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 (including the many of you who are apparently disappointed I didn’t spontaneously combust on election night),
Last week I wrote, “Long ago, I made peace with the fact that this election will yield one form of ass ache or another.”
So, I fully expected to wake up the day after the election depressed and walking like the proctologist refused to take off the catcher’s mitt. Instead, to my gleeful surprise and my detractors’ apparent dyspeptic dismay, I’m in a great mood.
When I took out my laptop this morning to peck out my epistolary musings, it was like the sound track to Born Free was playing in the background.
Part of it is, obviously, the unbridled joy I feel at seeing the fetid carapace of House Clinton torn down. To have the country say to these conniving mercenaries “Pack your knives and go” will have me whistling zippity-doo-dah out of my nethers for a very long time. I always wanted Hillary to lose (and my predictions about her electoral vulnerabilities were, if I do say so myself, exactly right). I was just discomfited by the ramification of Trump winning.
But there’s something else going on.
You see, I spent eight years as a columnist and National Review writer during the George W. Bush administration — and it was work. When your side is in power, the pull to defend your team is strong. Oh, I criticized Bush about plenty of things. Barely a week went by when I didn’t accuse Bush of spending money like a “pimp with a week to live” (a line Bill Maher stole from me, by the way). But when the country is at war and what is supposed to be the loyal opposition starts to lose its mind viciously slandering a wartime president for prosecuting a war many of them initially supported, it’s hard not to rally to the guy’s defense.
And more generally, it’s just a lot more fun to be on offense. Anyone who read The American Spectator or listened to Rush in the ’90s knows what I mean. When you’re on offense the perfect is your ally in any argument against not only the good, but the bad and the lousy.
Bring Out the Unicorn
For example, when Bush was president, progressive arguments about health-care reform were all remarkably abstract.
The beautiful unicorn we want to give you will solve everything. The glow of its shiny coat will make you feel secure. The medicinal effects of its Mountain Dew–like urine will cure everything that ails you. It will sh** gold you can pocket as savings.
We were supposed to all live longer, have kazillions of new jobs, and — according to, say, Nancy Pelosi — all of those plumbers and welders who secretly wanted to be poets would finally be lifted from the “job-locked” bondage of their prosaic vocations.
But it turned out that when progressives led the unicorn by the bit out of its sun-dappled meadow in the Platonic realm of ideals into the cold light of reality, it turned into a flatulent three-legged mule with a lazy eye and a tendency to kick (which is most impressive for a three-legged mule). And all of the smart-set wonks, Voxers, and academics who’d not only insisted they had all the answers but that their critics were morons and scrooges, suddenly had to defend the gassy beast. Instantly, the sage Jonathan Gruber, who once rolled his eyes at any suggestion he hadn’t thought of everything, was reduced to arguing, “No, no. That smell is proof it’s working!”
The Sore Winners Can’t Move On
Well, now Donald Trump is going to be president. His supporters are understandably ecstatic. But that ecstasy hasn’t prevented some of them from being very sore winners, which is a much uglier thing than being a sore loser. (And I must say, Trump deserves praise for resisting the urge to rub it in when he won. I’m told that was not the approach some on his staff wanted).
Newt Gingrich, for example, is railing against Republicans who didn’t rally to Trump as “whiny, sniveling negative cowards.” He wants the Never Trump crowd to “drift off into the ashbin of history while we go ahead and work with Donald Trump and with the House and Senate Republicans to create a dramatically new future.”
I find this both sad and hilarious coming from Newt. Gingrich’s revolt against George H. W. Bush was instrumental in making him a one-term president. Now, I agreed with Newt on the substance of his disagreement, but I find his passion about partisan loyalty to be awfully selective. The same holds for his almost surgical moral outrage at sexual impropriety. He spent much of the closing months of the election arguing that Donald Trump’s sexual misdeeds were trivialities but the sexual misdeeds of Bill Clinton (the man he helped impeach largely over sexual misdeeds) disqualified his wife for the job of president. Feel free to diagram that argument in your free time.
But, this isn’t all that startling. By Newt’s own account, he’s always seen himself as a revolutionary, and when revolutionaries win, their first recourse is to purge ideological allies who refused to be partisan allies. The first to go under the Bolsheviks (other than the aristocracy) were the Mensheviks.
The Half-Life of Honeymoons
So, where was I? Oh right. The Trump team is ecstatic — and they have every right to be. They pulled it off. The philosophical and political sacrifices they made, the grief they took: It was all worth it. Congrats!
But now they have to lead their own herd of shiny unicorns into the light of day. For example, Trump vowed that, if elected, he would make “make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.”
Now, if you know anything — anything! — about conservatism, or human nature, or just plain reality, then you know in your heart this is balderdash of the highest order. It’s a less poetic version of Obama’s crazy talk about reversing the rise of the oceans because “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
As I’ve been writing for years and years, politics can’t immanentize the eschaton any more than basset hounds can fly or Bill Clinton’s gaze can resist the tractor-beam pull of a nice rack.
Utopianism says there are no hard choices, no sacrifices, no compromises. All your dreams — all of them! — can come true. Populism, to paraphrase Bart Simpson, says if you think there are no easy answers you’re not looking hard enough. If we have our way, There Will Be So Much Winning that people will start complaining about the winning surplus. Populist utopianism is like a plane without landing gear, there’s no way it can come down to earth without crashing.
To borrow a phrase from Barack Obama — who always saw dark forces out there barring him from rhetorical transparency — let me be clear: I do not think it is guaranteed that Trump’s presidency will be unalloyed disaster, with wreckage strewn across a continent-spanning crash site (though I hardly rule it out, either).
No, my point is simply that Trump now must govern. Rhetorically, Trump promised unicorns as far as the eye can see. He essentially vowed that we could rewind the movie of the last 50 years. Lost jobs would come flying back like the pieces of a shattered vase reassembling as the video plays in reverse. He promised his own nationalist version of Hillary Clinton’s politics of meaning, where all our insecurities and resentments would be mollified and revenged. That won’t happen.
It won’t happen because Trump must now deal with the tools and materials of the real world. To govern is to choose — and economics is the science of competing preferences.
We can already see how Team Trump is trying to orchestrate a controlled landing. Just yesterday, Newt was explaining to the sort of clients his boss has been demonizing as system-riggers that we probably won’t get quite the big beautiful wall Trump promised and that Mexico might not actually pay for it.
Don’t get me wrong: I think this is fine. Though I will not shirk from also saying it was inevitable — despite the fact that for months if you even suggested that Trump might not bring in the whole herd of unicorns you got an earful from the Gingrich crowd.
In other words, if Trump is going to be a successful president — and I hope he is one — he will have to start disappointing his biggest fans. For example, he would be a fool if he indulged the Bannonites in an effort to destroy Paul Ryan. A successful first hundred days absolutely requires teamwork with the party leadership. Launching a civil war among Republicans would be incandescently stupid.
Similarly, as I predicted, he appears fast at work in hammering out a deal on infrastructure with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. I’m actually not opposed to an infrastructure package per se, depending on the details, though I’m very skeptical about the Keynesian assumptions behind such things. I also think it’s hilariously ironic that the first big priority after a GOP victory might end up being . . . a New Deal–style jobs bill.
But my point here is simply that whatever choices he makes now will, as a matter of epistemological, metaphysical, and ontological fact, require trade-offs, concessions, and compromises. That’s fine with me because I never remotely believed he could bring in the unicorn herd in the first place. I knew, and still know, that whatever he delivers will at best be a few nice horses, and a good number of farty mules.
I still worry deeply and sincerely about the future of the country and the conservative movement on Trump’s watch, for all the reasons I’ve been spelling out for over a year. The GOP is having a historic political revival, but the conservative movement is heading into a crisis.
You Own This
But as for me personally, and very much to my surprise, I am loving this. I have zero ownership of Donald Trump. This is the one area where I am in full agreement with Newt and Laura and Sean and that whole crowd. I never bought, as a matter of logic, that I would “own” a Clinton presidency, but I certainly understand as a matter of political and psychological perception that a great many people — including many friends — would feel otherwise.
But now it’s all on them. They own Trump. I don’t. Never Trump is over — by definition. Saying you were “Never Trump” only ever meant that you wouldn’t vote for him or endorse him. We didn’t. He won anyway. Congrats. But now those of us who held the line are liberated. I will gladly and enthusiastically applaud when and if Trump does the right thing on judges, taxes, spending, etc. If he proves my predictions wrong, I will admit it or, on occasion, say, “Give it time.” I’ve constantly said that my job is to tell the truth as I see it. I did that during the election, and I’ll keep doing it going forward. When I’m wrong about Trump, I’ll be right about my ideology. And when I’m right about Trump, I’ll be able to say, “I told you so.”
The simple fact is that there is just so much low-hanging fruit where the scattered Never Trumpers and the victorious Trumpers agree. If they get rid of Obamacare, replacing it with a plan crafted by Paul Ryan? Great! If Trump nominates good judges and Mitch McConnell gets them confirmed? Fan-fricking-tastic. Who has two thumbs and will be ecstatic if Trump delivers on the Claremonsters’ dream of dismantling the administrative state? This guy. [I’m pointing my thumbs me-ward.]
But if Trump launches an idiotic and economy-wrecking trade war, I’ll hie to my well-stocked larder and say, “I told you so.” If his second Supreme Court appointment is a disaster (I think his first will be great, of necessity), I will pop a fresh batch of popcorn and watch to see who steps up to defend Trump’s betrayal. I’m going to have a great time no matter what.
Good Luck Carrying That Load
You can’t say the same about the ranch hands who’ve promised to help bring in the unicorn herd. In fact, I actually feel a little sorry for the Bannon crowd. Not only will they be deprived of their TV network, they will have to wake up every morning wondering, “What is this guy going to make me defend today?” The first wave of disappointment will probably explode like a toxic algae bloom among the alt-right racists (particularly if Trump makes his Jewish son-in-law chief of staff). I suspect the avowed “nationalists” will wait a while longer to see what Trump does on immigration. I am more hopeful that the pro-tax-reform crowd won’t be so disappointed, but time will tell.
But whichever tribe of Trump Nation we’re talking about, my guess is that their glee is likely to have an inverse relationship with Trump’s approval ratings in early 2017 and beyond. Trump’s bottomless yearning for praise and popularity (and, possibly once he’s president, good press in the mainstream media) will likely triumph in any contest with ideological rigor. We can already see that in his entirely laudable cooperation and praise for Obama yesterday.
Trump Nation Versus America
This raises one last very important point (if I say so myself). The “Trump coalition” that put him in office does not necessarily want what Trump’s biggest fans want. Sixty-one percent of the voters didn’t think Trump was qualified to be president, but many of them voted for him anyway. A sizable number of his voters said they want the next president to be more liberal. A huge number of voters said they were holding their noses and voting for Trump because they couldn’t stand Hillary.
Politically, this could be a real advantage for Trump, because it suggests that if he actually governs as a relatively “normal” president with an eye to his approval ratings, voters will be reassured. The fears and low expectations of the American people give him maneuvering room.
I sincerely hope he moves in the right directions. But any direction he does move is likely to leave some of his biggest fans behind, sticking them with the painful choice of finally standing their ground on their professed principles or continuing to run after the Trump Train wherever it goes.
Meanwhile, I’ll be right here with my popcorn.
Various & Sundry
Yesterday, I was on a panel with Michael Mukasey, John Yoo, and Byron York on the Constitution and the presidential election. You might ask what Byron and I were doing there. We wondered the same thing.
I also did a quick hit for the Daily Signal on the aftermath of the election.
My first column of the week (written before the election) was on the weirdness of 2016.
Also before the election, I wrote about Donald Trump’s risky bet on realizing his “hidden” support (Spoiler Alert: It paid off).
My immediate reaction to Trump’s win.
The first (and last) positive thing I’ll have to say about Hillary Clinton.
My Friday column deals with the underappreciated significance of Hillary’s loss.
Heads Up: I leave tomorrow for the National Review post-election cruise, which should be . . . interesting! I don’t know if I will be able to G-File while at sea.
Canine Update: I need to be brief, as the Goldbergs are hosting a post-election celebration tonight and as my wife just got back from a nearly two-week trip to Alaska, there’s more than the normal prep required. The leftover pizza boxes alone are going to be an Augean trial. In the Fair Jessica’s absence, the canines remained loyal to their canine natures. On a mission with our treasured dogwalker Kirsten, the dingo discovered a squirrel carcass apparently dropped accidentally by an owl or some other bird of prey. So of course, she partook of nature’s bounty. It gave her a brief stomach ache. But given her dingo constitution, the discomfort amounted to a single skipped meal at home.
Meanwhile, the terrifying neon-Corgi incident discussed in a previous “news”letter has had a more lasting impact on Pippa. The poor spaniel is now simply scared of poorly lit dog parks. She constantly searches the horizon for signs that the low-slung beasts with their terrifying collar lamps will reemerge from the tree line to wreak havoc on all of spanielkind. This morning, she was still racing back to the car and jumping into the cargo hold, like it was bunker. Anyway, when my wife came home last night, the dogs exhibited all of the canine enthusiasm that makes dogginess so wonderful.
And now, the weird stuff.