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The Billionaire Upstream

A recent piece on Peter Thiel and "founder" theory suggests the connection between populism and personalism, and hints at the relationship of power and authority.

The popular pass-around-the-block piece this past week in my circles has been “The Rise of the Thielists.” Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes in the New Yorker about the growing, or increasingly apparent, role Peter Thiel the billionaire plays in American politics. Thiel is a man of the right, a technologist skeptical of technological progress, and a student of political theory. It’s a decent little writeup and I see why people are reading it: Thiel is very interesting, the idea of a Thielism is interesting, and as Wallace-Wells points out, “Most of us, these days, operate downstream from one billionaire or another.” We want to know where we stand. 

That’s the most interesting line in the piece, actually. As Wallace-Wells explains later, a major tenet of Thielism is “founder” theory. This is Great Man history for the 21st century. He writes:

The deepest quality of Thiel and Masters’s book is its outsized vision of what a heroic individual—a founder—can do. In a late chapter, they argue that successful founders tend to have the opposite qualities of those seen in the general population—that they are, in some basic ways, different—and compare them to kings and figures of ancient mythology.

From Thiel and Blake Masters’s book, Zero to One, as quoted in the piece: 

This hints at the strange way in which the companies that create new technology often resemble feudal monarchies rather than organizations that are supposedly more “modern.” A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons.

There’s a billionaire latter-day Carlyle floating about; it had to make it into the New Yorker eventually. And the New Yorker had to, in a carefully casual little line, admit that individuals, persons, founders, are setting many of the stages the rest of us recite our lines on.

The rest of us should be keeping that in mind. The temptation of our moment is to let technology, the economy, systems, structures, abstracted power, obscure persons and personal responsibility. But we must indeed pay attention to the men and women behind curtains, for some we may choose to follow, and others are our foes. The New Yorker tagged this Thiel piece “Annals of Populism,” but we should add it to the archives of personalism, instead. Perhaps, with enough demystification of progress and remystification of the human spirit, we can draw out authority again from behind her veil. 

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Anglo-American Vaccine Nationalism Versus EU Technocratic Liberalism

Guess which one is winning?

Conservative party leadership contender Boris Johnson poses for a photograph in front of a Union Jack on a wall at the Wight Shipyard Company at Venture Quay during a visit to the Isle of Wight on June 27, 2019 on the Isle of Wight, United Kingdom. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Chris Bickerton, an expert on the European Union, has a damning piece up at the New York Times today about the EU’s failure to vaccinate its own people. The EU had assumed power over vaccine procurement from European member governments, insisting that could lead a continent-wide anti-COVID campaign. Now, the statistical disparities are eye-watering:

By the third week of May, the United States and Britain had administered over 80 doses per 100 inhabitants; the E.U. had managed 43.6 doses per 100 residents. Slow to start, subject to shortages in supply and in some cases poorly targeted, the continent’s vaccine rollout has been disastrous. The result has been a long and drawn-out third wave of the virus, leading to lockdowns, economic contraction and many deaths.

Britain and America have vaccinated almost double the number of people proportionately as has the European behemoth state. Why is this happening? One reason listed by Bickerton is that the EU has used the vaccine campaign as yet another excuse to consolidate its own power:

By centralizing vaccine procurement in its hands, it sought greater control over the bloc’s health policy. Such transfers of responsibility are rarely reversed, even if the policies themselves are a failure. This is what Professor Majone called “integration by stealth.”

A centralized vaccine strategy would also, leaders suggested, give meaning to an E.U. struggling to find its place in a challenging geopolitical environment, demonstrating the bloc’s capacity to unite. Yet the attempt amounted to an enormous institutional experiment conducted amid a global health crisis. It was a breathtakingly reckless gamble that didn’t come off.

For EU watchers, this is pure deja vu. Everything the European Union tries to do morphs into an attempt to gobble up sovereignty from member governments. It’s the same story time and again: some problem is hailed as an opportunity for continent-wide unity, the blue flags no one ever salutes fly, the anthem no one can recite blares—and the EU sets about mucking everything up. It’s only a shame we don’t have Nigel Farage in the European Parliament to offer his views on this latest failure.

There are more granular reasons why the EU is lagging so badly. The bloc tried to play hardball with the pharmaceutical companies, negotiating down prices, while the Yanks and Brits were throwing money at the problem; this relegated Europe to the back of the line so far as supply was concerned. And the British/Swiss drug corporation AstraZeneca, whose vaccinations were halted in the U.S. over concerns about blood clotting, has reportedly struggled to deliver shots in both the UK and the EU.

Still, it was farcical to hear European commissioner Thierry Breton declare to the media last month, “So I can say that the turbulence we have experienced is solely due to AstraZeneca’s failure to deliver.” Solely! Again, the pattern: the EU assumes control of something, everything promptly flies up into the air and explodes, and suddenly it’s someone else’s responsibility. Europe’s poor, meek, Bambi-eyed continental overlords just can’t catch a break.

Meanwhile, economic optimism in Britain and America is surging. I know we have a lot of problems here in the United States, from inflation to gas lines to political tension. But let’s take a minute to be thankful that we don’t live under a technocratic blob addicted to the imperialism of “ever-closer union.”

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Noise Pollution Matters Too

Traffic sounds make it harder for birds to sing. What does all this noise do to us?

I and my college friends have made the drive from D.C. to Hillsdale many, many times. We crawl through the city to get on the I-495 W in Silver Spring. Then it’s the I-270 N, and then the I-70 to Breezewood—a living monument to man’s achievements with fossil fuels. Then it’s turnpike land nearly all the way to Pure Michigan. 

For me, those first two stages always involve a sense of giddiness. Sure, there’s the general feeling of starting on a journey, but I mean a stronger lightheartedness than that. This is a notable lifting of weight from the shoulders, the dissipation of some sort of pressure, the need to laugh out loud. The Beltway is a spiritually dark place, strange and desperate with Masonic lines and ruthless strivers. Maybe it’s just escape from a psychic shadow that I feel as we slip out of Silver Spring and head north through Maryland, a pneumatic retreat, but I also think it’s a physical thing, too, though subtle. 

D.C. is loud and bright. The sirens do not stop, nor do the aircraft. There is constant noise and incessant light. People talk about the energy of New York—the Big Apple, you know? A city that never sleeps. There may be something spiritual to that, too, but it’s also an enormous city, and it’s loud, and bright. Thesis: We do not take noise pollution or light pollution seriously enough. We know to clean our urban environments, but we should make them pleasant, too. Not every poison is chemical. 

I don’t think I have to make much of a case for the ills of light pollution; everyone has been overwhelmed by those rare glimpses of the Milky Way, a sight our ancestors might almost have taken for granted except that God made his covenant with Abraham by its sign. People buy blackout curtains, fantasize about shooting the streetlights, consider the superiority of lamps to overhead lights, the diabolical brilliant dreariness of fluorescents. No, light explains itself. 

But the noise we accept as part of urban life, and we do our best to tune it out, and do pretty well. We only begin to notice noise after it has fallen away, and even then we are often in the cocoon of a car, itself rumbling and roaring just beyond our conscious mind. I think that’s what I’m feeling as I leave a city. Yes, I hear the car I’m in, and the one in front of us, but I no longer sit in a great vibrating mass of sound, miles and miles of rumbles and humming and shrieking and wailing and roars. My bones are shaking less. 

A recent article in Science Advances explored the damage noise pollution is doing to us by examining its effect on songbirds. Sound pressure too low to physically damage our ears can contribute to cardiovascular and metabolic disease. It has been connected to cognitive issues, as well, especially to learning and language deficits in children. Birds learning how to sing birdsongs is “the primary animal model for vocal learning and speech development in humans.” In the observed birds, the noise of traffic hindered vocal development and song learning. Moreover, noise was an enormous stressor for chicks and fledglings, suppressing their immune systems. We’re torturing the songbirds. They can’t sing as well as they used to. What are we doing to us?

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Inflation Nation and Our Political Realignment

Both parties have come to assume that federal debt doesn't matter. What happens if the free ride ends?

Inflation is back, baby, even if that statement is slightly misleading. In a sense, inflation never really went away—college tuition prices have been massively inflating for years, though we tend not to think about them in those terms. And some of the current inflation is expected to cool soon. The recent spike in gas prices, for example, was primarily caused by panic-buying following a hack at a major pipeline that’s since back up and running. Memorial Day travel might still be pricey, but a 1970s-esque OPEC crisis this is not.

Still, we gauge inflation primarily by the Consumer Price Index, and based on that, the news is not good. The New York Times reports:

Consumer prices jumped at the fastest pace in more than a decade in April, surprising economists and intensifying a debate on Wall Street and in Washington over whether inflation might reach levels that would squeeze households and ultimately undermine the recovery. …

On Wednesday, stocks slumped more than 2 percent, their biggest decline since late February, after the government reported in the morning that the closely monitored Consumer Price Index climbed 4.2 percent in April from a year earlier, its fastest pace since 2008.

There are neurotics living in haunted houses who are “surprised” less often than economists. Naturally most of our tenured gurus failed to predict this inflationary episode, just as they’ve failed to predict just about everything else that’s ever happened to the economy. Yet now that inflation is here, they’re counseling caution. Some of this, they point out, is due to temporary supply shortages of goods like lumber and microchips. Much more of it is due to the weird yet encouraging post-pandemic economic recovery, as lockdown restrictions ease and pent-up dollars go flying into the summer haze.

Yet it’s also hard not to see the omens here. We’re barely at the start of that recovery, yet inflation is already taking off? We’ve only just begun to dole out President Biden’s massive stimulus package and the economy is already overheating? As Noah Smith at Bloomberg reminds us, inflation is psychological and often takes its cues from the behavior of others:

The scary scenario here is that businesses see cost-push inflation, they see President Joe Biden and Congress borrowing a ton of money, and they see the Fed keeping interest rates low, so they decide that prices are going to have to go up, and they start raising their own prices immediately to beat the rush. Of course, when everyone tries to beat the rush, that becomes the rush.

Beyond higher prices for Chevys and canned soup, there’s also a danger in our policy response to inflation. In the early 1980s, Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker finally put an end to the inflation that had plagued the United States for more than a decade by hiking interest rates. This caused a short-term recession but it ultimately stabilized the economy and helped fuel the Reagan/Clinton boom. The Fed could do the same thing today—except we have a staggeringly massive national debt whose interest payments are already gunking up the budget. Hike interest rates and you end up with even more interest payments. This could force lacerating cuts to the federal government and potentially even worse consequences.

So just how doomed are we? Right now, we simply don’t know. But in the meantime, there’s a political angle to consider. Back in 2010, many conservatives warned that serious inflation was just around the corner, a consequence of President Obama’s stimulus package and the coming economic recovery. It didn’t happen. Interest rates stayed low, money stayed loose, and Congress went on a spending binge.

All of this served to effectively obsolesce the fiscally conservative critique. Why keep budgets balanced and government small if there were no consequences to big spending? The Tea Party fizzled; their wonk-in-chief Paul Ryan was defenestrated; Donald Trump barely even pretended to be a budget hawk. A new generation of conservatives arose who were less concerned with shrinking the administrative state than fighting big tech and the woke agenda. Both political parties became as comfortable with red ink as they’ve perhaps ever been.

Now the free ride could be about to end. Our politics never remains fixed for long, and the reimposition of serious spending limits is one trend to watch.

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‘Miles Taylor and His Fellow RINO Losers’

The gaggle of has-been and never-was Republicans threatening to leave the party will not be missed when they go.

WASHINGTON, DC - November 16: Miles Taylor, who has recently revealed himself as the author of the explosive anonymous NYT column that described a resistance group within the Trump administration, at an undisclosed location in Washington, DC on November 16. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Our old friend ‘Anonymous’ (who is hardly any less so after his anticlimactic unmasking) is at it again. Miles Taylor, the onetime petty apparatchik in the Department of Homeland Security—that famed bastion of “democracy,” “the rule of law,” and “principles”—is launching a new campaign to reassert such imperiled values in American public life.

A Call for American Renewal,” which was hyped up with a press release of a news story in the New York Times on Tuesday before launching with a web campaign today, is the latest in a long parade of overblown and overfunded “principled conservative” institutions to crop up in D.C. during the Trump years.

The opening salvo is a mini-manifesto that clocks in just short of a thousand words, with 150 signatories the vast majority of whose names invite a monosyllabic response: “Who?” Still, there are some noted have-beens on the list, and every name that’s recognizable is a doozy. There’s Evan McMullin, the Mormon former CIA spook who launched a Bill Kristol-backed independent campaign for POTUS in 2016 after fellow bald American David French declined to run. There’s uber-Democratic financier turned short-lived White House comms director Anthony Scaramucci, who was even less graceful than most in exiting the Trump administration. There’s John Negroponte, the United States’ first ever Director of National Intelligence. There’s former Massachusetts governor, 2016 Libertarian vice presidential nominee, and 2020 GOP vanity primary challenger Bill Weld, the loathsome archetype of the upper-crust New England liberal. Co-founder of Redwood Grove Capital Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt V must see something fitting in the threat to break off from the GOP. There’s one-term congressman, Trump-supporter turned Trump-basher, and sometime child-support delinquent Joe Walsh. There’s Max Boot, who must be the only self-professed military expert—or the only person, for that matter—to wear a fedora unironically in 2021. There’s a William O’Reilly—William F. Buckley O’Reilly, that is—which must be the only situation in which the guy whose career crumbled in disgrace after sexual misconduct allegations is the one who can be upset to share a name with someone else.

Pseudo-Jeffersonian prose mixed with meaningless consultant jargon makes it read as you’d expect the Declaration to read if it were written by a beltway PR firm in the new millennium. “[W]hen in our democratic republic, forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism arise, it is the patriotic duty of citizens to act collectively in defense of liberty and justice,” is hardly a match for “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”—but you can certainly tell it’s trying. “[W]ith a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” the signers of 1776 declared, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” 2021 doesn’t pack the same punch: “With abiding belief in the value and potential of every soul and with goodwill for all, we hereby dedicate ourselves to these principles and make common cause in the flourishing of this great nation and its diverse states, communities, and citizens.”

To what principles, exactly, do these dedicati swear? A list of 13 follows. (One can’t help but think that a more intelligent bunch might have trimmed the list down to a dozen, or even bumped it up to 14—anything to avoid a number that we don’t even put on elevators. As it is, we are handed an amusingly blunt omen.)

“Democracy” kicks it off, the descriptive paragraph for which insists that our dissidents “reject populism.” No consciousness of the irony here is apparent. Government by the people, sure. Government for the people—whoa there, buddy, slow down now. What are you, some kind of fascist?

“Founding ideals” follows:

the self-evident truth that all persons are created equal and free, having the same inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that it is the prerogative of all to make personal decisions in accordance with their free will. We, therefore, condemn all forms of bigotry such as racism, religious intolerance, sexism, and persecution based on sexual orientation.

Ah. Are those what the founders’ ideals were? I must have missed that day in history class.

“Constitutional order” is next, and our Republican rogues swear to “uphold the Constitution as the inviolable and collective contract protecting liberty and justice for all.” If the Constitution is inviolable, I think you ought to tell… well, frankly, everyone.

More dull platitudes ensue, a string of which delivers us to principle seven, “pluralism.” The signatories, we learn, “are committed to a pluralistic society defined by its ideals…” Well, which one is it?

The only vaguely economic principle is “opportunity,” and the word choice is promising. We begin: “We recognize open, market-based economies as consistent with our natural liberty and the optimal means of ensuring economic mobility and the allocation of scarce resources.” So close.

Next is “free speech”:

We reaffirm the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech and freedom of the press as essential to accountable government and the American way of life. We sustain the rights of individuals and private entities to exercise this freedom, even to express unpopular views, and condemn efforts to erode press freedom and public support for its vital role.

I am pleased to learn of the Call for American Renewal’s support for Julian Assange.

“Conservation” merits no objection. You get one, Taylor.

“Common defense & welfare” takes 51 words to convey what could be said in three: WE ARE HAWKS. (This, of course, is perhaps the starkest dividing line between security state functionaries like Taylor and the populists they reject.)

“Leadership” brings us home:

Having thrived in the abundance of a choice land, we believe that these United States must work in conjunction with friends and allies to advance worthy interests abroad and to promote freedom by example and with the judicious application of power.

Because 51 words wasn’t enough.

It’s all as pompous as it is inane. These people clearly fancy themselves heroes speaking truth to power (“truth” being another of the 13 principles) but the reality is something closer to Donald Trump’s very Donald Trump statement on them: “a group of RINOs and Losers” (among other things). They are convinced that they stand as the defenders of True Conservatism and Founding Ideals against the corrosive forces of right-wing populism. But it is not an unfair characterization to say that their ahistorical reading of the “founding ideals” of America extends no further than political liberalism, that they give no consideration to the common good—to say nothing of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—which the actual Founders valued so highly, that by “democracy” they mean only a liberal proceduralism that provides no real guarantee of democratic government (it is hard for me to understand the sum of demos and kratos as anything other than “populism”), and that like the vast majority of their class for decades they have no qualms about sending American boys to die for their vague and hollow “principles” abroad.

They call themselves “pragmatists” ready to “restore a ‘common-sense coalition'” in American politics. They promise “to catalyze an American renewal, and to either reimagine a [Republican] party dedicated to our founding ideals or else hasten the creation of such an alternative.”

Apparently, they think their threat to leave the party if it does not revive the dead consensus has some kind of teeth. I say good riddance. The Founders would too.

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The Eddie Gallagher Incident: The Lowest Point of Trump’s Administration

This wasn't a win against the 'deep state'

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 02: Defense attorneys Marc Mukasey (L) and Tim Parlatore react outside military court after Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was acquitted of premediated murder at Naval Base San Diego July 2, 2019 in San Diego, California. Gallagher was found not guilty in the killing of a wounded Islamic State captive in Iraq in 2017. He was cleared of all charges but one of posing for photos with the dead body of the captive. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

In 2019, when conservative influencers started pushing the case of Eddie Gallagher as a cause celebre in an obvious bid to gain the attention of the president, it seemed incredibly brazen and cynical to me at the time. The evidence against him seemed substantial and it was clear many in his own unit were horrified by him.

Was it really possible, I naively thought, to sell a man giving a 17-year-old detainee a tracheotomy with a hunting knife, then posing with his corpse, to a conservative audience, as a case of pantywaist military bureaucrats stringing up one of the real “warfighters” over some irrelevant scruple?

It turns out it’s totally possible. It worked, thanks to assists from Bernie Kerik, who was pardoned by Trump himself, Pete Hegseth, and some of the shadiest orbiters of Trumpland.

As of last week, Eddie Gallagher has given an interview contradicting some of the key arguments of his legal defense. According to Gallagher, they weren’t actually trying to give him medical assistance at all, just perform “medical treatment on him until he’s gone.” From Task and Purpose’s report:

“Everybody knew what was going on,” Gallagher said. “It’s the only truthful thing to this whole process; and then the rest of it just is like a bunch of contorted lies to, like, pin that whole scenario on me.”

“I didn’t stab him,” Gallagher continued. “I didn’t stab that dude. That dude died from all the medical treatments that were done – and there was plenty of medical treatments that were done to him.”

When asked why he cut an emergency airway in the ISIS fighter’s throat, Gallagher replied: “Just for practice. I was practicing to see how fast I could do one in.”

Gallagher said he didn’t tell his leadership about how the ISIS fighter had died when it became clear that he could be prosecuted for it.

“At that point, my intuition kicked in and I was like: I’m not talking to anybody about – even though I’m, like, innocent, I knew to keep my mouth shut.”

It’s inexplicable why he would go and say this, after having been vindicated in court and being seen as a hero to not a few conservatives.

The president intervened in several ways during the case, first to transfer him to more comfortable detention. After he was acquitted on all but the charge of posing with the corpse, the Chief of Naval Operations accepted Gallagher’s clemency request and reduced the demotion to a single rank. But that wasn’t enough for Gallagher’s influencer friends, and evidently not enough for Trump, who tweeted that he wasn’t going to let that happen. After an absurd spectacle that resulted in the firing of the Secretary of the Navy, the president ordered the Secretary of Defense to let Gallagher keep his trident pin until his retirement.

It was an ugly spectacle all around, all the more so given Gallagher’s recent admission. Trump shouldn’t have allowed himself to be drawn into it, and as far as battles with the “deep state” go this one is a blind alley. Gallagher’s book is out next month, I’m sure you’ll be able to catch him on Fox & Friends.

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Elise Stefanik Will Save You From the Commies

Liz Cheney's likely replacement is, like Cheney herself, a relic of a bygone GOP.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY)(L) gets a hug from U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) before the start of the first session of the 114th Congress in the House Chambers January 6, 2015 in Washington, DC. Today Congress convened its first session of the 114th Congress with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Noted Trump hater and spotlight chaser Liz Cheney (R-Kabul) has been removed from House Republican leadership by a voice vote this morning, and there’s not much question as to who is going to replace her. Elise Stefanik—a 36-year-old New York four-termer with endorsements from President Trump, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Minority Whip Steve Scalise—is all but inevitable.

The only thing that could make her a worse choice is if her father was Dick Cheney.

Stefanik officially kicked off her bid for House Republican Conference chair just minutes after the successful vote to remove Cheney the Younger, tweeting out a letter to her fellow GOP members asking for their votes:

The tone she strikes is strange for 2021, and she seems able only to hit a single note. Stefanik boasts of her “laser focus on defeating the radical Socialist Democrat agenda of President Biden and Speaker Pelosi.” She laments (apparently never having heard of FDR) “the most significant Far-Left Socialist dismantling of America by any President or Congress in our Nation’s history.” She makes one flip and warns again of “the radical Democrats’ Socialist agenda” before pivoting to a warning of “the media and Socialist Democrats” and promising to “go on offense against the Socialist Democrats.”

I’d say she seems like a broken record, but I think that’s just how the song is supposed to sound. This stuff has proven effective, with some residual Red-Scaredness hanging on in the 2021 GOP all the way from the donor class right down to the base. But it will only be effective for so long—Boomers, whatever they might think, are not immortal. The voters for whom the Socialism Sucks™ shtick still has any purchase are quickly dying off.

Trump himself never shied away from this messaging, notably looping in tiny-faced Boomer-at-heart Charlie Kirk as his unofficial ambassador to the yoots. But it was always obviously a posture for him—a way to get the old folks on board with dollars and votes, a way to mend fences with the party’s marketeers. While railing against the socialist Democrats, the former president was always perfectly happy to exert political power in economic matters, and even to send relief checks to citizens in the face of state-imposed economic shutdowns.

Stefanik, meanwhile, seems to be a more sincere adherent of the “socialism is when government does things” school. Even still, she may be pushed to a more populist position simply due to the influence of the former president from behind the scenes. As has become increasingly clear in the months since January, it is still—and will be for a while—Donald Trump’s GOP. Many formerly laissez faire Republican leaders were forced to the right on economics during the Trump years, and Stefanik could well be pulled by the same political gravity. It is highly doubtful that Trump—or even McCarthy or Scalise, to a lesser extent—would have offered an endorsement without some kind of backroom guarantee that Stefanik would play ball.

If Stefanik will toe the America First line on economic policy, that’s all well and good, even if she does stick to the tired old messaging for political reasons. But that still leaves the question of, well, everything else.

On foreign policy, for instance—which is, ostensibly, the great dividing line between Trump and the “warmonger whose family stupidly pushed us into the never-ending Middle East Distaster“—Stefanik is every bit as hawkish as the outgoing conference chair. This tune hasn’t changed either, with Wednesday’s announcement letter urging a push to “strengthen our military to counter adversaries like the Chinese Communist Party.” In this arena, moreover, Trump has shown himself much less able to move others toward his position, or even to get most of his goals over the finish line. Four months after Trump left office, the most dovish Republican left on the national political stage is—well, he’s not doing great. Even with the 45th lurking in the shadows, we can hardly expect improvement on the foreign policy front just because Liz Cheney has been removed from leadership.

On social issues too, Stefanik is miles to the left of Cheney, and probably of the average American—to say nothing of the average Republican. Now, this is an area in which Trump (who often bragged of being the “most pro-gay president” ever) has proven not so much unable as unwilling to exert rightward pressure on the party. There’s good reason the most serious Republican candidate for governor of California is was Bruce Jenner. Elise Stefanik—who voted for the Equality Act in 2019—will fit in just fine. On abortion, too, the New York congresswoman is lukewarm at best, and we cannot expect pro-life leadership from her any more than we can expect it from the party.

Of course, it’s not all bad. She’s great on immigration. She won’t take away your guns. She knows that schools need to be reopened. She’s committed to election security and was always strongly against both dubious Trump impeachments. She is, in all likelihood, just good enough that we’re going to lay down and take it.

But we shouldn’t. Over the last year, Americans watched their cities burn as the government told them it was illegal to go to work; huge portions of the middle and lower classes were delivered to the brink of financial collapse, and now a massive eviction crisis is looming; the LGBT+ agenda made more progress than it had in years, and has now set its sights firmly on the young; the foundations of our national economy, faltering for ages, are now approaching total dissolution; the social fabric of the nation is in tatters. Americans today face a hundred grave—and even existential—threats, next to none of which has anything at all to do with the decades-old specters that distract Elise Stefanik.

A conservative party would do something about them. Even with Liz gone, don’t hold your breath.

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‘Defund the Police’ Breaks Windows in Baltimore

The city is in the midst of a crime wave as it routs money away from law enforcement and eases prosecutions.

Over at City Journal, Stephen J.K. Walters has a fascinating piece about the ongoing crime wave in Baltimore. As he notes, “Since 2011, nearly 3,000 Baltimoreans have been murdered—one of every 200 city residents over that period” (emphasis added).

At least one reason for that astonishing statistic is the failure to properly implement what’s often regarded as a conservative idea: broken-windows policing. Walters writes:

Chief William J. Bratton implemented the Broken Windows theory-inspired community-policing methods pioneered by social scientists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, who understood how small manifestations of disorder could grow to larger ones. Minor offenses that made residents feel unsafe or hinted at acceptance of violence were addressed in order to improve quality of life, strengthen communities, and prevent serious crime.

In Baltimore, however, Broken Windows was misunderstood and misapplied. It mutated into a malignant variant, “zero tolerance” policing—and BPD conduct became not just intolerant but unfocused and excessive. As David Simon, a veteran Baltimore crime reporter and creator of HBO’s The Wire, summed things up, [former mayor Martin] O’Malley “tossed the Fourth Amendment out a window and began using the police department to sweep the corners and rowhouse stoops and [per Norris] ‘lock up damn near everyone.’” That sometimes even included Wire crew members on their way home from a long day of filming.

After broken-windows had mutated into something too authoritarian, Baltimore then swung hard in the other direction, defunding their police and decreasing prosecutions of non-violent infractions. The result, or at least the backdrop, has been a torrential explosion of crime in a city already ravaged by poverty and violence. (For further reading on this, check out the excellent New York Times Magazine piece “The Tragedy of Baltimore.”)

It’s a shame because reasonable broken-windows reform, leavened by community engagement, deescalation training, and the circumvention of police unions, really can work, as the city of Camden proved. Yet Baltimore is going in the opposite direction. This comes under the leadership of Marilyn Mosby, the city’s state attorney, who last year said she wanted to “reimagine” policing. Not that she’s allergic to a little state brutality, of course:

The office of Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Marilyn Mosby has filed a formal FCC complaint against local news station WBFF, requesting an investigation into the Fox News-affiliated network’s broadcasting and media practices.

The office’s communications director Zy Richardson wrote the complaint letter to the FCC, stating that WBFF has committed “heinous” acts in the name of journalism.

The letter acknowledges FCC rules that “[b]roadcasters may not intentionally distort the news” and “rigging or slanting the news is [deemed] a most heinous act against the public interest.”

Spare a thought for Baltimore. It’s a great American city and it’s being run by thin-skinned ideologues.

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Facebook Torches its Status as the Most Conservative-Friendly Platform

Does the oversight board seem like a good idea now?

Donald Trump's Facebook account is seen displayed on a phone screen with Facebook logo in the background in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on May 6, 2021 (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Up until this week, Facebook had a few things going for it in the tech wars, as far as conservatives are concerned: for one thing, it’s where the Boomers are. For another, between it, Google and Twitter, Facebook has pushed back more than the others on calls to censor it, and Mark Zuckerberg himself is one of the few tech execs who talks about the value of free speech when he testifies before Congress. Third, Facebook was under the gun of an immense liberal pressure campaign. It may not be saying much, but Facebook was the best of the three big platforms.

But any goodwill that might have built up on the conservative side because of those factors is gone now, after the Oversight Board maintained President Trump’s ban from the platform this week.

The Oversight Board itself embodies a kind of managerial liberalism perfectly: By outsourcing the toughest content-moderation decisions to a panel of lawyers and NGO apparatchiks, they give themselves cover. It began issuing rulings this January, and the Trump ban is by far the most significant.

The OB’s ruling doesn’t even end the controversy, because they essentially kicked the decision back to the company:

In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.

To which one might say, of course Facebook seeks to avoid their responsibilities, that’s why the Oversight Board exists.

The Board also asked 46 questions related to the ban, of which Facebook declined to answer seven, including a question about how Facebook’s algorithms might have boosted users’ ability to see Trump’s posts. When your Oversight Board staffed by human rights attorneys start asking questions about how your proprietary algorithms are encouraging extremism, you have a real problem; it’s the same criticism increasingly leveled by the Democratic Party and activist class. One wonders if the board is going to transform into another stick for them to hit the company with. It should be said that none of the pressure groups currently working on Facebook actually have any problem with spreading extremism, because none of them had a problem with the platform being used to coordinate riots last summer. What they don’t like is when the Boomers get uppity.

But if there was any chance of a truce with conservatives that might make conservatives willing to defend the company, it’s gone now. If there’s one thing Facebook is great at, it’s alienating people. The vitriol turned their way by the mainstream media recently probably has a lot to do with how their algorithm changes almost singlehandedly killed the vaunted “pivot to video” in journalism a few years ago, playing a role in the downsizing or collapse of Mic, IJR, Vox and other media companies. They’re now trying to play hardball with a sovereign government in Australia to avoid paying news companies. In their quest to be seen as an olympian, neutral global communications platform, Facebook is finding itself increasingly without anyone to friend.

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California and the Incoherence of the American Right 

The Caitlyn Jenner ad illustrates the tensions at the heart of the political moment.

As California goes, so goes the country. This was a message of hope at one point—these days, not so much. It remains true, however, and so the nation watches the California governor’s race developing with understandable interest. The Golden State is a brazen mirror for America, and we go to gaze in it wondering what kind of face will look back at us. As regular TAC contributor Kurt Hofer argued recently over at the Daily Caller, as the Biden administration seems destined to try policies California has given a test drive, the GOP should become the anti-California party, holding up California as it used to be against California as it is.

Hofer’s not alone in that strategy; it seems to be the angle Caitlyn Jenner’s run for governor is taking, too. The first advertisement from the Caitlyn for California campaign makes all of this a little more obvious than anyone is comfortable with, but we live in abnormal times and marketing has always produced and reflected the American psyche in a special way, so it does us a service. It shows, by some combination of intent and happenstance, the flux of the moment, and the tensions implied in the twin facts that California has been the aspirational national microcosm and is now the dystopian future. A close reading of Jenner’s monologue shows that in the funhouse mirror of the 21st century it’s hard to see the reasons the center couldn’t hold and things fell apart. All is incoherent, no connection seen between transcending limits in ourselves and the unsustainable policy choices that got us here. 

Jenner starts by setting a standard for Californian, and by extension American, political life: “California was once the envy of the world. We had what everyone else wanted. The American dream grew up here. Yet career politicians and their policies have destroyed that dream. It’s been locked away, closed, shuttered, left in the dark, burned down.” That’s true, and as MAGA showed, it’s a powerful political motivator, here made doubly so by naming an enemy—the ruin of what people remember as great was done to the state by a political elite who made certain policy choices. But lest we stray too far into right-wing realignment territory, Jenner follows this up with Republican establishment rhetoric shifting blame from particular elites to the government in general, with a little tech-world entrepreneurial “disruptor” flourish and echo of George W. Bush’s safe “compassionate” conservatism. “The government is now involved in every part of our lives. They’ve taken our money, our jobs, and our freedom. California needs a disruptor, a compassionate disruptor.” From a strong start we’re back to consultant politics. 

Now Jenner moves from the general logic of the campaign to the question of ethical credibility. Who is Caitlyn Jenner? “I came here with a dream 48 years ago to be the greatest athlete in the world. Now I enter a different kind of race, arguably my most important one yet, to save California.” That California immigrant framing by the 71-year-old is clever, and over shots of running glory, it’s clear, Jenner is some kind of superhero. “I want to carry the torch for the parents who had to balance work and their child’s education, for business owners who were forced to shut down, for pastors who were not able to be with their congregation, for the family who lost their home in a fire, for an entire generation of students who lost a year of education.” This is good retail politics, naming your constituents, assuring them they are indeed the little guy and their needs are heard and understood by you. “This past year has redefined our career politicians as elitists and the people of California as the warriors, the kings, and the angels.” It’s a bit corny, but most political rhetoric is, and Jenner has the strong assured radio voice to sell it. But Jenner goes on, “We never take kindly to glass ceilings here. Instead, we shatter them.” 

Here’s the pivot of the advertisement, when viewer and Jenner both have to recognize that we’re entering uncharted territory for Republican politics. Jenner is transgender, and somehow that has to be made to sound relatable. “We’re the trailblazers, the innovators. California’s facing big hurdles. Now, we need leaders who are unafraid to leap to new heights … who are unafraid to challenge and to change the status quo.” Jenner is trying to represent the good old normal—the voice and sports footage helps—and oppose the bad new normal, too. But Jenner is a face of that change. This spin is an attempt to bestride a great gulf like a colossus. “California, it’s time to reopen our schools, reopen our businesses, reopen the Golden Gates. So I don’t care if you’re a Republican, Democrat. I’m running to be governor for all Californians, to reclaim our true identity, to bring back the gold to the Golden State.” Transition to greatness? Return to shattering glass ceilings? Restore a revolution?

In the end, though, Jenner knows to move past the personal quandary and back to the pathos of the ruin of California, which remains a stand in and archetype for America. “Now is the time to achieve that summit, to be the shining city on the hill. Together, we’ll restore and renew the California dream.” The question is whether Jenner’s celebrity can support, rather than distract, from the right message. “It’s about what happens from here. It’s not just about one person. It’s about all of us.” I don’t see how it can, but I’ll be watching, looking into the California mirror along with the rest of the country, more than eagerly.

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