EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (particularly any of you women who want to have dinner with me alone, but can’t),
Just last week, in this space, while mentioning my dour mood, I asked, “Hey, what’s the emoji for metaphysical dyspepsia and spirit-grinding weltschmerz?”
To summarize briefly, last week I was in NYC trying to salvage a little bit of Spring Break for my kid in the wake of all our plans blowing up on account of needing to go to Alaska for my mother-in-law’s funeral. While in the city, I met with the lovely (and understanding and patient and awesome) editor of the book I’m still working on. She needed to know when the final chapters were coming. I said in the next week or so. “I have about 25,000–30,000 words on my computer,” I told her. “I just need to organize it and write a couple thousand more.”
And this is when the Universe saw an opening.
I drive home on Saturday. On Sunday morning, I wake up with a renewed sense of commitment and purpose. I’m also chipper because we’re going to officially celebrate my birthday since we couldn’t earlier in the week. Cake!
I perambulate the beasts. Make some coffee.
I pour myself a big cup. I grab my relatively new MacBook Pro. And . . .
Well. Flashback. Last year I was on Turner Classic Movies talking about politics and film. It was a lot of fun.
They gave me some swag, including a great TCM coffee mug. A few weeks ago, the handle broke off (the investigation into who was responsible for that has broken down into partisan squabbles, though my daughter’s request for immunity in exchange for testimony is suspicious). My wife and daughter “repaired” it and put it back.
Okay, back to the moment: I grab my cup of coffee and . . . the entirety of reality and everything in it slowed down to one-eighth speed as all of the coffee spilled directly into the keyboard of my computer.
To paraphrase William Goldman, “Since the invention of shouting ‘Nooooo!’ there have only been five ‘Nooooos!’ that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.”
Now, in fairness, my pronunciation of “No” was unconventional in that it began with an “F” and ended with a parade of glottal “K”s.
I’ll spare you most of the other details, save one: You know the “Door Close” buttons on elevators? Or the pedestrian “Walk” buttons in New York? Your fool-proof system for playing roulette? Rabbits’ feet? Democracy?
These are all things that give you a false sense of control. The elevator button doesn’t actually make the doors close any faster (though they do in the U.K., where man is still the master of his fate!). Since the 1980s, the “Walk” buttons have been like Rainier Wolfcastle’s goggles; they do nothing. Rabbits’ feet aren’t lucky. Everyone knows you have to rub a leprechaun’s head for luck, which is why I keep asking Robert Reich to come to Vegas with me. As for democracy, I kid, I kid.
You know what else gives the illusion of control? Apple’s iCloud. There’s a folder on my laptop called “document-iCloud” that I “saved” to. The hitch? It’s sorta like the fake railroad tunnel Wile E. Coyote drew on cliff faces. It works for Road Runners like five-year-old G-Files and shopping lists. But book chapters about the current state of Western Civilization? They bounce off it like grapes off a basset hound’s forehead.
Now, I know everything you want to tell me already about other services, external back-ups, not gluing coffee-cup handles back on, even how I need a haircut. I know because I’ve discovered that nothing brings out the Monday-morning quarterbacking on Twitter like pouring coffee into a laptop. “You should be more careful” is the least useful advice one can give after the fact. It’s only marginally more helpful than the kind of help one gets from the guy who makes sure the leather straps aren’t too tight on the electric chair.
It reminds me of one of my favorite stories about my dad. I once accidentally rubbed hot sauce in my eye. My dad found me at the sink furiously washing it out of my eye. He asked what happened. I told him.
He replied, in his perfect deadpan, “Damn, I wish I had told you not to rub hot sauce in your eye.”
Anyway, I think the perfect real-world emoji for metaphysical dyspepsia and spirit-grinding weltschmer is pouring coffee into your computer.
And my main takeaway is that negativity invites negativity, so I’m going to be whistling Dixie out of my nethers like I got a free trip to Wally World from here on out.
Here We Go Again
Meanwhile, as I await the results of an extremely expensive effort to salvage the data off my hard drive, I suppose I should also try to salvage this anecdote as well.
Longtime readers of this “news”letter should probably stop reading it out loud because that slows down reading comprehension.
But they also may have noticed that my favorite quote from Edmund Burke — besides “the people at iCloud should be fed to wolves” — is “Example is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other.”
What he meant by this is that sometimes you can’t be told something, you have to see it or experience it for yourself. I could write a dozen different columns on this quote (actually, I think I have). This insight dovetails with my conviction that reality is conservative. Wisdom is the accumulation of insights into how the world actually works — as opposed to how we would like it to work.
Venezuela was the richest country in South America a decade ago. Then it followed policies based on how some people wanted the world to work. Now it’s the poorest country in South America and people are fighting over bread and toilet paper. If Venezuela makes it through this mess, a lot of people will likely have learned some things from example that they’d probably never have learned from a textbook.
The other night, I was on Special Report and I made the point that even if Donald Trump was 100 percent right in claiming he was wiretapped by President Obama (he wasn’t), it would still be foolish to say what he did in those tweets. Put aside that Trump based his accusation on some flimsy news articles he had read. Let’s imagine he had a credible source with real evidence to back up the claim. The correct response would be to call in the heads of the NSA, CIA, DOJ, and FBI and get to the bottom of it. Then, after you’ve completed a behind-the-scenes investigation, press charges against those responsible.
Trump went a different way, and a month of his first 100 days has been eaten up by the furor. I added that, politically, this whole thing was a huge waste and distraction, including the response by my friend Devin Nunes. He, as the House Intelligence Committee chairman, may indeed have some important revelations to make. But the whole thing could have been handled better.
I say with all humility: I was 100 percent right.
The response, however, from Trump’s amen corner was the usual outrage and ridiculous claims: “Trump was vindicated! He’s playing four-dimensional chess! Shut up! Etc.”
Politics all the Way Down
The two common responses that I think are worth addressing here are (I’m paraphrasing): “Who cares about politics!? We’re sick of politics!” and “You want him to be ‘presidential’ and stop tweeting. But the old playbook no longer applies!”
Put aside the remarkably odd complaint that a political analyst on a political panel on a TV show that covers politics might actually discuss politics.
Here’s the important point. Politics is like the weather; it doesn’t care what you think about it. It simply is. And at least in this sense, I was right when I said that democracy gives the illusion of control.
In 2006, I wrote in the Corner about the Left’s belief, as expressed by Simon Rosenberg, that we were entering an era of “new politics.” Conservatism was over. A new era of modern, expert-driven political management was upon us. To his credit, Rosenberg didn’t say that politics was over, just that this was some new era where the old playbook didn’t apply. But it’s sort of the same thing. The idea that politics will go away if we elect the right person is a form of utopianism that plagues the Left — and, alas, the Right.
Barack Obama entered office thinking the exact same thing (So did LBJ. So did JFK. So did FDR. So did Woodrow Wilson). As I’ve written 8 trillion times, Obama really believed that he was a post-ideological president who only cared about “what works.” This progressive understanding of pragmatism is a kind of exquisite confirmation bias. We’re not ideological, we just want to do the smartest, best thing (which just happens to line up with our undisclosed and unacknowledged ideological biases).
The problem? Politics doesn’t vanish just because you want it to. Wilson was convinced that the wisdom of the Treaty of Versailles was akin to scientific fact. It wasn’t, but let’s say that it was. His view didn’t erase the political necessity of selling it to Congress.
During the election, lots of people told me that a businessman would cut through all the politics by running the government like a business. Jared Kushner is apparently heading up the latest version of this incredibly hackneyed and ancient idea. The simple problem is that government isn’t a business (never mind that Donald Trump is not a typical businessman). The incentive structure of politics is entirely different than the incentive structure for a businessman. A CEO can walk into a meeting and explain to his employees that if they don’t hit their widget sales quota, no one will get their bonus. Politics doesn’t work like that.
Moreover, people who say “Who cares about politics” or “Politics are irrelevant” are like people who go sailing in a hurricane on the assumption that weather shouldn’t matter.
Throw Away the New Playbook
It’s fine to insist that Trump has discarded the old playbook. In many respects, he has. But throwing away the old playbook isn’t synonymous with coming up with a better one. Management and marketing consultants love buzzphrases like “throw away the old playbook,” but that doesn’t mean that every time a company follows that advice it works. It really depends on whether the new playbook is any good. Warren Buffet got rich off companies that stick to old and reliable playbooks and that follow the Burkean advice to learn from example. Yes, great entrepreneurs leap into the unknown and do new things. But lots of people leap into the unknown and land on their faces. The geniuses behind the scotch-tape store threw away the playbook.
So yeah, okay, Trump threw away the playbook. It got him elected. Kudos. How’s it been working for him lately? His approval ratings have cratered. He failed to get the Obamacare repeal-and-replace across the finish line. He’s alienated the House Freedom Caucus. His biggest defenders are melting down like Harry Mudd’s androids after being told to compute the liar’s fallacy.
FDR threw away the old playbook, too. But it worked for him (if not necessarily for the country).
Look, I didn’t think Trump was a good choice for the Republican nomination, and I worried mightily that he would do grave damage to conservatism. But I’m not interested in saying “I told you so” right now. There’s enormous work to be done and it’s still possible for Trump to succeed.
If you don’t think politics matters, keep in mind that the incentives for GOP congressmen to cooperate with Trump drops in tandem with his approval ratings. Similarly, the people who dismiss the “mainstream media” as illegitimate tend to miss the point that lots of voters don’t share their view. By all means argue that those people are wrong. But at least acknowledge that those people vote too. And that matters. Everyone who cheers Sean Hannity’s limitless defenses of everything Trump does seem not to care that they are not a majority.
The people who think that the way to help conservatism is to support everything Trump says and does simply have it wrong. If he tweets “2+2=5,” you don’t help him (or the cause or the country) by saying “He’s right!” or “This is a brilliant ploy to deconstruct the ‘alt-left’ mathematical establishment!” The best thing you can do is say “Trump is wrong and he should spend his time doing what he was elected to do.”
Trump might not listen — no really, it’s possible — but criticism (reasonable criticism, of the sort we do at National Review) at least holds out the possibility that he’ll stop tweeting indefensible things and focus on what he needs to do to have a successful presidency. But if pundits race to a TV studio to say “Trump is right! He’s always right!” (particularly when they don’t actually believe it, which is often the case), he will be encouraged to keep doing what he’s doing — because, like Obama, he tends to listen most closely to his biggest cheerleaders. Trump’s one truly great success so far was the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. Why was that a success? Because he outsourced the task to Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and Mitch McConnell — two guys who relied on a tried-and-true playbook.
The simple fact is that new playbooks, like new ideas, are as a statistical matter more likely to be wrong than right (there are literally an infinite number of “ideas”; there is a very finite number of good, practical ideas). The essence of conservatism is to respect practices, customs, norms, and values that have survived the brutal acid of trial and error. “What is conservatism?” Lincoln asked. “Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?”
Sometimes, the old and tried outlive their utility and new methods take their place. But that usually only happens when enough evidence mounts that a new method is superior, and it takes time and patience to figure that out. Acolytes of Trump’s cult of personality don’t want to hear it, but the worst thing they can do is keep shouting “Let Trump be Trump!” If he’s going to succeed, Trump needs to start acting like a normal president who deals with the reality of politics.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: As I think I’ve mentioned before, the big news — at least according to Zoë — in our neighborhood is that there has been an explosion in the rabbit population. I think this is attributable to two things: a mild winter and the fact that rabbits reproduce like rabbits. They have now established a beachhead on our block. This is a huge problem because there is quite literally nothing Zoë wants to do more than chase, catch, and kill rabbits. And unlike Elmer Fudd, she is very good at it. When it comes to varmint-vengeance, Zoë adheres to Wolverine’s motto: “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do best isn’t very nice.”
Anyway, I have to take Zoë on leash walks in the neighborhood because, unlike the late, great Cosmo or even Pippa, she can’t be trusted not to: chase critters into traffic, dig holes in peoples’ yards in search of critters, avoid fights with other dogs, or come when called at all times. Also, the last thing I need is to pay the therapy bills of our neighbor’s kids (or my own) as they watch Zoë shake to death Mr. Fluffy. Zoë can listen, but when her blood is up, she’s like Wolverine in a berserker rage. It’s a bit different in the park, which she doesn’t consider her territory. So leash walks it is. But now because the foul, oh-so-hoppy scent of bunnies is everywhere, leash walks take an eternity. She has developed a basset-like obsession with olfactory investigation. Pippa doesn’t care so long as I keep kicking or throwing the tennis ball for her. But Zoë gets mightily pissed when Pippa gets to (harmlessly) chase a critter.
As mentioned, I was on Special Report on Wednesday.
The new GLoP podcast is out, with special guest host and all-around monster Sonny Bunch. We discuss my complaints last week about Close Encounters of the Third Kind (even though John Podhoretz didn’t even realize it was inspired by this “news”letter.
And now, the weird stuff.