EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Readers (particularly those in Irma’s path. Please stay safe),
The haruspices were very smart people. They used their intelligence to explain how the enlarged liver of a pigeon meant that the wheat harvest would be good or how the length of a chicken’s colon proved that Caesar’s gout would clear up. Haruspices are not to be confused with augurs, who made similar determinations based upon the flight formation of birds and the sounds they made. Those guys were idiots! That’s not science!
Actually, I kid — the augurs were very smart too. By taking the auspices of birds, they could explain whether Rome should go to war with the Peoples’ Front of Judea or the Judean Peoples’ Front. The Roman historian Livy noted, “Who does not know that this city was founded only after taking the auspices, that everything in war and in peace, at home and abroad, was done only after taking the auspices?”
Connecting Random Dots
Why do I bring all of this up? Because I am coming around to the position that the vast bulk of punditry in defense of Donald Trump is little different from hepatoscopy, chiromancy, tasseography, and other “sciences” that imbue essentially random phenomena with deep and prophetic significance (this is not to say that orbistry, the practice of explaining everything weird in this crazy world, is not 100 percent correct). Let’s just look at the past week.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to “immediately terminate” the DACA program if elected. In June, he flipped and said it would stay in place. Going into this week, the White House signaled that it would get rid of the program. On Tuesday, Trump’s attorney general came out and declared that the program was unconstitutional. And, in a move I praised, Trump said that he would give the task of dealing with the issue to Congress. But, after watching negative TV coverage and bristling at Barack Obama’s criticism, Trump flopped. In a tweet, Trump suggested he wants Congress to legalize the program, not get rid of it. And if Congress failed, he might have to “revisit” the issue, implying that Trump might use the same unconstitutional measures Obama used:
Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2017
Now, in fairness to Trump, he’s always been torn on the issue, and rightly so. Deporting the “Dreamers” is a terrible idea. But the position of most immigration hawks has always been that we should trade some form of amnesty in exchange for serious border-security measures and/or implementation of E-verify or similar steps.
So, let’s consider instead the other big news this week. President Trump threw Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the House Freedom Caucus under the bus to cut a deal with “Chuck and Nancy” on a short-term extension of the debt ceiling. Wait, scratch that. He didn’t “cut a deal” with the Democrats, he simply took their first offer in exchange for . . . nothing. He took a “deal” to get Harvey relief passed despite the fact that Harvey relief would have passed anyway. This was not The Art of the Deal. It was — to borrow a phrase from Seth Mandel — The Art of the Kneel.
Trump kicked the can to December, when his leverage will be weaker, apparently in a glandular act of spite against McConnell and Ryan. John Boehner was hounded out of office by tea-party types for even considering cutting far better debt-ceiling deals with Barack Obama.
In both of these cases, the response from legions of Trumpers was rapturous approval of his genius and/or his willingness to punish McConnell and Ryan. Here’s Lou Dobbs:
See if you can follow the logic. Paul Ryan, a lifelong Republican and the most conservative speaker of the House in living memory, took the fiscal hawks’ position, going back to the Ted Cruz government-shutdown circus of 2013. Donald Trump, until recently a life-long Democrat and New York liberal, embraced the opening offer from the leaders of the Democratic party, Chuck and Nancy. And Dobbs’s instantaneous conclusion? Paul Ryan, who over-performed Donald Trump in the 2016 election by 12 points, is the “RINO.” Does anyone doubt that if the policy positions were rearranged and Ryan had insisted on a short-term deal, Dobbs would be castigating that position?
I won’t clutter this “news”letter up with all of the claims that Trump’s handling of DACA and the debt-ceiling were brilliant masterstrokes.
Matt Walsh captures the spirit nicely:
Trump: let’s end DACA— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) September 6, 2017
Trump apologists: Yes! Brilliant!
Trump: actually I want congress to make it law
Trump apologists: Yes! Brilliant!
But here’s the thing: So much of the “analytical” punditry about Donald Trump’s genius isn’t analysis at all. It’s a form of haruspicy. The priests of the Trump cult look at Trump’s kneejerk, in-the-moment, utterly instinctual, and unthinking outbursts and spasmodic actions like the death rattle of a vivisected chicken and imbue them with meaning that simply isn’t there. They connect cherry-picked dots to create an image of sagacity, sometimes brilliantly, but the dots are just dots.
To this day, no one can explain to me how Trump is playing so far above everyone else — nth level chess! — and yet has the worst poll numbers in history and can’t get anything done. The thought that he’s in way over his head is just too terrible to contemplate, and so we get all of these ornate — and sometimes quite clever — explanations about how Trump has outfoxed everyone yet again.
But the man is not some political chess master — he’s a tic-tac-toe chicken pecking at whatever morsel of provocation his sphincterless id lights upon. If not every day, then certainly every week, Trump tweets something that causes his sane supporters to suffer from scrotal constriction and makes his life tougher and his agenda more difficult.
And yet the response from the augurs and haruspices is to write the rest of the story. They are like Chauncey Gardiner’s enablers, refusing to concede what is so obvious: Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Again, I don’t mean to suggest that this augury is all dumb or even without merit. I think Ben Domenech’s take on Trump’s pivot includes many good points, but it is based to some extent on at least two erroneous assumptions: 1) that there’s a plan, a scheme, or a strategy behind his moves, beyond his extemporaneous impulse to screw people who annoy him, or simply to get attention, and 2) that even if there were a long-term plan, scheme, or strategy behind Trump’s actions, he could actually stick to it long enough to see it come to fruition. Ben may be right that Trump will now work with Democrats more. It would be consistent with his record and character — but if he does, it will be because he was manipulated into doing so. Tic-tac-toe chickens often win the game. But that’s because the machine’s owner knows where to put the pellets, not because the chicken knows what he’s doing.
The other night, I happened to catch Rachel Maddow’s opening monologue. You can watch the whole thing here.
As longtime readers know, I am a charter member in the International Order of Woodrow Wilson Haters. So when Maddow began her show talking about Wilson, I took the bait.
I don’t have the room or energy to cover the whole thing, but the monologue was a horrendous display of intellectual dishonesty. I say “dishonesty” because Maddow is actually quite bright and she, I think, chooses her words fairly deliberately, at least when she pre-produces or writes things.
She begins by noting that Wilson was reelected in 1916 on a promise to keep us out of the war in Europe (no one called it “World War I” then, a fact Hollywood sometimes forgets). She notes that going into the 1918 midterms, Wilson was very unpopular for the “war and other stuff.” (“Other stuff” being a useful rhetorical carpet to sweep myriad outrages under.) Wilson’s party, the Democratic party, got “shellacked.” And because of that the Republican party took control of Congress, enabling Albert Johnson to take over the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Maddow correctly notes that Johnson was a Republican and a eugenicist and a staunch racist opponent of immigration.
But she’s very keen on repeatedly pointing out these partisan affiliations, leaving the impression that the evil tide of eugenics was held at bay by the Democratic party until, tragically, the Republicans got into power.
She then says:
Soon after he took over, the House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization hired themselves an expert eugenics agent. Albert Johnson, the chairman, in addition to serving in Congress, he had become the president of the Eugenics Research Association of America, and once he was chairman of that committee, he brought on one of the officers from the Eugenics Research Association of America, this guy Harry Laughlin, to become an expert eugenics agent to the Immigration Committee in Congress. And together these two eugenicists got to work.
In 1922, Harry Laughlin created this chart [pictured] — ooh, look! Science! It’s a chart! You can see diagonal there that’s the watermark of Truman State University, they’ve preserved this document online as part of their history of eugenics project. But this is a chart that Harry Laughlin created when he was the expert eugenics consultant for that congressional committee. What this chart purports to show is the “relative social inadequacy” of various immigrant races in the United States. What counts as social inadequacy? Well, according to the chart, that includes “feeblemindedness, insanity, crime, epilepsy, tuberculosis, blindness, deafness, deformity, and dependency.” And then the chart ranks your likelihood of being any of those things, or having any of those things, based on your national origin.
Maddow’s ultimate goal is to make Jeff Sessions the modern incarnation of Albert Johnson. I think that’s stupid, but I also think it’s uninteresting. My core objection is how she frames this historical backdrop, though I should say that I wouldn’t be so worked up if she didn’t seem so smug about her cleverness in making this patently misleading argument.
I should also note that I have no problem criticizing Johnson or Laughlin or the 1924 Immigration Act — co-sponsored by Johnson and Senator David Reed.
Let’s start there. While Maddow is eager to point out that Johnson was a Republican and implies that he did these terrible things only because Republicans tragically gained power, she leaves out that the Immigration Act passed by massive veto-proof majorities in both houses (308 to 62 in the House; 69 to 9 in the Senate). Maddow also makes it sound like anti-immigration sentiment was driven entirely by eugenic racism, when it was a good deal more complicated than that.
One of the complicating factors was the lingering role of the First Red Scare, fueled in large part by the Wilson administration (the Palmer Raids, recall, were led by Wilson’s attorney general). It was Woodrow Wilson who ripped into “hyphenated-Americans”: “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”
Another complicating factor, which Maddow completely leaves out, is that Woodrow Wilson was a committed racist — the most racist president of the 20th century — who shared many of Johnson’s views. Indeed, Wilson was almost surely more racist than Johnson, believing that it was a shame the South lost the Civil War. He supported Jim Crow and re-segregated the federal government, viciously purging black workers from the civil service.
Wilson supported Jim Crow and re-segregated the federal government, viciously purging black workers from the civil service.
He also helped advance the eugenic agenda. As governor of New Jersey, Wilson signed legislation authorizing the forcible sterilization of “the hopelessly defective and criminal classes.” He believed that blacks and Asian immigrants couldn’t be made into Americans and that they shouldn’t be permitted to vote. In his History of the American People, Wilson wrote that good, white men could not be expected to “live upon a handful of rice for a pittance” and compete with the Chinese, “who with their yellow skin and strange debasing habits of life seemed to them hardly fellow men at all but evil spirits, rather.”
More broadly, eugenics was central to the entire progressive project. Countless policies that Maddow endorses — the minimum wage chief among them — were promulgated by the leading progressives of the day as a way to encourage the growth of the fit and superior races at the expense of the unfit ones.
Yes, yes, Harry Laughlin was eugenicist and a “consultant” to Albert Johnson. La-di-frickin’-da. Read Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers, and you’ll find lists of famous progressive economists and intellectuals who were mentors, advisers, and consultants to Wilson who were soaked-to-the-bone racists and eugenicists. Indeed, Laughlin was a widely admired public intellectual among progressives and a political ally of no less than Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger (who was opposed to abortion, by the way) sold her birth-control agenda in explicitly eugenic terms. When some eugenicists expressed skepticism about birth control being an essential priority, she reassured them:
Eugenicists may remember that not many years ago this program for race regeneration was subjected to the cruel ridicule of stupidity and ignorance. Today Eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems. The most intransigent and daring teachers and scientists have lent their support to this great biological interpretation of the human race. The war has emphasized its necessity. The doctrine of Birth Control is now passing through the stage of ridicule, prejudice and misunderstanding. A few years ago this new weapon of civilization and freedom was condemned as immoral, destructive, obscene. Gradually the criticisms are lessening –understanding is taking the place of misunderstanding. The eugenic and civilization value of Birth Control is becoming apparent to the enlightened and the intelligent.
But maybe I’m missing something about the crucial relevance of hiring Laughlin as a consultant. What, then, to make of Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen? He was a member of the Eugenics Research Association, too (the ERA, by the way, was a subsidiary of the Carnegie Institution). When Woodrow Wilson was elected governor of New Jersey, Katzen-Ellenbogen was hired as the chief eugenicist of his administration. Wilson asked him to draft the forced-sterilization law, which created Wilson’s Board of Examiners of Feebleminded, Epileptics, and Other Defectives. Katzen-Ellenbogen ended up working at Buchenwald where he killed thousands.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: While I was at Davidson College yesterday, I got a text from Kirsten, our invaluable dog walker. Zoë and her best pack buddy, Sammy, were doing their usual wrestling when they apparently rolled over a nest of yellowjackets. Both were attacked. Zoë had at least 20 of the buggers on her, and Kirsten tried to scrape them off with a stick. But Zoë — in the midst of an understandable freakout — didn’t understand that the stick was a tool for good and ran away from Kirsten. After clearing out of the area, Zoë and Sammy were okay, but clearly pretty traumatized.
My wife gave Zoë extra attention last night and tried to explain that sticks have multiple uses. Other than that, the beasts are good. The good cat is supervising, and Zoë is adjusting to the end of summer and remains quite demanding of my attention. The rains have made the dog park particularly good for digging, which Zoë appreciates. Zoë got to chase a rabbit yesterday morning on our dawn perambulation, and Pippa remains as spanielly as ever. Both doggers remain fascinated by turtles.
The huge audience (the fake media will never report how huge) was extremely polite and civil.
I had a great time at Davidson College last night. I’ve been to scores of colleges over the years, and Davidson remains one of the most impressive standouts (I hope my daughter will at least put it on her list one day). There were some stupid flyers calling for some kind of resistance to my talk, which included a bunch of supposedly outrageous quotes by me. But the huge audience (the fake media will never report how huge) was extremely polite and civil. And while some of the questions from the kids were decidedly hostile, they were nonetheless all fair game and civilly asked. I’m still working through how to talk about my upcoming book, and it was very helpful for me to hear from people who didn’t necessarily like what I had to say. Thanks to everyone — friend and foe alike — for the great turnout. I apologize for not hanging around afterward to sign books or get assaulted, but the administration was keen on getting me out of there, not least because it had been a very long day (and the bars were closing soon).
Oh, and I should have been doing this for a while, but the Fourth Annual William F. Buckley Jr. Prize Dinner is coming up: October 25, 2017, at Gotham Hall in NYC. No less than James Rosen — currently on parole — will be the emcee. We will be honoring Tom Wolfe, who will get the WFB Prize for Leadership in Political Thought. And Bruce and Suzie Kovner will be receiving the WFB Prize for Leadership in Supporting Liberty. The Kovners are not well known to the general public, but in the word of liberty-promoting philanthropy, they are superstars.
We’ll also be saying something or other about Rich Lowry’s 25 years at NR.
It should be a blast, a veritable Cannonball Run of conservative luminaries with music provided by the Juilliard School. Proceeds will also go towards helping me buy pants. Details here.
In other news . . .
I’ll be on Special Report Friday night. (By the way, the feedback on the beard has been mostly positive so I think I’ll keep it for a while longer).
The Game of Thrones Ricochet GLoP, with Sonny Bunch and Ross Douthat replacing Rob Long. (Nobody wanted to bite at my suggestion that Game of Thrones is neoconservative, alas).
And now, the weird stuff.