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Greetings, Gentlemen and Gentle Ladies of Ricochet. I’ve been away for a while, I know.
Some of you wrote to the editors to ask what happened to me and whether they should be worried. I was touched by that. You’ve heard, then, that I’ve been working on my book, which is coming along well. But in truth, that’s not the only reason I’ve been away.
About a week ago, the Blue Yeti, who also noticed my absence, sent me a message to ask if I was okay. I was on the verge of writing, “Oh, yes, I’m fine, I’m just working on my book,” but then I stopped myself and thought, “Why not tell him the truth? It is, after all, the truth.” And so I did.
I wrote back and said that I was horrified by Trump. That I’m heartbroken for my country and for what I thought were our ideals, our decency. That it seemed to me the United States was experiencing the political equivalent of a psychotic break, one that has at best turned America into the punchline of a joke, and at worst will end the American experiment altogether. That I was exhausted from arguing about Trump. That I’ve already lived through this presidency once, in Turkey — although it took years for Erdoğan to sound the way Trump already does — and didn’t want to chronicle this story twice in my life.
“I’m outraged by Trump and what’s become of conservatism,” I wrote,
I’m depressed by all of it and sad that I’ve devoted so much of my life to a political ideology that in the end looks as corrupt to me as socialism. This hasn’t seemed like an appropriate thing to share with our entire membership, so I’ve been keeping quiet before saying anything rash — either to our members or to you. But I’ve been feeling this way now for long enough that I probably just need to say it.
So the answer, really, is that I’m not so okay. I’m quite depressed. A large part of it is an overdue reflection about my role in all of this, and a realization that whatever I believe about politics, it has no place in the conservative movement as it now exists.
The Yeti asked if he could call me. We spoke for a while. He started by trying to reassure me that I wasn’t responsible for Donald Trump’s election. This on the one hand is obviously true; but on the other, I’m not sure I can escape the responsibility for this disaster that every American shares, whether or not we supported him or voted for him. We’ve all, together, created — or failed to do enough to prevent — the conditions such that a phenomenon like this might emerge. We all share some part of the blame for allowing our country to descend into nihilism and despair; we all contributed, in some way, to the hollowing out of civic virtue, to the eradication of gravitas and dignity from the public sphere, to the conflation of reality television with reality, to the dumbing-down and the commercialization of everything, to mindless and unprincipled partisanship, to the cultivation of the imperial presidency. We are all all in some part responsible, even if our only contribution was doing too little to prevent it.
And in my case, the contribution was greater. I didn’t mean to, but I did. Ricochet, after all, was part of a gullible media that offered Trump five billion dollars’ worth of free advertising because we assumed his candidacy was just a terrific joke and great for site traffic. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Les Moonves said. I can’t say our editorial approach was more foresighted.
I’m not so full of my own sense of importance as to believe what I write has much influence over anything, but it’s a fact that for the past few decades I’ve supported myself by writing by writing about, and for, politicians and audiences who called themselves conservatives. I believed I shared a set of assumptions and values with conservative readers, or at least, I believed their assumptions and values closer to mine than those of the American left. But it turns out that a substantial cohort of those people did not share my assumptions and values. And a significant number of them are now given over to isolationism, protectionism, nativism, authoritarianism, and sheer craziness. Or outright nihilism. Not to mention opportunism. I want no part of that.
Newt Gingrich, arguing that Margaret Thatcher was the model for the Trump presidency, recently buttressed this claim by allusion to my book about Thatcher, which made me cringe. As I replied in the American Interest, the idea is utterly unserious; that he could assert this is profoundly disturbing for what it says about how little the truth matters to anyone in this perfervid political climate:
I was glad to see my largely forgotten book mentioned, but at the same time I was baffled—because the comparison is ludicrous. Readers who doubt this may consult the online Thatcher archives, which contain every known statement made by Margaret Thatcher between 1945 and 1990; or take my word for it for $12.10 on Amazon. They will find nothing to suggest that Thatcher and Trump are similar in any relevant aspect, be it their political ideals, beliefs, moral values, temperament, style, experience, intellect, competence, decorum, or probity.
What does it mean, then, when a respected senior American politician makes this argument in a respected American newspaper? We’re not, after all, talking about an archaic figure known to us only through a disputed Delphic verse. Margaret Thatcher is very nearly a contemporary. She died in 2013. What she believed is as well known as the formula for the area of a triangle. It would be one thing if the newly Trumpesque Gingrich had in his article renounced Margaret Thatcher and her ideals. That would have been surprising, to be sure, but it would have at least made sense. But this is not what he did: He instead made his actual memories of Thatcher vanish in an act of mental thaumaturgy, and returned from his underground dungeon lair with a shape-changed new version of history.
I told the Blue Yeti all about this, and told him that basically, I’d prefer never to write about politics again. I’m exhausted with it, growingly cynical, and deeply pessimistic. When I finished, I expected him to say that he was sorry to hear it, and to accept my resignation.
But instead, he asked me to write about what I’d just told him, all of it. He said I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, and told me that more people than I realized shared my sentiments. I don’t quite remember what he said next, except that he seemed sincere in thinking I should write about this, and adamant that my point of view was one that should still be represented here. He said that if the Trump presidency implodes, or explodes, someone will have to make the case for classical liberalism and the vigorous virtues, since the conservatives who’ve eagerly hopped in bed with the Id in the White House won’t seem particularly credible after that. He suggested — kindly — that I pull myself together.
I figured he was probably right. “Pull yourself together and get back to work” is, usually, good general advice.
So, are there any more of you out there who are feeling like me? Or will I have to do this single-handedly? I will, I guess, if I have to, but it would be nice to know I’m not alone.