Put Down the Phone, Mr. President

by Jonah Goldberg
Trump’s tweets distract from his agenda, cause chaos among his staff, and harden attitudes among Democrats and winnable voters.

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 (Let’s just do this thing),

To paraphrase the great man himself, we’re going to live every week like it’s Energy Week.

As I tried to explain on NPR this morning, I think you can look at this week — officially “Energy Week” according to the crackerjack folks working in the White House Communications shop (who I kind of imagine live in a constant state of captive fear of Trump’s Twitter feed, like Craster’s wives).

It began very well for the president (and I said so on Special Report). The Supreme Court backed him up — decisively — on the travel ban. Neil Gorsuch revealed himself to be the conservative star he was sold as. The president had a very good meeting with the prime minister of India. Monday was arguably the best day of Donald Trump’s presidency since his address to Congress.

There were other successes this week too — for the GOP and, by extension, for Trump. The House passed some good stuff. There were actually some solid energy policies unveiled as part of Energy Week. I’m not saying it was the greatest legislative triumph since the Code of Hammurabi was unveiled, but all in all it wasn’t too shabby.

Does it feel like that now?

Mo Mo summed it up well:

Hypocrisy, They Cried

Look, I think Trump’s defenders make some perfectly valid points. Laura Ingraham, for example, rightly notes that all of the people freaking out about Trump’s misogyny were all too happy to drag Bill Clinton’s victims through the mud.

Introducing that hypocrisy alone into the equation brings down the JSS (Justified Sanctimony Scale) at least a whole letter grade — for the Democrats, the mainstream media, and liberals generally.

As for Joe, Mika, and the gang, it’s entirely true that they’ve been mud-wrestling with Trump like he was Dewey Oxburger at the strip club, and now they’re aggrieved by the back-splatter.

The Golem Strikes Back

Far worse, from my perspective, is that they helped get Trump the nomination. I know Joe Scarborough hates this argument and he can point to all sorts of criticisms he made during the primaries. But the simple fact remains that in the early days of the primary season, Morning Joe was one of Trump’s greatest media assets, normalizing his candidacy and the outrageously outsized coverage it got (as I wrote often in early 2016). They came to their senses eventually, and some Trump defenders would argue, with some merit, that they’ve overcompensated in the other direction.

I like Scarborough and I think Trump’s attack on him and (especially) Brzezinski is indefensible coming from a sitting president. But there is a certain air of the frog complaining about the scorpion’s sting in all this. For instance, this morning, Joe and Mika insisted that the Donald Trump we see today isn’t the man they used to know. Maybe. But rarely does a day go by that Joe and Mika don’t also say that a man in his seventies “doesn’t change” his ways. Well, Trump only just turned 71. Did he change a lot in his sixties?

I’ve talked to dozens of people who tell me that in person Trump is charming. So what? So is Al Sharpton.

This reminds me of all the people who say, “If you only knew the Hillary Clinton I know . . . ” As I’ve written before, this is a clever Washington technique for signaling that you get face time with the principal. But it’s also an example of how people can be fooled by a little charm and attention. I’ve talked to dozens of people who tell me that in person Trump is charming. So what? So is Al Sharpton. Some of the most charming people I’ve ever met have been scam artists. Charm and integrity aren’t highly correlated as far as I can tell.

None of this changes the fact that Trump’s tweet is indefensible, particularly once you deny any authority to the schoolyard logic used to justify so much of Trump’s behavior. Every single time Trump does one of these things, the same juvenile horsesh*t gets trotted out: He’s a counter-puncher! He hits back twice as hard! They started it!

And sometimes that’s true. But the answer is the same: So frick’n what? At best, those are explanations. But they don’t even get close to being excuses.

Put Down the Phone, Mr. President

It seems to me Trump’s biggest fans need to come to grips with two really difficult, but obvious, truths.

The first is that the president should walk away from Twitter. A new Fox poll says that 71 percent of Americans think the tweeting hurts his agenda. I’m amazed that number is so low. If you think his tweeting is brilliant and strategic, you’re arguing that it’s all part of his plan to annoy seven out of ten Americans with his tweets.

Now, to be fair, I think the more accurate analysis would be to say that the tweeting hurts more than it helps. Not every one of Trump’s tweets is the political equivalent of taking a sock full of quarters and smashing himself in the crotch, only some are. If he just tweeted within relatively sane and presidential parameters, it would be an asset for him. Feel free to discount my advice, and just listen to Victor Davis Hanson, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, or virtually every Republican member of Congress who understand that Trump’s tweets distract from his agenda, cause chaos among his staff, make it harder for Republicans to embrace him, and harden attitudes among Democrats and winnable voters.

Not every one of Trump’s tweets is the political equivalent of taking a sock full of quarters and smashing himself in the crotch, only some are.

If your response is “It got him elected!” simply take note that most tools lose their utility once they’ve accomplished their task. You need a hammer to build a birdhouse. If you keep hammering after it’s completed, you destroy your birdhouse. Surgeons use a scalpel to operate. If they keep using it too long, they go to jail.

And, if your response is “He needs to go over the heads of the liberal media!” bear in mind that a) the liberal media loves his tweets and b) he’s the president of the United States and has no end of ways to get his message out.

The Tweets Are Just a Symptom

The second thing is the more bitter pill. The president of the United States really just isn’t a very good person. There is no definition of good character that he can meet. You certainly can’t say he’s a man of good character when it comes to sexual behavior. His adulterous past is well-documented. You can’t say he models decency in the way he talks. He’s not honest (you can look it up). He brags about whining his way to winning. He boasts of double-crossing business partners. If you want to say he’s charitable, you should read up on how he used his “charities” as leverage or for publicity stunts. I think we can all agree he’s not humble or self-sacrificing. When asked what sacrifices he’s made, in the context of his spat with the Khan family, he couldn’t name anything save for the fact that he worked very hard to get rich and that he employs people (presumably because it profits him to do so). I don’t know how anyone could absolve him of the charge of vanity or greed. He’s certainly not pious by any conventional definition.

Some argue that he’s loyal, and there’s some evidence of that. But the loyalty he shows is instrumental and self-serving. In The Art of the Deal, there’s a fairly moving passage about Roy Cohn, Trump’s mentor, and loyalty. “The thing that’s most important to me is loyalty,” Trump says. “You can’t hire loyalty. I’ve had people over the years who I swore were loyal to me, and it turned out that they weren’t. Then I’ve had people that I didn’t have the same confidence in and turned out to be extremely loyal. So you never really know.”

He added: “The thing I really look for though, over the longer term, is loyalty.” Trump then said this about Cohn:

He was a truly loyal guy — it was a matter of honor with him — and because he was also very smart, he was a great guy to have on your side. You could count on him to go to bat for you, even if he privately disagreed with your view, and even if defending you wasn’t necessarily the best thing for him. He was never two-faced.

Just compare that with all the hundreds of “respectable” guys who make careers boasting about their uncompromising integrity and have absolutely no loyalty. They think about what’s best for them and don’t think twice about stabbing a friend in the back if the friend becomes a problem. . . . 

Roy was the sort of guy who’d be there at your hospital bed, long after everyone else had bailed out, literally standing by you to the death.

But when Cohn got HIV, Trump severed his ties with Cohn. “Donald found out about it and just dropped him like a hot potato,” Susan Bell, Cohn’s longtime secretary, said. “It was like night and day.”

I could go on. But you get the point. I am truly open to the argument that there’s some morally and intellectually serious definition of good character that Trump meets. I’ve just never heard it. And that’s why the tweets are ultimately just a symptom.

Conservatives for most of my life argued that character matters. That went by the wayside for many people in 2016.

The question now is what conservatives should do about it. I agree with Ramesh and Charlie entirely. Conservatives should condemn the bad behavior. But we shouldn’t fall into the liberal trap of saying that because Trump isn’t a gentleman, we should therefore abandon a conservative agenda. Being ungentlemanly is not an impeachable offense. At the same time, however, we should not follow the path of his worst enablers who insist that his bad behavior is admirable or that the bad behavior of others is a justification for his. That’s Alinsky-envying bunk. “Let the lie come into the world,” Solzhenitsyn said, “let it even triumph. But not through me.”

Reagan, My Reagan

The other night, I participated in a panel on Henry Olsen’s new book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism  (it will be on C-SPAN’s Book TV at some point),. Henry is a brilliant psephologist and, now, a heterodox historian. He basically makes two arguments. Reagan was a “New Deal Republican” who was much more comfortable with an interventionist government than people think today or realized even during his lifetime. As Rich notes today, he makes a very strong and eye-opening case in this regard. More on that in a moment. Henry’s second argument is that the GOP needs to let go of the myth of Reagan the “Reaganite.” By Reaganite, he means the caricature of a libertarian obsessed with cutting taxes to the point where we can just pay for a minimalist state.

I’m very sympathetic to his second argument, and have been writing similar things for a while.

I have two significant objections. The first is with his historical analysis. Again, Henry makes some excellent points on how Reagan was less of a Goldwaterite than Goldwater was. But the idea that Ronald Reagan — who insisted, with some merit, that the New Deal was informed by fascism (and who often took other potshots at it) — was in reality a New Deal Republican just doesn’t convince me. Some of this is definitional, of course. The New Deal was many things and there were many different kinds of “New Deal Republicans.” But even more broadly, the idea that the “Real Reagan” — who lovingly read Hayek and Hazlitt — was a socially conservative social democrat just doesn’t make sense to me. You’d think Bill Buckley or his fans at Cato would have noticed this before Henry’s discovery.

And that brings me to my second objection. Henry wants to argue that what made the Real Reagan successful is what the GOP should follow today. I don’t agree with every policy proposal he has in mind, but, as political advice, he makes a very strong argument. Indeed, he was one of the few prognosticators to understand Trump’s appeal and chances for victory from very early on. But, it seems to me, Henry is making the same mistake of the “Reaganites” only in reverse. Just as the people he calls the High Priests of Reaganism insist that we must follow the exact footsteps of Ronaldus Magnus — Rush Limbaugh’s term — Henry says pretty much the exact same thing. It’s like arguments over What Would Jesus Do? Both agree he (or He) is the key to salvation, they’re just arguing over whose interpretation is more accurate. I don’t think this argument is necessary. Henry’s certainly right that Reagan won over working-class voters and that the GOP could learn a lot from him. But one doesn’t have to buy that Reagan was much more liberal than most historians and contemporaries believe to make that argument.

The truth is Reagan was a fantastic politician and that comes through in Henry’s engaging book. Reagan may or may not have been as libertarian as Goldwater, but that’s not the crucial distinction. He was simply a much, much better politician than Goldwater.

Which brings me to one last point, which might tie all of this together. I told this story on the panel, and I wrote about it at greater length in this 16-year-old G-File, so I’ll give you the short version here. When I was a larval wonk at AEI some 25 years ago, Josh Muravchik gave a talk on neoconservatism. The room was full of Reagan-administration alumni. I asked Josh for a definition of neoconservatism and his reply was uncharacteristically unpersuasive. But in the process of answering, he asserted that Reagan was fundamentally a foreign-policy president, elected to win the Cold War. He simply brought social conservatives and economic conservatives along for the ride as part of his coalition.

Reagan’s genius lay in being able to make everyone feel as if they had ownership in his presidency and his cause.

My friend, the late Michael Novak, one of the great Catholic intellectuals and social conservatives of the 20th century, objected. No, no, he said. Reagan was a social conservative who brought the hawks and the economics guys along for the ride. This was too much for Irwin Stelzer, a brilliant economist and Reagan official. He insisted that Reagan’s was fundamentally a free-market, pro-growth candidacy and presidency and that he brought in the foreign-policy and cultural conservatives with him. It turned into quite an intellectual melee and, much like when Jerry Seinfeld cleared out the restaurant by bringing up abortion, I’m proud to say I started it.

The point here is that Reagan was a brilliant politician with some core convictions about all of these schools of thought. His genius lay in being able to make everyone feel as if they had ownership in his presidency and his cause. I am convinced Reagan was an ideological conservative, but what made him a successful president had more to do with those traits and abilities. It also had to do with his character. He made people proud to fight in his ranks and eager to defend him on the merits.

And so, while I think we spend too much time trying to reincarnate Reagan the ideologue, we really need to reincarnate Reagan the politician.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Well, it was an eventful week with the beasts, as you would know if you’d been following my Twitter feed. The Fair Jessica was in Alaska much of last week (and “Aunt Kirsten” the Dogwalker was on vacation), which meant that not only did I eat most of my meals over the sink, but I was also on solo dog duty for days on end. A good time was had by all, even though I lost count of how many times I had the give the beasties a bath. Yesterday, Kirsten returned, and to celebrate, Zoë rolled in a fresh pile of green goose poop.

But I’m going to spare you the rest for three reasons: 1) I’m running very late, 2) The Fair Jessica must head back to Alaska this weekend for more family obligations, so those interested in canine exploits can check out my Twitter feed over the weekend, and 3) I wanted to give you an ursine update my wife relayed to me.

My niece, Cali, works at a resort outside of Fairbanks. She manages the horses and sled dogs. At the end of the day she was walking in the parking lot when she heard a commotion. A very large black bear was trying to get inside an RV occupied by some terrified tourists. The bear, no doubt an avid reader of the Far Side, mistook the rented RV to for an igloo. (“Crunchy on the outside, and chewy center.”) As he was unwrapping his present, my niece calmly walked up, pulled out her sidearm, and sent the beast on its way, to the great relief of the tourists. Normally, it is a big deal to shoot a bear out of season or without a license, but these were obviously special circumstances. And here’s a fun fact I learned: In Alaska, if you kill a black bear, you are required by law to salvage the meat. To which, I say, “Yuck.” Meanwhile, Grizzlies, much like the food at the Fort Lauderdale Airport Chili’s, are inedible.

The new e-mail format. As loyal readers of this “news”letter may have noticed, we have changed the format of the G-File. You now click on a link in the e-mail to see the whole thing. Very few of you seem to like it, and I can’t say I am a fan. But the suits think it is necessary. We are in the midst of a continuing conversation about it and I hope we can find some compromise. In the meantime, as the intern said to Bill Clinton, please don’t hold it against me.

ICYMI . . . 

Last Week’s G-File

Why Argue That ‘Collusion with Russia’ Isn’t a Crime?

My appearance on Special Report discussing the Supreme Court’s travel-ban ruling

GLoP Culture podcast #76: “Fake GLoP (a particularly enjoyable one, I think)

How the Logic of Tribalism Is Driving the Health-Care Debate

A panel on Reagan’s legacy, in which I participated

The Left Espouses Dangerously Stupid Health-Care Rhetoric

Reagan on Abortion

Nancy MacLean’s Ideologically Motivated Shortcuts

The AP Fact-Checks Senator Roberts over Porcupine Lovemaking

GE’s Attempt to Champion Progressivism Is Creepy and Condescending

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday Links

It might soon be legal to challenge someone to a duel in Canada

The persistence of Prog Rock

Basset hound morning stretch

What it’s like to live with Multiple-Personality Disorder

Giant snail feasts on earthworm

The Brautigan Library

Why is the speed of light so slow?

AI transforms photographs as if they had been printed by different artists

How humans are shaping our own evolution

The universe visualized in one gif

This worm grew a second head after a trip to space

Pizza acrobatics is the sport you have been waiting for

A supercomputer has created the largest virtual universe ever made

Can you stop a sneeze?

How to avoid ticks

Dog crashes orchestra concert

What it looks like to travel at the speed of light

NASA denies that it’s running a child-slave colony on Mars

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg