Speaking of Universities and The Tyranny of Virtue

By Stefan Collini

By Robert Boyers

Headlines about universities, and the Humanities in particular, being in crisis have gone through several phases just in my lifetime. When I was in university in the late 1980s and early ‘90s what I’ve since come to call the first wave of political correctness was all the rage. Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Sex and Race on Campus (1991) was a founding document, with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) being ur-text. What most of this first wave boiled down to was attributing the crisis in the Humanities to their drifting away from teaching the classics of Western Civilization while taking on a lot of postmodern critical theory.

There was a fuss for a while, but the first wave subsided and for many years after political correctness seemed a spent force: little more than a fad without any lasting relevance or impact.

Honestly, at the time it felt like a safe bet.

But new threats were soon discerned on the horizon. Canadian sociologists James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar wrote a couple of books surveying some of the biggest challenges: Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis (2007) and Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (2011). The main problem, in their view, had to do with declining academic standards and the value (liberally conceived) of the university experience dropping as a result of government underfunding and the “massification” of higher education. This latter was a messy term that basically just meant there were too many unprepared, unqualified, and unmotivated students entering the system. My response to this at the time was to say that while there may be a lot of negative effects that went along with massification, it was unlikely our system of higher education could continue without it. This is one reason I’ve never been all that upset about bad students, or even students behaving badly (being rowdy on campus, cheating in their courses, etc.). Their tuition helps keep the universities going just as much as anyone’s.

Underlying these different waves of critiques and analyses, the most essential fact to take note of is that university enrollment in the Humanities has been experiencing a pretty steady decline since the 1970s. Indeed, I’ve been reading about this for so long that I only wonder how it is that many departments, like mainstream churches with aging congregations, still manage to keep going.

Item: In December 2021, the CBC reported that at the University of Western Ontario undergraduate enrollment in the department of Arts and Humanities had dropped by 28 per cent over the last decade.

Item: Writing in the New Yorker, also in December 2021, Louis Menand casually dropped the following alarming numbers:

Between 2012 and 2019, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in English fell by twenty-six per cent, in philosophy and religious studies by twenty-five per cent, and in foreign languages and literature by twenty-four per cent. In English, according to the Association of Departments of English, which tracked the numbers through 2016, research universities, like Brown and Columbia, took the biggest hits. More than half reported a drop in degrees of forty per cent or more in just four years.

Forty percent (or more!) in only four years? So . . . in another six years there effectively won’t be any degrees being awarded? Or will things level off at some point? A point, I might add, well below where these departments could be sustained.

An earlier signpost was the 2005 PBS documentary Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, which had a companion volume of essays edited by Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow. Declining by Degrees looked at the higher education industry from a bunch of different angles, beginning with the observation that most people don’t really know what’s going on at universities these days, leaving them “Teflon-coated [and] remarkably immune to criticism.”

If that was true in 2005, and I don’t think it was, it’s certainly no longer the case today amid the tsunami of second-wave PC. Meanwhile, the higher ed industry has been finding itself under increasing financial pressure at the same time as its consumer base, the middle class, was being squeezed more than ever. Those declining enrollment numbers? They’re also an accounting problem.

My use of words like “industry” and “consumer base” in this context is deliberate. That isn’t the sort of language we feel is appropriate to define the mission of our universities. But as David L. Kirp puts it in his Declining by Degrees essay, lacking

a principled defense of nonmarket values, higher education may degenerate into something far less palatable than a house of learning that – as a prophetic report on undergraduate education put it nearly two centuries ago – is “attuned to the business character of the nation.” It may degenerate into just another business, the metaphor of the higher education “industry” brought fully to life. Should that scenario come to pass, America’s undergraduates will be among the biggest losers. But if there is to be a less dystopian future, one that revives the soul of this old institution, who is to advance it – and if not now, when?

It’s a question that’s been hanging now for nearly twenty years. And in truth it’s been kicking around for longer that. One person who has tried to come up with a response is Stefan Collini, whose essays on the subject are collected in Speaking of Universities. What Collini focuses on are the metaphors Kirp mentions, the language of free-market fundamentalism and of instrumental vs. ideal visions of higher education. The adoption of the language of the market is part of a “great mud-slide” in the vocabulary we use to talk about universities, making it “difficult to find a language in which to characterize the human worth of various activities, and almost impossible to make such assessments tell in public debate.” This is key for Collini, a literary scholar by training and someone sensitive to the different ways language can be used to frame a debate (one chapter in Speaking of Universities is given over to a brilliant close-reading of a government White Paper). For example, the particular debate he’s most invested in, the funding system of British universities, is one now conducted largely in the terms of the market economy, with universities being defined in terms of their contributions to economic growth and how well they serve the needs of industry and commerce.

The matter of funding is indeed important, and ties in with related questions like that of student debt relief in the U.S. No amount of idealism and appeals to nonmarket values will make these issues go away, and there seem to be no practical solutions available. The rising costs of higher education might beggar any attempt at funding or relief. For years now university has been becoming more expensive at a rate far outstripping inflation. Between the end of the Reagan and Obama presidencies, the period of crisis that most of these analyses cover, the cost of attending higher education rose eight times more than wages. Thomas Frank in Rendezvous with Oblivion is worth quoting at length here:

One thing defenders of the humanities don’t talk about very much is the cost of it all. In the first chapter of her 2010 book Not for Profit, for example, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum declares that while the question of “access” to higher ed is an important one, “it is not, however, the topic of this book.”

Maybe it should have been. To discuss the many benefits of studying the humanities absent the economic context in which the humanities are studied is to miss a pretty big point. When Americans express doubts about whether (in the words of the Obama pollster Joel Berenson) “a college education was worth it,” they aren’t making a judgment about the study of history or literature that needs to be refuted. They are remarking on its price.

Tellingly, not a single one of the defenses of the humanities that I read claimed that such a course of study was a good deal for the money. The Harvard report, amid its comforting riffs about ambiguity, suggests that bemoaning the price is a “philistine objection” not really worth addressing. The document produced by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences contains numerous action points for sympathetic legislators, but devotes just two paragraphs to the subject of student debt and tuition inflation, declaring blandly that “colleges must do their part to control costs,” and then suggesting that the real way to deal with the problem is to do a better job selling the humanities.

Ignoring basic economics doesn’t make them go away, however. The central economic fact of American higher ed today is this: it costs a lot. It costs a huge amount. It costs so much, in fact, that young people routinely start their postcollegiate lives with enormous debt loads.

This is the woolly mammoth in the room. I know that the story of how it got there is a complicated one. But regardless of how it happened, that staggering price tag has changed the way we make educational decisions. Quite naturally, parents and students alike have come to expect some kind of direct, career-prep transaction. They’re out almost three hundred grant, for Christ’s sake – you can’t tell them it was all about embracing ambiguity. For that kind of investment, the gates to prosperity had better swing wide!

No quantity of philistine-damning potshots or remarks from liberal-minded CEOs will banish this problem. Humanists couldn’t stop the onslaught even if they went positively retro and claimed their disciplines were needed to understand the mind of God and save people’s souls. The turn to STEM is motivated by something else, something even more desperate and more essential than that.

What is required is not better salesmanship or more reassuring platitudes. The world doesn’t need another self-hypnotizing report on why universities exist. What it needs is for universities to stop ruining the lives of their students. Don’t propagandize for your institutions, professors. Change them. Grab the levers of power and pull.

What change does Frank want to see the professoriate effect by grabbing those levers of power though? Lowering the cost of higher education isn’t going to be in their self-interest. And while I think Collini’s analysis of the language we use to frame the way we talk about universities is spot on, I agree with Frank that the cost, and even more than that the inflation in the cost, of a university degree is the woolly mammoth in the room. When I attended university nearly forty years ago I could easily make enough to pay for my tuition, rent, and supplies (meaning everything from books to groceries) with the money I made working at a park over the summer, and part-time during the school year doing odd jobs. I don’t think that’s remotely possible for most students today.

The current state of debate over universities has gone in yet another direction, however, taking us back to relive an earlier crisis in the Humanities. What I mean is the furor over wokeism and cancel culture and Marxism in the academy, which first crested in the early 1990s with that first wave of political correctness. Those glory days are back with a vengeance now, making the idea of universities as Teflon-coated and immune to criticism seem positively quaint. It’s hard to think of a more public battleground.

Why? Because the cannonades of the culture wars are immensely popular. As the Internet has shown, pushing the buttons of outrage is like a drug. No surprise then that The Tyranny of Virtue by Robert Boyers (another English professor) only takes flight when he starts banging his enemies on the head. Those enemies are the commissars of a new political orthodoxy or groupthink consensus “that takes it to be an unconscionable violation of propriety to raise serious questions about anything that has even remotely to do with race or identity when the relevant issues have been officially agree on by a duly constituted, administratively sanctioned program or committee.” Diversity has become a loaded buzzword, as “at most institutions ‘diversity’ does not refer to diversity of opinion, and . . . diversity officers are often appointed chiefly to ensure that a party line be promulgated and enforced.” What this leads to is a “total cultural environment” (Boyers borrows the term from Lionel Trilling) that sounds like something out of 1984:

What does “a total cultural environment” look like? In the university it looks like a place in which all constituencies have been mobilized for the same end, in which every activity is to be monitored to ensure that everyone is on board. Do courses in all departments reflect the commitment of the institution to raise awareness about all of the approved hot-button topics? If not, something must be done to address that. Are all incoming freshmen assigned a suitably pointed, heavily ideological summer reading text that tells them what they should be primarily concerned about as they enter? Check. Does the college calendar feature – several times each week, throughout the school year – carefully orchestrated consciousness-raising sessions led by human resources specialists trained to facilitate dialogues leading where everyone must agree they ought to lead? Check. Do faculty recognize that even casual slippages in classrooms or extracurricular discourse are to be met with condemnation and repudiation? See to it. Is every member of the community primed to invoke the customary terms – “privilege,” “power,” “hostile,” “unsafe” – no matter how incidental or spurious they seem in a given context? Essential. Though much of the regime instituted along these lines can seem – often does seem – kind and gentle in its pursuit of what many of us take to be a well-intentioned indoctrination, the impression that control and coercion are the name of the game is really hard to miss.

Has it really come to this? I honestly can’t say, as most of what I know about what goes on in universities – meaning what really goes on, on a day-to-day basis, and not the sort of stuff that gets reported on – I only pick up second hand. But my gut feeling is that the kind of thing Boyers describes, an almost violent insistence on performative virtue as the coin of the academic realm, is like the twitch of a death nerve. Tests of moral purity have become a proxy for a sense of public relevance and self-worth.

The future of the Humanities, at least in their academic form, can be summed up in a word: contraction. This is the reversing of the movement toward “massification” that characterized the boom years of academe. It is, in fact, a process that is already well under way, as evidenced by the declining enrollment numbers. The experience of contraction, on the ground as it were, is both depressing and painful to experience for academics, and making matters even worse is the fact that the workplace has become more bitterly divided than ever between the haves and have-nots. In such a toxic environment it’s no surprise that the temperature has risen so much.

I’m glad I went to university when I did. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun now, and the new directions taken by the Humanities seem to me to be less politically (in)correct than a total waste of time. Talking with today’s undergraduates, it seems as though they’re not reading much of anything. I recently talked to one second-year history student who honestly didn’t know how to sign a book out of the library. This is another major contributor to the crisis of the Humanities: our turning away from a culture of reading. Whatever else they may be, the Humanities are essentially text-based courses of study, which makes them seem positively archaic now.

But even the diminished rump that’s left of the Humanities today is probably unsustainable. In other words, things are not likely to get better. All the railings against cultural Marxism and woke campuses may be inspired by legitimate causes for concern, but in the end they are only sound and fury. Postmodernism is as much a bogeyman today as it was in the ‘90s, and that’s coming from someone who was no fan of it then either. But even better models for funding, however well-intentioned, will do nothing to arrest the current decline. The crisis of the Humanities is being driven by broader economic and cultural forces, ones that universities can do little to influence and nothing to stop.

We might still, however, find something worthwhile in the final episodes of what has been a long-running drama that was not without some good seasons. If we live in an age of diagnostics and elegies, these are at least respectable intellectual and artistic occupations, and can be of some consolation in dark times.

Review first published online January 25, 2022.


Liar’s Circus

By Carl Hoffman

I wasn’t expecting much out of Liar’s Circus, a bit of investigative and immersive journalism by Carl Hoffman that recounts his time spent on the road attending a series of Trump rallies in 2019. I’d read so many books on Trump, Trump voters, and the Trump phenomenon that I didn’t think there was anything new to be said.

But after setting out on his “journey into the heart of darkness” and by the end concluding that he had indeed “been to Hades, to Mordor, had looked darkness in the eye,” Hoffman had managed to make me think the trip worthwhile. To be sure, the interviews with all the kooks and crazies and conspiracy nuts have by now become commonplace. One suspects that the rally attendees are performing as much as their leader. Do these people really believe in Satanic baby-killing rituals presided over by Hillary Clinton? Or that Michelle Obama is a man? It seems that at least among the crowd Hoffman chose to hang out with the answer is yes. Is that “terrifying” though, as the subtitle would have it, or just sad? Sad in an individual I think, but terrifying in the mass.

As familiar as the crazy seems, it’s fair to ask how representative it is. This is a point that Hoffman himself puzzles over. The die-hard Trump followers he engages with, who travel about the country going to every rally they can, might not be typical Trump voters. “In a way they all seemed too extreme to represent a good cross-section of Trump’s supporters,” he says at one point, before immediately checking himself. “But that’s wasn’t true. They were only slightly exaggerated versions of archetypes I came across repeatedly.” “The nonsensical conspiracy absurdity wasn’t espoused by some tiny percentage of rally goers, but by the vast majority of them.” Which makes sense when you think that they were getting it directly from the president himself.

The most valuable parts of the book, however, come from Hoffman’s deeper analysis, undertaken in the spirit of cultural anthropology. “I’d spent much of my career traveling the globe to understand cultures that were deeply unfamiliar to me, and suddenly my own felt nearly as foreign as that of the pygmies in the Ituri Rainforest of the Congo.” This alienation is not unlike that of the people he immerses himself among, who also feel as though the America of a previous generation had disappeared, but while Hoffman can empathize to a degree, and understand their cultural dislocation and alienation, he finally has no sympathy for the Trump fanatics. A Trump rally is a sort of religious revival, a Third Great Awakening, but the people have come to worship a Bronze or Orange Calf.

This is fine as far as it goes, and Hoffman is particularly good on the religious angle and the way a shift in the economy has affected an entire culture. There are people who desperately want to feel like they have more control over their lives, who want politicians more responsive to their needs and who will listen to them. But I think the identification of the Trump voter as “working-class white males without a college education” doesn’t go far enough. If this is all there was to Trump’s support then he would have disappeared long ago. The fact is, Trump also has his supporters among the affluent and well-educated, and even among minorities. I think the key question to ask is what he represents for them.

I say “represents” because Hoffman’s conclusion is that Trump himself is a complete zero.

Trump’s rise to power showed that America was just like everywhere else. We were no more immune to COVID-19 than we were to autocracy, corruption, and base idiocy. Trump was, in fact, the opposite of heaven-sent. A no one. He had cheated at everything. He had lost enormous sums of money, his own and other people’s. He didn’t read. Knew nothing of history. Had no judgment or honor. So much of his identity was simply the creation of a reality television producer, Mark Burnett.

It was Burnett who gave America the mythical figure of Trump the successful businessman. He wasn’t, but he played one on TV and I think for a lot of people that honestly came to the same thing. But I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Trump was a blank slate for his followers to project upon. This brings me back to the point about Trump voters being a broader coalition than just a group of bitter losers in the new economy. He certainly appealed to this demographic – a notorious scofflaw who could offer a kind of absolution from personal responsibility while blithely insisting that failure was winning – but there was more to it than that.

What Trump tapped into was an anger that cut across socioeconomic and even racial lines. That said, Trump’s rallies are overwhelmingly white, and the most disturbing scene in Hoffman’s book comes when a Black woman is hounded out of the line waiting to get into one of the rallies. “It was the purest racism I’d ever witnessed,” he writes, as the mask of bonhomie slips from the crowd.

Four years earlier Alexander Zaitchik had followed a course very similar to Hoffman’s, covering Trump’s 2016 campaign in The Gilded Rage and describing a group psychology dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate. This has become a chronic condition in what Pankaj Mishra identified, correctly I believe, as an Age of Anger. It’s present on the left and right, among liberals and conservatives (whatever those terms mean today), and in the U.S. among Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s great achievement was in managing to seize the commanding heights of the anger economy. The rage machine of Twitter fit him perfectly, and he was someone that many people who had quite justifiably found traditional politicians unresponsive and unrepresentative could identify with.

Hoffman is “strangely optimistic” that America can move on. “From the great wound of Donald J. Trump, I hoped there might be an opportunity for wisdom.” I see no good signs. The conditions that gave rise to the politics of rage and resentment are going to get worse, and Trump did much to knock down the existing political and moral guardrails. We haven’t reached the bottom yet. In fact, I think we’re just getting started.

Review first published online January 17, 2022.

On Consolation

By Michael Ignatieff

Even the happiest life is filled with disappointments, heartaches, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. And in such dark times we turn to others, both the living and the dead, for consolation, comfort, hope, and understanding.

Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation presents a series of thoughtful essays on some of the great works of consolation in the Western tradition, from essays and speeches to painting (El Greco) and music (Mahler), taking us chronologically from the Book of Job to Cicely Saunders, a British doctor who was a pioneer in palliative care.

The fact that there is such a tradition is essential to Ignatieff’s argument about how consolation connects us. The authors of the Psalms are our contemporaries, even if we don’t share their faith. A “chain of meaning” going back over two millennia carries the message that “we are never alone when we face pain and loss. There is always someone who has been there before, who can share the experience.”

If consolation is social in this sense, it is also intensely personal. Ignatieff deals with both private and public forms of consolation but clearly thinks the former more important, taking his cue from Samuel Johnson’s boast that “Public affairs vex no man.”

This might seem an odd position to take given Ignatieff’s own involvement in politics, but Cicero’s public spiritedness is here characterized as a kind of toxic masculinity, Condorcet is shown being destroyed by the Revolution that betrayed him, and Marx’s vision of a transformed society is written off as a delusion neither attainable nor to be desired. Political leaders can offer words of comfort at moments of crisis, but more often what we need is consolation from politics, an affirmation of the value of the individual in the face of oppression.

As you should expect in any book looking at 2,500 years of big questions relating to the meaning and purpose of life, there are some blips along the way. The idea that Stoic philosophy made no universal claims and was exclusively written by and for a Roman elite might have surprised Epictetus, for one.

Then there is the problem of fuzzy language. Words of consolation are notoriously easy to say, and unless they move us through force of rhetoric or the speaker’s character they only register as platitudes. Anyone writing about consolation will have trouble avoiding this, and Ignatieff can slip into banality, like quoting the words of a “wise friend” that “doubt is to certainty as shadow is to light.” That’s not a bit of wisdom for the ages.

Does consolation work? The passage of time probably does more to assuage the pain of grief and loss. Ignatieff also admits that today we are more likely to speak of self-help and therapy, as “consolation has largely passed out of the modern vocabulary.” What this erudite and heartfelt survey reminds us of though is that the need for consolation is timeless, as are the inspiring words and examples of those who walked this path before us.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, November 12 2021.


By Steve Benen

At the 2020 Republican National Convention, gearing up for that year’s presidential election, the Republican Party took the remarkable step of not issuing any kind of party platform, choosing just to recycle what they ran on in 2016. This became known as the “whatever Trump says” platform.
Give Steve Benen high marks for prophecy then, as the convention took place after he had finished writing Impostors, which concludes with a chapter criticizing the GOP for now being a post-policy (and hence post-platform) political party.

Clearly then what happened at the Convention wasn’t any kind of a break with the direction things had been going for some time. Trump was an accelerator but didn’t change a trajectory that Benen sees Republicans as having been on for some time. About the only change is in the shamelessness of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Republican Party. If hypocrisy is the price vice pays to virtue then in the twenty-first century the cost had become too high. When it came to governing responsibly, the words “not even interested,” “didn’t even care,” and “not even trying” become almost a mantra in Benen’s book. “On climate policy,” for example, the GOP made it “clear that it is unwilling to even pretend to be a governing party.” Uninterested in data or facts or really much of anything, they are without positions that can even be debated. They govern, in so far as they govern at all, in profoundly bad faith.

But perhaps this isn’t being quite fair, or not cynical enough. If one takes as a starting point the view that sees the GOP as being a wrecking crew, looting the till, determined only to dismantle the state and sell off whatever’s left for scraps, then that counts as a sort of anti-policy. This was what being the Party of No meant. President Obama had enacted what were generally successful policies with regard to Iran (the nuclear deal), border security, and health care. Trump, who hated Obama much as he tended to hate everyone and everything, set about tearing all of this down, but with no apparent intention of “even trying” to replace it with anything. There’d be no “beautiful” new Republican health care plan, no new deal with Iran, and no wall on the Mexican border.

It’s telling that under Trump the party had two overarching goals: tax cuts and deregulation (dismantling the state) and stacking the judiciary (not in order to enact any kind of policy agenda but to stay in power). Once these had been achieved, however, “the governing cupboard was bare.” Even conservative commentators expressed surprise at how little there really was on the agenda. “It would be a mistake to assume Republicans are incapable of effective policy making,” Benen concludes. But aside from rigging elections through voting rights legislation and gerrymandering (the point of the judicial appointments) they’re not much interested in anything else.

Impostors is a damning indictment of the contemporary Republican record. Whatever one thinks of the Democratic policies adopted during the Obama years, they were at least substantive and serious enough to be engaged with. One could judge them on their merits, and tweak them where needed. A post-policy party is a different beast. “Ours is an ailing political system that needs more than one governing party to recover,” Benen concludes. I think it more likely that this is how it all ends.

Review first published online December 6, 2021.

Landslide, I Alone Can Fix It, and Peril

By Michael Wolff

By Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

By Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

For four years the mantra of the Trump presidency was that “there was no bottom.” Just when you thought he couldn’t sink any lower, some fresh outrage either to democratic norms or just plain decency would come along.
Still, it seemed that he’d reached a kind of nadir when January 6 brought a shambolic riot to the Capitol while behind the scenes an earnest albeit ham-handed effort was underway to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In the aftermath, the feeling one sensed, even in the media, was more one of relief at the end of a long national nightmare than the usual shock and disgust that Trump specialized in generating.

While in office Trump ruled the bestseller lists, and the most recent round of books, focusing on his final year in office, gives us what is perhaps (and hopefully) the final chapter. Written by authors who have covered the court of Trump extensively in previous books, and dealing with events already given saturation news coverage, do they have anything new to tell us?

Perhaps not much that’s new, but on at least a few points an indelible portrait is drawn of the calamitous final days.

In the first place, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi succinctly put it, the president at this time was “not well.” More precisely, his behaviour in fighting the election results was “a complete, total manifestation of insanity.”

This was not a clinical assessment, but while the talk of having Trump removed from office due to incapacity was always a non-starter, for many close to him, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, it was clear that in his final year Trump “had gone into a serious mental decline.” What the country was experiencing, in Michael Wolff’s words, was a chief executive suffering “mental derangement of a kind and at an intensity never before known at the highest level of the U.S. government.”

There was more to this than the Narcissistic Personality Disorder that Trump himself seemed to see as a super power, and that then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was being briefed on as soon as Trump took office. Trump was living in a fantasy world. He honestly believed, or at least affected to believe in the absence of any evidence, that Pfizer had deliberately withheld the rollout of a vaccine for COVID in order to hurt him politically, that the election had been stolen by various fraudulent means, and that he would be able to overturn the results in “his” courts.

The only word for this is madness.

The second point drilled home is that, at a time when the United States was faced with a major crisis, Trump basically quit his job. There had, of course, long been reports that Trump had no interest in doing the work of being president but only enjoyed being the center of attention. When COVID struck, however, what resulted was, in Leonnig’s and Rucker’s account, “a leadership vacuum,” where “the president had almost entirely ceased doing the business of running the country.” Then, according to Wolff, after the election he “put aside every other presidential function except the election challenge.” Which just meant watching more TV and flying off into foul-mouthed rages at everyone around him.

The final point is that this was a situation that the people closest to him (that is, his supporters) understood but that no one had the courage to speak out against. His immediate circle of family and aides thought he was living in an alternate reality, but they were either too sycophantic, afraid of him, or (as in the case of bizarre figures like Rudy Giuliani and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell) too far gone themselves to do anything about it.

One could take this a step further and wonder at the fact that Trump seems not to have had any real friends or confidants at all. What’s more, many of those who knew him and worked with him (and for him) more or less openly despised him. The Trump haters among his current and former officials constituted, according to Wolff, “a large club.” His one-time secretary of state Rex Tillerson famously thought him a “total fucking moron.” Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News was little more than a propaganda arm for Trump during these years, hated him, as did Ted Cruz, one of his staunchest defenders in the Senate. Meanwhile, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell had a “view of Trump [that] was as virulent as the most virulent liberal’s view: Trump was ignorant, corrupt, incompetent, unstable.”

No doubt this grated on Trump, making him feel even more isolated and resentful of the establishment “elites.” But it underlines that question of why people continued to support Trump even though they not only knew he was crazy but personally hated him as well. Obviously self-interest was part of it but Wolff gets at something more fundamental in what he has to say about the psychology of the political class:

The question that was asked since the beginning of the administration but that became even more urgent as Trump’s single-minded and senseless election challenge progressed was: Why would anyone tolerate this? The answer was simply that, in 2016, he had been elected, no matter how loopy and unexpected that was, and this was the nature of politics: you bowed down to the winner. (In fact, already some of that tolerance was seeping out because of the stark reality that he had not been reelected.) But the other answer was that, in politics, there was a whole professional class whose essential skill sets involved dealing with maximally difficult and damaged bosses. You took it and put up with it and tried to make the best of it, not in spite of everything, but because this is what you did; this was the job you had. And the more you could tolerate or accept or rationalize, the better you were at it and the higher you would rise in the universe, the brutalized universe of power.

Each book has its strengths and offers a slightly different perspective. Wolff’s account of the last days focuses mainly on the fight over the election and its fallout. Leonnig and Rucker give an account of Trump’s entire final year and so deal more with the COVID crisis. Woodward and Costa are broader still, even including a slightly off-topic look at the incoming Biden administration.

All the authors strain hard to be non-judgmental and present their sources in the best possible light. These books aren’t hatchet jobs. While Leonnig and Rucker refer to Trump’s “extraordinary capacity to say things that were not true” they balk at calling him a liar (Trump tells them he prefers “a more beautiful word called disinformation”). Meanwhile, the cabinet members and congressmen who enabled Trump are allowed to walk away with their excuses, if not their dignity, intact. But there are no heroes in this story.

Will there be a sequel? By all accounts Trump is enjoying life in his alternate-reality bubble at Mar-a-Lago. Leonnig and Rucker get an invite and are suitably impressed:

Here, beneath the gold-leaf ceiling of winged griffins and crystal chandeliers, Trump still rules, surrounded day and night by applauding fans, obsequious courtiers, and dutiful servants. At the perfectly manicured Mar-a-Lago, none of the disgrace that marked the end of his presidency pierces Trump’s reality. Here, he and his aides work to maintain the gospel according to Trump, with the most important revelations being that Donald Trump was the greatest president of all time and was unjustly denied a second term.

It sounds very nice, but given where things stand today, with Trump maintaining his position as the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, we shouldn’t be surprised if he tries a comeback. For a narcissist, fame is a powerful drug. There may be a new bottom yet. As Woodward and Costa conclude, “peril remains.”

Review first published online November 8, 2021.

The Tyranny of Merit

By Michael Sandel

In my review of Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites I talked about how hard it is to define just what is meant by a meritocracy. In particular I asked what “merit” consisted of aside from getting ahead or making money. This is a point that I think Michael Sandel also has some problems with, though it’s not one he wants to take on directly. Still, it’s there in his opening chapter. One paragraph suffices to cover the twilight of America’s elites:

Over the past four decades, meritocratic elites have not governed very well. The elites who governed the United States from 1940 to 1980 were far more successful. They won World War II, helped rebuild Europe and Japan, strengthened the welfare state, dismantled segregation, and presided over four decades of economic growth that flowed to rich and poor alike. By contrast, the elites who have governed since have brought us four decades of stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, the Iraq War, a nineteen-year, inconclusive war in Afghanistan, financial deregulation, the financial crisis of 2008, a decaying infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a system of campaign finance and gerrymandered congressional districts that makes a mockery of democracy.

Haven’t governed well? They haven’t done anything well except the one thing they are good at: getting ahead and making money. This is, precisely and I think by definition, what makes them a meritocratic elite.

Put another way, the problem with meritocracy is that it’s a myth, a justification for power and privilege that, outside of a handful of endeavours like some professional sports, has no basis in talent, intelligence, hard work, or the social utility of what one does. Merit does not equal value on any level, however much its ideology insists.

In short, life is a lottery and the meritocratic elite are only the fortunate few. Sandel freely admits as much, drawing authority from as far back as the Book of Job, where the voice from the whirlwind sternly informs us that there is no point to the random blights and blessings that make up our lives, no moral logic or cosmic justice standing behind them. The biggest contributing factor to one’s social status, after all, is the class one is born into. But even in the broader economy it’s basically a crapshoot. The stock market? A casino. Bestsellerdom? A blockbuster movie? Internet stardom? Random lightning strikes. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously put it, when it comes to that kind of success nobody knows anything. Sticking to his own bailiwick, when discussing the increasingly painful process of admissions to prestigious universities, perhaps the key stage in the process of “meritocratic sorting,” Sandel, who teaches at Harvard, proposes that administrators simply “toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them [out of 20,000 – 25,000], and leave it at that.”

The only cure for the “meritocratic hubris” that Sandel sees as being baked into the mix of our current social hierarchy – that is, the tendency of winners “to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way” – is a humility informed by our sense of “the contingency of our lot.” We might reduce this to the form of a prayer: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.”

To recap: It is hard to say what “merit,” when referring to a meritocracy, consists of, but it’s likely to mean nothing useful. Hedge fund operators (who, on average, can’t even outperform the market) and cryptocurrency speculators make thousands of times more than agricultural and personal support workers, who are often little more than slave labour. It’s a readily observable fact that many who have risen to the top through effort and education are in fact no good at what they do, in whatever field, from business to politics to the arts. “Smart America,” as George Packer characterizes it in his more recent book on class sorting, Last Best Hope, is not as smart, or talented, or industrious as the rest of America at all.

Nevertheless, it’s human nature to see any social prominence as earned or deserved, so the language of “merit” automatically gets employed as a way of whitewashing this status. It’s no accident that Packer places himself in “Smart America,” or that David Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, sees himself as a member of a class of people who are wealthier, smarter, more talented, more creative, more open and diverse, and just plain better than the non-elite. They are “our class,” “we” and “us.” People who read The Atlantic. And Brooks wants you to know how much it pains them to have to admit their superiority. But . . . life isn’t fair.

Indeed, to his credit Brooks thinks the current system is insane:

The modern meritocracy is a resentment-generating machine. But even leaving that aside, as a sorting device, it is batshit crazy. The ability to perform academic tasks during adolescence is nice to have, but organizing your society around it is absurd. That ability is not as important as the ability to work in teams; to sacrifice for the common good; to be honest, kind, and trustworthy; to be creative and self-motivated. A sensible society would reward such traits by conferring status on them. A sensible society would not celebrate the skills of a corporate consultant while slighting the skills of a home nurse.

Where I’d differ from Brooks is on the more fundamental point of what the meritocracy consists of. For Brooks meritocracy is a real thing, however invidious and “batshit crazy” it may be as a way of ordering society. I don’t think it’s a real thing, or at least much of one, but rather a myth. It is also worse than useless as a way forward. Hillary Clinton, on the campaign trail in 2016, enthusiastically spoke of how “I want this [America] to be a true meritocracy. I’m tired of inequality.” This may have been sincere, but as rhetoric it didn’t fool enough people. “The meritocratic ideal,” Sandel writes, “is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.” That is its purpose.

There are two recent developments that are driving a lot of the interest in the meritocracy now, and its “toxic mix of hubris and resentment.” In the first place, while life has always been a lottery it’s becoming even more of a lottery than ever. Second: the prizes for winning that lottery have become ever greater, while runner-up status has come to mean being consigned to oblivion. When Sandel enters into his peroration and offers a prospective vision of “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity – developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs,” he’s actually looking back to the golden age of the American middle class that entered into palliative care in the 1980s.

So what became of the common good? I don’t think there’s any spoiler alert necessary for the loss of community and the advent of a winner-take-all economy leading to growing levels of inequality, which then needed to find an ideological justification. During the only comparable levels of socio-economic inequality in America (the so-called Gilded Age) the gospel of social Darwinism had its first burst of popularity, and I don’t think today’s prophets of meritocracy are saying much that’s very different from what was said then. The meritocracy is essentially a natural order, the society it creates inevitable. Merit will out no matter what obstacles are placed in its path.

Sandel and Brooks are right in seeing in the myth of meritocracy a mighty engine for the generation of mass resentment. Meritocratic hubris leads to smug self-congratulation among the fortunate and anger among the left behind. “There is reason to think,” Sandel opines, “that popular antipathy toward meritocratic elites played a part in Trump’s election, and in the surprising vote in Britain, earlier that year, to leave the European Union.” People were confused at Trump’s railing against elites when he was himself, at least by his own reporting, a billionaire. But Trump, unlike Hillary Clinton, didn’t talk about merit. He talked about winners and losers. And what Trump’s supporters recognized was that Trump was actually a giant loser: a serial bankrupt, serial divorced male, clinically obese, deeply ashamed of being bald, and acting out his various insecurities in giant rages on the most public of stages. His favourite word with which to tag anyone he hated was “loser.” This, like everything else about him, was pure projection. That loser rage, however, struck a mass chord. His anger – and he was anger incarnate – was a kind of therapy. His fear of being laughed at and humiliated was something everyone suffering from a loss of social esteem could relate to.

From politics to pop culture the language of meritocracy is part of the fabric of our lives now, however spurious. The “regime of merit,” Sandel writes, “exerts its tyranny in two directions at once. Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.” I’m not so sure I agree with the psychological cost of hubris here (I think it more often leads to moral blindness and a pathological arrogance), but in any event we are all living under the tyranny of this bullshit now. And can we expect things to change?

Review first published online October 25, 2021.

My Friend Dahmer

By Derf Backderf

Being a large, affluent, suburban nation (at least for most of the second half of the twentieth century), the U.S. is in love with its roads. Going “on the road” is the preferred way to discover the country, and oneself, while roads not taken are seen as life choices of metaphysical impact. Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage for many, though one may wonder if this is changing for today’s young Americans.

“All we did was drive. There was nothing else to do,” John “Derf” Backderf writes of his final year of high school. The road is a dominant motif in his brutally honest true-crime memoir My Friend Dahmer. It (the road) is literally totemic, standing upright in several crucial full-page illustrations, never reading from left to right but composed like a monolith with no obvious side roads or turn-offs. There are no roads less traveled by but only a single, solid metaphor for fate that grows darker as the book progresses.

And at the end of the road? Well, we all know how Dahmer’s story ends. There’s no direction to his upright road. It stands squat like a tombstone, which is an effect reinforced by the repeating crosses of power lines. The perspective is flattened so that there’s no vanishing point in the distance so much as just a hill we have to climb, with only darkness at the top.

Such an image lends itself to a feeling of inevitability, which in turn addresses one of the main concerns of all such serial-killer studies. Did Jeffrey Dahmer have to end up the way he did? Was his road his fate? And what was it that made him the monster he became?

That Backderf has no final answers shouldn’t be surprising. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth psychological analysis. Backderf observed Dahmer while they were in high school together in the 1970s, but they don’t seem to have been terribly close friends. And finally he seems just as mystified as anyone at what went into the making of the murderer. At one point he calls out Dahmer’s parents and his teachers for their obliviousness or indifference – “Where were the damn adults?” – but while Dahmer had an unhappy childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family so did lots of kids, and many of them in far worse situations. Furthermore, Dahmer didn’t stand out all that much at school. “If just one adult had stepped up and said ‘Whoa this kid needs help . . . ’ ” Yes, but the fact is that every high school has problem kids like this who are simply passed along. In an epilogue Backderf even confesses that Dahmer wasn’t the most likely candidate at Revere High to become a serial killer. What made Dahmer truly exceptional remained hidden, and probably would have been hidden from his closest friends, if he had any.

Backderf’s art shows the influence of Robert Crumb, effectively using twitching bodies and sweaty faces to evoke anxiety and emotional fragility. But where My Friend Dahmer really stands out is in its depiction of the everyday misery of high school: the in-groups and out-groups, the mockery even performed by the weak on the weaker, the bullying, the failure of authority. Backderf himself doesn’t come out of the story as any kind of hero, and indeed may have contributed to Dahmer’s alienation, but nobody who experienced high school at the time can blame him. Not that I think things are any better now.

“Pity him, but don’t empathize with him,” is how Backderf sums up how we should feel about Dahmer. But in this haunting account I didn’t find much even to pity. Dahmer was a lonely, repressed mess, to be sure, but he was also sadistic and cruel, and it’s not clear that much could have been done for him aside from lifelong medication: “A sad, lonely life that Dahmer would have gladly accepted over the hellish future that awaited him.” He didn’t get that help though, and in any event, by high school I think it was already too late to fix what was wrong.

Review first published online June 12, 2021.

The Year of Lear

By James Shapiro

The Year of Lear is a direct sequel to A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, picking up the Bard’s story five or so years later. I leave the date vague because the title isn’t all that apt. As I understand it King Lear was mostly written in 1605, which is also when the Gunpowder Plot, the signal event discussed here, was discovered. Nor do we spend that much time talking about the life of Shakespeare, as opposed to his plays. Instead this is a literary-historical survey that looks at those “connections to [the] moments of creation” surrounding the writing of King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra, all assumed to have been composed around this time.

Of course we don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life anyway, so Shapiro is perfectly justified in going further afield. There’s only so much you can do with the scattered biographical evidence that we possess. Instead, more time is spent on pulling out threads from the plays, like an entire chapter discussing the special significance the word “equivocate” had and why Shakespeare might have been so taken with it. I found this interesting stuff, even if in the end it didn’t tell me a lot about the tragedy of Macbeth, and could be overdone (for example, I don’t think Macduff is being equivocal so much as ambiguous when he says “He has no children”).

It’s a shame, but it seems as though this is the only form of literary criticism now tolerated by the general public: playing as a sort of background music to biography and cultural history. Still, we should be thankful we’re getting this much. Shapiro is an expert on Shakespeare’s world and makes that world come to life with lots of energy and insight. Some of what he has to say is worth making notes on, like the difference in the use of “you” and “thou” at the time, and the relevance this has in Act One of Lear. Other parts are more of a stretch. For example, Shapiro quotes a letter from the minor courtier Sir John Harington, likening the revels of King James hosting King Christian of Denmark to that of those held by Solomon for the Queen of Sheba, to Shakespeare’s writing of Anthony and Cleopatra. “It’s an uncommon coincidence,” Shapiro concludes, “that even as Shakespeare was writing of a famous encounter with one African queen, Harington’s letter describes another.” I don’t think this rises to the level of any sort of coincidence. Every work of art has countless connections to the moments of its creation, but I doubt this is one of them.

The year of Lear? I can’t think of anything else that 1606 is remembered for today. And yet the play left so little immediate impression that we can’t even say for sure when it was written or first performed. The afterlife or long tail of literature plays out in mysterious and sometimes random ways, leading one to reflect on what will last from our own literary culture. Or whether anything will at all.

Review first published online May 4, 2021.

Bland Fanatics

By Pankaj Mishra

It’s a paradox, but Pankaj Mishra’s collection of essays critiquing the dominant political ideology of our time and the cheerleading done for it by intellectual and media elites seems a bit like picking on a soft target. Are there that many people, aside from those Mishra designates as “the bards of a new universal liberal empire,” who still believe in the myth of a benevolent liberalism raising all boats, promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights, and generally bringing light to all the dark places of the earth? Still believe, when, as Mishra summarizes at one point, “American pathologies – extreme concentrations of wealth, criminalisation of the poor, rogue security establishments, corrupted and dysfunctional politics and a compliant media – have been universalized, much more successfully than democracy and human rights”?

Mishra’s target isn’t so much liberal ideology itself, which can be hard to pin down (is it properly liberal, libertarian, or neoliberal?), as the “reality-concealing rhetoric” used to sell it. What he wants to expose is the “mask” of liberalism, or the performative theatricality of Englishness, or even, for that matter, the scramble of China’s ruling class to provide ideological legitimacy for its authority using whatever ancient or modern sources come to hand.

Of course we don’t have to believe the myth or the rhetoric, the propaganda or the lies. But if a lie works well enough, for enough people, then the public will go along with it. What happens, however, if, in a time of crisis – say with a shock to the financial system or a pandemic – the ruling class, liking to style itself a meritocracy, exposes itself as corrupt, malicious, and incompetent? Will breakdown lead to revolution, or collapse? Bets are being placed.

Review first published online April 27, 2021.

We Should Have Seen It Coming

By Gerald F. Seib

Over the past few years I’ve reviewed many books on the Trump phenomenon. Gerald Seib’s falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, but it does address, squarely, two of the questions that I find most interesting about the whole sorry episode: (1) to what extent was Trump the logical extension if not endpoint of a political movement that began with Reagan?, and (2) what does the label “conservative” mean today? The questions are related, in that Trump may be seen as carrying forward a broader conservative project and/or breaking with it.

Seib’s title makes clear the continuity: the populism of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, the outrage of the Tea Party movement, and the distrust, to put it mildly, of the media were all clear signposts for where the Republican Party was heading (Seib’s escape from a Reagan rally after a colleague warns that they are about to be lynched by the crowd made me think of the stories Katy Tur had to tell in her account of the 2016 Trump campaign Unbelievable). At the same time, Seib also makes it clear that going down this path was as revolutionary in its way as Reagan’s transformation of the political landscape. The Trumpistas were no longer Reagan Republicans but something else entirely.

Are they still conservative though? One gets the sense that Seib, along with his go-to guide in such matters George Will, would like to preserve a core meaning for the word. All too often, however, Seib has to add qualifiers to make it clear what it was Trump was moving away from, if not outright rejecting. Traditional conservatism, for example, or classic or principled conservatism were kaput. And then there are the familiar sub-species of conservatism, now so removed from one another as to be barely on speaking terms: fiscal or economic conservatism, cultural conservatism, and neoconservatism. George W. Bush would try to brand his administration as practicing compassionate conservatism, and Seib takes the story up to a 2019 conference and the efforts to write a manifesto for a new form of “national conservatism” (which is apparently just as terrible as it sounds, being the response to a “real political world . . . of competing tribes and nations”).

After wading through just a brief history of these years one could be forgiven for thinking that the word “conservative” had become detached from all meaning. I wouldn’t disagree. I think there is, however, at least one bedrock principle that has followed through from Reagan to Trump intact. This is the distrust of government, which blossomed over time into a full-blown and largely unreasoning hatred.

The reason I think this has held constant over the decades is that it serves a practical end. The dismantling of government undertaken by the Republican “wrecking crew” has a purpose, which is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy (targeting taxes on capital gains, estates, and dividends) are what Republican donors are paying for, and that’s what they’ve gotten. We might call this Koch conservatism (Seib seems to prefer to call it libertarianism, and I don’t recall his using the term “neoliberalism” once, though it’s a label even George Will approves of). Everything else has been window dressing. Fiscal responsibility, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Constitution, family values . . . all of this was a joke to be taken as seriously as infrastructure week and having Mexico pay for a wall. Seib wants to add to the conservative checklist items like free markets, being pro-immigration, and some kind of commitment to altruistic foreign involvement, but these had no more purchase under Trump than they really did for anyone post-Reagan. In fact, I’m not sure what he means by a conservative foreign policy. Promotion of democracy? Human rights? It’s hard to say. In any event, Trump wasn’t even going to pay lip service to such nonsense.

Of course government has continued to grow. In a complex, modern bureaucratic state that is inevitable. Someone has to deal with crises that come along, like the 2008 mortgage meltdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are also inevitable exceptions to the program of slash and burn, most notably a defence industry that needs to be serviced in times of both war and peace. But conservative ideology has stayed true to the basic game plan of privatization, getting rid of government regulation, and lowering taxes on the rich. All of which has had the intended effect of widening inequality.

What Trump did, then, wasn’t so much a break with tradition as a break with decorum. He gave the game away. A wholly unprincipled individual himself, he mocked the whole idea of governing by principle. What that left was a cash grab and a drive to, in Sarah Kendzior’s phrase, “strip America for its parts.” To say that people should have seen this coming isn’t quite correct. They should have seen that this is what was always going on.

Review first published online April 19, 2021.