Just How Stupid Are We?

JUST HOW STUPID ARE WE?
By Rick Shenkman

The year was 2009, which means I’m discussing the paperback edition of this book, with its epilogue concerning the election of Barack Obama. Should 2008 have made us feel better? Rick Shenkman thinks not. Obama simply presented better than John McCain. “Everywhere he went he drew enormous crowds who seemed attracted as much by the spectacle as by anything else. What most people in attendance at his events seemed to crave was an emotional experience.” Now that sounds familiar.

In hindsight, the degeneration Shenkman describes here was not going into reverse but was in fact getting worse. He began writing the book because “many wanted to know how such a thing as [George W. Bush’s] election to the highest office in the land had come to pass.” Only the name has changed, while the astonishment has increased.

The question Shenkman addresses in his title is a controversial one. Intelligence takes many different forms, and I’m always wary of those who limit it to people who read a lot of books. What Shenkman means by it though is an understanding of basic civics, of being smart enough, or knowing enough, to be able to cast an informed vote. Questioning the wisdom of The People is sacrilege in America, but Shenkman doesn’t shy away from his conclusion that the greater involvement of “the masses” in politics has been a net minus. “We have put our fate in the hands of The People, the same folks who by and large (1) find politics boring and (2) are ignorant and irrational about public affairs.” No cheerleader of democracy he.

Even the media, those Chomskyan master manipulators, are let off the hook, as they merely cater to the appetites of Alexander Hamilton’s “great beast.” “Just as a people get the government they deserve, they also get the media they deserve.”

As Shenkman observes, several times, such a stance is pretty much taboo in America, or really any democracy, but it does draw attention to what is a perennial problem: the call for The People (the capitals are his) to perform a civic duty they are mostly uninterested in and almost entirely unequipped for.

But this was, as I’ve said, 2009. Was there no sign of hope?

For those who live on hope — and don’t we all — several developments of the last decade or so are promising.

I find the Internet promising

I find blogging promising.

Where they may lead is anybody’s guess. But one can hope that they will give the intelligent the tools needed to take political campaigns to a higher level rather than merely empowering, as sometimes currently seems the case, nitwits, extremists, and the obnoxious.

Well, blogging is dead and we know where the promise of the Internet led. I don’t think the question of how stupid we are is as concerning now as how stupid we’re going to get.

Notes:
Review first published online June 22, 2020.

Heinrich Himmler

HEINRICH HIMMLER
By Peter Longerich

In the lives of the leading figures of the Nazi establishment there’s often a large gap between an individual and their historical significance. In his biography of Goebbels, Peter Longerich could make something out of this, using it to gain a greater psychological insight into his subject. In this equally massive biography of Himmler it’s more of a problem.

For Longerich, Himmler’s private life was absorbed by his public persona. The SS was in many ways a product of Himmler’s own inhibited personality, but at the same time it came to define him. You couldn’t separate the man from the uniform. “Gradually the personality and the office became one.”

This is, then, very much a professional biography. About Himmler’s inner life Longerich remains circumspect. But was there all that much to say? I don’t think Longerich had access to the cache of letters between Himmler and his wife that formed the basis for the documentary The Decent One, but then I don’t see where they would have changed anything in his assessment. Himmler was a conservative prig, though bitter enough to succumb to fringe fantasies of mystical and racist claptrap, perhaps as a way of making up for his own inadequacies. It’s hard to see what it was he was any good at, or what he would have made of his life without the Nazi party.

Unfortunately, this makes Longerich’s book a hard slog, at times little more than a detailed calendar of Himmler’s various official functions. Things are made worse by the fact that Longerich, at least in translation, is an even duller writer than Ian Kershaw. There are interesting historical tidbits thrown up, and it’s no doubt a reliable resource, but this is a book that’s hard to read from cover to cover and it doesn’t tell us much more about its subject than we already knew.

Notes:
Review first published online May 24, 2020.

The View from Flyover Country

THE VIEW FROM FLYOVER COUNTRY
By Sarah Kendzior

Meeting the 18th president of the United States was an experience that forced Henry Adams to reconsider much of the prevailing scientific thought of his day:

That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

Imagining what Adams would think of the presidency of Donald Trump is too depressing to want to consider. But we may take Trump’s ascendancy to the highest office in the land as making ludicrous many of our own intellectual shibboleths. Foremost among these is the notion of modern society being a meritocracy. Would you refute America as meritocracy? One might kick at Trump as Samuel Johnson did a rock and declare “I refute it thus!”

Or, as Sarah Kendzior puts it, “Over the past few decades, the U.S. has turned into a country where the circumstances into which you are born increasingly determine who you can become.” Those circumstances are primarily one’s socioeconomic status, but also relate to race, gender, and the year of one’s birth. The much maligned Millennials, to take Kendzior’s own cohort, are the “screwed generation.” It’s not a judgment I would argue against. I feel sorry for these people. They live, as Kendzior puts it in a nice image, “in the tunnel at the end of the light.”

Many of the essays in The View from Flyover Country deal with the job situation in the media and academia, being the two sectors of the economy that Kendzior is most personally invested in (she is a columnist with a Ph.D.). I would have liked a broader analysis, but you have to write what you know. As it stands, her conclusion that “In multiple professions, workers are performing nearly identical tasks for radically different salaries” is limited, though the principle does have some purchase outside journalism and education.

Meritocracy is, largely, a myth. Privilege is leveraged to maintain itself in all walks of life. The current social structure is based on luck and then multiplied through the so-called Matthew effect (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”) As inequality deepens this will only become more obvious and more of a problem. The process of de-evolution from Washington to Trump is just the beginning.

“The first step to topping a meritocracy is recognizing that it is not a meritocracy.” From there, however, any correction will probably require far more radical steps than we can currently imagine. In the wake of Trump and the Covid-19 crisis most people want a return to normal. It is essential, Kendzior reminds us, “we remember that ‘normal’ is how we got here.”

Notes:
Review first published online May 7, 2020.

I Am Dynamite!

I AM DYNAMITE!
By Sue Prideaux

I like it when I learn something from a book, and I learned quite a bit from I Am Dynamite!, Sue Prideaux’s biography of Friedrich Nietzsche. That said, I’m sure this was mostly because I’d never read a biography of Nietzsche before but had gotten by on the sketches that came with introductions to his work or discussions of his philosophy. Add to this the layers of myth that have always surrounded the man, constantly in need of being cut away, and Prideaux’s book made a real difference in my understanding of the man.

For example: I’d always known that Nietzsche was “sickly,” but this really doesn’t cover the half of it. His eyesight was very poor (in fact he was nearly blind) and a sensitivity to light gave him debilitating headaches while requiring the wearing of sunglasses most of the time. He also suffered from hemorrhoids, migraines, and digestive disorders (his bowels further wrecked by the medicine of the day). I also knew he’d had an accident involving a horse that restricted his army service but wasn’t aware of its severity. What happened is that he speared himself on the pommel of his saddle, resulting in a chest wound so deep he could see bone. In later life he would claim “200 days of torment a year” from various afflictions. Is it any wonder his philosophy would be so concerned with the health of the individual?

Another eye-opener had to do with influences. I knew, from Will Durant, that Nietzsche was “the child of Darwin and the brother of Bismarck.” And his borrowings from Schopenhauer are obvious and have been much analysed. What I was surprised by was just how much Wagner’s romantic musings on the Dionysian had contributed to The Birth of Tragedy, and how much Paul Rée contributed to Nietzsche’s aphoristic style and the idea of there being a genealogy of morals. How much of Nietzsche’s impact was the result of his originality, and how much due to his simply pursuing current ideas into the red zone of shock and discomfort?

On a more mundane level, I had thought typewriters were a slightly older invention. But it was only in 1882 that Nietzsche took possession of an early prototype (a Hansen’s Writing Ball). Apparently it was damaged in transit and never worked as it should, though with Nietzsche’s eyesight it might not have been of much use anyway. Which was, perhaps, for the best. “Our writing instruments contribute to our thoughts,” he was led to observe. Truly a thought ahead of its time.

Was Nietzsche’s a life of disappointments, or did he not know what he wanted? Somehow — it really was a lucky break — he became close friends with his idol Wagner. Then they fell out. He got a job as a tenured professor at the age of 24, without even having completed his doctorate, but hated the job and committed professional suicide by writing entirely un-academic books. He pursued Lou Salomé, perhaps romantically, but I think we feel relief that things never went any further.

Was he learning something from all of this? Surely something not only about the vanity of human wishes but their perversity.

Notes:
Review first published online May 2, 2020.

War With Russia?

WAR WITH RUSSIA? FROM RUSSIA & UKRAINE TO TRUMP & RUSSIAGATE
By Stephen F. Cohen

There’s a curious way that in the most polarized political environments, such as we see in the United States today, the left and right ends of the spectrum bend towards each other to make a circle. The overlap between supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is just one notable example of this.

A lot of this, I believe, is due to the way, when politics is defined by anger and hate, the enemy of one’s enemy becomes a friend. Stephen F. Cohen exemplifies this process pretty neatly. He knows who he hates: the bipartisan U.S. national security establishment and the mainstream media. Anything that disrupts these elite establishments or discomfits their mandarins is a force to be welcomed and encouraged. And so, enter Cohen’s champion: Donald J. Trump. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Cohen begins from a position that I find reasonable. Indeed, it mirrored my own in 2016. I agree that it was Boris Yeltsin, more than his inheritor Vladimir Putin, who set Russia off on a disastrous anti-democratic trajectory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I also think it’s true that much of the behaviour that Putin has been accused of most vehemently by the West has been reactive in nature, responding primarily to an aggressive American foreign policy.

During the 2016 election I would even have agreed with Cohen that a less antagonistic approach toward Russia, of the kind signaled by Trump, made a lot of sense. Since then, however, it has become abundantly clear that Trump has no conception of, much less interest in, the national interest and that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election for the purpose of helping Trump. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence that Trump’s businesses were in debt to Russian interests and perhaps pretty heavily compromised by them as well.

About this there has been a great deal of reporting. Whole books have been written on the subject. The Mueller Report concluded that “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a sweeping and systematic fashion.” Putin has admitted before all the world that Trump was his preferred candidate in the 2016 election. It’s long been known that the only thing that has kept Trump from further bankruptcies has been Russian money, provided in ways that make no sense to outsiders. This has given rise to much speculation about buying influence and money laundering – speculation that is entirely justified given how these operations are known to operate – but the nature of Trump’s Russian connections has, with tremendous effort and some well-documented lies, thus far remained concealed from view.

As more facts came to light, the dossier on Trump and Russia kept getting darker. But this led Cohen, in a most Trumpian fashion, to double down in his efforts as an apologist. He sees no evidence whatsoever of any kind of Russian meddling in the election. This is all a hoax and a witch hunt driven by elites, Trumpian language that he doesn’t place in quotes, adopting it wholly as his own. Furthermore, he can find no persuasive, consistent, plausible, or coherent motive for Putin to want to back Trump or to weaken the U.S., as though having an ignorant buffoon who openly admires him and wants to do business with him were not preferable to an anti-Russian hawk.

At what point do you give up? When whataboutism reaches the point of asking the media to focus on Joe Biden’s handling of the Ukraine file instead of “condemning Trump based on dubious narratives and foreign connections”? (In Cohen’s defence, this was before Trump’s cynical attempt to withhold money from Ukraine until they performed political favours for him, but still elides the crucial difference that Biden was acting in a public capacity and executing state policy, whatever you think of that policy, while Trump’s dealings were all under the table.) Or when the Steele dossier is held up as “the foundational document of the Russiagate narrative” despite this being categorically untrue at the time and more recently rejected even by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee? Cohen prefers a memo on the matter released by Devin Nunes. Any port in a storm. This is a mind not only closed but with the door locked and the windows boarded up.

In the repetition of the farthest of alt-right talking points we see the real Trump Derangement Syndrome in action: the compulsion to defend Trump at any cost to one’s own self-respect or intellectual integrity. Has any president been treated as harshly by the press as Donald Trump has? I would say probably not, but this is due to Trump being the most corrupt and dishonest president in American history. For Cohen it’s because the media and the political establishment are out to get him. This is how TDS works.

Mere hate is elevated by Cohen into forebodings of the apocalypse. Not only is the squabbling over Ukraine a new Cold War (something which is, in turn, “an elite project”), it is an even more dangerous Cold War than the first (with the attendant neo-McCarthyism worse than the first time around as well). Indeed, Cohen calculates that the Russiagate scandal is the single greatest threat facing the United States today. Not Russia, mind you, but Russiagate. That is, the hoax, the witch hunt. It comes in several notches above the proliferation of nuclear weapons (number four on the list of threats) and climate change (number five).

With such dramatic stakes there can surely be no compromise with the enemy. Sides must be taken, and there can be no going back. Cohen has taken his leap of faith, but gives us no reason to follow him through the looking-glass.

Notes:
Review first published online April 24, 2020.

The New Right

THE NEW RIGHT: A JOURNEY TO THE FRINGE OF AMERICAN POLITICS
By Michael Malice

In his White House memoir Team of Vipers, Cliff Sims offers up a telling bit of praise for his boss the president. Donald Trump, he writes approvingly, is “history’s greatest troll.”

I thought this a strange compliment to direct at anyone, much less the purported leader of the free world. But I hadn’t at that time read Michael Malice’s book The New Right. Malice identifies himself, I think with some pride, as a troll. This is an occupation he defines as political provocateur, someone who gets other people (those being trolled) to act out. “Trolling is meant to be clever,” he writes, immediately entering a qualification. It’s not always clever, but it aspires to some kind of cleverness. “At its best,” another qualification, “it is the art of turning an audience into a performer by exploiting their flaws for comedic effect.”

In other words, trolling mainly consists of pushing people’s buttons. This is not all that hard to do. For example, in the sentence immediately following the above definition we are told that there is “a huge overlap between racism and trolling. But this is in large part,” and so not solely, “due to race being such an easy way to get the sensitive to act out.”

By acting out I think what Malice means is being offended. So if you can find some subject that offends people or makes them angry, as for example racism, then that is good troll material.

Malice calls the New Right an innovative cultural movement (created by low-status white men), which seems to mean something different than a political movement with any sort of agenda. So, if the point of trolling is only to somehow expose its victims as hypocritical or insincere, what, I kept wondering, does the troll believe in? Or is trolling only an end in itself, a form of entertainment or even an art? As political theatre that would go some way to explain many of the successful populist leaders of our time, professional comedians who, once in power, had no clear idea of what to do aside from maintaining high ratings/poll numbers. The cynicism could be breathtaking, and indeed Malice references one media guru (Ryan Holiday) who explains exactly how manufactured outrage is used by the troll as a form of marketing:

Someone like Milo [Yiannopoulos] or Mike Cernovich doesn’t care that you hate them – they like it. It’s proof to their followers that they are doing something subversive and meaningful. . . . The key tactic of alternative or provocative figures is to leverage the size and platform of their “not-audience” (i.e. their haters in the mainstream) to attract attention and build an actual audience.

Cynicism, or nihilism? Does a troll care if what he says is right or wrong? Or do they even believe in such labels? Most trolling, in my experience, riots in the assertion of falsehoods. But I return to the question of what the troll believes in, aside from trying to trigger others.

We know what they stand against, very roughly. It’s something – a very made-up something, I would say – that the New Right call the Cathedral, an unholy composite of universities and the media (with the government later included as the third leg of this leftist stool). The Cathedral is the bullhorn of what, in contrast to the New Right, Malice calls the evangelical left.

But the Cathedral, progressivism, and the evangelical left are all bogeymen. Maybe it’s the perspective of living in Canada, but I have a hard time seeing a liberal media in the U.S., unless you define liberal as anything that isn’t Fox News.

What is the New Right? Malice’s definition falls back, again, on what it’s opposed to, not what it stands for:

A loosely connected group of individuals united by their opposition to progressivism, which they perceive to be a thinly veiled fundamentalist religion dedicated to egalitarian principles and intent on totalitarian world domination via globalist hegemony.

So the New Right is nationalist (against globalist hegemony), non-egalitarian, and . . . well, it’s hard to say what is meant by being against both progressivism and totalitarianism, since these two ideas are pretty much political opposites.

Malice himself identifies as an anarchist, but also claims Alexander Hamilton as his “biggest idol,” which he says may make him “monarchist-adjacent.” I don’t think there’s any sorting this mush out. As for anarcho-capitalism, that sounds to me like a flat contradiction in terms. But to criticize a troll for not being consistent would be missing the joke. And what’s the point of arguing politics with people who use the word Anschluss but don’t even know what it means?

Malice strikes me as a being a very shallow political philosopher, mainly interested in scoring rhetorical points that don’t stand very much looking into. In other words, pushing buttons. Some of his analysis is just plain wrong, like the idea that the Overton Window is moved to the left by progressives, with conservatives only trying to hold the fort. This is a matter that has been studied and the drift has been all the other way, led by the radical right. It could hardly be otherwise. What politician wants to raise taxes, or be seen as soft on crime? Meanwhile, under Trump, establishment Republicans who only a decade ago would have seemed fringe figures on the far right have been purged from a party that is much more extreme than in the past.

That said, I don’t think Malice is trolling in The New Right. He seems to be genuinely interested in what’s going on and in trying to get to the bottom of our current “Era of Ill Will.” And his book is a breezy and informative read. But it’s also a glimpse into a subculture that is a silo, intellectually divorced, it seems to me, not only from the mainstream (which it frankly despises) but from any kind of self-understanding. He makes a lot out of the left as being an alternative religion, and makes some good points. But the culture he describes is that of a cult.

Notes:
Review first published online March 20, 2020.

The Age of Increasing Inequality

THE AGE OF INCREASING INEQUALITY: THE ASTONISHING RISE OF CANADA’S 1%
By Lars Osberg

In 1981 Lars Osberg wrote a book on economic inequality in Canada. At the time it wasn’t a subject that attracted a lot of interest because levels of inequality had been stable since the end of the Second World War.

Since then, however, a lot has changed. Inequality has become a hot topic because (1) it has been increasing; (2) there’s a general consensus that this is not a good thing; and (3) there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it.

Osberg’s new book provides an excellent overview of the subject. Acknowledging that “inequalities matter differently, at different parts of the distribution of income” he divides his analysis into three main parts, looking at how inequality is measured and how its effects are felt in the lower, middle, and upper classes. He then considers some of the impact inequality has more generally as well as what is driving it and where it is being driven.

His prognosis is not cheery. The post-Second World War golden age of capitalism is now viewed as “a happy accident of history” and not a norm. Meanwhile, Osberg’s suggestions for at least ameliorating the ill effects of the coming Age of Robots are only tentatively advanced. They are made, he admits “with the recognition that some big trends affecting economic inequality are likely to continue, regardless.” That is, regardless of any political will, should any be discovered, to stem the job-killing tide of technology and globalization.

In other words, don’t expect the current trajectory to change very much. This is something that will make at least some people happy. “Many things have changed in Canada over the last thirty-five years, but it is still true that [here Osberg is, I believe, quoting his earlier work] ‘the Canadian industrial structure is, to a very large degree, dominated by foreign ownership and a relatively small number of great family fortunes.'” Even many of the names are the same: Thomson, Weston, Irving, Desmarais. There is a ratchet effect to economic inequality that makes it very hard to go backward once a fortune has been made. The effect of a ratchet, however, may be to squeeze things too tight. One wonders if or when we’ll come to that point.

Notes:
Review first published online February 6, 2020.

American Carnage

AMERICAN CARNAGE: ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE REPUBLICAN CIVIL WAR AND THE RISE OF PRESIDENT TRUMP
By Tim Alberta

Over the past few years I’ve probably read a couple of dozen books trying to explain the election of Donald Trump. Tim Alberta’s doesn’t come at the subject in the usual way, by looking at the election itself and asking the question “What happened?” Instead he focuses solely on what he describes as the civil war inside the Republican Party, which ended in Trump’s hostile takeover of that institution. How did that happen?

In part because Republican voters turned against their party. In particular they embraced what Alberta reveals as Trump’s core political ideology: a rejection of globalization. Trump was angry, and voters wanted angry.

What Trump also rode was a wave of celebrity and show-business values. Though manifestly stupid and incompetent, he was also outrageous and entertaining. This helped in the age of social media and an attention economy. Meanwhile, the donor class were only paying for a tax cut, which is exactly what they got. They couldn’t have cared less about the clown show.

The donors (and foreign powers) provided the financing, but what drove Trumpism was the Republican base. Alberta speaks to a host of eminent figures in the Republican establishment who openly despise Trump, but time and again the base would have his back. Trump himself would be surprised by this blind loyalty. “This is the end of my presidency,” he declared on the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his complicity with Russia in the 2016 election. “I’m fucked.” And well he should have been. But the base held.

Bobby Jindal would complain in 2013 that “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party!” but that train had already left the station and the course was set. With Trump things were only going to get worse:

More enduring than Trump’s appointment of judges, or his signing of a tax law, or his deregulating of the energy industry, would be his endorsement of America’s worst instincts. The levees were leaky long before he descended the gilded escalator, and certainly other bad actors contributed to the breakage. Yet it was Trump who used his office to flood the national consciousness with fear and contempt, with suspicion and resentment, with ad hominem insults and zero-sum arguments. In so doing, he not only enslaved one half of the country to his callousness, but successfully bade escalation from the other half, plunging all of American and its posterity deeper toward perdition.

“Rarely,” Alberta concludes, “has a president so thoroughly altered the identity of his party. Never has a president so ruthlessly exploited the insecurity of his people.”

Who was the Trump voter? Hillary Clinton was pilloried for referring to them as a basket of deplorables, but as time has gone by that has come to seem a fair and accurate assessment. Trump’s base was fashioned by Fox News: made stupid with lies and disinformation, nihilistic with regard to all claims of truth or morality, and whipped into a hate-filled frenzy with wild conspiracy theories. The most radical Republicans would come from seats made safe by this electorate. As with the president, their base would immunize them from all responsibility. As with the president, they were free to say or do anything. This was clear as early as Trump’s peddling of the “birther” claims about President Obama. “Trump’s true beliefs, his intentions, his motivations – none of it really mattered. The fact of it was, he could say whatever he felt like, whenever he felt like it, and suffer no consequences.”

That blank cheque would be tested many times during Trump’s presidency. As Alberta’s chronicle concludes he describes the testimony of Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee.

Republicans on the panel did not challenge [the] accusations about the president’s conduct. In fact, they asked hardly any questions about Trump at all. Instead, they took turns attacking Cohen’s credibility, portraying him as a jilted, star-seeking grifter who was headed to jail for lying to Congress already.

They had every reason to do so: The witness was an admitted perjurer, someone whose testimony under normal circumstances wouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet these were not normal circumstances. And for all the reasons to remain skeptical of Cohen, here were powerful members of the legislative branch, presented by a witness with damning claims of misconduct by the head of the executive branch, showing not the slightest interest in examining them.

It was a chilling dereliction of duty. And it was rooted in the same motivation that Cohen says kept him shackled to Trump, doing his dirty work, for the previous decade: a fear of disloyalty.

As with any book on the Trump administration, recent events have quickly outstripped this historical record. The chilling dereliction of duty by House Republicans would be continued in the impeachment inquiry a year later (and after Alberta’s book had gone to press), where there would again be no interest at all shown in Trump’s alleged misconduct but only a desperate attempt to smear the whistleblower, the witnesses, and pretty much anyone else.

The fear of disloyalty, however, takes us back to Trump’s base. That is the force that really scares the Republicans, and which has led to their moral and intellectual collapse. Alberta mentions the whispers that Mike Pence must have been blackmailed by Trump to have turned so quickly into such a bootlicker, but the same suspicions of blackmail material, or kompromat, have been whispered about other figures (Lindsey Graham being the most prominent), up to and including Trump himself. This may be mistaken. What really seems to have happened is that the Republican Party was blackmailed by its base. They granted immunity to the radical right only so long as their representatives would continue to perform a scorched earth mission on the U.S. government. In the words of Karl Rove, “We went from wanting people who were experienced and qualified to wanting people who would throw bombs and blow things up. The ultimate expression of that was Donald Trump.” Or Eric Cantor: “Conservatism was always about trying to effect some progress toward limiting the reach of government. It wasn’t being a revolutionary to light it on fire and burn it down to rebuild it. But somehow, that’s what the definition of ‘conservative’ became.” Or Trent Franks: “I’m convinced he [Trump] came along at a time when the country needed someone to punch government in the face.” Trump’s followers are often described as constituting a cult, but one doesn’t sense a great deal of personal loyalty to him among his base. Rather, his very ignorance is taken as a kind of weaponized buffoonery, a force designed to take down the government by way of sheer incompetence.

Alberta makes clear that in all of this Trump was only a symptom of a wider malady. “It’s imperative,” Alberta writes, “to assess Trump not as the cause of a revolutionary political climate, but as its consequence.” From everything that he has done it seems clear now that Trump’s only goals in becoming president were to make money and use the legal protections that come with the office to stay out of jail. His election was only a case of riding a growing wave of anger. “Decades of a widening chasm in incomes, a diminishment of factory work, a shredded national identity, a dissipating sense of societal cohesiveness, a vanished sense of postwar unity – it was all blurring together in an abstract expression of outrage.”

The final shape that outrage will take isn’t known yet. Trump has, however, done his worst to prepare the canvas.

Notes:
Review first published online December 9, 2019.

All the Truth Is Out

ALL THE TRUTH IS OUT: THE WEEK POLITICS WENT TABLOID
By Matt Bai

Any good history book looks in two directions. Most obviously it looks back, and makes a claim for why its subject marks a significant historical moment. For Matt Bai the undoing of Gary Hart’s bid to become the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the lead-up to the 1988 election because of his dalliance with Donna Rice was one such moment, despite its not being that well remembered today.

Politics was changing, and the way politics was being covered in the media. CNN and Fox were just getting started, “the advance guard of the communications revolution.” “Character,” however loosely defined, was becoming an issue that had to be addressed, and entertainment (or tabloid) values were in the driver’s seat. Watergate had been a game changer, taking down a sitting president, but Hart’s scandal would mark “another step down in the cascade that was carrying political journalism into dark and unexplored waters.” One reporter’s decision to ask Hart a question about adultery is described as a step so momentous it “it would shock the political world and forever shift the boundaries of campaign journalism.” So 1987 was a watershed.

But historical moments exist on a continuum. “The week politics went tabloid” didn’t come entirely out of left field. Throughout the book Bai comes back to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) as his North Star on the nature of this great transformation, and Postman was extrapolating from trends already well advanced in the culture. Of perhaps more interest to us today, however, is the way historical moments also allow us better insight into current events, helping to answer the question of How did we get here?

The gorilla in the room here is Donald Trump. Bai’s book was published in 2014 and so Trump isn’t mentioned, being just a minor television personality at the time. But Bai’s analysis of where political trends were taking us gave us a stark warning of what was to come:

There had been plenty of “horse race” journalism before the 1980s, stories about who was likely to win which primaries and all of that, but the candidates themselves were discussed mostly for their arguments and strategies, rather than for their skills as evaders and salesmen. In the Age of Show Business, however, the measure of a leader became his hunger for the game, his talent for dazzling crowds, his deftness at surviving an unreasonably brutal and small-minded process. We openly admired roguish candidates who could dexterously deflect assaults on their character – from their adversaries, and from us – and disdained those who thought themselves above it. We set traps and then marveled at those who could escape them with Houdini-like grace, which is why Clinton came to be known, almost universally, as the most talented statesman of the age, despite having achieved relatively little of his governing agenda. In short, we came to confuse actual leadership with the capacity to endure, and to entertain.

But wait, there’s more! Afraid of intense media scrutiny, candidates would learn from the Hart scandal to play it safe, becoming scripted and anodyne while insulating themselves from the press by teams of handlers. This would make any display of authenticity gold. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” would be an early example, thrilling reporters starved for “any contact with candidates that felt even remotely genuine” and unfolding “like a political reality show in the age before reality programming became commonplace.” And so to The Apprentice.

At the same time, a cult of celebrity would develop that “overwhelmed any discussion of intellect and experience among politicians” and further erased the boundaries between public service and entertainment. Sarah Palin was the precursor to Trumpism here, bringing “stagecraft and stardom” to the campaign trail and absolutely nothing else. Such were the lessons to be learned.

All the Truth Is Out is a readable and informative account of this signature moment, though I think it does oversell that moment in a perfectly understandable effort by the author to build up its importance. I can understand being sympathetic toward Hart, but I think Bai goes too far in building him up as a lost leader.

In a couple of places I found my own memory of the events corrected. It’s a popular misunderstanding, for example, that the surveillance of Hart was a response to the challenge he made to the press to “follow me around.” In fact, his townhouse was already being staked out. It’s also the case that the famous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, she in a short dress and he in a Monkey Business t-shirt, only became public after Hart had dropped out of the primaries.

These are essential points but they aren’t the main takeaways, which have to do with the downward spiral of American politics and political journalism that has brought us to the present point. I know a lot of people who don’t bother with books like this precisely because they are thought to be only timely. With perspective, however, they are much more than that.

Notes:
Review first published online November 23, 2019.

Verdun

VERDUN: THE LOST HISTORY OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BATTLE OF WORLD WAR I, 1914 – 1918
John Mosier

The historian John Lukacs was fond of saying that all history is necessarily revisionist. It’s an observation I’ve often made myself, though for slightly different reasons. That said, I think the pursuit of “lost histories,” as this account of Verdun dubs itself, can be oversold. In my notes on Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914 I said much the same of another attempt to uncover something missing from the well-worn record of the First World War. Here it’s even more in evidence.

For some reason John Mosier thinks it significant that the battle of “Verdun” actually covered a wider geography and longer history than is usually credited. But of course there was a broader theatre of operations, and it was characteristic of many First World War battles to turn into bloody campaigns. That there were actually nine (by Mosier’s accounting) battles of Verdun, of which the fifth is the most famous, tells us nothing. Troy was razed any number of times, but we only care about the destruction of Troy VII.

It’s too bad that Mosier insists on being so contrarian. He might have written a decent history of the fighting around Verdun, even keeping his critical brief against the French GQG, in which I find much to agree with. His discussion of artillery and topography is excellent. But one also has the sense that the book was composed in a rush. The treatment of how casualties have been (mis)calculated is confusing. The writing is very choppy and the crude maps are worthless. Some of the conclusions are a stretch (Hindenburg’s rise was only indirectly connected to what happened at Verdun). And still there is the constant straining to somehow set the record straight when that record is mostly just the straw man of contemporary propaganda. “There are limits to writing histories based on government press releases,” Mosier tells us, but how many historians, especially recent ones, have been guilty of such misconduct? For all the insistence revisionist historians place on setting the record straight, I suspect little history has been lost.

Notes:
Review first published online November 7, 2019.