Ross Douthat has a good column today, about how Trump’s grift has been paradoxically cleansing. He argues that Trump’s claim that he would go to Washington and “drain the swamp,” while only ever plausible to those eager to be a mark, is now impossible for anyone to take seriously:
But the more common reason a certain kind of Trump supporter accepted his anti-corruption pitch was less conspiratorial and more cynical. He’s bad but they’re all like that, the whole elite class is rotten, so why not send a grifter to catch a bunch of grifters?
That hasn’t worked out; it turns out that when you send a businessman-grifter into the world of political grifters he hires some of the worst of them to help him with the fleecing.
True. We are very close to the point, if not past it, where any good that Trump’s election might have done in terms of breaking up a corrupt aristocracy, in spite of Trump’s own corruption, is now exceeded by that corruption. David Brooks articulated on NPR on Friday something that has been on my mind lately, but I hadn’t put into words.
And the final question I have is, what are our standards? Behind the legal standards, what’s our political standards. President Nixon could be really removed from office for obstruction from justice — of justice. Are we at a state in this country where we no longer really mind? And that actually could be the case. I’m just reminded The New York Times had a story of tax fraud in the Trump family, and that story went away in about 35 seconds. And so we’ve become — may have become inured to corruption.
Yes, I think we are. Do you really believe that Michael Cohen, not Donald Trump, is lying about the Trump organization’s business dealings with Russia? Seriously? I said here after the shocking final Kavanaugh hearing that seeing the behavior of the Democrats and the liberal industrial complex in their attempt to destroy Kavanaugh by any means necessary shocked me into the realization that as much as I can’t stand Trump, I would probably have to vote for him only out of self-protection.
That said, at what point does even that become hard to justify? Brooks is right: whenever I hear of some new vile thing that Trump is alleged to have done, I just shrug. I expect him to be a criminal, in a way that I never would have expected any other president to be a criminal. And the Republicans in Congress have barely tried to rein him in. After he goes, it’s going to be hard to restore respect to the presidency.
But look, here’s where Douthat throws a curveball. I’m not sure I buy the causation he sees — that Trump’s existence brought these things about — but it sure is interesting to contemplate the possible connection. Douthat says that we are able to see more clearly the actual corruption that was already there in the Establishment. For example:
The story of rich-guy pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, just written up in exhaustive detail by The Miami Herald, is a perfect example — a pedophilia scandal hidden in plain sight, in which a wealthy abuser got off with a slap on the wrist because he had a bipartisan group of allies and there was an incentive not to embarrass the powerful people who might have frequented his parties or taken rides on his plane. A crucial player, the prosecutor who let Epstein slide, is now the Trump administration’s labor secretary — but instead of being a seedy Trumpworld figure, Alexander Acosta is an eminently respectable, big-law figure. Not a grifter; just an exemplar of the American elite.
Not a grifter; just an exemplar of the American elite.
As, of course, is Epstein’s pal Bill Clinton, who hasn’t been exposed in the Trump era so much as finally acknowledged, by a growing number of liberals, as a sexual predator who survived impeachment because the establishment went into a panic about the specter of puritanism and either smeared or ignored the women credibly accusing him. Not a grifter, the ex-president; just a pillar of the establishment who happened to have a plausible rape accusation lying there in plain sight all the time.
Ain’t it the truth. Douthat goes on:
In fact our elite is rotten and deserves judgment, yet Trump’s mix of kleptocracy and kakistocracy is worse. So the question of how you replace a bad elite with a better one, not just with something more corrupt, is what both left and right should be pondering while this particular purgation runs its course.
Maureen Dowd’s column today, about the end of the line for Bill and Hillary Clinton (Dowd writes from a half-empty arena where the couple was to speak), contains similar talk. Excerpt:
After the White House, the money-grubbing raged on, with the Clintons making over 700 speeches in a 15-year period, blithely unconcerned with any appearance of avarice or of shady special interests and foreign countries buying influence. They stockpiled a whopping $240 million. Even leading up to her 2016 presidential run, Hillary was packing in the speeches, talking to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the American Camp Association, eBay, and there was that infamous trifecta of speeches for Goldman Sachs worth $675,000.
“What scares me the most is Hillary’s smug certainty of her own virtue as she has become greedy and how typical that is of so many chic liberals who seem unaware of their own greed,” Charlie Peters, the legendary liberal former editor of The Washington Monthly, told me. “They don’t really face the complicity of what’s happened to the world, how selfish we’ve become and the horrible damage of screwing the workers and causing this resentment that the Republicans found a way of tapping into.” He ruefully worries about the Obamas in this regard, too.
I’m finishing Douglas Murray’s astonishing book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, which is about how the European elites, for decades, have lied to their publics about mass immigration, and suppressed any criticism of it. It is an astonishing work — and a very depressing one, because it’s hard to conclude that Europe has the moral, spiritual, and psychological wherewithal to turn things around. I desperately hope that’s wrong.
Murray writes of the spiritual exhaustion of Europeans, comparing it to the recent past:
The British writer Stephen Spender spent part of the 1930s living in Berlin and reflected on that time in his diary in 1939. Before the ultimate catastrophe had begun he mulled on the Germans he had met while living there. As he wrote, “The trouble with all the nice people I knew in Germany is that they were either tired or weak.”
In talking about the death of Christianity in Europe, Murray — an atheist who calls himself a “cultural Christian” — says that Christianity was Europe’s “founding myth,” and that without it, Europe doesn’t know what it believes or what it’s for. “Human rights” is weak tea without some sort of transcendent source. Murray also talks about how difficult it is for Europeans to believe in anything, having lost their religion and made a ruin of themselves with political substitutes. And, on the immigration question — which is truly an existential one for Europe — the continent’s elites have across the board lied for decades to the people. I was somewhat aware of this prior to coming to Murray’s book, but to read the details gathered in one place like this was genuinely shocking. The startling thing is not that there are riots in the streets of Paris, but that it took them so long.
America is not (yet) Europe in terms of losing our religion, but following Murray, I wonder how his insights apply to us politically when we lose faith in our institutions and those that run them? Make no mistake, we have done this. Look at results from this January 2018 poll:
Trump is useful for keeping the Democrats out of power, but who among his supporters really believes that he is any kind of real force for reform or renewal? It’s grift all the way down. I suppose there are lots of folks on the Left who really do believe that politics can change things for the better — that if only they defeated the Republicans, we would be on the road to recovery. It is pretty to think that, but they should keep in mind that half of America doesn’t believe that. Besides, most Americans — including them — have lost faith in other institutions. “Big Business” isn’t part of the NPR/PBS Marist poll above, but I bet people have little faith in our corporate masters. I know I don’t.
Nor is organized religion in that poll, but honestly, who has much faith in religious institutions? Reading Murray’s book, and encountering the lies upon lies that European governments of the Left and the Right have told the people about how this time, they were going to get tough on immigration, it’s impossible not to consider the US Catholic bishops and their years of lies about abuse. You can only lie to people so many times before they just won’t believe you anymore.
So, to what extent does this loss of faith in a wide range of institutions say about America losing its secular “founding myth”? After all, it is axiomatic in a liberal democracy that the people can be trusted to govern themselves. What if that’s no longer true? What comes next?
Put more pointedly, after Trump fails — that is to say, after even those who believed in him recognize that he is and always was a grifter, and never intended to do the things they hoped he would do — what will happen to our politics?
You’ve seen the news about the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) riots in France, right? It’s a spontaneous movement of working class people fed up with taxes and the cost of living. President Macron is now contemplating declaring a national state of emergency. Christophe Guilluy, author of a book about society, economics, and France’s future, writes in The Guardian today:
In France, as in all western countries, we have gone in a few decades from a system that economically, politically and culturally integrates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.
The change is not down to a conspiracy, a wish to cast aside the poor, but to a model where employment is increasingly polarised. This comes with a new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialised regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic. But it is in these places – in “peripheral France” (one could also talk of peripheral America or peripheral Britain) – that many working-class people live. Thus, for the first time, “workers” no longer live in areas where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.
It is in this France périphérique that the gilets jaunes movement was born. It is also in these peripheral regions that the western populist wave has its source. Peripheral America brought Trump to the White House. Peripheral Italy – mezzogiorno, rural areas and small northern industrial towns – is the source of its populist wave. This protest is carried out by the classes who, in days gone by, were once the key reference point for a political and intellectual world that has forgotten them.
So if the hike in the price of fuel triggered the yellow vest movement, it was not the root cause. The anger runs deeper, the result of an economic and cultural relegation that began in the 80s. At the same time, economic and land logics have locked up the elite world. This confinement is not only geographical but also intellectual. The globalised metropolises are the new citadels of the 21st century – rich and unequal, where even the former lower-middle class no longer has a place. Instead, large global cities work on a dual dynamic: gentrification and immigration. This is the paradox: the open society results in a world increasingly closed to the majority of working people.
What I’m getting at is asking what comes politically when most Americans lose faith in the ability of our elites to make things better? I fear that on the Right, we’re going to have to deal with the myth that Trump would have succeeded had the swamp not stabbed him in the back.