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 (unless you’re too busy to read this because you’re in the middle of corgi-mopping),
I know exactly what you’re thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “Self, I like this ‘news’letter thing just fine. But what it really needs are more old-timey swear words, consarn it!”
Well, by saint Boogar, and all the saints at the backside of the door of purgatory, I’m gonna fix that.
I’m in a cussing mood this morning because well, I just am bejabbers (I don’t have to tell you everything, no matter how much it may seem otherwise).
In my last book — last as in most recent, not final (alas) — I wrote:
According to legend, when George Will signed up to become a syndicated columnist in the 1970s, he asked his friend William F. Buckley, Jr. — the founder of National Review and a columnist himself — “How will I ever write two columns a week?” Buckley responded (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh it will be easy. At least two things a week will annoy you, and you’ll write about them.”
Buckley was right. Annoyance is an inspiration, aggravation a muse. That which gets your blood up, also gets the ink — or these, days, pixels — flowing. Show me an author without passion for what he holds to be the truth and I will show you either a boring writer or someone who misses a lot of deadlines, or both. Nothing writes itself, and what gets the writer to push that boulder uphill is more often than not irritation with those saying wrong things righteously.
That’s all true — which is why I wrote it, dad-sizzle! — but one occasional problem is that some of the things that annoy me during a given week may not be suitable for a syndicated column. The Dallas Morning News is probably not going to run a column on how I can’t stand goat cheese (it tastes like curdled death) or how I hate the way everyone in the King Kong movies makes a huge deal about finding a giant gorilla, but seems to think it’s no big thing that they found dinosaurs. I mean I get that the giant gorilla is really cool and interesting, but it’s not like we all have T-Rex rummaging through our garbage cans.
This seems like an implausible scene for a book or movie:
Person A: “I found a giant gorilla!”
The crowd goes wild: “Wow! Cool! Great horn spoon! That’s awesome!”
Todd: “Well, I found a tyrannosaurus rex!”
The crowd stares blankly. A man in the back shouts, “So?” Another says, “Shut up, Todd!”
Todd: “Well, I think it’s cool. I don’t care what you think. Besides, ‘Person A’ is a really dumb first name.”
The nice thing about this fully operational “news”letter is that I can vent about these things as I see fit. Nobody puts baby in a corner and nobody can tell me what to write from my bunker.
I bring this up because (a) I can, and (b) a number of hecklers, mopes, roués, rakes, vagabonds, ingrates, moperers, tinkers, lazzarone, and rantallions have been complaining about the self-indulgence, verbosity, and length of this 100 percent free “news”letter. (It’s particularly ironic that rantallions would be complaining about length, if you know what I mean). I find these complaints so annoying, I decided to write about it. It’s sort of like the Chicago way, but pretty much entirely different. You come at me with a complaint about the sesquipedalian loquaciousness of this “news”letter and I’ll come back at you with an anomalistic paroxysm of gasconading logorrhea and coruscant garrulousness that makes verbosity the very cynosure of my epistle. Excogitate on that the next time you feel like whining about my lexicological ebullience. And if you’re still not happy, I’ll give you a 100 percent refund of the subscription price of this “news”letter (minus shipping and handling).
The Dumbest Complaint
By now, articles about the Left’s freakout over Donald Trump are getting a little stale. Oh sure, I still chuckle whenever I hear liberals explain that the Electoral College is an institution of white privilege, racism, and bigotry. As Charlie Cooke first pointed out to me, these are the same people who, for over a year, strutted like peacocks about the “blue wall” — i.e., their inherent and, they thought, permanent advantage in the Electoral College. In other words, the Democratic party’s structural advantage stemmed from the fact that an evil antediluvian bulwark of racist oppression favored them. As the rantallion said when the super model walked in on him changing out of his cold bathing suit, “Awkward.”
But defenses of the Electoral College — while all right and good — are a dime a dozen these days. And complaints about the Electoral College — while wrong and often tendentious — are based in a legitimate perspective. I don’t want presidents elected by the national popular vote (I’d prefer if they were picked via trial by combat using gardening tools. “Look out, Ted Cruz has a rake!”). But it’s not an inherently ridiculous or sinister argument, either. It’s just wrong.
Meanwhile, there’s another argument going around, that would need a jetpack or a huge bundle of helium balloons to rise to the level of mere wrongness. A bunch of people are claiming it’s somehow unfair, unjust, or undemocratic that the Republicans control the Senate because, in total, Democratic Senate candidates received more votes than Republican Senate candidates. This “argument” is dumber than using Cracker Jack boxes to distribute hypodermic needles and razor blades. “Mommy, I got a prize! Gah! My finger!”
When I see this argument made with a straight face, I feel like my dog let loose at the buffet table at Fogo de Chao: I just have no idea where to begin.
First, the reason why the Democrats racked up more votes for the Senate is entirely attributable to the fact that California — a very large state, you could look it up — did not have a Republican on the ballot. So, 8 million Democrats voted for a Democrat while the Republican candidate got zero votes — because there was no Republican candidate.
Take California out of the picture and the Republicans, collectively, drew 1.88 million more votes than the Democrats.
But the important point is that none of that matters, at all.
Imagine trying to tell Chuck Schumer that he can’t be a senator even though he won his race in New York because more people voted for Republican senators in Texas. He would be in his rights to ask you how you managed to get out of your restraints in the psychiatric ward.
The Senate is the chamber of Congress that represents the states in our federal system, by the double-barreled jumping jimmenty! That’s why each state gets the same number of senators. The House represents the people in those states, which is why states with more people get more representatives. I know this is a dumbed down way of explaining it, but by the High Heels of St. Patrick, it’s apparently not dumbed-down enough for some people. Maybe I need to use puppets?
The Infernal Constitution
All of this is downstream of the real problem. As I’ve written dozens of times, “Call Brenda for a good time.” No, sorry. That’s my bathroom-wall thing.
As I’ve written many times, the essence of progressivism is to be hostile to any external restraints on progressivism. From an old G-File:
The story of the progressive movement can best be understood as activists going wherever the field is open. If the people are on your side, expand democracy. If the people are against you, use the courts. If the courts are against you, run down the field with the bureaucrats, or the Congress, or the presidency. Procedural niceties — the filibuster, precedent, the law, custom, the Constitution, truth — only matter if they can be enlisted to advance the cause. If they can’t, they suddenly become outdated, irrelevant, vestigial organs of racism, elitism, sexism, whatever. Obstruction, or even inconvenience in the path of progressive ends is prima facie proof of illegitimacy. The river of history must carry forward. If History hits a rock, the rock must be swept up with the current or be circumvented. Nothing can hold back the Hegelian tide, no one may Stand Athwart History. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. This is the liberal gleichschaltung; get with the program or be flattened by it.
And this brings me to my column today in which I bang my spoon on my high chair for the umpteenth time about the wonder and glory of federalism. I recount a great scene from A Man for All Seasons, in which Thomas More is debating William Roper:
Roper: “So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!”
More: “Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”
Roper: “I’d cut down every law in England to do that!”
More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”
The whole point of the Constitution is to prevent the concentration of power. The Founders understood that the only thing that can reliably check power is power. If too much power is held by any institution or branch of government, then the other institutions and branches will not be able to stop them. The problem with concentrated power is that it leads inexorably to what Edmund Burke and the Founders called “arbitrary power.” Arbitrary power — the rule of whim rather than the rule of law — threatens liberty for all the obvious reasons. Chief among them: It allows one person — or group of people — to dictate how another person should live. Democracy is a sideshow in this equation. The Founders feared “elective despotism” every bit as much as they feared every other kind of despotism. That’s why they put some questions out of reach (or nearly out of reach) of voters by settling them in things like the Bill of Rights.
Federalism, as enshrined in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, is an essential bulwark against despotism. In America, we don’t usually talk about “collective rights” and for good reason. But it’s important to understand that we have them. Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, gays, or whites (sorry alt-right), etc. don’t have collective rights — but communities do. Specifically, the states.
Vermonters have the right to live the way they want to live, so long as they don’t violate the constitutional rights of the Americans who live there. So, no slavery or Jim Crow (again, sorry alt-right). But that still leaves an enormous amount of wiggle room for Vermont to do things the people running the federal government at any given time may or may not like. And that’s good, because states, and the communities that make them up, have a better idea of how they want to live — and what will work for them — than people in Washington do. This is why federalism, within constitutional restraints, is the greatest system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness.
Most readers can probably surmise that I think liberals have good reason to worry that Donald Trump’s fidelity to the Constitution is at best rhetorical. And even here the commitment is flimsy. Trump prefers to think in Nietzschean terms — Strength! Winning! — than in Lockean terms. But it’s worth bearing in mind that if the Constitution is an afterthought for Trump, it is a dangerous relic for most Democratic politicians.
As I’ve written often, the only times the Democrats ever celebrate the Constitution is when the Constitution is — allegedly — on their side. When Republicans proposed revoking birthright citizenship, Representative Raúl Grijalva (D., Ariz.) cried out, “I think it’s horribly dangerous to open up the Constitution, to tamper with the Constitution.” In 2000, when the GOP introduced a constitutional amendment establishing “victims rights,” Chuck Schumer proclaimed, “We should not mess with the Constitution. We should not tamper with the Constitution.” A balanced-budget amendment? “I respect the wisdom of the Founders to uphold the Constitution, which has served this nation so well for the last 223 years,” Senator Pat Leahy thundered.
But when Hillary Clinton proposed amending the Constitution so her political opponents could be more easily silenced during elections?
But it’s worse than that. Liberals believe in “the living Constitution” a doctrine which holds that the Constitution must mean whatever they want it to mean at a given moment. They hate it when conservatives propose formally changing the Constitution through amendments, but they have no problem changing the Constitution through the arbitrary whims of the Court. That’s why the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court that the government could ban books during election season.
Not only do liberals believe this stuff, they think it’s wicked smaht.
And since I’ve got chowder-head accents in mind, it would indeed be fun to watch Donald Trump pull that scene from Good Will Hunting and slam his own version of the living Constitution against the restaurant window and scream, “Do you like apples? Well, how do you like them apples?”
But the fun would wear off. I get the desire for tit-for-tat, and if I have to choose between a “conservative” despotism and a progressive despotism, I’ll choose the former. But I don’t have to make that choice — and it is a horrible choice. This is a crucial moment for liberals. They can quintuple down on their hysterical whining, effete condescension, and identity politics, or they can grapple with and accept the fact that the real meaning of the word liberal has nothing to do with steamrolling people in the culture war and treating the Constitution like either a weapon of convenience or a ridiculous bit of bric-a-brac from the attic of some dead white men.
And for the same reason, it’s a crucial moment for conservatives. Many of Trump’s intellectual supporters are among the foremost champions of constitutionalism in America today. During the campaign, they claimed that Trump would be a flawed champion in the struggle to restore our constitutional structure and tear down the citadel of unrepresentative and arbitrary power: the administrative state. Well, Donald Trump won.
To borrow an image from Thomas More, now is the time for them to get busy replanting the forest of constitutionalism, because if there is anything certain about the future of American politics, the progressives will have their own devil in the White House soon enough.
Various & Sundry
You should take my first column of the week seriously and literally.
You should also read Ramesh’s follow-up post.
Speaking of Ramesh, we did a fun event at AEI on the future of conservatism and celebrating his 20+ years at National Review. The video is here.
And speaking of National Review, if you’re like me, you prefer sour cream or ranch dressing to blue cheese on your buffalo wings. But that’s not important right now. If you like National Review Online — and I’d like to think the readers of this thing are more inclined to like it than the average person — you may want it to succeed. You may also be frustrated at times when the website operates like our Amish IT guys aren’t entirely up to the task. I share your frustration. Just the other day I tried to call up NRO on my iPad and it gave me a Diet Orange Fanta instead.
Well, Charlie Cooke — the poobah of NRO these days — wants to fix it. He wants all new pneumatic tubes, fresh and shiny water wheels, and state-of-the-art levers and pulleys. But the dilithium crystals required to power all of that cost money. And that’s why Jack Fowler, National Review’s Publisher and Head Suit, asked me to appeal to you folks for help. You can read his request here. Let me just add that as the founding editor of National Review Online and someone who loves taking credit for the incredible work done by my colleagues, this is really important to me too. When I started NRO, I promised to make it the Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga (“The all-powerful warrior [or in some translations, rooster] who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake”) of the World Wide Web. I think we did that, but that title isn’t like a Super Bowl ring. It’s something you have to re-earn every day. And that’s why we need your support.
And, again, Thomas More’s federalism lesson for liberals.
And now, the weird stuff, now with thrice the flatulence!
Canine Update: Not much to report this week. The spaniel has been particularly spanielly and the Dingo could not be other than dingo-y. She did partake of an especially disgusting repast of deer carcass the other day. But other than some regrettable olfactory consequences she was fine. She remains vigilant as ever.