So it was kind of a no-brainer. (Still, I’m a little out of practice, so if my prose seems a bit rusty, like something that gets rusty when it’s, uh, rusty, I apologize.)
I talked for a while about my trips on the latest Remnant podcast, so I’ll keep the travelogue to a minimum (just to be clear: I mean, “I discussed my recent travels on the Remnant podcast," not "I dropped acid while recording a podcast.” Shut up, naked Indian.) But my rafting trip on the Snake River in Idaho was A) awesome, and B) the most time I’ve spent completely cut off from media in my adult life. Even on my honeymoon, I turned on the TV or read my email from time to time. Even during my brief stint in an Argentinian prison, I could unfold and read the newspapers that my radiator-cooked mouse meat empanadas came in.
The cool thing about being so cut off is that you could imagine coming back to the world and finding it completely different. Will intelligent apes on horseback capture me with a cargo net and shoot me with a firehose? Will the border collies have finally made their move, herding us into huge flocks to work in their kibble factories? Perhaps the zombie virus will be well underway, vindicating years of conversations with my wife about how we need to be prepared. Or maybe we’ll encounter Powers Booth who will explain to us that “600 million screaming Chinamen” are on our side.
What I “missed.”
Alas, none of this was to be. Very few revelations were shocking (and the few things that were shocking weren’t revelations). And none have the shelf life, as far as I can tell, to be worthy of a G-File. Who wants to hear my take on Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris at this point? I know I don’t—and it’s my take. The only shocking and significant news as far as I can tell was the UAE-Israel announcement and the Senate intel report on Trump campaign ties to Russia. Both were big deals. The UAE thing is clearly a win for the Trump administration, whatever the full story turns out to be (like it or not, foreign policy victories always get scored in the incumbent president’s favor).
I must say: The knee-jerk and angry attempts to mock or dismiss the deal is a tedious form of anti-Trumpism. It’s sort of like when the SEALs took out those Somali pirates and some trollish types on the right belittled it because it happened on Obama’s watch. I’m in favor of the U.S. military rescuing Americans from pirates regardless of who the president is. Maybe that’s just me.
The Senate report is less of a political loss for Trump, simply because nobody wants to revisit all that, save for people who are already locked into their 100 percent pro- or anti-Trump positions. But it is a big loss, at least in the long term, for all of the Trump apologists who invested in the idea that it was insane and outrageous to think that the Trump campaign was morally capable or willing to collude with Russia. The Steele Dossier is still false, but so is the idea that the Trump campaign was too patriotic and America First-y to consider such a thing.
At least, that’s how it seems at first blush. I just haven’t had time to do a deep dive on either story.
Goodbye wilderness, hallo Weltschmerz.
Anyway, as I start to ease back into the news cycle like a sore fat man into a hot bath, I can’t really say I feel renewed for the fight. Rather, I feel a weird mix of disgust, exhaustion, and embarrassment about American politics in general, and big chunks of the right in particular.
Why would I say that? Well, just put yourself in my shoes and imagine coming back to the following revelations:
I was in Alaska when I got the news that the gun wielding couple from St. Louis would be speaking at the GOP convention. Of course, of course, I thought. They will probably be introduced by Diamond & Silk before handing off the mic to Seb Gorka dressed in a Speedo and an American flag cape, and then to Laura Loomer dressed like Cersei Lannister holding up a (hopefully fake) head of a Muslim immigrant.
I don’t remember where I was when I got the news that Trump half-endorsed QAnon on the grounds that they like him (he’d already congratulated some Matt Gaetz-endorsed Q-er for winning the GOP primary).
There’s not much point in discussing what this says about Trump’s narcissism, but it does say something important about the state of the GOP and the right more generally. In saner times, it would be an obvious political move to denounce QAnon and reject its support, not simply because that would be the right thing to do, but because embracing QAnon would cost you more votes than it would gain you. But most of the voters who are disgusted by playing footsie with QAnon are already lost to Trump, so it’s not obvious to me this wasn’t the smart political play for him. Oh, it’s still immoral, but when you’ve got a minority coalition and the best you can hope for is another inside-straight plurality win in the Electoral College, you can’t afford to shed any bloc of supporters. That’s just one reason why we live in Insaner Times.
On that note, the most exciting news came when I was on the ferry to San Juan Island. That’s where I learned that Steve Bannon had been indicted for ripping off the people who—for some bizarre reason—thought he wouldn’t rip them off.
I know it’s a cliché to talk about the Trump years as a series of TV seasons, each wackier than the next. But having Steve Bannon, Super Patriot®, Bane of the Chinese™, Keeper of the MAGA Faith, and Watcher of the Wall, arrested on a Chinese billionaire’s superyacht for bilking money from people who actually believed his GoFundMe site to build the border wall was on the up-and-up was just too good.
But to have him arrested by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at the precise moment the country is freaking out over Trump’s war—or “war” —on the Post Office? *Chef’s kiss.* Someone deserves an Emmy.
(Fun fact: The USPIS is not only America’s oldest law enforcement agency, it’s actually older than the United States of America herself, because Ben Franklin as the colonial postmaster general created it in 1772 to audit the mails and secure the treasure of the Knights Templar underneath Trinity Church in New York. Someone had to sign for Aristotle’s lost Dialogues. After independence, Franklin kept the system in place and gave the USPIS the added responsibility of investigating what were, at the time, called “Ye X Files.” That portfolio didn’t move to the FBI until the 1960s, when J. Edgar Hoover decided that evidence of intense anal probing by aliens was useful blackmail material.)
Rather than simply crib David French’s piece on the Bannon news, let me just say I agree with all of it. Although a friend of mine notes that the grifter problem isn’t just a feature of the Bannonite right. The Lincoln Project seems to be guilty of a lot of self-dealing as well. I think that’s right. And Lord knows the Democrats have scammers and grifters aplenty as well. But there is something special about the corruption swirling around Trump and Bannon world. Trump campaigned on draining the swamp while surrounding himself with more bog creatures than the reptile house at the Miami zoo. I’ve lost track of how many of his associates—including his former campaign manager and personal fixer—have been sent to jail or would have been had he not commuted their sentences or pardoned them (the indictment rate of Trump campaign managers is slightly higher than that of Chicago governors). Bannon has monetized corruption fighting for years, through his Government Accountability Institute, his populist theatrics at Breitbart, and other endeavors. But it seems like the Bannonite-Trump model wasn’t Eliot Ness so much as some Third World racket where you use “anti-corruption” movements to knock out the competition.
If you want to console yourself by saying they were all set up by the Deep State, that’s fine. But don’t be shocked when you have cider in your ear.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
As for my disgust with politics generally, I can only refer you to Twitter. I’ve been on that hellsite for over a decade now. I honestly don’t know if it’s worse today than it was before I left or even five years ago. But taking even a short break from it made me feel like some reformed ex-con who returns to prison and is reminded of the depravity he thought he left behind. My friend and colleague Tim Carney tweeted last night:
So many of the replies were so ungracious, and even evil, that it’s hard not to despair. The idea that how you vote is the measure of your soul is a kind of soul sickness. I’ve run too long to get back into the weeds on how I think politics is a substitute for religion for too many people today. But the idea that not voting for Joe Biden makes you a bad father is as repugnant to me as saying not being part of a specific faith makes you a bad father. It’s all the worse because I happen to know how passionate Tim is about being a good dad (and I suspect he’s not voting for Trump either).
Then there was this absurdity from Soledad O’Brien:
Sarah Longwell @SarahLongwell25Obviously Joe Biden is not a political conservative. And yet, last night’s speech—with its emphasis on flag, family, faith, and character—was more thematically conservative than any speech I’ve ever heard Trump give.
Sarah Longwell—a passionate anti-Trump conservative who I am fairly certain is voting for Biden—was making an utterly defensible, even unobjectionable, analytical point. But O’Brien decided to use it as an excuse to paint Longwell as some kind of racist buffoon.
I won’t dwell on either of these examples largely because they are merely two of so many. Finding instances of awful behavior, poor reasoning, bad faith, or dehumanizing preening on Twitter is as hard as finding someone who isn’t Waldo in a “Where’s Waldo?” drawing. And that’s under normal circumstances. For the next couple of months it’s all going to be so much worse. Both sides are catastrophizing our politics like members of competing doomsday cults. Twitter and social media generally are like moonshine stills, refining and concentrating the intoxicating nature of politics until otherwise sane people get defecate-or-go-sightless drunk on it.
I’ve spent the last two weeks in beautiful, wild, places talking to people—family members as well as friends both old and new—who disagree with me about one political question or another. That really was refreshing. But rather than feel renewed, it’s made me even more sensitive to the stench of our politics. It’s like when you leave your job at the fertilizer plant for a while and you lose your nose-blindness to the stench of the bovine excrement, only to discover upon your return that the bullshit really does stink.
I’m hoping that readers who understand and empathize will find some respite from the stench here at The Dispatch.
Various & Sundry
I cannot begin to tell you how much I miss the dogs and half of my cats. I’ve been getting regular proof-of-life pics from home and now the Fair Jessica is with them so I know they’re fine (and her unique cinematic stylings for treat time are getting rave reviews). But there really should be a German word for missing your dogs while you’re in places they would love (urlaubhundnostalgie?). We’ve been to so many beautiful spots in Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska where the girls would have been downright giddy and where the water was so clean that we would have been happy for them to get wet. My wife and I often talk about how hiking loses so much of its appeal without canine companionship. Though for the first time ever, the Fair Jessica actually conceded that maybe a prohibition on dogs was warranted—when we went to Admiralty Island, which has more grizzly bears than the entire lower 48 combined.
Anyway, my daughter and I will be hitting the road on Monday for the long drive home from Friday Harbor where we are now (and where, 18 years and 361 days ago the Fair Jessica made the unfathomably risky and gloriously flattering decision to marry me).
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of a grizzly bear by Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.