Seven Degrees of Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg on Fox News Channel

Jonah Goldberg has—if my memory is correct—responded at length to my writings six times, in his National Review columns and in the Corner. And only once in direct reply to something I wrote about him (which was only to respond to something he wrote about me, when I hadn’t mentioned him). Now he’s back for the seventh, in which he talks about how irrelevant and not worth refuting I am.

A point of housekeeping before the main event. Goldberg, once again, calls me a coward for using a pseudonym. This is not a new charge—not for him, and not for legions of critics, many of whom are now clucking about it anew, thanks to Goldberg’s dredging it up again. I addressed this in my first, and still longest and most comprehensive, response to criticisms of the “Flight 93” essay. To my knowledge, no one has even noted what I said, much less tried to refute it. Rather than repeating it, let me just say that—whether you really think I’m a coward or whether it just makes you feel better to say so—my conscience is clear on this point.

I actually agree with Goldberg’s larger point: I’m irrelevant—to him, to all of Conservatism, Inc., and to the Republican Party, insofar as the party remains in the hands of those who now control it. I am under absolutely no illusion that I can persuade any of them of anything. My audience—to the extent that I have one—is the people whom I believe conservatism has led in unproductive directions and who now realize that the movement no longer speaks to or for them. I think I understand the truth of our situation better than conservatism does (obviously, or else I wouldn’t be writing at all). If I can use that understanding to improve others’ understanding and persuade them to move in productive directions, then I feel I ought to try. I may fail. Given the corruptness of the times, the difficulty of the task, and my own limitations, it’s quite likely that I will fail. Yet still I feel I ought to try.

Comprehensive Conservative Failure

If I may address professional conservatives directly: It seems to me undeniable that you have already failed. Don’t take it personally. I can rephrase that as “we” if you like, even though I was never much of an operative within Conservatism, Inc. But I was a fellow traveler and supporter, so if you want to lay part of the blame on me, fine.

We failed. We didn’t do what we set out to do. We lost the political and culture wars decisively. Our economic victory turned out to be fruitless: all the gains have accrued to those we nominally “defeated,” as evidenced by the fact that the Democrats are now the party of the super-rich. Our victory in the Cold War also turned to ashes, as we lost our heads pursuing unrealizable foreign ambitions while fighting in ways that preclude the possibility of victory. Not that we know what victory entails or have any idea what to do with it if we achieve it—but that doesn’t matter, because since 1991, we never have. Worse, we were crushed in the war of ideas:

It would not be the first time that a nation, defeated on the battlefield and, as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived the conquerors of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought.

You don’t have to be alt-right to see that this is a perfect description of the USSR’s posthumous intellectual victory in the form of “Cultural Marxism.” Climb down from the egghead mountaintops and the defeat becomes even clearer. A principal Soviet export was crude anti-Americanism—grounded in high theory, to be sure, but simplified to be understandable by even the meanest capacities. We “won” the Cold War, but that export nonetheless spread like a virus—so much so that anti-Americanism is now and has been for at least 20 years the civil religion not just of all Third World populations, not just of Western allies, but of American elites and their foot soldiers.

We failed to preserve a true understanding the principles of the Declaration of Independence. We failed to preserve the proper working order of the Constitution. We failed to protect and nurture that virtue in the people necessary to sustain the Constitution. We failed to defend the family from relentless assault. We failed to maintain any semblance of a shared public morality. We allowed—through a combination of active cheering and ineffective opposition—demographic and cultural replacement. We lent a great deal of our talent to serve rapacious interests in the name of “economic freedom.” All the things we were supposed to conserve—the nation, its people, its way of life, its governing structure—we have not conserved.

Alliances Coming Apart

This all seems irrefutably clear to me. Yet official conservatism says I am insane for saying so. So I ask: what do we have in common anymore?

I add “anymore” in frank acknowledgment that we used to have much. I’ve been reading Jonah Goldberg for almost 20 years. For most of that time, I thought we were on the same side, broadly speaking. And we still are, on many secondary things: most policy issues, the badness of the left, the greatness of “Star Trek” and “The Simpsons.” But on the really big things—the existential regime questions—we now appear to be light-years apart. Which, if true, makes all those subsidiary agreements kind of irrelevant. Perhaps that explains why, despite all that vast agreement, Goldberg attacks me so vociferously: because he suspects, as I do, that our fundamental differences are now greater than our similarities. That doesn’t fully explain why he bothers to come after me—there are plenty with whom he disagrees even more who might as well not exist in Goldberg’s world. But it does partly explain it.

I’ll mention one other big-name conservative intellectual, because he recently took after me, too. I’ve been reading Charles Murray longer than I’ve been reading Goldberg. I consider him the world’s greatest living social scientist—a title he assumed, in my view, on the passing of James Q. Wilson. For a nobody like me, it’s immensely gratifying to be on the receiving end of a snark-tweet from the author of Losing Ground, The Bell Curve, and Coming Apart. Why is someone of his stature even deigning to insult me? I think Murray’s response to the present political circumstance is imprudent. Nonetheless, I still read him because wisdom is rare and one must grab it where and when it appears. I have no expectation whatever that Murray’s research will be negatively colored by what I consider his political errors. I’m certain I can still learn from him. He’s quite certain he has nothing to learn from me. He should therefore not waste any more time on me, but instead to keep on with studies from which I and thousands of others will profit.

Goldberg’s Mischaracterizations

Now I’m going to turn to Goldberg in greater detail. He explicitly disclaims any attempt to “rebut [my] points case by case.” I forswear his example—not, again, to persuade him (I know that’s impossible) but in an attempt to clarify certain points to those, like me, who used to be persuaded by him but these days feel they need another guide.

Goldberg’s mischaracterizations begin, as it were, at the beginning. He accuses those at the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College of living in bubbles. He doesn’t offer an argument. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. But if he’s right, at the very least, he would have to acknowledge that those are very different bubbles than the “Beltway Bubble” (not a term I have used) Goldberg admits he inhabits. Perhaps the latter bubble has something to learn from the former? It’s not like the three have equal say. Conservatism, Inc. is overwhelmingly located within the Beltway, where—by dint of its wealth, personnel, and access to big media and powerful politicians—it simply drowns out conservative voices from elsewhere. Calling a little college in rural Michigan, and a little think tank in the inland reaches of the Southern California megalopolis, “bubbles” may be true (though I think it isn’t) but hardly exonerates the big Beltway Bubble for its manifest failures.

Goldberg proceeds, once again, to mischaracterize my argument. According to Goldberg, I said that “this election poses an existential threat to America’s survival. Either we charge the cockpit and vote for Trump, or the figurative terrorists of the Clinton cabal kill us all.”

What I actually said was that this election poses an existential threat to America’s survival as a constitutional republic. I didn’t say that Clinton will “kill us all.” Though, for the record, I do think she and her administration will be a lot more punitive and vindictive against those she perceives as her enemies (e.g., all of us) than most conservatives suppose. But here’s exactly what I said:

If Hillary wins, there will still be a country, in the sense of a geographic territory with a people, a government, and various institutions. Things will mostly look the same, just as—outwardly—Rome changed little on the ascension of Augustus. It will not be tyranny or Caesarism—not yet. But it will represent, in my view, an irreversible triumph for the administrative state. Consider that no president has been denied reelection since 1992. If we can’t beat the Democrats now, what makes anyone think we could in 2020, when they will have all the advantages of incumbency plus four more years of demographic change in their favor? And if we can’t win in 2016 or 2020, what reason is there to hope for 2024? Will the electorate be more Republican? More conservative? Will constitutional norms be stronger?

Many anti-Trump conservatives dispute this argument with vague generalities about a coming conservative resurgence. But none has even attempted to refute the specifics. Goldberg certainly doesn’t—as noted, he says my arguments are unworthy of response. Not unworthy of writing about seven times. Just unworthy of responding to in detail.

I may have made the argument first (though I’m not claiming I did), but others have made versions of it since—including current and former National Review writers Victor Davis Hanson, John O’Sullivan, Conrad Black, and Mark Steyn. Even the eminently respectable Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in detail about the grave dangers of a Hillary presidency—admittedly, without concluding that Trump is superior.  But their case is rather more in support of my thesis than against it. Yet Goldberg singles out only me for opprobrium.

At any rate, I’m on the record with a prediction. It will come true or it won’t. If it doesn’t, Goldberg and (many) others will doubtless cackle that they told me so. And I promise to take it in more than good humor—considering that, first of all, I will have been wrong and thus will have it coming. Second, and much more important: I will be overjoyed at having been wrong, relieved that what I most feared did not come to pass.

We’ll see.

Conservatives for Bourbonism (Not the Kentucky Variety)

Goldberg continues by expressing outrage at my musings on motive. There’s no question in my mind that America is ruled by a bipartisan elite that agrees on the sanctity of open borders, free trade and carried interest. Goldberg doesn’t dispute that here—or anywhere, so far as I have noticed. He’s more incensed over what he thinks I said about Conservatism, Inc. But he gets this wrong too. It’s true that I think the donor class, the top pols, and the think-tank elite are motivated at least in part by money and status. I don’t think, and didn’t say, that rank-and-file Hill staffers, research assistants, talking-point-drafters, op-ed writers, and bloggers are so motivated.

The truth is much sadder. Because of their lack of education (despite, in many cases, elite diplomas), they believe checklist conservatism to be the last word on political wisdom. They know nothing of prudence, higher ends, the good, or the necessity of tacking and trimming. They just see deviations as heresy. They are encouraged to do so by an elite which manipulates them for its own ends. What can be more useful to an oligarchy than to send the talented but uneducated and un- or underpaid youth against the barricades on its behalf? Take on six-figure student debt, get an internship somewhere on Massachusetts Ave., and get out there to defend the carried interest loophole. While the billionaires who benefit from that loophole pay you either nothing or minimum wage. But your stance is principled! Low taxes! You’re a warrior for truth!

Conservative opposition to Communism and socialism degenerated into a defense of Bourbonism. Is it a coincidence that the street address of AEI’s new office is 1789? It is surely not a coincidence that the building was the most lavish apartment house ever erected in Washington. Now it houses, among others, James Pethokoukis, a premier “conservative” apologist for liberal, Davoisie capital and wealth concentration. Goldberg is angry that I recently attacked Pethokoukis, but the best he musters in rebuttal is to point out a discrepancy between “a” and “the.” OK, I acknowledge the distinction and apologize for my carelessness. But what earthly difference does it make? My point was that so-called “conservative cases” for liberal things—whether preceded by definite or indefinite articles—always constitute accommodations to the Left. As it did in the case of Pethokoukis’s article, which appeared on the left-leaning “explainer” site, Vox.com. Goldberg, needless to say, does not address that point at all.

More Mischaracterizations

Goldberg then puts the following words in my mouth: “if you disagree with [me] about Trump, you’re a sell-out in favor of destroying America.” No. What I said was that we face a binary choice. To be a conservative or a Republican and to sit it out, or to criticize Trump, is in this circumstance to favor Hillary. That’s just a fact. Trump is the underdog and needs all the help he can get. Every defection or abandonment hurts him and makes it more likely that she will win. If she wins, she will be a disaster for the right and for the country—on precisely the terms that Goldberg and so many others have always said she would. I therefore find it mind boggling that they could do anything, however slight, that might help her win.

But they are. Would that the consequences would fall only on them. But they will fall on all of us—and the flyover rubes first, and hardest. Indeed, if a third Clinton administration differentiates among its enemies at all, it will wait to eat last all those “conservatives” who helped Hillary by damaging Trump. I’m not saying that was a conscious motivation for their opposition. But it may prove to be a perk.

Goldberg objects to my “apocalyptic despair,” despite—and without mentioning—my repeated (admittedly, perhaps delusional) assertion that secure borders, economic nationalism, tight labor markets, trans-ethnic cohesion, and a reassertion of the consent of the governed might turn our dire situation around. The only candidate in this race—who was ever in this race—who supports that agenda in toto is Trump.

‘Weaponized Leftism’ on the Right

Goldberg especially objects to my saying that I am now an enemy of established conservatism. He declines to mention what prompted me to say that. Pethokoukis called me a racist not once, not twice, but three times in one article. As I argued then—and as Goldberg surely understands—this is, and is meant to be, the cruelest, most damning, most devastating thing one can say about anyone else in the current year. It is weaponized Leftism, now used all too casually, and eagerly, by the right against the right. If that’s what Pethokoukis thinks—if it’s what Goldberg thinks; and he implicitly defends Pethokoukis on this point—then what could I be but their enemy? Could they be friends or colleagues with Goebbels? Should I be expected to be intellectual or political compatriots with people who compare me to Nazis?

It’s been clear to me for some time that a plurality (at least) of conservatives would much rather call nominal allies “racist” for saying America needs to get serious about the border than actually see anyone get serious about the border. Pethokoukis is an open-borders homo economicus, so this makes sense in his case. But Goldberg—like many at NR—claims to be for restrictionist reform. And yet when the first presidential candidate in, basically, forever successfully raised the prospect of regaining control of the immigration debate and the border, Goldberg and NR came out against him. And not just in the primaries, but in the general. What’s more, they attack those of us who write in support of him.

Still more, when we supporters are called “racist” for advocating a position they themselves claim to hold, they amplify that smear and defend those making it. If one is willing to grant that Goldberg and his colleagues genuinely believe their stated position, one must then conclude that they don’t think it’s that important. Not more important, at any rate, than calling those to their right “racist” or defending those who do.

I think the border, citizenship, social cohesion, and policies that put Americans first are really, really important. To the extent that I am politically and/or intellectually engaged, it makes sense for me to arrange things so that my allies are people who agree with me. It certainly doesn’t make sense to be allied with people who disagree, or who claim to agree but countenance others’ slurs about a position we supposedly share.

But that is just to circle back to the beginning. It would appear that we just don’t agree on fundamentals any more. Doesn’t it? I’m open to a case that we do. I expect I’d have things to say in reply and rebuttal. But maybe we can find common ground after all.

Enough to be allies again? I don’t know. The only way to find out is to have a really big argument. Which will make a lot of people mad. The debate is actually already underway, and tempers are already high. I get the sense that Goldberg and most of his side just want people like me to go away. But even if I personally went away, the argument will continue. The Right will either reconcile on terms favorable to Trump’s issues or it will split. There will be no going back to the status quo ante. That’s another prediction.

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About Publius Decius Mus

Publius Decius Mus, or “Decius,” is the pen name of Michael Anton. He was a senior contributing editor of American Greatness from July 2016 until January 2017. He currently serves as deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council.