The politics of civility

Hours after her swearing-in as the new representative of Michigan’s 13th congressional district, Rashida Tlaib said the following to a crowd at a MoveOn event:

And when you’re son looks at you and says ‘mama, look you won, bullies don’t win.’ And I say ‘baby, they don’t’ because we’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.”

No sooner had these remarks gone viral that the Beltway pundit class’ brains oozed into their smoothies.  Continue reading

In praise of demerits: Ross Douthat

In today’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat pecked characters on a keyboard that after hours of cogitation first turned into sentences then cohered into paragraphs. Someone called it “Why We Miss the WASPs.” Let’s look at it together.

The nostalgia flowing since the passing of George H.W. Bush has many wellsprings: admiration for the World War II generation and its dying breed of warrior-politicians, the usual belated media affection for moderate Republicans, the contrast between the elder Bush’s foreign policy successes and the failures of his son, and the contrast between any honorable politician and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The only people from whom nostalgia is flowing are the permanent occupiers of seats in cable talk show green rooms. The rest of us wondered why the hell a war with Iraq over Kuwait mattered and loathed George Bush’s AIDS policy, a generous word for an irritated improvisation. 

Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

Ah, the nut graf. We live in an America increasingly dominated by minorities and one of Douthat’s paladin acquaintances implicitly admits he wishes it ain’t so.

Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.”

“What IS it about social media, the Freedom of Information Act, and Afghanistan and Iraq that makes these brown people so pushy?”

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

“We in Washington hate you.”

However, one of the lessons of the age of meritocracy is that building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms. You can get rid of the social registers and let women into your secret societies and privilege SATs over recommendations from the rector of Justin and the headmaster of Saint Grottlesex … and you still end up with something that is clearly a self-replicating upper class, a powerful elite, filling your schools and running your public institutions.

In the previous paragraph, he quotes Foer on Henry Adams, whom I suspect Foer has read and Douthat has not; in this one, he alludes to the late minor novelist Louis Auchincloss, who spent a half century painstakingly writing about the incestuous stupidity of the WASP culture revered by Douthat. At any rate, his insight: put women, blacks, gays, and your Mexican housekeeper in Andover and they might be as nearsighted as the Bushes.

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.” At the same time it would have retained both its historic religious faith (instead of exchanging Protestant rigor for a post-Christian Social Gospel and a soft pantheism) and its more self-denying culture (instead of letting all that wash away in the flood of boomer-era emotivism).

Something something hippies, something something unwashed atheists, mmm delicious word stew.

It’s de rigueur for liberals to lament the decline of the Rockefeller Republicans, or the compromises that a moderate northeastern WASP like George H.W. Bush made with Sunbelt populism.

De rigeur yourself, pal.

But a WASP establishment that couldn’t muster the self-confidence to hold on to Yale and Harvard was never likely to maintain its hold on a mass political organization like the G.O.P. Whereas an establishment that still believed in its mission within its own ivied bastions might have been seen as more politically imposing in the wider world — instead of seeing its last paladin, a war hero and statesman in a grand American tradition, dismissed in the boomer era as a “wimp.”

Cogitation, words, sentences, paragraphs.

The point of this counterfactual is not to just join the nostalgic chorus around Bush’s departure for the Great Kennebunkport in the Skies. Rather it’s to look forward, and to suggest that our current elite might someday be reformed — or simply replaced — through the imitation of the old establishment’s more pious and aristocratic spirit.

Imitating a pious and aristocratic spirit that hid essential truths from the American public and ruled as if, to cite a forgotten WASP scion, “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law.”

An excerpt from a boring defense of meritocracy follows. I can quote too, from P.G. Wodehouse’s The Imitable Jeeves: “You must meet old Rowbotham, Bertie. A delightful chap. Wants to massacre the bourgeoisie, sack Park Lane and disembowel the hereditary aristocracy. Well, nothing could be fairer than that, what?”

Axios: make people dumber faster

A few weeks ago I shared with students a couple of journal articles published in the 1980s lamenting the damage that USA Today would cause to journalism. Its sharp cheerful primary colors, reliance on graphics, and avoidance of long articles represented a bowdlerization of news — a rebuke to the intelligence of readers, according to these Serious Men. Continue reading

2018’s first worst political clichés

The ending of a political cycle doesn’t mean that reporters and pundits have retired the old clothes they’ve worn for two years and longer. At the cost of my health I exposed myself to four hours straight of cable news television because I’m compulsive about blogging as MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki is about correctly pronouncing county names.

Here are five of the worst political clichés this season:

1. Soccer moms

2. “Alienating women.” Because women get alienated. Men get…angry?

3. “Not appealing to the middle.” Voters’ positions are a sour mishmash because unlike politicians they can’t pay the rent and for a focus group out of one check.

4. “Race to the bottom”

5. The quiet mourning of pundits, mostly white, for the death of the rural white Democratic voter. White voters will not leave Trump, and we should stop hoping so because they’re racists and our coalition doesn’t need them. Plus, they’re old and will die of emphysema and eating processed cheese. Fuck’em. I mean, why on earth would you want them leaving Trump? You think the separation will stop their racism? Many those racists voted for Obama. They were still racists.

Joe Biden as nominee: a terrible f—— deal

“Morning” Joe and partner “Mika” Brzezinski is have evolved since the days when their MSNBC morning show turned into a Donald J. Trump telecenter in 2015-2016. They acknowledge the impacts of gerrymandering and James Comey’s FBI announcement on the 2016 election; they accept that the new Democratic coalition comprises women and people of color; they pay lip service to the environment; Scarborough gels his hair, keeps the sides shaved, and wears the occasionally chic sweater. Willie Geist, who looks like Michael Shannon playing Jason Isbell, has a quiet, mordant wit. Continue reading

The legacy of Charles Krauthammer

Wrong about Barack Obama. Wrong about “identity politics.” Wrong, most infamously and disgustingly, about Iraq. Men and women are dead because of Charles Krauthammer’s columns. They’re dead because Very Serious People in the Bush II White House read his bellicose columns in the aftermath of 9-11 and felt an ideological kinship. When Iraq was collapsing after the so-called “cakewalk” of the administration’s direst masturbatory fantasies, he offered a moist towel and balm in The Washington Post. Continue reading

The myth of centrism, part XC

Americans who spend too much time watching MSNBC, particularly “Morning” Joe Scarborough and “Mika” Brzezinski’s pre-dawn chattering of well-connected sparrows, will recognize the signs of the ptomaine poisoning known as mythicalcenteritis. Its guests like to mourn the collapse of a time when over Merlot and Marlboros Barack Obama and John Boehner considered cuts to social services, Newt Gingrich found common ground with fellow southerner Bill Clinton, Ron ‘n’ Tip had drinks after work, and Richard Nixon got a woody staring at Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Cabinet Room.

Well, bullshit. “He may be ready to surrender, but I’m not,” Reagan snarled in a fifth-rate Dirty Harry impersonation not long before ordering the withdrawal from Lebanon that O’Neill had suggested. We know what happened between Ginbrich and Clinton, and we’re lucky Obama, recovering most of his senses, reneged on the debt deal with Boehner. What vestiges of centrism existed during the Cold War’s bipartisan consensus on fighting Communism. Pick up any FDR biography to read what the opposition said about him in 1936. And the descendants of the Adams clan still remembers when one of Vice President Jefferson’s paid agents called the second president “a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who is a hideous hermaphroditic character with neither the force and fitness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Does Steve King even know how to spell hermaphroditic?

Three days after Conor Lamb’s surprise victory in Pennsylvania, the disease strikes again. One of its symptoms is assuming that calling for another minority leader whose name doesn’t rhyme with “Maborosi” means you belong in the middle. Charles Pierce will have none of it:

This attempt to drag Conor Lamb into David Brooks’ Cloud Cuckoo Land of Responsible Centrism is simply a load. Lamb suggested that it might be time for Nancy Pelosi to step aside as a Democratic leader, but he told Paul Ryan that Ryan’s whole economic philosophy is a façade of a mockery of a sham. These two are not the same thing, and I suspect that, if the Democrats in the House re-elect Pelosi as their leader, she and Lamb will get along just fine. His opposition to the assault-weapons ban—which, we should note, is not on offer anywhere at the moment—is based on his belief that there are laws enough at the moment. However, he is in favor of closing the gun-show loophole, which is something.

But, more pertinent to our discussion of David Brooks’ most recent foolishness is the fact that, despite Lamb’s holding the positions that so warm the Brooksian cockles, the Republicans spent millions of dollars in ads promoting the notion that Lamb was a gun-grabbing Pelosi-bot anyway. This means, of course, that the Republican side of Brooks’ tribalism remains truthless and insane.

The disease will worsen as fall midterms approach. As soon as the Beltway press sense the inevitability of a Democratic takeover of Congress, the pressure on the party To Go the Middle Way will increase because the GOP is exempt from such concerns. Someone has to fill the space.

Beltway white men know best

From the way Willie Geist and “Morning” Joe Scarborough said “identity politics” yesterday morning you’d think they’d recited a passage from Mein Kampf. Identity politics, they aver, prevent the Democratic Party from coalescing around “a single issue” or “one candidate”; instead, the party is associated with “the afflicted” and “victims.” After all, Scarborough reminded the panel, weren’t Bill Clinton and Joe Biden warning the party in August 2016 that white voters were slipping away? Continue reading

Michael Wolff’s ‘cartoonish power dynamics among insufferable old men’

Okay, dear readers, I spent thirty minutes on Saturday reading bits of Mark Halperin –er, forgive me, Michael Wolff’s — Terry Southern novel on the stupidity of the president, and, no, it will surprise no one, including fans of the carpentered prose of political reporters who have never read fiction.

Virginia Heffernan is skeptical of the book’s literary merits — we’ll spot it among the remainders at Barnes & Noble, beside the stuffed dinosaurs and coffee table books about the War of 1812 — but merits matter less than meat.

It’s clear that Wolff uses all manner of sleight of hand — tricks common to a more reckless period in 20th century magazine journalism — to generate operatic effects in “Fire and Fury.” The dialogue, for example, is suspiciously Netflix-ready, although Wolff claims to have reported all from what he told New York was his “semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.” He conducted about 200 interviews with capricious flakes, and Wolff also has some skeletons in his sourcing closet that someone’s bound to drag out.

But who cares, really? Wolff’s dislikable. He plays by his own rules. Big surprise. No one likable or rule-bound would have been able to abide this unsavory crew — Murdoch, Bannon, Roger Ailes, or, for God’s sake, Trump — long enough to squeeze this much big, fat, soapy story out of them.

Wolff’s ace has always been his excitement about cartoonish power dynamics among insufferable old men. In the past, this excitement has been decidedly uninfectious. But this time Wolff’s subjects are not boresville “moguls” with interchangeable faces and net worths but the president of the United States and his psycho crew. And, because the world finds itself at their mercy, we’d do well to hear their fetid locker room talk interpreted by a writer who can stomach it.

Bob Woodward better hurry with his own — don’t the usual Wood-words get published the first year of a new administration?

‘The Post’ shows how Beltway oligarchy works – and wins

The difference between insisting on clarity and explaining the obvious is impossible to discern for a master of hyperkinetic narrative cinema, and Steven Spielberg does the obvious in The Post. His account of how The Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham agonized over putting the newspaper run by her late husband in legal jeopardy for running what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers has to explain and explain and explain again. From the first ten minutes the audience knows the stakes. It knows how the picture ends. The picture has heroes. But Spielberg’s literal approach sucks out the suspense. What remains are Oscar clips for Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and a reluctance to implicate these heroes in their own drama. Continue reading

The limits of hypocrisy

In broadcast political media circles the only dead man more overestimated than Tim Russert is Walter Cronkite, who retired before the Reagan administration waged war on public trust in government, which led to the erosion of trust in institutions that powers today’s right wing commentariat and even some places on the left. As I wrote in my 2008 obit, “Meet The Press” was usually a politican’s last stop, akin to the confessional, wherein Fr. Russert would scowl and look paternal (meanwhile the guest would look penitent and humble, yet eager for more self-abasement) before administering a figurative sign of the cross and blessing. Hypocrisy, Brian Beutler writes, Is the most heavily policed crime in American politics, because it is both ubiquitous, and inherently neutral as a subject of scrutiny.”

It is called the tribute that vice pays to virtue, because it’s through hypocrisy that we betray our awareness of the disparity between what we say and what we do, or what we do in public and what we do in private. It is a meta-sin, free of ideological valence, which makes it an appealing target for journalists.

When a politician takes both sides of an issue at different times, journalists can elide the substance of the positions by zeroing in on the apparent hypocrisy—was he for it before he was against it? When partisans set forth double standards, it is often easier to make them address their inconsistencies than to question the merits of the standards themselves. And since all politicians engage in hypocrisy at least occasionally, criticizing it carries no aroma of bias.

Pointing out hypocrisy is effective when the accused has a sense of honor. A sense of shame. To remind a Trump voter that he promised to keep Social Security, cut their taxes, and save their healthcare, or protect their transgender relatives is to waste time on the shoals of rhetoric; it creates a moral triumph as illusory and brief as a toot.

Getting excited over the thought of President Pence

To celebrate the Beltway brand of centrism that guarantees admission to Chuck Todd’s show and screws over men and women who can’t afford Washington Post subscriptions, Dana Milbank muses on the excitement of seeing Michael Pence in the Oval Office.

Where Trump alienated allies and opened a dispute with the mayor of London, Pence vowed to “continue to stand with our allies” and praised “our cherished ally,” Britain. Where Trump has largely removed human rights from the agenda, Pence called for “an America standing tall in the world again for our values and our ideals.” Where Trump has stoked anti-Muslim sentiment, Pence asserted that under Trump, “America will continue to condemn persecution of any faith at any place at any time.”

As governor of Indiana, Pence called bloodless torture methods ““Oprah Winfrey methods,” criminalized abortion, claimed that “condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases,” endorsed a proposed ban on Syrian refugees entering his state, and, while in Congress, proposed that “resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” i.e. gay conversion therapy.

Do go on, Mr. Milbank:

Trump, at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year, told attendees to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger and his “Apprentice” ratings. Pence aimed higher. “Don’t so much pray for a cause as for country,” he said, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln. “Just pray for America.”



The contrast between the reckless president and his responsible understudy has me thinking, not for the first time, how much better things would be if Pence were president.

Go to hell, you turgid lickspittle.

Pence is not responsible. He is not sane – he’s a holy terror, as awful as Rubio, Jeb!, Romney, and just about every Republican nominee for president going back to January 1981. He was going to lose reelection in Indiana. He’s not bright – the sort of man who repeats a sentence because it represents his total command of the language. Should he become president, he’ll lose in 2020 because he’d be a fifth-rate hack with none of Donald Trump’s un-charm and all his baggage.