The President Isn’t the Hero of the American Story

by Jonah Goldberg
Does anyone seriously believe that Trump persuaded significant numbers of people at his press conference who didn’t already love him?

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 Dingo who cares not about your petty beauty contests),

Since most of this “news”letter is going to vex friends, let’s start with something that all right-thinking people can agree upon: If Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to continue being considered an intellectual, he should really stop talking (or at least stop tweeting).

Just before I started to pound out this dyspeptic cri de coeur of consternation, I saw this amuse-bouche of vapidity:

Now, in a reductionist kind of way, this is obviously true. When two people, two tribes, or two nations fight, they tend to have profound disagreements about who should win.

But the idea that people almost always go to war because they believe different things to be true is really quite ridiculous. Did Caesar, Alexander the Great, or Genghis Kahn have a giant war map in front of them demarking which nations agreed with them and which didn’t? “Oh, I would dearly love to conquer Gaul, will someone find out if they disagree with us on something?”

What, pray tell, do Crips and Bloods really disagree on? (Note: I have no idea if they still exist, feel free to add any other gangs: Sharks and Jets, Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys, the Yancy Street Gang and Ben Grimm, whatever.) The prime mover of their disagreements isn’t ideas but power, status, and, probably, the money that flows from them. They might invent grander arguments to defend their bellicosity, but those arguments are downstream of those primary motivations. Hitler believed some awful things, but he didn’t invade France because of his disagreements with the French. He invaded France because he wanted to rule it. The disagreements were secondary. David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” I don’t fully subscribe to this view, but I don’t think it’s entirely wrong either.

RELATED: How the Center Does Not Hold

Now Tyson is almost surely making what he believes to be a clever point about religion. And it is certainly true that there have been religious wars, some of them quite sincere. And some of them were populist justifications for wars of another motivation, proving yet again that scientific expertise doesn’t automatically transfer to other realms of study. What he seems to want to suggest, however, is that if everyone agrees on the majestic sovereignty of science, there will be no more conflict. His global empire of “Rationalia” will usher in an era of eternal peace.

Not only is that incredibly, mind-bogglingly, and incandescently absurd and extremely creepy and dangerous. It is also — wait for it — profoundly unscientific.

Canine Flatulence as Far as the Eye Can See (or Smell)

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote in this space:

I’m reminded of a scene from Don Quixote: A man walks into the center of town and gathers a crowd for the show he’s about to put on. The man picks up a dog and inserts a tube into its ass. The man then begins to inflate the canine like a balloon. The crowd watches, fascinated. The dog grows larger and rounder. Eventually, the man pulls the tube out and the air escapes loudly from the poor pooch’s rectum as it runs away.

The performer turns to the crowd and asks something like: “You think it’s easy to inflate a dog with a tube?”

That guy may be the best dog-inflator in the world. He may have tapped into something real — the need to see extreme reverse dog farting — but that doesn’t mean we should make him president.

That scene came to mind Thursday as I watched the reaction to President Trump’s press conference. My friend Mollie Hemingway captured a very widespread sentiment out there:

And I agree with her: It certainly was entertaining in parts. In other parts, not so much. But the problem is that entertainment value is one of the lowest standards one can hold a president to. It’s entertaining, apparently, to see a man stick a tube up a dog’s butt, but that doesn’t make it art. And it may be entertaining to watch a president of the United States spill out his id on national television like a torn net full of mackerel on a dock. But if that’s a standard for how to judge a presidential press conference, why didn’t we elect Charlie Sheen?

Does anyone seriously believe that Trump persuaded significant numbers of people who didn’t already love him?

I keep hearing from conservative pundits that a lot of people out in the “real world” thought this press conference was awesome. I’m sure this is true. But I wonder how many conservative pundits realize that the people who thought it was awesome are already in Trump’s amen corner (and that these are precisely the folks that conservative pundits are most likely to hear from — and depend on?). Does anyone seriously believe that Trump persuaded significant numbers of people who didn’t already love him?

I’ve written a bunch about the MacGuffinization of American politics in recent years. Ace of Spades coined the term to describe how the media covered Barack Obama. They cast him as the hero of a drama and the only goal was to see how he overcame problems. It didn’t matter if he was wrong on policy — including the Constitution — what mattered was whether he emerged victorious. “In a movie or book, ‘The MacGuffin’ is the thing the hero wants,” Ace explained. “Usually the villain wants it too, and their conflict over who will end up with The MacGuffin forms the basic spine of the story.” Further on, Ace writes:

Watching Chris Matthews interview Obama, I was struck by just how uninterested in policy questions Matthews (and his panel) were, and how almost every question seemed to be, at heart, about Obama’s emotional response to difficulties — not about policy itself, but about Obama’s Hero’s Journey in navigating the plot of President Barack Obama: The Movie. As with a MacGuffin in the movie, only the Hero’s emotional response to the MacGuffin matters.

It was the MacGuffin dynamic that first made me realize that Trump could defeat Hillary Clinton.

Now the MacGuffin thing is just a useful metaphor or analogy. But the dynamic it captures goes to the very core of humanity. While working on my book, I’ve come to believe more than ever that man is a story-telling animal and that stories are what give us meaning, direction, and passion. Hume’s point about reason being a slave to passion should be more properly understood as “reason is a slave to narrative.” But we can talk more about that later.

RELATED: The Media’s ‘Me Party’

The relevant point here is that Trump was right when he said that he didn’t divide America, it was divided when he showed up. What concerns me is that vast numbers of conservatives who lamented the MacGuffinized presidency and media of the Obama era have grabbed with both hands the MacGuffinized presidency of Donald Trump.

It is entirely true that the press served as an eager participant in the story of Obama. It is also entirely true that much of the mainstream media is playing the reverse role in the story of Trump’s presidency. And, it’s also the case that much of the conservative media is now playing the role they once decried in the MSM. The same people who rolled their eyes at every clickbait headline blaring “Watch as Jon Stewart DESTROYS” this or that Republican now cheer as Trump rails against the “Failing New York Times” or “Very Fake News.” It doesn’t matter that Trump’s arguments are as bogus, selective, or disingenuous as Stewart’s. What matters is to cheer the “butt hurt” of Chuck Todd or Jim Acosta or some other enemy.

Sean Hannity has taken to calling Chuck Todd a leader of something called “the alt-left,” a thing that is not a thing except in Hannity’s studio. (The “alt” in “alt-right” refers to a desire to replace the traditional Right with a new tribalist-nationalist Right. What “Left” is Chuck Todd trying to replace? This is weak-tea Alinskyite distraction.)

I’m reminded of that old saying, “Die a hero or live long enough to see yourself defending Chuck Todd.”

Now, that’s not entirely fair since I’ve always liked Todd, despite our fairly frequent disagreements. But you know what I mean. And I also agree with Mollie that the mainstream media has a lot to answer for when it comes to how they’ve treated conservatives and Republican presidents. I’ve written literally tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of words on this very point. And while I think Mollie is being unfair to Chuck here, I also think she misses the point.

When Donald Trump says any — and I mean any — negative coverage of him is fake, he’s making a very, very different claim than that of traditional bias. He is saying that news stories — with multiple sources from his administration, sometimes on the record — are simply fabricated. And just because the self-loving press idiotically takes the bait every time, handing him the mallet to bludgeon them with, doesn’t change the fact that the president of the United States is not only wrong, he’s lying. Yes, the New York Times gets stories wrong (News flash!), but it is not a work of fiction.

Whether he understands what he’s doing or not, Trump’s goal is to delegitimize any critical voices.

The argument one often hears from anti-anti-Trump conservatives is that they’re just holding the mainstream media accountable. Fine. Do that. But if you don’t show much interest in holding a president — who is the leader of the Republican party and maybe the conservative movement — accountable, then you’ve become an accomplice to the hero in a MacGuffinized presidency. One can see this most clearly when you hear radio- and TV-show hosts dismiss an argument by noting it comes from some alleged “Trump hater.” It’s the exact same tactic liberals used against those of us who criticized Bill Clinton. My animosity for Bill Clinton didn’t make him play football-coach-and-the-cheerleader with an intern. Likewise, my alleged feelings about Trump don’t make me wrong when I point out he’s lying when he says he won in a historic landslide or when he insists that his administration has been humming like a well-oiled machine.

Whether he understands what he’s doing or not, Trump’s goal is to delegitimize any critical voices. I think he’s motivated more by narcissism than by some evil-genius scheme, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is truth. We are entering a phase where everything is measured not by veracity, but by feeling: If certain facts make us feel like “our side” is losing, then those facts aren’t real. If certain fictions make the other side feel bad, then they are facts. Again, Trump didn’t create this sorry dynamic, but he is accelerating it at blistering speed. I’m less concerned about “fake news” than I am by fake opinions — by which I mean the widespread tendency to score political arguments based upon how much applause they will get from your team.

Reading Kevin Williamson’s terrific essay on President’s Day, I’m of a mind to think the presidency has always been MacGuffinized. But just because a problem has a long pedigree doesn’t mean the problem can’t get worse. I know I use this line from Orwell too much (and I’m eager to hear suggestions for substitutes), but it captures the dynamic of the moment so well: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” Collectively, we’re all getting drunk on our feelings and then failing all the more completely for it.

Beinart’s Gotcha

And that reminds me, Peter Beinart, my old sparring partner, has attempted to take National Review to the woodshed. Let me say upfront that he makes a defensible general point about anti-anti-Trumpism (a phrase I’ve been using for two years). It is a safe harbor for a lot of conservatives who don’t want to be too critical of a newly elected president who is not only popular with their readership but who is also in the infancy of his presidency and has promised an agenda they would very much like to see enacted.

I was anti-Trump throughout the primaries and in a different, but still substantial way, through the election. After Trump won, I declared myself no longer a member of “Never Trump” for the simple reason that it was a meaningless term after he won. I could be “Never New England Patriots” throughout the season and the playoffs, but once they won the Super Bowl, it would be silly to say we must take back the ring. I took a wait-and-see position because, it seemed to me, that was the only mature, patriotic, and responsible position to take. And that’s still my position (though wait-and-see doesn’t mean “stop telling the truth,” which is why I’ve both praised and criticized him). Some of my colleagues at NR are more enthusiastic about Trump, some less. But for the most part, as an editorial matter, that’s remained our position. Also, some conservatives I know — at NR and elsewhere — have taken the view that the Trump presidency will end badly but there’s no good reason to freak out now when Trump hasn’t yet earned the freak out, especially if that means we will have lost credibility when we may need it down the road.

The problem with Peter’s critique is that he’s cherry-picking various columnists to construct a narrative that doesn’t hold up.

The problem with Peter’s critique is that he’s cherry-picking various columnists to construct a narrative that doesn’t hold up. He doesn’t point to any NR editorials, and his examples come from stand-alone columns written by writers — some of whom don’t work for the magazine — who have the freedom to say what they want. If guest writer X writes that Trump is a God-King, that doesn’t mean that National Review writer Y has changed his position on anything. Moreover, Peter makes no effort to acknowledge that much of the “anti-anti-Trump” media criticism is really quite valid. Saying the election of Donald Trump is the equivalent of Pearl Harbor is ass-achingly stupid. Pointing that out may be helpful to Donald Trump, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Lastly, the fact that National Review runs a variety of pieces reflecting different points of view on the right is not quite the damning charge Peter seems to think it is. Beinart was the editor of The New Republic for quite a long time and I know he knows that that magazine (back when it was good) often had internal disagreements that make those at NR today seem like a fight over what kind of scones to serve at a tea party. I have disagreements with some of my colleagues (last week’s “news”letter was mostly dedicated to a pretty serious one with my boss), but that strikes me as a sign of National Review’s intellectual health. What Peter and a great many of his peers in the liberal press need to understand better is that a failure to agree with them on the nature of the moment isn’t necessarily evidence of hypocrisy; it’s evidence that we are conservatives who are inclined to take our own counsel. That this should shock anyone is a mystery to me.

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Various & Sundry

Canine Update: The beasts are doing well, but we’ve gotten ourselves into a bit of a pickle. One of my wife’s favorite things to do is to feed dogs ice cream. If she could find a way to monetize the practice, she’d probably go pro. So, for a while at night, after dinner and the evening constitutional, she would give each canine a scoop of vanilla in a little dish. Pippa wisely prefers to make the experience last, licking her portion methodically. Zoë follows in the footsteps of Cooper (seen here in one of the greatest YouTube videos of all time), devouring the ice cream as quickly as possible. Once it’s gone, she seems to immediately forget that she was ever given any ice cream and looks at Pippa the way a 400-pound prison inmate looks at a white-collar criminal with a pop tart.

But that’s not the problem. The dogs now consider the ice cream to be an entitlement. And when we don’t have ice cream, they follow Jessica around the house barking and howling as if she has the power to make it materialize (which, after all, she does in their little canine brains). We’ve tried to put them on a twelve-step program, but they have no interest in earning daily chips for their ice-cream sobriety and since they believe that their higher power is an ice-cream dispenser they remain baffled.

Thanks to the YPU: On Monday night, I debated at the Yale Political Union. It was my second time and it confirmed for me that I had not dreamed how weird the first time was. Still, they were a very impressive bunch of kids for the most part. The proposition to be debated was that the “Elites should rule” — a topic I didn’t choose and wasn’t particularly interested in defending the way I was expected to.

I began by telling them that debating whether the elites should rule could be rephrased as “Should Yale students continue to get their monies’ worth from their tuitions.” I was more than a little dismayed by how many of them have so little use for democracy, the Constitution, or federalism and I was more than a bit shocked to hear two members of the Conservative party talk about the need to switch to either an unelected Catholic aristocracy or the Confucian model of the civil service. But, hey, youth.

Afterwards, the Party of the Right took me out to The Owl for liquor and cigars and that was truly a grand time. Thanks again to everyone.

ICYMI . . . 

Why Trump is probably not playing 4D chess.

Why there’s more to the Middle East conflict than the Israeli–Palestinian dispute.

How history will remember Obama’s presidency, why Tom Hardy may or may not make a good James Bond, and other observations I made on the Fifth Estate podcast.

I talk what-aboutism, Trump’s rocky early weeks, Hamilton, Oscar predictions, and more on the latest Ricochet GLoP podcast.

Why the center is weakening.

Don’t forget to sign up for the National Review Institute 2017 Ideas Summit in D.C. on March 16-17.

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The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg