Authentic Asininity

by Jonah Goldberg
The idea that authenticity is its own reward is contrary to vast swathes of conservative thought.

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 (and the cast of the Gorilla Channel, who get this “news”letter via sign language. Banana.),

As the sh**hole continues to hit the fan, I find myself in one of those moods where I think everyone, on the right and left, is arguing about the wrong things. Lest folks think I’m dodging the issues that they all seem desperate to debate, I’ll address a bunch of them before I make my case.

Let’s start with the question of Donald Trump’s racism. I find the competition to be most offended by the offensiveness of President Trump’s fecal-crater comments to be more than a little tedious.

Don’t get me wrong: I think they were offensive and, yes, racist. But that, to me, is the least interesting aspect of this episode of The Trump Show. Many liberals seem to think that if they can just prove Donald Trump is racist, The Trump Show will be cancelled. But it doesn’t work that way, not least because — all evidence to the contrary — we are not living in a reality-TV universe. Also, Trump’s bridge-and-tunnel–style bigotry, utterly familiar to anyone who grew up in New York City, has been obvious for a long time.

No, he’s not a Klansman. The pillowcases at Mar-a-Lago don’t have eyeholes cut out of them. But Trump is a man of deeply held prejudices, a glandular decision-maker who famously thinks his instincts are more dispositive than any expert’s judgment or any rational argument. His bigotry isn’t the biological racism of Woodrow Wilson, but of a midtown-Manhattan doorman from Queens who gives the Nigerian deliveryman a harder time than he deserves.

Vox Deplorable

Then there’s the conservative response, or rather responses. For the Trump faithful, this incident is just more proof that Trump tells it like it is and that he isn’t politically correct. The real outrage to them — per usual — is the hypocrisy of people who are outraged. Thus the waves of whataboutist fury crashing every few minutes on Twitter.

In some cases, the “real story” is that Trump’s critics are unpatriotic:

And, of course, What about Hillary!?

The “What About Biden” talking point is lamer than a three-legged horse. I agree that Biden got ridiculously favorable press coverage because many reporters saw him as the wacky, lovable uncle who forgets to take off his pajamas and shouts crazy stuff into the turkey hole at Thanksgiving dinner. But Biden’s F-bomb got enormous press coverage. It was also decried by legions of conservatives, many of whom have suddenly changed their views of profanity. Is the argument really that Joe frickn’ Biden gets to define acceptable language now? Lastly, Biden wasn’t disparaging anyone. Saying something is a “big f***ing deal” and insulting millions of people are different things, even if both involve profanity.

Then there’s the old standby that this is just Trump being Trump, and we must all respect the fact that he’s the authentic oracle of his people. Here’s Jesse Watters last night on The Five:

“This is how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar,” Watters told his co-hosts.

“If you’re at a bar, and you’re in Wisconsin, and you think they’re bringing in a bunch of Haiti people, or El Salvadorians, or people from Niger, this is how some people talk,” he said.

“Is it graceful? No,” he added. “Is it polite or delicate? Absolutely not. Is it a little offensive? Of course it is. But you know what? This doesn’t move the needle at all.”

“This is who Trump is . . . and if he offends some people, fine,” Watters concluded.

I think this is largely true. It’s also a pathetic defense. Donald Trump isn’t the president of “forgotten” white men in bars. He’s the president of the United States of America. Which means he’s the president of Haitian Americans and Nigerian Americans and, well, African Americans. Saying we should deport a blanket category of Americans because they came from the wrong countries is grotesquely simplistic. (He’s also in charge of conducting foreign policy, and there is no way to spin this as anything but a colossal act of unforced dick-stepping.)

This argument sets a profoundly pernicious precedent. The idea that anything the president says can be justified by simply asserting that he’s speaking in the authentic voice of his base is an argument no conservative would dream of making under an Elizabeth Warren presidency. Lending credence to it is not only politically myopic, but it lends support to the centrifugal forces tearing this country apart. It is the type of thinking I associate with “sh**hole” countries — to borrow a phrase. In many third-world countries, tribes and other factions vie to gain power and then reward only their team. That is contrary to virtually everything good and noble about our constitutional system.

Authentic Asininity

This defense is of a piece with the putrid moral relativism coursing through conservatism these days. The other day, Jerry Falwell, the Bishop of Hereford of the Trump administration, tweeted:

I could write a whole “news”letter on the problems with this effort to define deviancy down. Too much can be invested in the idea of “presidentialness.” But a normal, traditional, conservative understanding of the term involves being well-mannered, temperate, decent, and mindful of the dignity of the office. It is, in short, an ideal of leadership and good character (as Jim Geraghty discusses well today). Falwell, in a riot of sycophantic sophistry, not only wants to argue that whatever a president does is presidential but also seeks to elevate the idea that authenticity is its own reward. This is contrary to vast swathes of conservative and Christian thought. A person can be authentically evil, crude, bigoted, or asinine. That is not a defense of any of those things. I’m no expert, but my understanding of Christianity is that behavior is supposed to be informed by more than one’s “authentic” feelings and instincts. Satan is nothing if not authentic.

As I write at length in my forthcoming book, this society-wide romantic obsession with authenticity — not just among Trump supporters, but across the left and much of the right — is a deeply corrupting force. But let’s stay on topic.

The White House’s initial statement — which didn’t deny the sh**hole report — says in part, “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people.” Put aside the blasé and unsubstantiated insinuation of unpatriotic motives to critics and the political class generally. The upshot of this claim is that calling scores of nations — many of which are our allies — “sh**holes” is really a form of fighting for the American people. If that were true, virtually any crude insult would be just another example of “presidential” heroism. Count me out of that idiotic argument.

Distinctions Matter

Finally, some serious conservatives have tried to make the case that there’s a legitimate argument behind the great “sh**holes versus Norway” distinction. My friend and colleague Rich Lowry made a manful effort in this regard Thursday night. He conceded that the remark was offensive and ill-advised, but quickly pivoted to the fact that the “freak out” over this incident betrays a refusal to deal with the realities of the world in general and immigration generally. We should be able to distinguish sh**holes from shinolaholes, as it were.

On the merits, I think Rich largely came out the winner, though I have my disagreements. For instance, I think there’s much to recommend a skills-based system of immigration. But a skills-based system wouldn’t bar all Africans or Haitians from immigrating to America. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear that the president doesn’t think “skills-based” isn’t a euphemism for “white people.” Donald Trump is worried that Nigerian immigrants won’t “go back to their huts.” Maybe that’s because Nigerian immigrants are better educated than the average American.

But yes, I would rather live in Norway than Haiti. Yes, some African countries are, as Rich says, “basket-cases.” And yes, Ben Shapiro is right when he says:

The problem with being forced to make these arguments in defense of Trump is the risk of having people think that, when you pull off the mask of intelligent conservatism, all that lies underneath is the face of Trumpism. Trump is unaware of the sophisticated arguments for many of his positions. Why so many conservatives feel compelled to say “What he really means is X” is often unfathomable to me.

The Real Issue(s)

If anyone is still with me, let me now turn to what I think is the real significance of all this. It’s not immigration or racism or profanity; it’s Donald Trump and what he is doing to the country and his party.

Remember how this week unfolded. A few days ago, in the wake of the Michael Wolff book, there was an at times hysterical national debate over whether Trump was mentally unfit for office. Then Trump held a meeting on camera for 52 minutes, in which he managed to remember everyone’s name (thank you, nameplates!). He was sociable, polite, and rational. The fact that many are arguing that being able to demonstrate these qualities for just shy of an hour constitutes a brilliant political masterstroke is one of the great examples in modern memory of lowering the bar to just off the ground.

But while the optics of the meeting were good, the substance was little better than a train wreck. The president revealed that he understands remarkably little about the signature issue of his campaign (listen to The Editors’ latest podcast for the best dissection of this whole Very Special Episode of The Trump Show). In the meeting, Trump said things that had Ann Coulter figuratively punting her cat across the room.

That’s all ancient history in our hyper-accelerated news cycle, but the important point isn’t that Trump proved his mental competency; it’s that he proved, once again, that he lives solely in the moment. The arrow of his compass doesn’t point to true north, but at him.

Guys at the bar in Wisconsin may — or may not — love the way he talks. But most Americans don’t. His biggest fans may think he’s a Sun Tzu–reading chess master, but, for a majority of Americans, he’s a pilot who talks a big game but doesn’t really know how to fly. He’s winging it.

Indeed, the furor over the meeting — and now the shadow of the sh**hole — eclipsed another perfect example of Trump’s free-floating conception of his interests. His administration has been working for months to get the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) renewed. But all it took was a libertarian stem-winder by Judge Andrew Napolitano on Fox and Friends to have the president flip positions on the issue. For 90 minutes, the White House and Congress were thrown into chaos because of a tweet belched out from the contextless void of presidential “executive time.”

I have no desire to try to persuade the Resistance types about anything. And I am under no illusions that anything I can say will persuade the Trump cheerleaders. But, when it comes to the broad cross-section of reasonable conservatives, I still feel compelled to act like Chief Brody in Jaws 2, yelling at the town council that we have a shark problem.

For 90 minutes, the White House and Congress were thrown into chaos because of a tweet belched out from the contextless void of presidential ‘executive time.’

Every day, I hear people on Fox or Fox Business arguing that economic growth will compensate for the tweeting and all the other drama. There’s zero evidence for this in the polls. Trump gets a lot of credit for the economy, and confidence in the economy itself is very high. The latest Quinnipiac poll has 66 percent of the country feeling that the economy is “good or excellent.” It also shows that 66 percent of the country believes that Trump has damaged America’s reputation around the world (this was before the sh**hole comment). It also finds:

67 percent disapprove of Trump

75 percent say he does not share their values

81 percent feel Trump isn’t level-headed

72 percent believe he isn’t honest

69 percent say Trump doesn’t care about average Americans

Republicans have bet that James Carville was right and that the logic of “it’s the economy, stupid” will vanquish all obstacles. But this has never been an Iron Law of Politics. Not long ago, conservatives understood this. We used to mock the weak-tea Marxism of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” arguments that held economic interests were the only valid reason to support a party or politician. Now, economic determinism is the story Republicans tell themselves as they white-knuckle it through the night.

It’s certainly possible that 4 or 5 percent economic growth will rally more support. But every time we have one of these moments — when parents have to turn off the news because they don’t want their kids to hear what the president said or did — it makes economic growth matter less. As I’ve been saying for over a year, the real base or key constituency of the Republican party is suburban, college-educated families. They surely like lower taxes and economic growth. But they also like being able to say they support a Republican president without being embarrassed. As we saw in Alabama, all that is required for Democrats to win is for those people not to show up — and that was in Alabama.

Of course, this is unbridled speculation, but I would wager that the sh**hole controversy alone is worth about $171 billion in GDP growth. That’s 1 percent of GDP. What I mean is, every time we have one of these crazy episodes, the need for more economic growth to compensate increases.

Every time we have one of these crazy episodes, the need for more economic growth to compensate increases.

But forget about 2018 or even 2020. The long-term threat to conservatism and, by extension, the GOP is profound. Young people — the largest voting bloc now — are utterly turned off to the Republican party. That doesn’t make them right, but that’s irrelevant. Their opinions are hardening every single day, even as old white people shuttle off this mortal coil.

Maybe there’s a deep and principled argument to make in favor of Trump’s sh**holish gaffes. But very few people outside the ranks of the converted want to hear it. All they hear are defenses of, or deflections from, the issues that arouse their passion. When conservatives and Republicans rush to defend Trump’s indefensible actions, all they are doing is convincing more people that “Trumpism” isn’t confined to Trump. That damage won’t be erased by another record stock-market closing or an uptick in the GDP numbers. It will outlive The Trump Show for generations.

Various & Sundry

I recorded two episodes of The Remnant this week. The first was with Michael Rubin, an intensely informed expert on Iran and the Middle East. The conversation was less jocular than usual, but I thought it was amazingly informative and compelling. The second episode was a free-ranging conversation with Charles Murray about everything under the sun from Martinis and, yes, bullfighting, to the sources of true human happiness. If you haven’t listened, please give it a shot. I thought it was great. And if you do listen but haven’t subscribed, please do so.

Canine Update: The beasts are doing great. While Pippa still has a few scabs from the big fight, she’s forgotten the whole thing (I think). The exciting news is that we finally bought a dog car — a 13-year-old Honda Element. So now we can return to leashless adventures in the mornings. Indeed, I got to take them on a special lunchtime trip today. They’re coping with unseasonably warm weather, proving the need for a dog car. Meanwhile, here’s proof that Zoë puts her work obligations ahead of her comfort.

Last week’s G-File

I started off this crazy week with a hit on NPR’s Morning Edition.

I don’t like Steve Bannon, but I also don’t like Soviet-esque ritual denunciations.

I also don’t like the way Net Neutrality activists are treating Ajit Pai.

The latest Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast

Steve Bannon’s rise and fall

Fire and Fury, signifying nothing

The DACA ruling and our desiccated constitutional system

This week’s first Remnant, exploring the Middle East and Islam with Michael Rubin

This week’s second Remnant, exploring genes, gin, and government with Charles Murray

Why have we let actors become our moral guides?

Dick Durbin’s Dim ‘History’ Lesson

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Man eats tacos for an entire year

Stray dog welcomed into Alaska family

Michigan pizzeria will deliver pizza and plow your driveway

Camera that recorded its own disappearance returned to owner

Cold weather in D.C.

An ice-age flute that can play the “Star-Spangled Banner”

Using a potato as an instrument

How Star Wars used Skellig Michael

Writers on writing

Testing a 427-year-old mousetrap

Australian birds hunt prey with fire

The birds with black-hole feathers

Very not dumb guy has very not dumb way of lighting a lightbulb

Why some people curse in their sleep

Finding Air Bud’s grave

The CIA, a king, and an actress walked into a bar . . . 

How alligators survive icy conditions

Why dolphins are deep thinkers

Traumatic personality changes . . . from bad to good

Squirrel snow plow

It’ll have to do until we get the Gorilla Channel: Mountain gorillas at home, in pictures

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg