Monday, January 16, 2017

- Those We Lost In The War

I don’t know Jonah Goldberg personally, but I think he’s at least as smart, and considerably funnier, than Tucker Carlson. Maybe he’s not quite as photogenic. His hair is thinning, and his ‘evil spock’ facial hair never sat well with me. But he’s a very clever guy with a lot of clever and useful things to say. So why is it that Tucker Carlson is on the rise on the political right, and Jonah and his electronic brethren at NRO seem to be in such a dramatic decline?

By anyone’s estimation Tucker is a part of the establishment right. So how is it he’s managed to thread the needle between being cast out as a neo-nazi alt-right zealot who “dreams of camps and ovens” by the establishment press, and being dismissed as a useless Beta “cuckservative” who can’t stand up to the left by the emerging right leaning coalition? He’s finding enormous success in the post Trump world, and is doing it with very public reservations about Trump the man and Trump the President. So if he can manage, why can’t the other most clever members of the ‘establishment right’ commentariat?

To me, the one big difference of principle is that Tucker is standing up to the left when it comes to accusations of Racism and Misogyny. He’s having none of it. He’s not taking the ‘born to lose’ tactic of letting the left define the cultural argument and offering only token resistance. There is no “of course it’s a very serious problem but” talk from Tucker. So why didn’t National Review, some equally clever people, choose the same line?

In NRO’s most influential point, it wasn’t just Jonah Goldberg, it was a lot of people. Among the most prominent was Kevin Williamson, who I do know personally. Kevin and I got into a private, very heated argument during the early days of the rise of Trump, and I’ve never really understood where all the ‘heat’ of it came from. But I think if he saw things the way that Tucker seems to, the argument itself never really would have happened.

Sometime after the sort of “coming out” of the Alt-Right and before the creation of the #Nevertrump movement, I suggested to Kevin that the most useful thing to do would be to teach Trump rather than trash him. As I can best recall my exact words were, “There are issues you care about a lot, and issues you care about a less. Why would it be such a violation of principle to keep the personal invective to a minimum and try to instruct Trump the candidate on the issues most important to you instead of trying to destroy Trump the man?”

Kevin’s reaction to that was something less than genial. He imagined I had insulted his character in some way (which I never intended or even understood) and he offered a suggestion that I perform an act upon myself which, if it were physically possible, I’d probably never leave the house.

It seemed to me that it would have been a fairly easy thing for The National Review team to remain intellectually consistent and principled, while retaining their overall influence, if it’s what they wanted to do. Influence retained today means a more persuasive argument tomorrow, and influencing the argument was what I thought their entire existence was about. Trump had no real positions after all – he only barely has any now. And I just didn’t understand why they couldn’t guide team Trump instead of going to war with them.

My conclusion was that there must be something I didn’t understand about what drives the agenda of the conservative commentariat. I don’t really know the news business in all that much detail. I don’t know what pressures are placed on writers and talkers with regard to how an agenda is set, and what topics and spins are chosen for elucidation. I simply don’t know why Kevin and Jonah choose to say the things they did, while Tucker Carlson seems to have chosen a different way, when their views are, in all likelihood very very similar.

It’s probably very naïve of me, but I always thought that the process went like this: An event would occur which had some impact upon the US political world. People like Kevin and Jonah would look at the event, consider it’s various imports, discuss their views with an NR Editorial body of some kind, either committee or supreme leader or something, and after having their generalized view and their take on the event approved of, they would apply the art of cleverness and invest the time to write something up about it.

There may be a lot of extemporaneous aspects to the event, which have large and small impact on the various positions of the right, and their individual piece may or may not include mention of them. Whether or not they would still be included in the final product would be worked out in some ex-post editorial process. The piece would then be published to the generalized cheers of the right, the jeers of the left, and the arguments made would themselves become a part of the discussion.

But when Kevin blew up at me I became convinced that there was something I must be missing. There must be some enormous pressure on them to see things a certain way, and to stick to the issues and topics that are decided in advance. His entire frame of reference was being deeply influenced by something I simply never saw.

Why was Trump’s vanity such a massive issue? Why worry about his thin skin? Why not focus on becoming a Jiminy cricket of political principle for him and his people instead of being his most vocal and angry critics? IF he wants to call it statism or nationalism or Trumpism, who cares? So long as the steps he takes all move the country in the right direction, how is that a problem?

And why keep up the personal character abuse for months after he won the primary and became the only option available? I mean, I don’t want to mention any specific ad swarthy names here, but it isn’t like we’ve never had Presidents of poor character before. To me Trump looked like nothing more than a more ‘teachable’ version of Obama. So why did NRO see him as such an existential threat to the country that they (collectively if not individually) would rather have Hillary as President?

I always saw Trump as more of an opportunity than a liability. When I meet someone with no established political principles I see someone who can potentially be persuaded to my own. But when Jonah, Kevin and the Nevertrumpers looked at Trump, they instead immediately saw him as a danger and a threat, instead of an opportunity. And the only thing I can think of that might have persuaded them that way is that they were looking at some kind of intellectual ‘sunk cost’.

About two weeks ago while Trump was down in Florida considering cabinet nominations, Jeb Bush quietly came to New York City for some fund raising discussions for his PAC. He met with a number of people from the financial and entertainment world, many of whom were supportive, though (I’m told) in most cases, not at previous levels. But to hear about this taking place, well after the election, reminded me that the establishment is still very much there. Still operating behind the scenes. Still trying to have a meaningful influence on policy. Even with their channels for getting information to the executive branch are all but shattered by the Trump arrival.

Money can buy influence. That’s a simple fact. I don’t believe you can ‘buy’ a Kevin Williamson, but I do believe you can buy the house he lives in. From there you can potentially shape his view of the world. The eyes are the windows of the soul, and you can’t buy Kevin Williamson’s soul. But if you can’t buy his eyes, you can buy the blinders he’s forced to wear. The rules won’t change because of money, but you can buy the stadium the game is played in. Increasingly I’m convinced that something like that must have been what happened at NR.

Which actually brings me back to Tucker Carlson. How is it Tucker has become what I had hoped Jonah Goldberg and Kevin Williamson would? Why is it that he’s managing to thread the needle when two other men of at least equal intelligence have not? How is it Tucker has found a different game to play?

Got me. But I wish someone would explain it to me. The right would be much better off with all its most effective voices joining the argument. And I wish the NRO guys would choose a path other than 4 years in the wilderness.

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