Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
They Said It:
By Wednesday, however, it was business as usual. Which is to say the usual last-minute deal just ahead of the usual make-or-break deadline to resume spending as usual. There was nothing surprising about this. Everyone knew the Republicans were going to fold. Folding is what Republicans do. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are so good at folding Obama should hire them as White House valets. So the only real question was when to fold. They could at least have left it for a day or two after the midnight chimes of October 17 had come and gone. It would have been useful to demonstrate that just as the sequester did not cause the sky to fall and the shutdown had zero impact on the life of the country so this latest phoney-baloney do-or-die date would not have led to the end of the world as we know it. If you’re going to place another trillion dollars of debt (or more than the entire national debts of Canada and Australia combined) on the backs of the American people in one grubby late-night deal, you might as well get a teachable moment out of it.
The GOP was concerned about polls showing their approval ratings somewhere between Bashar Assad and the ebola virus, but it’s hard to see why capitulation should command popularity: The late Osama bin Laden’s famous observation about the strong horse and the weak horse has some relevance to domestic politics, too. Republicans spent a lot of time whining that, if Obama was prepared to negotiate with the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Russians, why wouldn’t he negotiate with the GOP? Well, the obvious answer is Rouhani, Assad, and Putin don’t curl up in a fetal position at the first tut-tut from Bob Schieffer or Diane Sawyer.
Mark Steyn, “Potemkin Parliament,” National Review Online, October 18, 2013.
MILO, MARK, AND A HILL TO DIE ON.
As some of you know, last week was an important one for the conservative movement and, by extension, for the Republican Party. For the 44th time, the American Conservative Union (ACU) hosted its annual Conservative Political Action Conference, better known simply as CPAC. CPAC is probably the best known and most significant gathering of conservative politicians, activists, think tanks, and intellectuals in the country. Last year, candidate Donald Trump made a somewhat controversial appearance at the conference, but lost the celebrated participant “straw poll” to Senator Ted Cruz. This year, Trump returned as a conquering hero, not only having won the Republican presidential nomination from the likes of Cruz, but having won the White House as well. CPAC 2017 marked the first gathering of the conservative movement, transformed – and divided – by the new, Trumpian-populism.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, most of the action at this year’s CPAC began a week BEFORE the conference even opened – which is to say not quite two weeks ago – when the ACU announced that Milo Yiannopoulos would be speaking. Moreover, depending on whom you believe, he was initially scheduled to give the keynote address. Needless to say, the political-social media complex immediately exploded in excitement, fury, disappointment, and glee.
Milo, you may recall, is the gay, right-leaning provocateur and now-former technology editor at Breitbart.com who has become quite the celebrity over the last couple of years. Indeed, a few weeks back, a speech he was scheduled to give at the University of California was the “trigger” that prompted students, faculty, staff, and various anti-fascist fascists to take to the streets of Berkeley and burn down a bunch of stuff that Milo neither owned nor cherished. In any case, Milo is considered a big deal in some circles on the Right and so he was invited to CPAC.
Of course, he never made it there. As soon as his participation in the CPAC lineup became known, establishment conservatives – which is to say the conservatives who attend CPAC and have for decades – reacted swiftly and, in some cases, quite hostilely. Milo is NOT a conservative, they insisted, and even if he were, he’s a vile, offensive man who gives succor to racists and anti-Semites and should therefore not appear at the preeminent conservative political gathering. Long story short, most of the complaints fell on deaf ears, until, that is, a video surfaced showing Milo joking with interviewer Joe Rogan, ostensibly about pedophilia. The ACU rescinded its offer, Milo resigned from his job at Brietbart, and, just to make sure that there were no open wounds without salt rubbed in them, Milo’s publisher cancelled his book deal.
Now, here’s the thing: joking about pedophilia is wrong. Period. End of story. About that there’s no debate. At the same time, Milo and his defenders don’t exactly sound unreasonable when they argue that he didn’t intend to sound as if he were condoning such behavior, and that he, a child victim of sexual assault at the hands of a priest, laughs about it because he’s not sure how else to cope with it. Heaven knows we wouldn’t want to have to sit in judgment of the guy or, for that matter, of those who were justifiably repulsed by his comments. Fortunately, we don’t have to, since that’s above our pay grade – waaaaaaaaaaaay above our paygrade. We only mention the whole thing today by way of introducing the discussion of the sudden rise of people like Milo – the post-teleological Right, if you will.
Over the past couple of years, as the Tea Party has slowly wound down and as the Left has nevertheless grown more aggressive in its project of cultural reformation, the “resistance” on the Right has grown ever more aggressive and ever more extraordinary. The fact of the matter is that no one has ever seen a right-leaning response like this. It is, at once, smart, quick-witted, hard-hitting, and deliberately politically incorrect, intentionally offensive at times.
Now, neither we nor anyone else are able or willing to create a definitive list of the people and groups that constitute this resistance. We know that it overlaps with but is not identical to the much-ballyhooed and much-maligned “alt-right.” We also know that Milo has been a big part of it, and so has Donald Trump. Indeed, Donald Trump is president today because he, more than anyone, was willing to fight the Left using its own tactics, by refusing ever to back down, and by breaking the mold of the traditional “Republican” politician. Way back in the fall of 2015, a handful of commentators, including the inimitable Mark Steyn, argued that Trump would win the Republican nomination, beating the likes of Jeb Bush and John Kasich handily, because he was an “alpha male,” and they, sadly, were not. And while it may sound strange to call an openly gay man who pledges his allegiance and fealty to Donald Trump an “alpha male,” in the latest iteration of the culture war, Milo has most definitely been one of the most aggressive and effective right-leaning warriors. He and Trump are, in many ways, kindred spirits.
But here is the rub. Not all conservatives are all that happy about this. It almost goes without saying that the Republican Party remains bitterly divided and that many Big-shot conservatives are still refusing to acknowledge that their “movement” has changed and didn’t bother to consult them before it did. We feel their pain; we really do. We spent most of the last quarter century arguing – contra Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp – that character matters. And yet now our movement is led by people who spend much of their time focused on “alternative facts.” That’s taken some adjustment, to say the least. Still, some conservatives refuse to make that adjustment. And that’s their prerogative. But they appear to be spending most of their time these days trying to explain to themselves the phenomenon that steamrolled them and other “experts” of similar persuasion. A perfect example is a piece that National Review’s David French penned in the wake of the Milo-CPAC kerfuffle.
You simply can’t understand Milo Yiannopoulos (or, for that matter, Ann Coulter or Donald Trump) without understanding the level of conservative rage and frustration at the leftist takeover of our nation’s leading, ostensibly “neutral” cultural institutions, and the corresponding arrogance and ignorance that spews from the nation’s commanding cultural heights.
In the academy, in mainstream media, in pop culture, in large corporations, and now even in industries with heavily conservative audiences (like sports), workplace after workplace is stocked almost exclusively with men and women of the Left. That’s why even mainstream media outlets that try to be fair often fail. That’s why so much of pop culture grotesquely caricatures, say, people of faith. They don’t encounter thoughtful Evangelicals ever, much less at work (or as part of the creative process). That’s why companies launch progressive crusades. Their internal constituencies demand that the company be as woke as they are, and it gives their (nearly) uniformly liberal workforce a sense of mission beyond “mere” profit-making . . .
There is the rage against the machine. This is the outlet for conservative fury — the pent-up frustrations at liberal arrogance and ignorance. This is the folk-hero Right, and it lives, eats, and breathes pure defiance. It picks fights with the Left for the purpose of creating a predictable overreaction, and then it uses that overreaction to prove its critique. Its lifeblood is its fighting spirit. Its oxygen is liberal fury. This is Milo’s world. This is Ann Coulter’s world. Yes, this is Donald Trump’s world. . . .
People have deep and understandable affection for those they believe are effectively fighting for them. That’s the source of the bond between lawyer and client, between a politician and his base. That’s the source of the bond between Milo and his followers. He is “fearless.” He “destroys” feminists in the same way that John Oliver “destroys” Fox News. Fight the enemy, and your fans will forgive a multitude of failures.
While French is a little late to the party, he does seem now to get it. People do indeed gravitate to those will fight for them, who will engage the enemy, and who will never back down. In another similar tardy insight, French’s colleague and fellow “never Trumper” at National Review, Jonah Goldberg put it this way: “the Right sees the Left as enemies — and, I should say, vice versa. Yiannopoulos is a hero for many because he fights political correctness and is transgressive.”
Unfortunately, these two still do not fully understand the phenomena of which they speak. Or, to put it another way, French and Goldberg get that people love a fighter, but they don’t seem to understand that the opposite is true as well. People HATE those who aren’t fighters, who will NOT fight for them – especially if they expected them to do so. People HATE those who surrender.
As noted above, French believes that you can’t understand Milo (or Trump or Ann Coulter) unless you understand the people’s rage and frustration at the power, arrogance, and ignorance of the Left, the cultural “enemy.” We’d add that you can’t understand the Trump-Milo phenomenon without also understanding the rage and frustration at the power, arrogance, and ignorance, of the establishment Right, the ostensible cultural allies who didn’t fight back aggressively against the Left, who didn’t defeat the Clinton machine, who didn’t oppose Obama effectively, and who didn’t belittle, embarrass, and humiliate the cultural bullies.
To illustrate our point, we think it might help to take a closer look at the mainstream conservatives who were most upset by Milo’s invitation to CPAC. Goldberg, French, National Review’s Jay Nordlinger, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, and a host of others all pilloried CPAC for the decision to have Milo speak. Goldberg tweeted that “The ‘we’re doing it for free speech’ argument convinces no one,” and that the whole thing was “sad and disappointing.” French declared that “free speech has a Milo problem” and indeed penned a piece to that effect. He wrote:
Conservatives deserve a better poster boy for their right to free expression . . .
The politicization of everything has combined with increasing levels of polarization and cocooning to create an atmosphere in which private citizens are increasingly weaponizing their expression — using their social and economic power not to engage in debate but to silence dissent. Corporate bullying, social-media shaming, and relentless peer pressure combine to place a high cost on any departure from the mandated norms. Even here in Middle Tennessee, I have friends who are afraid to post about their religious views online or express disagreements during mandatory corporate-diversity seminars, lest they lose their jobs. One side speaks freely. The other side speaks not at all. . .
The solution is to persuade the powerful that free speech has value, that ideological monocultures are harmful, and that the great questions of life can’t and shouldn’t be settled through shaming, hectoring, or silencing. It is thus singularly unfortunate that the “conservative” poster boy for free speech is Milo Yiannopoulos. . . .
Let’s put this plainly: If Milo’s the poster boy for free speech, then free speech will lose. He’s the perfect foil for social-justice warriors, a living symbol of everything they fight against. His very existence and prominence feed the deception that modern political correctness is the firewall against the worst forms of bigotry.
Once again, French is right. But once again, he “gets” only half of the story. Let us explain.
Not too many years ago, the aforementioned Mark Steyn was a writer of some prominence for, among others, the same publication that is home to French, Goldberg, Nordlinger, Rich Lowry, and countless others. After the late, great Florence King retired from writing and thus retired her “Misanthrope’s Corner” column that anchored the print version of National Review, responsibility for this back-page gem was, in time, conferred upon a Steyn. Steyn shared the column space for a while with James Lileks, but his “Happy Warrior” was one of the magazine’s true gems.
In 2012, however, Steyn and National Review began to have some problems. It all started with global warming. Rand Simberg, an adjunct fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, made a nasty crack about Climate scientist Michael Mann on CEI’s group blog. Steyn quoted Simberg on National Review’s group blog and contributed his own commentary about Mann, calling his work “fraudulent.” Mann – who is one the high priests of climate-science demagoguery – proceeded to sue Simberg, Steyn, CEI and National Review.
Now, anyone who knows anything about Steyn knows that he relished the challenge presented by Mann’s law suit. He is a conservative and proudly so, and he is a free-speech warrior. He had fought Canada’s draconian Human Rights tribunals over comments he made about Islam and won, forcing the Canadian parliament to rewrite its laws and to eliminate these tribunals. And, of course, he anxiously looked forward to his day in court and his opportunity to defend speech against litigious scientist Mann.
Unfortunately, Steyn never got his day in court – or at least he hasn’t yet. He’s still holding out hope, though. In the meantime, he no longer shares counsel with the folks at National Review. Two years into this now-five-year-long debacle of justice, he and NR went their separate ways in court. He wanted the judge either to give him his day or to dismiss the case. They wanted to dicker procedurally and to end the whole business behind the scenes. In a January 22, 2014 update posted to his web site, Steyn mentioned the falling out between him and his employers as follows, noting the “lessons” that he learned defeating his detractors in Canada:
As readers may have deduced from my absence at National Review Online and my termination of our joint representation, there have been a few differences between me and the rest of the team. The lesson of the last year is that you win a free-speech case not by adopting a don’t-rock-the-boat, keep-mum, narrow procedural posture but by fighting it in the open, in the bracing air and cleansing sunlight of truth and justice.
In follow-up, a column written for National Review’s print edition three days later, Steyn was more explicit:
By far the biggest consequence of this ridiculous case is in these pages. If you are only a print subscriber (as opposed to an Internet reader), you will have no idea that NATIONAL REVIEW is in the midst of a big free-speech battle on one of the critical public-policy issues of our time. There have been no cover stories, no investigative journalism, no eviscerating editorials. NR runs specialized blogs on both legal matters and climate change, yet they too have been all but entirely silent. I assume, from this lonely outpost on NR’s wilder shores, that back at head office they take the view that it’s best not to say anything while this matter works its way through the courts. In other words, a law explicitly intended to prevent litigious bullies from forcing their victims to withdraw from “public participation” has resulted in the defendants themselves voluntarily withdrawing from “public participation.” That’s nuts.
I don’t think much about the First Amendment these days. As a practical matter, it’s simply not feasible in a global media market to tailor one’s freedom of expression to the varying local bylaws. So I take the view that I’m entitled to say the same thing in Seattle as I would in Sydney or Stockholm, Sofia or Suva. But, were Dr. Mann to prevail, it would nevertheless be the case that his peculiarly thin skin and insecurities would enjoy greater protection under U.S. law than they do in Britain, Canada, Australia, and other jurisdictions. It would thus be a major setback for the First Amendment.
That’s worth making a noise about. Up north, following a similar SLAPP suit from the Canadian Islamic Congress, my publisher Maclean’s, who are far less ideologically simpatico to me than NR, nevertheless understood the stakes — and helped get a disgusting law with a 100 percent conviction rate first stayed by a hitherto jelly-spined jurist and ultimately repealed by the Parliament of Canada. This too is a free-speech case. Free speech is about the right to thrash out ideas — on climate change, gay marriage, or anything else — in the public square, in bright sunlight. And you win a free-speech case by shining that sunlight on it, relentlessly. As we embark on our second year in the hell of the D.C. court system, that’s what I intend to do.
As we noted above, Steyn is still waiting for his day in court and for his chance to shine sunlight on that free-speech case. And we have now entered year five.
As it turns out, however, the difference of opinion on legal strategies was just the proverbial tip of the iceberg regarding differences of opinion between Steyn and National Review. Only a couple of weeks before Steyn and National Review parted ways in court, they parted ways on another matter of free speech.
During the last few weeks of 2013, the entire politico-entertainment complex was up in arms about comments made by Phil Robertson, the patriarch on the reality show “Duck Dynasty.” In an interview with GQ, Robertson said some crass things about not understanding same-sex attraction and then stated that he considers homosexuality a “sin.” He was quickly and indefinitely suspended from his show by his network, A&E.
In response, Mark Steyn wrote not a defense of Robertson, but of free speech and what he saw as the illiberalism and intolerance of the cultural Left. In so doing, Steyn used a couple of old – and admittedly crass – Hollywood jokes to make his point. In response, his editor – and the associate editor of National Review – called out his writer publicly, labeling the column “puerile,” “disappointing,” and “less than illuminating.” He also lambasted Steyn for not acknowledging the differences between “state coercion” of speech and “cultural coercion,” despite the fact that Steyn clearly understood the difference and had explicitly stated that his beef in this case was with the latter. Steyn, understandably, bristled at what he called his editor’s “belated and conditional pledge to join me on the barricades” defending free speech. In the end, Steyn and National Review severed ties, and the magazine went on to insist – in court, nonetheless – that it hardly knew the guy. As Steyn put it:
There are times when I wish I had the same kind of co-defendants I had in my free-speech wars in Canada: Maclean’s, unlike National Review, is a dentist’s waiting-room mag not an ideological mission, but they and I were as one in our fight not just against the Canadian Islamic Congress but against the now repealed Section 13. By contrast, National Review, for whom I wrote for a decade and a half, are offering the curious and fainthearted defense that they were never my publisher but merely an “interactive computer service provider” to which I had the access code (see page 49 of their most recent brief). They’re a court filing or two from claiming they’re Lufthansa and I’m Andreas Lubitz – just some crazy guy who locked himself in the NR cockpit.
Why should you – or anyone else not named Mark Steyn – care about any of this? Well, as you may recall from above, or as you can see by perusing the twitter feeds of many of the folks at National Review, these establishment conservatives – good, solid, likable, sound, smart, well-read conservatives – profess that they don’t buy the “free speech” thing where Milo Yiannopoulos is concerned, but that they’d defend a real free speech threat. Milo, they say, is a “bad poster boy for free speech.” He is most definitely NOT a hill worth dying on when it comes to the First Amendment.
You wanna know what? They have a point. And, to be clear, we have no dog in this fight. Yet something still doesn’t seem quite right.
Given the history that we’ve just recounted, all of this does raise the question: if Milo is NOT the hill worth dying on, then who is? Whose free speech would they defend to the death? Mark Steyn is no Milo Yiannopoulos. But did they “die” defending him and his right to speech? Did they and the magazine for whom they still write kick Mann in the teeth and tell him to stick his defamation suit where the sun don’t shine? Did they say, “Mark is our guy. We love him; we support him; we may not agree with everything he says; but we’ll defend to the death his right to say it – without being bullied into bankruptcy by the cultural Left?” No, they didn’t.
Now, to be fair, we know that none of the National Review writers we’ve picked on here were responsible for the editorial or legal decisions that pushed Steyn out of the “acceptable” fold. And we still believe that many writers working for the magazine are still quite exceptional. As we mentioned last week, Kevin Williamson is a favorite.
Still, the simple fact of the matter is that National Review is an important cog in the conservative establishment machine. And Mark Steyn – one of the most clear-thinking and articulate conservatives of our time – was, in essence, hung out to dry by this magazine that now insists conservatives don’t need to worry about Milo Yiannopoulos, because he’s just angry with the Left and is acting out accordingly. The National Reviewers don’t quite seem to grasp the fact that the people like Yiannopoulos – and TRUMP! – are not just pissed off at the Left and are not just venting against liberals. They’re pissed off at the Right too. The people who love Milo and lap up all that he writes; many of the 63 million people who voted for Trump; the people who love Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter; and . . . well . . . literally millions of others are as mad at the Right as they are the Left! They’re mad at the establishment Right about all sorts of things. They’re mad that they gave the GOP control of everything and, in return, the GOP sat on its hands. They’re mad that insider-types like Bill Kristol not only opposed Trump, but actively worked to secure his defeat, recruiting third-party candidates to thwart his presidential bid. They’re mad that dead-enders like Kristol tweeted two weeks ago “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.” And they’re mad about the type of thing that happened to Mark Steyn. They’re mad because, as Steyn himself noted, even when Republicans “win” “nothing changes.”
Way back in 2009, when Barack Obama has just taken office and was threatening/promising to turn us all into socialists, average Americans took to the streets and expressed their frustration and disappointment. Most people – in the media and politics – assumed that these people were mad at Barack Obama. But they weren’t, or at least they weren’t mad at him alone. They were mad at Obama; they were mad at the Democrats; they were mad at George W. Bush; they were mad at the Republicans; they were mad at the whole damn lot in the fetid swamp of Washington. And they wanted to burn down the GOP to save it from itself and to save them from it as well.
The establishment Right, of course, never understood the Tea Party. And they never understood it because they never grasped the role that they themselves played in fomenting the anger. And you know what? They still don’t grasp it today.
Over the past week we’ve seen a great many conservatives – some we’ve named above; others we haven’t – who have noted the brilliant analysis contained in a piece that Tevi Troy penned for Politico last week. Troy writes that the rise of Donald Trump has split conservatism into three camps: the “Ever-Trumpers,” the “conservative critics” and the “Safe Space conservatives.” Troy’s analysis is, in many ways, as good as advertised. It’s an insightful piece. But he forgets one group: the “Conservative Denialists.” These are the people who refuse to acknowledge that the failures of the Right are as much a contributor to the current political chaos as is the cultural aggressiveness of the Left.
We would very much like for Donald Trump’s presidency to be a resounding and universally acknowledged success. We would like for everyone to be happy eight years from now and for the next president to inherit a growing economy, a free nation, and a peaceful world. On the . . . uhhh . . . off chance that doesn’t happen, though, we want for the conservative movement to put its little Humpty Dumpty self back together and figure out how to confront the challenges of ascendant cultural Leftism and literally bankrupt economic liberalism. But that’s not going to happen unless and until the Conservative Denialists acknowledge that the frustration people feel is not directed at the Left exclusively and is not without significant merit.
Donald Trump, the great thinkers tell us, didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. He and the brand of politics he espouses grew from somewhere, from something deep, persistent, and perpetually frustrated. The same holds true for Milo Yiannopoulos. He didn’t start this business of poking the Left with sharp sticks. He merely pushed it further than others, largely because the audience was willing and eager to see him do so. That’s a problem, of course, but it’s a problem that might have been averted had the Right done a better job of defending and supporting those who poked the Left, but didn’t go too far.