The Sessions Sessions and the Return of Fight Club

I started this blog in part to upload (and thus mentally offload) thoughts on the news of the moment, as such pieces often aren’t amenable to the editorial process for a freelancer.  Nevertheless, the past month of news — and the public reaction to the news — has been illuminating of certain broader themes in our politics.

The latest kerfuffle over Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking to Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the campaign, specifically the accuracy of his comments to the Senate Judiciary Cmte during his confirmation as AG, further illustrates one of the underlying problems with the politics of the Trump era.

This story, largely overhyped in Big Media, is not one of Sessions perjuring himself.  Viewing his comments on his contact with the Russians in context, they seem at worst to be unintentionally misleading, distinguishing his conversations as a Senator from his lack of contact in his capacity as a Trump campaign surrogate.

Based on the known record, if he’s guilty of anything, he’s guilty of the kind of sloppiness that did in fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn, minus the element of publicly embarrassing the Vice President.

All of that said, Sessions is entirely correct to recuse himself from any investigation of people who were part of a campaign for which he served as a surrogate.  This would be true even if his own contacts with Russians were not part of an investigation.

From the standpoint of legal ethics, recusal is a no-brainer.  It should be a no-brainer as a matter of politics and policy to oppose clear conflicts of interest (as the GOP rightly did in criticizing the Justice Dept’s approach to investigating Hillary Clinton).

Yet for many supposed righties on social media, and for some in Trump-friendly media, it is somehow not a no-brainer.  The sentiment from this bloc is: “Does the GOP not understand that their failure to fight is How We Got Trump?”

We’ve seen this before in the bloc of Trump primary voters who could always be found arguing asserting, “But he FIGHTS!”  We’ve seen it in the argumentum ad masculinum that elevates Donald Trump to the position of favored strongman.  It’s just metastasizing now.

The reason it is metastasizing is because the conservative movement, let alone the GOP, has become shallow and risks becoming the mirror image of the postmodern New New Left, right down to its substitution of entertainment for education and its valuation of power above all else.

The GOP’s failure to fight unwinnable battles and its treatment of politics as an exercise in making friends and influencing people — as opposed to an opportunity to punch opponents in the face — is Not How We Got Trump.

The key to Trump’s victory was in persuading people who voted once or twice for Obama.  These are people who are concerned about their financial situations and the health of their communities, not partisan food fights.  Trump won because of fatigue with the incumbent party, sluggish economic growth, concerns over terrorism, Democrats’ lack of concern for the white working class, and an awful opponent under FBI investigation.

As I also noted yesterday (and previously), Trump was was outpolled by most conventional GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate, most of whom weren’t saying inflammatory and ridiculous things, or picking fights that would disadvantage them against their opponents (most of whom weren’t as frightening to people as Hillary Clinton).

Moreover, the history of the last eight years is of an “in your face” President destroying his own party, while the supposedly cowardly opposition got as strong as it had been in almost a century.

People who don’t like CNN or the NYT were already inclined to vote Republican.  And I doubt anyone voted for Trump because they wanted Jeff Sessions to be a conflicted AG instead of Loretta Lynch being a conflicted AG.

Certainly, there are those who gravitated to Trump because of his pugnacious style and his political incorrectness.  But if GDP had been growing at 3% or better, ISIS had been routed, or Democrats had a better bench, Trump likely would have lost the Electoral College as well as the popular vote.  The narrative then would have been about how the GOP blew a fundamentally winnable race by nominating a toxic blowhard.

BTW, where was the “But he FIGHTS!” bloc after Trump’s address to Congress?  That was a speech aimed at softening his image.  Not very fighty.  Where was the criticism from the Fight Club about that speech?

The answer is that the speech went well, which gets counted as a win.  And the Fight Club is all about winning.  They often don’t much care about what they’re winning, or are reluctant to tell you what they think they’re winning, or can’t defend what they’re winning on the merits.  But contra Trump, they won’t ever tire of all the winning.

The losses, however small or however deserved, will be blamed on others, those who haven’t joined Fight Club.  It is an exercise in the Green Lanternism that infects partisans on both sides.  For those of you who are not comics nerds, the power of a Green Lantern is a manifestation of willpower.  Outside the comics, you usually don’t want to live under a system that is governed by the force of will.

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The Conservative Movement: What Happened?

The “Milo Yiannapolous disinvited from CPAC” story may be dead, But Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman and the Daily Beast’s Mark K. Lewis got good columns out of it by using the incident as a signpost on the road to decline the conservative movement seems to have traveled over the years.

It is in part a tale recalling Eric Hoffer’s observation: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

This is the part of the tale they tell.  Rothman blames the state of the movement on “[t]he right’s entertainment class,”  while Lewis argues that “Yiannopoulos’s invitation was, perhaps, the logical denouement for a cause that prioritizes provocateurs over polemicists and entertainment over substance.”

This is all true as far as it goes.  It is certainly true of CPAC.  But it is not the whole story and misses important pieces that will be necessary to any sort of conservative regrouping.

One of the main things Rothman gets right is that for many who consider themselves conservative, “their introduction to conservatism came not from reading the philosophy of John Locke and Edmund Burke but from a casual exposure to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.”  But the primary problem with this is not necessarily that the latter have been provocateurs (Limbaugh’s peak audience and influence occurred while he was at his least provocative).

Rather, the issue is that the understanding people get of conservatism from talk radio (or cable news as talk radio with pictures) is and almost inherently will be shallow.  There is an old adage (of uncertain origin) that “great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; [and] small minds discuss people.”  Programming aimed at entertaining a mass audience will tend to reflect this dynamic, regardless of how provocative it is or how valid any particular provocation may be.

A conservative movement that is broad but shallow will be more likely to claim it embraces constitutional conservatism but ignore constitutional and prudential political constraints when they become frustrated, for example, that a GOP Congress seemed so ineffective in advancing a conservative agenda.  This is part of the reason many conservatives wrongly discount some of the achievements of the GOP to which Rothman correctly refers.

Conversely, however, the shallowness of many ostensible conservatives also partially explains why the GOP could be as politically successful as it is today.  The ascension of Pres. Trump is, if nothing else, a wake-up call to how little influence the conservative movement has had within the GOP, contra Rothman’s claim that the current “Congress is also one of the most conservative in the country’s history.”

This is a claim which is, imho, deeply ahistorical.  The postwar period has been one where the overarching trend has been to cultural and political progressivism.  What seems like stolid conservatism these days mostly represents fairly modest attempts to regain ground lost over the course of decades of cultural and political losses.

Moreover, conservatives across the spectrum disagree over what to make of this central dynamic.  Peggy Noonan, not exactly a fire-breather, was nonetheless able to recognize the frustration conservatives have over the fact that the GOP, even when controlling the government as they did for six years under George W. Bush, still seemed to negotiate and grow the government as if they were the minority party.  David Brooks looked at the same frustrated conservatives as engaged in identity politics.

Perhaps both Noonan and Brooks had a point, and the inability of the GOP establishment to successfully manage True Conservatives (both actual conservatives and shallower people who imagine themselves to be) and more intelligently address their concerns eventually boiled over into frustrated people comparing the 2016 election to Flight 93.

The other problem with a conservative movement that can be both shallow and aggressive is alluded to, but not fully explored, by Lewis.

As Lewis notes, “[t]rue conservatism has been replaced by a fetish for fighting political correctness.”  It is perhaps a coincidence that Limbaugh went national at approximately the same time that Jesse Jackson was leading college kids in chants of, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ. has got to go,” but maybe it wasn’t a total coincidence.

The confluence here is remarkable.  Political correctness is in large part about making America’s intellectual discourse more shallow and less conservative.  The revolt against political correctness — at least the mass (dare I say populist) revolt against it — often has the same characteristics.

The demands of mass media that inexorably drive the discussion more to people and events than ideas will also tend to shape the debate into one about who people are against, rather than the underlying ideological conflict.  This is particularly true of conservatism, which is a default for people seeking to protect what’s good about the status quo; the focus moves toward the attackers and the attack, not on the advancement of the virtues of what we seek to conserve.

Lastly, Rothman and Lewis largely avoid addressing that the most recent iteration of this battle is marked by an even more totalitarian Left than the spasm that played out in the late 80s and early 90s.  The New New Left, in an almost Newtonian fashion, will push more people into the camp that opposes the politicization of all aspects of American life.

What it does not ensure is that the marginal increases in the opposition to totalitarianism will be conservative, or even much care about conservatism on any philosophical questions.  Rather, they are the “Not Left,” people simply looking for a champion to repel the barbarians at the gates.  And when the GOP establishment fails at constructively addressing deep or shallow conservatives, it should be no surprise that some — certainly the latter –will look to the provocateurs raising the banner highest against the immediate threat.

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