Where We Are as a Country
Using Allahpundit's last Hot Air post as a springboard
Above: some Top Secret but totally declassified documents that the FBI planted, but that Trump had in cartons before the FBI planted them. Good thing he declassified them!
My goodness, it’s been a while since I’ve talked to you. We’ve had a lot of summer visitors in the house and an unusual number of events occurring, to the point where my days and evenings have not really been my own for weeks. But I am closing out a three-day weekend, and Allahpundit’s farewell post at Hot Air has inspired me to write something about where we are in this country. I’ll open with Allahpundit’s post, with a surprising effort to give Donald Trump his (political) due, and an effort to refute the idea of the Wisdom of the Crowds. I’ll close, for the paid subscribers, with where that leaves us as a country, and with my observations about the failure of the recall of the District Attorney here in Los Angeles.
This is going to be long and rambling. I have some thoughts saved up and you’re going to get them. And I feel like I owe you a long post after this long absence, anyway. This one’s over 5,000 words, so settle in!
Let’s start with Allahpundit, my favorite writer on the Web. He is moving from Hot Air, his online home of 16 years, to The Dispatch, my favorite site on these here Interwebz. He has written a long, moving, smart, funny, passionate post about his time at Hot Air and his departure from that site. He’s far more generous than I would be under similar circumstances. For example, he thanks Michelle Malkin without mentioning . . . you know. As this guy says:
Yes, Allah’s taking the high road, even when addressing his critics. (“[T]o those who spent the last seven years barking insults at me in the comments for not genuflecting to Trump, I’ll give you this: You’re not phonies. You believe what you say. We have that much in common.”)
You folks are presumably subscribing to this newsletter because you like my writing, and so the chances are that you also like Allahpundit and have already read the passage I am about to quote . . . but it’s good enough for me to have read to my wife out loud recently, and so I think it’s good enough to reproduce here, as a springboard for my discussion:
Partisan media serves two masters, the truth and the cause. When they align, all is well. When they conflict, you choose. If you prioritize the truth, you’re a traitor; if you prioritize the cause, you’re a propagandist. One recent example of the latter is the left mocking Republicans who accepted PPP loans during the pandemic for opposing Biden’s student debt bailout. The differences between those two programs would be evident to a reasonably intelligent fourth-grader but the imperative to serve the cause by rationalizing Biden’s giveaway forced liberals to treat it as a smart own. I think some even talked themselves into believing it. Propagandists lie to others, then lie to themselves to justify propagating the original lie. Propaganda rots the brain, then the soul.
That’s one reason why, when I’ve been forced to choose, I preferred to be a traitor than a propagandist. Here’s another: What is the right’s “cause” at this point? What cause does the Republican Party presently serve? It has no meaningful policy agenda. It literally has no platform. The closest thing it has to a cause is justifying abuses of state power to own the libs and defending whatever Trump’s latest boorish or corrupt thought-fart happens to be. Imagine being a propagandist for a cause as impoverished as that. Many don’t need to imagine.
The GOP does have a cause. The cause is consolidating power. Overturn the rigged elections, purge the disloyal bureaucrats, smash the corrupt institutions that stand in the way. Give the leader a free hand. It’s plain as day to those who are willing to see where this is going, what the highest ambitions of this personality cult are. Those who support it without insisting on reform should at least stop pretending that they’re voting for anything else.
I agree with others who say that, fundamentally, the last six years have been a character test. Some conservatives became earnest converts to Trumpism, whatever that is. But too many who ditched their civic convictions did so for the most banal reasons, because there was something in it for them — profit, influence, proximity to power, the brainless tribalism required by audience capture. “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket,” Eric Hoffer wrote. We’ve all gotten to see who the racketeers are.
I would rather fail as a writer than succeed if success means being some demagogue’s footstool. To the extent my work at Hot Air has made that clear, I’m happy with it.
Never forget, it’s not the 30 percent of Trump worshipers within the party who brought the GOP to what it is. It’s the next 50 percent, the look-what-the-libs-made-me-do zombie partisans, who could have said no but didn’t. I said no. Put it on my tombstone.
There’s been some pushback against Allahpundit’s post by many on Twitter and at Hot Air, much of it by jerks (just to make it interesting), but some of it to the effect that Allahpundit (if that is his real name) is too dismissive of Trump voters in general. I think many of the same folks might say the same about me, and so I want to spend some time doing something that might surprise you. Namely: I want to give Trump his (political) due.
Giving Donald Trump His (Political) Due
But first, some caveats. (I am a lawyer, after all. I don’t say anything without caveats. Well, let me add a caveat to that statement . . . )
Nothing I am about to say minimizes in any way my core belief that Trump is one of the most atrocious humans on the planet. In fact, if you listen to about five minutes from this recent Sam Harris podcast, you’ll get a good idea of how I feel about Donald Trump. I don’t really agree with Harris’s statement here that Trump is a “worse person than Osama bin Laden” but I understand the argument he is making and agree with almost everything he says here except that comparison. I’ve cued it up to start at 7:52 for you, and you should consider listening through to about 13:00 or so. You might have to double-click at first, to make the video play.
“Trump is, without question, one of the least honest and most malignantly selfish human beings I have ever come across. . . . He is a child in a man’s body. He lies as freely as he breathes, and just as compulsively. . . . He is an absolute black hole of self-regard. When I say that wherever you are on earth, you could probably walk a thousand miles in any direction, and not meet a less admirable human being than Trump, I mean it, in the terms I just described. The man is almost completely lacking in personal virtue. If he weren’t funny — and I admit he can be funny — he might actually be the least admirable person on earth.”
I agree with all of this, as well as with Harris’s view that such observations do not reflect a hatred of the man himself, but of the political Trump phenomenon. Had he remained a reality TV star on a show I had never watched once, even for five minutes, I could have spent the rest of my life ignoring him, as I had done for 47 years of my life already. I agree with Harris that the problem is the Trump phenomenon — “what he has done to our politics.” As Allahpundit observed in a different post, about the Fetterman and Oz race in Pennsylvania, “impressing Republican voters requires a certain amount of gratuitous nastiness nowadays.” You can thank the Trump phenomenon for that. I watched Ronald Reagan’s final speech as president the other day — a stirring paean to (legal) immigration — and realized I could not imagine any politician delivering that speech today. But then, Reagan gave his speech in the year 26 BTE (Before the Trump Era; that’s 1989 for you normies). And here in the year 7 TE, the general tone of politicians is different — irrevocably different, it sometimes seems.
This, my friends, is a function of the Trump phenomenon — and while we can debate whether Trump himself is a cause, an effect, or (as I believe) both, the phenomenon is undeniable, and it is poison to our civic life in ways I could go on and on about, and have.
“But wait!” I hear you saying, “I thought you said you were going to give Trump his due!” And so I am. In recent weeks, I have come to emotionally better understand something I knew all along on an intellectual level, about how Trump has managed to appeal, not just to a certain kind of Republican voter I disdain, but to a certain type of Republican voter who shares many of the concerns I have always had.
At Allahpundit’s new home, The Dispatch, there is a wonderful limited-run series of podcasts hosted by Chris Stirewalt, the guy responsible for the Arizona call at Fox News on Election Night 2020, essentially conducting an autopsy of the Republican party that seized control of government in 2016 and gave it all away in four years. How in the hell did that happen? is the question that the podcast seeks to answer. I am still listening to the series, but so far I highly recommend the episodes where Stirewalt interviews Steve Kornacki and Matthew Continetti. Both commentators, along with Stirewalt, provided some real insight into the recent history of the conservative movement. They highlighted the concerns that the base had at the time of the Tea Party movement, and the way that the establishment GOP gave the base the back of its hand. This had real meaning for me, because I considered myself substantially in alignment with the base at that point in time, and I remember the anger at the way we seemed to be getting sold down the river, time and again — and the complicity of Big Media in helping to attack anyone who tried to stop the sale.
Do you remember? We had a president (Obama) who started his presidency by shoving what then seemed like a historically outrageous amount of government spending down our throats, and then gave us the first steps towards a government takeover of health care, in the form of Obamacare. When the Sarah Palins of the world warned that this could all be headed toward “death panels” — put simply, the government being in charge of critical decisions as to whether this person or that person would get expensive but potentially life-saving treatment — her concerns, which I and many others shared, were dismissed as rank propaganda. Then the GOP, in its wisdom, decided to nominate the one fella on earth who could not properly make the case that Obamacare posed a threat: Mitt Romney, who had signed a similar bill in his own state.
And then came the attacks on that awful Romney guy. The stupid attacks were legion. We were treated to weeks of coverage about inane topics like Romney putting his dog on the roof of a car on family trips. Or: remember Binders Full of Women? Or: when Romney properly noted that Russia was a real threat, Big Media joined Obama in yukking it up. And then there was Candy Crowley purporting to “fact check” Romney in real time at a debate:
The only problem? She was wrong.
And then there was the “autopsy.” Remember that? The GOP Establishment, again in its infinite wisdom, decided that the Real Problem was that we weren’t turning enough illegal immigrants into citizens. Somehow they missed the fact that they can’t win the votes of minorities by pandering to them, because the Democrats will always be willing to out-pander Republicans. Real Geniuses of Politics like Marco Rubio were dead convinced that we had to amnesty our way out of our political difficulties.
I spent years writing a series of posts titled Deport the Criminals First. I made the case, not that illegal immigrants were uniquely susceptible to criminality, but that their crimes were uniquely reprehensible because they were committed by people who never should have been here in the first place. My thesis was: regardless of your belief regarding the question whether this country could realistically deport every single illegal immigrant in this country (a concept to which I had no theoretical objection, but which I recognized would never happen), we can all agree that immigration authorities have to start somewhere. They have limited resources and have to decide how to allocate them. So rather than raid places of business, where people are trying to earn a living, why not prioritize getting rid of the illegals who are committing crimes above and beyond their initial crime of illegally entering the country to begin with?
Makes sense, right? But the GOP establishment wasn’t listening. Their solution was amnesty, and more amnesty, followed by a heaping helping of amnesty.
Then came Donald Trump. He was and remains an ignorant wordthatrhymeswithsasshole, but at least he understood that the Republican base had no desire to try to win by pandering to illegal immigrants and their boosters. He understood we had to have a border — and he was very firm about it. He was also vaguely racist about it — for example, deriding an American-born judge (Gonzalo Curiel) as a “Mexican” (which is “derision” only because Judge Curiel is an American citizen, not because being a “Mexican” is a bad thing) simply because that judge had ruled against him regarding his giant Trump University fraud scheme. Trump fans happily overlooked the ignorance and the racism (and in many cases cheered the latter) because this was a guy who Wasn’t Gonna Take It Anymore when it came to illegal immigration (and other stuff). And if the man has had one good effect in Republican politics, I think it was to show that Republicans can give up their efforts to win votes through pandering to illegal immigrants and their most vocal supporters.
One distinctly negative by-product of this is that, by being against illegal immigration in a vaguely racist way that pandered to poorly educated bigots, Trump managed to paint as racists those of us who have always been concerned about illegal immigration, but are not ourselves racist. I oppose illegal immigration because nobody is screened for disease or criminal records or radical terrorist beliefs, and because our infrastructure is not built to accommodate an unchecked increase in our population. We should get to decide who we want in the country. We should be able to ascertain that they pose no health or criminal or terror threat. These are not radical views, in my opinion, and should not be controversial. They do not make me a racist or anti-immigrant. Maybe I should go ahead and show you that Reagan speech I alluded to above:
I believe every word Reagan says there. But he was speaking of legal immigration. (Yes, he did a nice big amnesty himself, and it’s one of the worst things he did. But the speech, as I read it, is about legal immigration.) And legal immigration is one of the most inspiring things about our country. As I wrote in 2017:
Take a look at the requirements for someone to become a citizen. In addition to age, residency, and physical presence requirements, you must:
Be able to read, write, and speak basic English.
Have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).
Be a person of good moral character.
Demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution.
That’s a more impressive set of characteristics than is displayed by many actual U.S. citizens. And at the end of the process, one takes the following oath:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.
I had the privilege of attending a naturalization ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center over 20 years ago. I attended at the invitation of a judge for whom I was clerking, who took part in the ceremony, so I had a great view of the crowd. I’ll never forget looking out on the sea of people speaking those words. Thousands of people, of all races and nationalities, from countries all over the world. People who had passed a basic civics test and who had demonstrated good moral character. Those people were reciting — in English! — words of allegiance to this country, with pride on their faces.
When you want to talk about the Statue of Liberty and the principles for which she stands, that’s what you’re talking about.
Trump stood against illegal immigration, but you always got the sense that his opposition arose in part from his unease about brown people (again: see Judge Curiel or his references to “shithole countries” as prime examples) rather than an inspired vision of the majesty of legal immigration. And that’s a shame — because now, if you tell someone you support many of Trump’s immigration policies, many will just assume you’re a racist. And given the way he promoted his policies, that’s not a crazy assumption.
But immigration is not the only thing that Trump did right, at least politically (placing to one side whether his positions were sound or even moral). He identified a group of people who believed they had been forgotten by the GOP’s business-oriented establishment and its focus on “growth” at the expense of “jobs.” As Steve Kornacki pointed out in his podcast interview with Chris Stirewalt, this brought a lot of voters to the table who had previously felt forgotten.
Of course, the way Trump did this was through populist rhetoric — let’s impose tariffs on everything!!! — that ignores the reality of how the free market makes people’s lives better. The hard truth is that “growth” actually leads to jobs. You can call that “trickle-down” economics if you like (although nobody who favors growth ever uses the term “trickle-down”), but who do you expect to give you a job? Someone poorer than you are? Jobs are made available when those in a position to employ people are doing well enough to hire more people. And that benefits everyone, including and especially people at the low end of the economy. A free market economy leads to higher standards of living and eradicates poverty. But free market economy rhetoric is not popular. In fact, it is inevitable that some number of commenters will grumble in comments to this very post that the free market is not the be-all and end-all. That’s the kneejerk reaction of almost everyone. It’s why communism was so popular, and socialism remains popular. Sure, communism kills people by the millions. By, by gosh, it just sounds so nice! And your stupid free market doesn’t cure everything, Patterico!
The point is: this was effective politics on Trump’s part. The fact that even readers of this newsletter will quibble about the obvious benefits of the free market shows you the popularity of getting government up in the free market’s business. People love it. It might be stupid (it is), and it might make everyone poorer, but it gets you votes.
I said I would give Trump his political due. His arguments are bad, and many of his populist policies (especially tariffs) cause more poverty than would be the case in their absence. But these policies get more people voting Republican, including many who had not voted for years. I don’t know how you win the favor of these voters in a manner that does not depend on ignorant populist arguments. Maybe it’s possible, and maybe it’s not. This is one reason I will never run for office. I deal in ideas, not how to persuade stupid people. (Yes, for a living I must persuade people, but my greatest task is to get rid of the stupid ones before the process of persuasion starts.)
Ultimately, the man is not a political genius. He won only one election, and only pretended to have won the next. But he did see some things about the Republican base that a lot of politicians failed to understand for years. I have come to realize he may not have been as weak a candidate as I thought. He did have some strengths.
But that doesn’t mean that, just because he got some new people to vote for him, we should therefore assume that every idiotic policy position he favors must be adopted by everyone in the GOP, on the assumption that The Base Knows Better.
The So-Called “Wisdom of Crowds”
This leads me to a related topic that always sticks in my craw: the trope of the Wisdom of Crowds. A lot of people seem to think we leave political decisions to the democratic process because The People are Wise. The People have this wonderful basic common sense! They can see through phonies! If you think you know better than The People, then, by gosh, it’s you who have some learning to do!
This is nonsense, and the Trump phenomenon shows it. Crowds can’t see through phonies. If they could, Trump would not collect crowds. If the example of Trump is not enough to move you, then probably no example could, but I can also point out that Hitler was elected (debatably so in 1932 and resoundingly in 1934). Vladimir Putin still wins elections. Sure, at the time of the 1934 German referendum, voter intimidation was rampant, and yes, Putin employs totalitarian tactics to maintain his grasp on power. But there are reasons to believe that Hitler truly was popular in his time, and that Putin is truly popular now. One thing we need to get used to in this world is that doing the right thing does not always lead to worldly success. Often the opposite is true. Crowds routinely approve of the worst people and overlook the best.
The crowd told Pilate to save Barabbas and to kill Jesus. The “Wisdom of Crowds” indeed!
I think this bears some relevance to Allahpundit’s commentary upon his departure, in a couple of ways. First, he always told the truth as he saw it, but does not appear to have been rewarded for that by a flock of admiring commenters. (His fans exist, in force, but they seem to be a minority at the site known as Hot Air.) This validates my observation that doing the right thing may not bring you worldly benefits.
The other way that the thesis of the Wisdom of Crowds is relevant is this: implicit in the view of those who choose The Cause over the truth, I think, is some feeling that it’s justified to do so . . . because if so many people have an opinion, they must know something. If Allahpundit or I are bucking the trend and criticizing Trump, we must be wrong, because look how many people follow Trump! The Trump devotees must therefore, by virtue of their sheer numbers, possess some deep wisdom that we critics are missing.
Well, here’s the dirty secret: they don’t. The crowds who worship Donald Trump don’t have some double-secret knowledge we all lack. They’re just chump suckers.
So: where does that leave us as a country?