On top of everything else, Donald Trump’s Republican Party has until now been almost totally devoid of any coherent political philosophy. His cult of personality had no intellectual moorings and no coherence beyond “owning the libs” and a will to power. Notice how in 2020, the GOP—for the first time in the history of American political parties—issued no platform.
Even opposition to abortion seems to be less about defending “the sanctity of human life” than attacking the left. You would think after the draft opinion overturning Roe was leaked this week, MAGA types and their cable news masters would be popping champagne corks. Nope. Fox was focused on accusing Sonia Sotomayor and her clerks of the leak, when logic (and well-informed Court watchers I consulted) suggest it is much more likely to have come from right wingers anxious to lock in Samuel Alito’s opinion before John Roberts could stop it. (This was what lay behind last week’s leak to The Wall Street Journal).
Notice how Trump has said almost nothing about the news from the Supreme Court—none of the usual gloating. That’s because he, his advisors and Fox-enablers seem to know that they have a dog-that-caught-the-car problem politically and may suffer at least a bit in the midterms. This—and the inconvenience their own family members will now face getting abortions (the hypocrisy here is no different from the fact that almost everyone at Fox has been vaccinated)—is more relevant to them than savoring a huge victory. Most of these folks don’t truly care about anything except power.
But some on what is being called (not for the first time in recent history) “the New Right” do understand the gaping philosophical hole in the heart of their politics. They’re exploring ideas in magazines like American Affairs and Compact. Whatever one thinks of the content, much of it represents legitimate intellectual ferment, as conservatives peer ahead to where their movement may be going on immigration, foreign policy and other issues.
Unfortunately none of this is strong enough brew for demagogic politicians like J.D. Vance, who is apparently drinking instead from the tap of a Munich beer hall in 1923. Beyond breaking indoor records for rank opportunism, he’s talking crazy authoritarian shit, much of it borrowed from a software engineer and prolific blogger named Curtis Yarvin who proudly proclaims that he doesn’t believe in American democracy.
Powered by Triple T (Trump, Tucker, Thiel), Vance this week won the Ohio Republican Senate primary and is currently favored to prevail in November. (If the Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan, beats him, Ryan would immediately catapult to the top of the heap of potential Democratic presidential candidates).
A few years ago, I thought Vance was a smart guy, and not because he went to Yale Law School. His monster bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy, deserved at least some of the critical praise it received. After I read it, I was annoyed by the attacks of liberal critics. The book was more than just a good read about his dysfunctional family; it helped explain the alienation and degradation of the rural white working class and how most of their problems—what Vance called their “learned helplessness”—was the fault not of Big Government or minorities or other “others” but of themselves. It was a fair, bracing point.
There was, though, one scene where Vance inadvertently revealed how little he knew about the way government really works and how susceptible he is to hoary conservative myths.
J.D. is working in a grocery store and complains that he and others like him are subsidizing the people buying fancy stuff on food stamps.
In truth, like everyone in lower middle class jobs, he wasn’t making enough money to pay anything in federal income taxes (and might have been eligible for a couple thousand dollars back from Washington through the Earned Income Tax Credit, which rewards low-wage work). The sales and payroll taxes he did pay have nothing to do with the food stamps program, which was the product of bipartisan efforts by rural state Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole to reduce hunger and bolster not just the (mostly white) poor but farmers in the rural areas Vance claims he wants to help.
But that is a quibble. Well into 2016, Vance wasn’t just another Never Trumper. He publicly called Trump “an idiot” and emailed a friend that he couldn’t decide whether he was just a “cynical asshole” or “America’s Hitler.” Just in case anyone was confused about Trump’s true loyalties, Vance said that Trump was “leading the white working class to a very dark place.”
Then, after consulting with his sugar daddy, Peter Thiel, the menacing Trumpster billionaire who gave him a venture capital gig and is now underwriting his Senate campaign, Vance decided that common sense moderation and personal integrity were for losers. He said “America’s Hitler” was actually “the best president of my lifetime” (He was right the first time). Now he’s palling around with Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz and leading the way toward the new dark place inhabited by other “cynical assholes” of the Ivy League, like Ron DeSantis, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley.
First, Vance endorsed mindless neo-isolationism and radical indulgence of Putin’s might-makes-right assault on the global order: “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” Vance said. Really? No problem seeing a sovereign democratic nation crushed under Putin’s jackboot? At least Neville Chamberlain cared about the fate of Czechoslovakia.
Vance was just getting warmed up. It wasn’t long before he accused Biden (not Putin) of murdering thousands. “If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better to target them and their kids with this fentanyl,” he said. “It does look intentional. It’s like Biden wants to punish people who didn’t vote for him.”
You could chalk that up to overheated rhetoric about the border. But then Vance flat-out advocated dictatorship. He recommended that after Trump gets reelected, he should “fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people. And when the courts stop you, stand before the country, and say—quoting Andrew Jackson—’the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.’”
This is crazy talk. Defying court orders creates chaos and replacing experienced civil servants with incompetent political flunkies is a good way to destroy the country. Yes, bureaucrats can be aggravating and they sometimes impede necessary change. But anyone who doubts the value of the civil service—which was established by Vance’s fellow-Ohioan, Senator George Pendleton, in 1893—has no idea what’s actually involved in running the government. To get a sense of the dedication and value of the civil service and Trump’s shameless assault on it, read Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk.
George Wallace railed against “pointy-headed bureaucrats” but even he never said anything as aggressively stupid as this. It closely parallels the thinking of Yarvin, who has a Substack newsletter called Gray Mirror and has also blogged under the pen name Mencius Moldbug. James Pogue in Vanity Fair chronicled Yarvin’s relationship with Vance. But I was even more struck by his hourlong appearance last September on Tucker Carlson’s Fox Nation show, where Carlson all-but-drooled over Yarvin, now emerging as the guru of the neo-reactionary set.
In that appearance and in his newsletter, Yarvin comes across as brainy and provocative and many of his historical allusions are worth mulling over. But just when you think that he’s got something to say, he swerves into oncoming traffic. He’s too smart to fall for elaborate conspiracy theories but seems to think that coastal liberal elites from academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood etc. in what he calls “The Cathedral” (and his acolyte, Carlson, routinely called “the ruling class”) are actually running American society from Capitol Hill. Yarvin argues that the president is essentially powerless to do anything. This not only ignores nine decades of expanding presidential power and mounds of evidence about how power in Washington actually works but the decision of the founders to give primacy in the Constitution (Article One) to Congress, not the Executive. Yarvin wants to junk our system in favor of “a national CEO or what’s called a dictator.” When that latter word caused some blowback, he started advocating a monarchy—not the powerless one of Queen Elizabeth but a non-hereditary version of the kings of old, who ruled by fiat.
Perhaps it’s for the best that we are no longer fettered by euphemism. It’s better that we march into the “darkness” Vance mentioned with our eyes open. As Bill Kristol says, the race this fall in Ohio pits a Democrat against an Authoritarian. The stakes for democracy are high, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
A year ago, we posted a Rumination with Phil Keisling, an elections expert who launched the first vote-by-mail contests when he was Oregon’s secretary of state in the 1990s. Phil had a problem with the way the Ohio returns were reported this week and I wanted to give him a chance to explain why:
Yet again, the national press seems to be totally ignoring the fact that in a state with EIGHT million registered voters -- ALL of whom were legally entitled to vote in the primary, because Ohio does not force people to register by a political party -- it's looking as if only about 1.6 million of them will have cast a ballot. (About one million on the R side, 600,000 on the D side).
This is a 20 percent turnout of registered voters. And if you factor in that there are an estimated one million eligible citizens in Ohio who aren't even registered, it's a turnout of about 18 percent of eligible citizens. That’s a tad higher than 2018 but still pathetic.
Vance won the Republican primary with roughly 350,000 votes. That will represent about four percent of the state's registered voters. Four percent.
Half of Ohio's May 3 primary voters likely were age 60 or above, and on the R side, the median age is probably closer to 65. The political pros know this, but don't like to talk about it.
Turnout of 18-34s --in both parties -- is likely in the five percent range of those eligible to vote. In other words, 19 of 20 young people are not participating -- and on the day AFTER a big story about the end of Roe vs. Wade.
The media continues its obsession—Trump this, Trump that, what does it portend for 2022 control? Blah Blah—and doesn't even mention this basic fact, much less explore the sad implications of it.
Again, I'm not now pushing for any particular “fix"; I'm just asking that leading journalists start paying far more attention to this glaring lack of perspective.