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For someone who has long since assumed Trump was an inevitable disaster, a silver lining of this awful year has been the ability to watch a presidential election without a dog in the fight. Doing so has made plain that there is substantial rot on our side that needs to be repaired, a fact noted by a great many people who have had a great many good ideas. This is my first post on Ricochet as a new member, which I decided to become because Ricochet seems like the ideal place to have and contribute to those arguments.
One argument that has been incredibly frustrating to witness between NeverTrump and Trump-supporting conservatives has been the fighting over the ethics of highlighting Trump’s awfulness as a commentator, or really anyone writing or speaking in public fora. What has made it frustrating is that the two sides seem to also have different assumptions about the nature of commentating, which has made the dispute a multidimensional one that few have acknowledged as such.
The two people who have been clearest about this second-axis dispute have been Jonah Goldberg and Ace of Spades, so I have chosen to name the two views of punditry after them. (Note: I commit in advance to apologizing to either or both if they object to my characterization of their views and renaming the schools of thought accordingly). Here they are, in their own words:
Jonah Goldberg, July 2nd:
In 2012, I wrote a column, “The Case for Mitt Romney.” In it, I tried to reassure conservatives who worried — understandably — that Romney wasn’t an authentic conservative. It is absolutely true that if you replace “Romney” with “Trump” it reads like a perfectly serviceable — even entertaining — argument for supporting the 2016 presumptive nominee. Some guy named Edmund Kozak at Laura Ingraham’s website read it and now shouts “Hypocrite!” in my direction. I get it. What Kozak doesn’t get is that I don’t see Trump the same way he does, or the way I saw Mitt Romney.
If John Kasich or any — and I mean any — of the other 16 candidates had won the nomination, I’d probably have written “The Case for John Kasich” by now. If I refused to do that, I would indeed be a hypocrite — or at least inconsistent (hypocrisy is a much misused word). Note: I can’t stand Kasich. But he meets my own minimal requirements for support. Trump, simply, doesn’t. [Lengthy list of reasons]
Kozak and many others either disagree with me on these points or they simply don’t care. If it’s the former, we have some substantial disagreements about what I think are obvious facts. If it’s the latter, then I take our disagreement as a badge of honor. If Roger Simon wants to describe that as “moral narcissism,” so be it. But, there’s a practical point here too. I plan on being in this line of work for a while longer. In the future, I want to be able to continue to say character and ideas matter without someone shouting, “Oh yeah, then why did you support Donald Trump?” […]
And that brings me back to Victor’s dilemma. He asks, “What is the rationale of trashing both [Clinton and Trump], other than a sort of detached depression that does not wear well in daily doses?” […] But the answer is staring him in the face: Because we’re supposed to tell the truth. I will say Hillary is corrupt, deceitful, and unqualified and I will say likewise about Trump — because that’s my job.
Ace, July 21st:
Sorry, I was on Twitter. I felt it was necessary to dispel the widely-held myth, adored by #NeverTrumpers, that somehow attacking Trump relentlessly does not aid Hillary Clinton, and that they are not choosing Hillary Clinton by choosing to be NeverTrump.
All choices have consequences. By supporting Trump, I am responsible for the consequences of a Trump victory — and those consequences could indeed be dire.
But a childish morally-unserious fantasy has infected the #NeverTrump not-so-intellgentsia, that they can agitate for Hillary Clinton — by relentlessly disparaging Trump — and somehow, they are not responsible for the consequences of the Hillary presidency they are bucking for. […]
I ask people: When you knocked Obama in 2012, and wrote posts and comments noting his flaws, did you think you were doing nothing to improve Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the presidency?
If so– why the [expletive] did you bother?
Of course, this is silly; everyone knows that when one buys ads attacking a candidate, one is helping that candidate’s opponent win.
The Ace School
“An Ambassador is as an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country,” is the famous quip by the otherwise obscure Sir Henry Wotton. The Ace conception of punditry is analogous, which we might define as a clever debater, sent to spin on TV for the good of his party. This view has the pundit as essentially engaged in a get-out-the-vote operation. There are a substantial number of voters who will stay home if they feel the situation is hopeless — *cough* Florida panhandle, 2000, *cough* — another group of voters who have misgivings about the character of “their” candidate, and yet another who will, for inexplicable reasons, vote for the candidate they feel is a winner. It is to these groups of voters that the Ace pundit is not so much speaking but, rather, marketing his message: “Our guy is a stand-up, straight-shooter! He’s winning, but still needs your vote! Come join the winning team!” The influence such a pundit does or does not have is a function of how well they make that sales pitch.
This view of punditry implies a highly cynical view of politics (but one with an uncomfortable amount of accuracy). According to it, voters need to be tricked into acting in their own interests, all politicians are scumbags varying only in which circle of hell they will spend eternity, and the silly twits who want it to be otherwise need to be lied to so they can go vote with a clean conscience. As distasteful as this view is, it is important to note that it is not amoral. On the contrary, it assumes that there are meaningful differences in the degree of rottenness among politicians and that choosing the less-worse is a positive good. It is akin to the Kissinger view of foreign relations. Nonetheless, in this conception the actual job of a pundit remains an inherently shady and disreputable one; at best sophistry and at worst outright dishonesty.
The Goldberg School
The other view of punditry — espoused most clearly by Jonah Goldberg — is that the primary audience to which a pundit speaks is the Deep State of donors, consultants, staffers, local bigwigs, and activists that surrounds each party and makes most of the important decisions. The functional purpose of speaking to this group is coordination. Each party’s Deep State is informal, dispersed, and comprises many people for whom politics is not their day job. Yet in order to function properly, they need to coalesce around specific candidates, specific pieces of policy, and prioritize their goals. This function used to be accomplished within the formal party structure, but for reasons best left to Jay Cost to explain, that no longer happens. It is an especially difficult function when the party is out of power. A party out of power is an organization with a thousand consiglieres and no don, but that doesn’t mean the job of consigliere isn’t an important one.
To the extent such punditry speaks to the general public, or the small slice that pays close attention to national affairs, it is entertainment akin to sports analysis; i.e., by speaking to them as if they are party insiders, the audience gets the vicarious illusion of actually being so. The color announcer on a sports broadcast may provide all manner of analysis and advice ostensibly for the teams involved. Not a single word of it will affect anything that subsequently transpires on the field.
The Ugly Choice and its Consequences
Count this distinction as yet another split the candidacy of Donald Trump has wedged from a crack to a crevasse. In an ordinary candidacy the same person can engage in both sorts of punditry without psyche-rending cognitive dissonance. Making the “Good Guy / We’re Winning” pitch for Bush, McCain, or Romney wasn’t gaslighting, even if the “we’re winning” part wasn’t always quite true. The problem Trump has created is that the standard pitch of an Ace pundit is so transparently false that anyone who can make it with a straight face is either so deluded or such a good liar that it would be foolhardy to take their advice seriously in the future if one is invested in the success of either the Republican party or the conservative movement. This year, a pundit has to choose: Be a good soldier for the party to the detriment of his respectability, or risk eviction from the party while hoping that sometime in the future the party’s Deep State will come to its senses and listen to his counsel. Being a distinction newly forced into the open, almost no one seems to have openly dealt with all the logical consequences of this choice.
First, neither view of punditry is exclusive. Both versions exist, and both need to exist. Ace’s exasperation at NeverTrump pundits involves the assumption that all punditry is Ace punditry, and those refusing to make the pitch are in some way not doing their jobs — Know your place, corporal! It doesn’t matter if the LT gave you a stupid order that will get half the platoon killed; salute him and get on with it — without any obvious recognition that anyone who fancies himself a Goldberg pundit will take it as a deep personal insult. It’s an accusation of hackery. If one feels the insult is deserved, then fine (that is exactly why Twitter exists), but don’t go making it unintentionally.
On the flip side, a Goldberg pundit who assumes all punditry ought to be the high-minded type is displaying a naiveté incompatible with analyzing real-world politics. Parties need good-soldier, Ace-style pundits for the same reason companies need marketing departments. There’s too much TV airtime and too much Facebooking deadtime for all of it to be filled with cogency and subordinate clauses. Hillary knows what the score is. She employs a brigade-sized force of online hacks to fill people’s feeds with talking points. As long as some people respond to the hackishly inane, you can’t cede the space to the competition. It is entirely true that such people are not to be entrusted with officers’ commissions, but neither should they star in the post-Trump show trials. Those should be reserved only for those with private cabins on the Trump Train.
A second consequence is one which Ace repeatedly (and correctly) hammers and many Goldberg pundits are uncomfortable admitting openly: Any professional commentator who laid down the NeverTrump gauntlet and stuck to it has, until November 9th, an alignment of professional interest with Hillary Clinton and diametrically opposed professional interest to the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States. This is plain fact. Even if one’s opposition to Trump was purely tactical in the sense of being predicated on the prediction he would lose disastrously, then it is in one’s interest that said disastrous loss actually come to pass now that the die is cast. It is always in the interest of a pundit to be proven right. That’s how one acquires credibility, the coin of the pundit realm. What hurts one’s credibility is denying this reality.
A Goldberg pundit should furthermore realize that continuously rehashing the “Trump is a loser” prediction is saying the exact same thing their Ace pundit counterparts on the other side would say, and that one is, in finance-lingo, “talking your book.” If one is surprised at receiving hostile reactions to saying the exact same thing as the hack segment of Democratic punditry or of facing accusations of being “on her side,” then one has not digested the reality that, as far as interests are aligned, it’s true.
The most common rejoinder from Goldberg pundits to this situation is that the alignment of interests is of no practical consequence. For those on the Ace side of the dispute, it is important to note that this is entirely consistent with the Goldberg theory of punditry. When the silent primary is long since past and the scrum of a general election is in full swing, the Goldberg pundit’s job is mostly over and done. All that remains for such a pundit is the evergreen meta-work of policing the honesty of news coverage. If one is calling out such a pundit for “betrayal,” then one is not granting them the assumption of good faith on an issue as central as what they think their job is. To assume bad faith in someone’s description of their own job is, again, a major personal insult. Don’t make those lightly, and don’t make them to people whom you consider friends.
Furthermore, it is wrong to insist that NeverTrumpers all “support Hillary” or are being mendacious by not “admitting” so. Some indeed do, and some might, in a gun-to-your-head-Trump-or-Clinton situation, vote Trump. However the election is not actually a gun-to-your-head binary choice. As a matter of good public choice theory, sitting out or voting third party (or advocating either) is entirely defensible as part of a long-term strategy. The great irony of voting coalitions is that the least reliable members have the most influence. This is part of the story of what has happened with evangelical voters and the GOP. Several million stayed home rather than vote for the DWI candidate in 2000. They were rewarded with major influence on Bush’s first term, in order to motivate them four years hence. As soon as the GOP pegged them as reliable voters, it immediately began treating them the way the Democratic Party treats African-Americans: as a hostage constituency that will settle for signals instead of substance. Influence can only be re-established with credibility, and credibility can only be re-established by action. An election where “your” candidate is openly contemptuous of you and is most likely a loser anyway is the ideal time to protest vote.
A third consequence of splitting punditry into Ace and Goldberg divisions is acknowledging that everyone in the Goldberg division is indeed a part of the GOP’s Deep State. No one wants to be “establishment” or “elite” in The Year of Populist Rage, and such terms have been warped and contorted to all manner of bizarre and silly meanings, but let’s not kid ourselves about the reality that there is such a thing and it needs a name. “Deep State” is better than “establishment” because “establishment” implies vastly more organization, structure, and formality than actually exists. It’s preferable to “elite” because it does not imply incomes, lifestyles, attitudes, or powers many Deep State members don’t actually have. Let’s propose an obnoxiously recursive definition of a party’s Deep State: If your words routinely reach the eyes or ears of multiple people you would deem members of the Deep State, then you yourself are a member as well. It doesn’t matter if you don’t ride the Acela. It doesn’t matter if your kids will have to take loans for college. If you have a literary agent and a speaking event agent, then you’re part of it, hands down. Self-effacing modesty is a virtue, insincere modesty is good manners, but in one way or another everyone who is part of the Deep State should be honest with themselves about that fact. “I’m not the Establishment!” has been the first, tenth, and last refuge of the irresponsible for the past twelve months, and responsibility is something of which the GOP’s Deep State will need much in the upcoming twelve.
For those on the Ace side grinning at the thought of NeverTrump pundits raising their hands to accept the dreaded establishment label, have some empathy for the truly awful situation they have within the Deep State. They have influence but not power, and they are currently stuck with responsibility for a course of action they advocated strongly against (not just Trump, but much of the situation that led to Trump as well). It is analogous to someone in corporate accounting who blows the whistle on shenanigans through the proper channels, is completely ignored, and whose reward for trying to do the right thing is getting his 401k stock match wiped out along with everyone else’s and then having to make the “No really! I blew the whistle!” claim when future employers give the stink eye to that line on his resume.
“Virtue signaling” is a much abused and misused term these days, but it is the absolutely correct response of a NeverTrump pundit this year. Those on the Ace side of the dispute (and Ace himself) love to use this phrase pejoratively, under the assumption that such behavior is inherently vain and useless. It is neither. Virtue signaling is indeed vain when the audience for the signal is oneself, or when the signal is made in lieu of tangible action that would actually be virtuous, but that does not apply to the situation here. The virtue signaling of a NeverTrump pundit has two distinct and important audiences: 1) The rest of the GOP Deep State that, come November 9th, will have to take account of how it is they lost the most winnable presidential race in a generation; and 2) independent and Latino voters with conservative instincts whom Donald Trump is currently alienating from the Republican party, yet whom the Republican party needs if is to have a governing coalition and thus to whom it will need credible messengers in the future. Having only influence rather than power, there’s nothing much for a NeverTrump pundit to do except to signal this is not my fault in Vegas-bright, flashing signage to those audiences.
If you’re on the Ace side of this dispute, do not hate them for this. Come November 9th, you’ll realize you need them.