By Jonah Goldberg
Saturday, May 27, 2017
Greetings from the Magic Pan at Ronald Reagan National Airport. When I say “Magic Pan,” I do not mean one of the lesser deities in the Celestial Kingdom of the Orb (That’s not even the right translation for that deity, which would be closer to “Thaumaturgical Skillet of Woe and Uncomfortable Urination of Lava”) — I’m at the “Magic Pan Crepe Station” at the airport. I can report that the crepes meet nearly all of the minimal requirements to make them fit for human consumption.
I’m not at the airport just because I like to pay as much as possible for small bags of beef jerky. I’m shipping up to Boston, or wherever Radcliffe College is, for something called Radcliffe Day, where I’ll be on a panel saying panel-y things.
So, I should warn you Up Front, if that’s your real name, or even if you’re not a member of the Front family, that today’s “news”letter is going to be a little different. As Bill Clinton likes to say when over international waters, “it’s going to get a little weird.”
That’s because I’ve been writing this thing piecemeal over the last 24 hours while doing 37.3 other things and not getting much sleep (I’m on the plane now, btw). Also, because I keep licking that Australian toad. Also, because I am now in the thrall of the Orb. No, it’s not my golden calf — which always gets weird looks when I wear shorts. (“Hey, why is the lower half of one of your legs gold color?”) It’s because I can’t stop making jokes about how the Orb is my master now. I think Orb worship is a perfect meme-fad-faith for our craptacular new age. For instance, you know that old thing about how God backwards is “Dog”?
Well, hie thee to the Ye Olde Photoshoppery and make me one of these: “The Orb Couldn’t Physically Be with Us, So He Gave Us Bros to Remind Us What a Stupid Time It Is to Be Alive. And Notice Orb Spelled Backwards Is Bro Because LOL Nothing Matters and SMOD Let Us Down.”
Here’s an example: The assault on Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs in Montana was just about the perfect episode for the Bro Age. It could be in the Orbian Bible as the Book of Bro.
According to the Old God of the Jewish and Christian Faith, what GOP candidate Greg Gianforte did the night before the special election was inexcusable. Okay, technically, the Judaism 1.0 of my forebears with all the Smiting and Wrath, might have made some allowances for it. But as a matter of traditional ethics and morality, what he did was, again, inexcusable. But in the Bro Age, when one of your Bros does something wrong and oh-so-Broey — particularly if there’s proof that it happened so you can’t blame it on anonymous sources — the first thing you must do is defend your Bro’s actions. After Gianforte’s body slam, Twitter was full of people, even those of the blue checkmark variety, talking about how the Jacobs guy deserved it. I even caught Rob O’Neill on Fox saying that Jacobs was a “snowflake” and that the assault was “kinda funny” and that this was just “Montana Justice.”
Obviously, I have enormous respect for O’Neill’s accomplishments (he was the guy who plugged Osama bin Laden, which earns him a lifetime coupon for free drinks as far as I’m concerned), but this is repugnant and stupid and insulting to Montanans. If O’Neill were still in uniform and had done what Gianforte did, his career would have been destroyed and he’d likely be in a stockade. Oh, and it was Gianforte who literally freaked out in a fight-or-flight panic when asked a question about a frick’n CBO score! But Ben Jacobs is the snowflake?
Moreover, if a Democratic politician attacked, say, Jesse Watters (who routinely asks far more provocative questions than Jacobs did) never mind a serious reporter like James Rosen, the conservative media complex would be lit red with sirens and we’d all be covering our ears from the din of the “Aroogah! Aroogah! Battle Stations! Battle Stations!” blasting from the loudspeakers.
But no, for an entire day, countless people defended the assault because they didn’t like Jacobs, or they wanted to win an open House seat, or they wanted to play yet another round of whatabboutism, or help Donald Trump in some way or — in the case of the alt-right — because any attack on a Jew is defined as a good start.
So, let me ask the people who spent the day defending Gianforte: How do you feel now that he won? Is it all you hoped it would be? Oh, and how did you feel when he apologized? Did you regret all that Montana justice and he-had-it-coming talk? I mean, you probably didn’t really believe that stuff anyway. You just let people believe you did because the cause was so important. Or maybe you’re mad that Gianforte apologized after spending all that time arguing he did nothing wrong? Probably not — because one of the Orb’s first commandments is “Thou Shalt Not Care about Anyone’s Hypocrisy but the Enemy’s.”
So, congrats! You held a seat in Montana (which you were going to win anyway). I guess you can take some credit for somehow helping Trump avoid a marginally bad one-day story (though the “Trump encourages atmosphere of violence” story is worse). What did you have to give up? Just any claim to the moral high ground and any credibility when it comes to condemning political violence down the line.
That’s okay, because in the Bro Age, all of the creativity is in how to leap over, skate around, or dive under objective standards of right and wrong. “Hold my beer while I abandon my principles . . . (Orb willing).”
So, now I’m in the car from Boston’s Logan Airport out to Radcliffe (no I’m not driving). Radcliffe, as you may know, is a former all-women’s college and I have a warm spot in my heart for such institutions because I attended one. I went to Goucher College — my freshman year was the first fully co-ed class. There were 30-odd men (and I do mean odd men) and over a thousand women.
The reasons I went to an all-women’s college have less to do with the late-night Cinemax scenarios most men leap to when I mention these stats (“Dear Penthouse, I never thought I’d be writing a letter like this . . . ) and more to do with the fact that I was rejected from every other college I applied to.
This used to be a mid-sized chip on my shoulder. I’m the first to admit that I was your classic underachiever at my (fairly ridiculous) high school (Fellow alums: Vin Diesel, Paris Hilton, and, I just learned, Walter Lippmann!). I did just enough to avoid getting kicked out for one reason or another (“I swear, that goat isn’t mine!”). Sure, I got my share of good grades when the subject or the teacher interested me, but in the great battle for my attention comic books, TV, sci-fi, video games, girls, and, eventually, beer were like Seal Team Six fighting the support staff of the House Subcommittee on Low-Flow Toilets in a gladiatorial battle to the death for the amusement of the Orb’s Triskelion in-laws (“10,000 Quatloos that the one with the asthma inhaler cries before death!”).
One of my yearbook quotes was from Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good”: They say I’m lazy, but it takes all my time.
Now, Homo underachievus has many subspecies and phyla. Not everyone sets out to do the bare minimum for the same reasons or the same way. Yes, I cannot deny that I was a member of the great and glorious cult of Sloth (Standard Chant: “Hail Sloth, Hail Sloth, Hai . . . Oh look, Knight Rider is on!”). But laziness is just one of the requirements of the truly accomplished underachiever.
Fear is another one, specifically fear of trying your best and coming up short. This is the dilemma of being told that you have great potential. I always tested fairly well. I always liked to write. I always liked to read. I was a good talker.
And I had very smart parents who talked knowledgably about politics and current events. My dad in particular was a walking university, as far as I was concerned. And one of his only hobbies was going on long walks with his boys and talking about history and philosophy and, of course, why Communism is Very Bad.
(My dad’s humor was so dry, cacti would whither on its landscape during the “rainy season.” For example, when I was no older than six or seven, he told me he liked to carry bombs on planes. He explained that since the odds of one bomb being on a plane were very high, the odds of two bombs being on the same plane were so astronomically high as to make it impossible for a bad person to bring one on the plane. Whether you think it’s funny or not — I do — it’s the kind of thing that gets a little kid thinking. He had a kind of Socratic gift that way. He liked to tell me that if humans ever got to Mars, it was far more likely we’d find a functioning pocket watch there than alien life, since pocket watches are far less complicated than living organisms. He was wrong on the science, which he knew, but again it was a good way to get a seven-year-old to think outside the box. And it amused him greatly to say weird stuff like that to me and my brother, perhaps because he couldn’t say it to anyone else.)
The Underachiever in Chief
Anyway, where was I? Oh right, underachievers. So, I had a reputation for being smart — not a genius, but certainly much smarter than my school “work” suggested. The problem with such reputations is that the only thing that can destroy them is actually trying your hardest and coming up short.
So you create excuses. You write your English assignments on the bus ride to school (a skillset that has come in handy for this “news”letter more than once). If you do poorly, well, what did you expect? You didn’t really try. If you do well, “Hey just imagine how much better it would have been if I gave it my best!”
I bring all this up for a few reasons, starting with the fact that nostalgia is as good a muse as any. Also Radcliffe sent me down this odd mental trail and this “news”letter has always been a kind of Ouija Board: Start chasing letters and see what comes out.
But also because I’ve long thought that my underachieving youth gave me a particular insight into Donald Trump.
Bear with me. Of course, it’s insane to call President Trump an underachiever, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But in the primaries, whenever Trump talked about winning states he “didn’t even try” to win, or when he said he could learn whatever he needed to learn once he was in the White House; or when he bragged about winging it in debates, it was a kind of Nightingale’s song of the underachiever, triggering memories and mental habits I’ve struggled to put away (save in this “news”letter).
Donald Trump works hard, or so I’m constantly told. But there are many kinds of “working hard.” Staying busy and active is a kind of hard work, and by all accounts Donald Trump does that. But he also seems to have taken the habits of the underachiever — relying on your wits in the moment, counting on the fact that you’re better on the fly than the well-prepared are if you can manage to knock them off balance or in some other way Kobiashyi Maru the crap out of the situation. In every profile of Trump, much is made of his need to dominate the room or the conversation to his advantage. Even his handshakes are about dominance.
You can see how this skill would be an asset in sales and real estate — and in Republican primaries. Winning the soundbite, dominating the stage, grabbing all the attention: This, it turns out, is gold.
But you can also see why such skills would or could steer you wrong in situations where there is no substitute for doing your homework.
Now that I’m in a van outside the Cambridge Marriot waiting to be joined by E. J. Dionne, Al Hunt, and Judy Woodruff so we can drive to breakfast (no, I’m not making that up), let me switch gears . . .
Actually, now that I am sitting outside Logan Airport five hours later, let me switch gears.
I’ve been writing about Chesterton’s fence for years. For those of you who don’t remember because they lost most of their memory after waking up in that dumpster handcuffed to a horse’s severed leg (or for some other reason), here’s the relevant passage:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
I reference Chesterton’s fence all the time, usually in the context of progressives who are imbued with the fierce arrogance of now. They have special contempt for tradition, custom, etc.
And that is basically the context Chesterton had in mind. But I think there’s a lesson here for Trump as well. Trump’s glandular approach to every situation is a kind of lizard-brain version of progressivism. Tell Trump he can’t do or say something and he almost instinctively does it or says it. It’s like there’s a homunculus in there screaming, “You’re not the boss of me!” 24/7. His fans love this blunderbuss approach. And whenever you criticize it, the immediate response is some version of “It got him elected!”
And it’s true: Trump has been an improviser in the grand tradition of underachievers his whole life. His entire, spectacular, run to the White House was like a running spontaneous jazz performance. And he hasn’t stopped improvising. The problem is that the White House and Washington in general are a vast maze of what might be called Chesterton’s Invisi-Fences. Unlike the original Chesterton fence, these fences cannot be seen, but they exist all the same. Some of them, of course, should probably be gotten rid of — but, again, you have to know why they’re there before you try.
Trump simply didn’t know, or at least he didn’t fully understand, that you’re not supposed to fire the FBI director to thwart an investigation into your activities or the activities of your campaign. And, even if he did know that, Trump didn’t know that you’re not supposed to admit it.
I have no problem with the president firing Jim Comey. I have no objection, in principle, to Trump declassifying information. I loved his counterprograming to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But the way Trump does these things and so many others is counterproductive precisely because he doesn’t know how to do them to his advantage — and that’s because he doesn’t know where the lines are. The Invisi-Fences are like the security lasers in some ridiculous heist movie. Every time Trump crosses one, he gets cut and bleeds a little more political capital, in part because his missteps undercut his image as a mastermind who thinks six steps ahead.
Liberals are still convinced Trump is some kind of autocrat-in-waiting. And he may well be in his heart. But the would-be autocrats who actually become real-life autocrats only achieve success because they are popular and know how to manipulate the system from within — and because they did their homework. That’s not Trump. Yes, he’s violating democratic and political norms, but he’s not doing it according to some master plan like an Erdogan or a Putin, he’s doing it more like a weird hybrid of Mr. Magoo and Chauncey Gardiner.
It may not sound like it, but this is actually a powerful defense of Trump against his harshest critics. I listened to Chris Matthews last night and he was giddy to the point of orgasmic about the Jared Kushner story. He so desperately wants the Trump-Russia stuff to be like Watergate, where the dots get connected to reveal some grand intricate pattern of well-conceived skullduggery and treason.
But the Trump presidency is in reality turning out to be much more like the story arc of Battlestar Galactica. It began with a lot of talk about how the Cylons had some grand plan to achieve interstellar domination. But as the seasons ticked by and the plot became more convoluted, it turned out the writers never had a plan and they were winging it all along.