One of the upsides of being a lawless freebooter of the internet and answerable to no man is that I get to wander out into the weeds whenever it suits me. And it was on just such a recent perambulation that I happened across this little gem -- an Intelligence Squared debate on the motion:"Blame the elites for the Trump phenomenon" (no embeddable video available yet.)
I have found in the past that dropping in on these debates from time to time can be, well, if there is a word between "edifying" and "confirming", then that's the word I'm looking for. For example, back in 2013 during one such forum among some of the worst people in America, it came to pass that they all pretty explicitly admitted that they knew the base of the GOP was a concatenation of deplorable and highly Balkanized cliques who stayed together out convenience and contempt for the government, but, uh, maybe we shouldn't be talking that fact so publicly.
As to this event, which also featuring some of the worst people in America (Timothy Carney, Senior Political Columnist, Washington Examiner & Visiting Fellow, AEI ... Ben Domenech, Publisher, The Federalist & Host, The Federalist Radio Hour ... Jennifer Rubin, Author, The Washington Post’s “Right Turn” Blog ... Bret Stephens, Deputy Editor, Editorial Page and “Global View” columnist, The Wall Street Journal) before I get revved up I want to be perfectly clear that each of the panelists have their DNA all over the "Trump phenomenon" -- that they all bear the mark of hard-core Republican Detachment Disorder carriers, cocksure that whoever started this dumpster fire, it certainly wasn't them. But of course it was them. All of them, as I explained all the way back in 2005, in language so simple even a child can understand it.
That said, it should come as no surprise to anyone that, having signed up to bash "the elites", a reliable Conservative middle-management shill like Ben Domenech would head straight for the most over-crowded safe house in the Beltway:
DOMENECH: Now, working and middle class Americans are re-asserting themselves against the bipartisan political and cultural establishment, utterly discredited due to their record of failure. The list is familiar to you all by now: 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Congressional corruption, financial meltdown, bank bailouts, failed stimulus, a healthcare mess, stagnant wages, rising distrust, diminished hopes. 16 years of bipartisan failures by Republicans and Democrats alike to live up to what the people wanted. This distrust was earned. Through it all the elites were looking out for the interest of people other than those they were elected to serve.DOMENECH: It's the same phenomenon identified by Chris Hayes on the left in Twilight of the Elites, and on the right by Charles Murray and Yuval Levin in Coming Apart and The Fractured Republic...DOMENECH: In the absence of the failures of the elites, could Donald Trump succeed? The answer is no. Our elite leadership class sowed the wind and Donald Trump is the whirlwind they've reaped. Vote for the motion.
But I have to say I was impressed by the way that noted-Sean-Hannity-Twitter-bitch-slapper, Bret Stephens, opposed the motion by going straight for the jugular, blaming the Republican base voters and the Hate Radio/cable teevee demagogues who have spent decades shaping that base into a targetable mob of unhinged morons (with emphasis added):
STEPHENS: I want to begin my opening remarks by asking you in the audience a few questions. First question. How many of you in this audience have been to Europe in the last five years? Raise your hand. Okay. (Everyone raised their hands.)STEPHENS: Yes. All right. How many people in this audience live in Manhattan or let's just say New York City or a New York City-like suburb like Westchester. Raise your hands. Okay. Thank you. (Most hands go up.)STEPHENS: How many people in this audience have graduate degrees? Once again, I would say most hands went up, right? Why am I asking these questions? It's very simple. I hate to break it to you, but you are the elite. You live in the most expensive city in America. You travel voluntarily across the ocean to look at paintings you could find on Google. You drink wine that never costs less than $20 a bottle. You're the elite and so this proposition is very simple. Do you blame yourselves [laughter] for the rise of Donald Trump? Now, my friends on the opposite side would like to imagine the elite is someone else. All right? It's the billionaire class that you sometimes hear about. It's those corrupt politicians, Democrats or Republicans in Washington. It's some idea of an elite and yet it's you. And so here's the question that we have to confront tonight, and it's an important question and it's going to be a very telling question, I think, psychologically speaking. Do you indict yourselves tonight for the rise of Donald Trump? Are you yourself to blame for this immigrant bashing? For this American firsting? For this Putin man-crushing? For this woman-hating? For this charity short-changing? For this genitalia boasting? For this Chapter 11 indulging? For this Mussolini admiring disgrace of a Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States? That is the question.STEPHENS: Now what you've just heard from Ben was an astonishingly condescending portrait of who the Trump voter is, and you're going to hear from my friend, Jennifer, about just who a little -- a few more specifics about who that is, not the guy nodding off in a heroin induced coma because he's been thrown out of his job, okay? [laughter] There are, I am sure, even in this highly elite audience that just cheered wildly when I offered a fairly precise description of this joke of a candidate, there are some -- probably some Trump supporters in this audience. Let me ask those Trump supporters, don't raise your hands, because -- [laughter] -- I don't want to put you in jeopardy, okay? Did you recognize yourself in that caricature? Are you going to walk out of here and go to the bathroom and shoot up just after this?[laughter]STEPHENS: I don't think so. We live in a democracy and people think democracy is about freedom. It's not. It's about accountability. It's about we the people being responsible for the choices we make in our lives and at the voting booth. Who do you blame for the Trump phenomenon? Well, Bob Rosenkranz I think put it well. He blames, or one could blame, the Trump voter. One could blame the people who are responding to this message of intolerance, bigotry, and fake victimization. They're the ones who are primarily accountable. If you want to find another culprit, I would offer you the parade of demagogues who have emerged in the ether on certain cable news shows, on certain radio shows, some of them have first names that are like Sean, for example, or Rush, for example. I'm not mentioning last names. There are lots of Sean's and Rush's out there.[laughter]STEPHENS: And this is a pattern that in history we know very well. It is the pattern of the demagogue, demagoguing to a public or to a part of a public that wants easy answers and people to blame. They are accountable for those choices. Do not feel guilty for standing apart from them and do not condescend to them by saying that they have no moral agency, no personal agency in the disastrous political choice they may be about to make. Thank you....
Tim Carney, for his part, was obsessed with Obamacare as the Worst Law Evar!
Sure there's a bunch of other Elite Sins on his long and mostly-accurate bill of particulars to be laid at the door of the Republican party --
CARNEY: I think we need to define who the elites are that we're talking about. And I'm happy to name very specific names. They are the men and women -- mostly the men -- who were in charge over the past decades, who led our country to the point it is now. They are George W. Bush. They are Mitt Romney. These are the people who were elected, nominated officials, put in charge of the public good. They're Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and their predecessors. And it's telling to talk about their predecessors -- Tom Delay, who invited a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, into not just the Republican Party, but in to make Washington D.C. be a favor factory for the well-connected. Bill Frist, a Senate Majority Leader who now runs Frist Capital -- that invests in healthcare companies. So, he lobbies for Obamacare that enriches the hospitals he's investing in, both driving up the prices and taking away the options for everybody else. Former Senator Majority Leader Bob Dole, also an Obamacare lobbyist living very well by lobbying to take away the -- lobbying for drug companies that want to keep generics off the market. Eric Cantor supposedly representing Virginia's 7th District as a House Majority Leader, really representing Wall Street.
-- but to stay in the club, Carney had to keep up the farce that the Tea Party was some kind of organic, bipartisan, populist uprising instead of a Republican scheme to get the Bush stank off of the Republican base so they could get on with the explicitly seditious project of sabotaging the Obama administration and then running on a platform of "Ain't it a shame that our leaders can't get shit done!":
CARNEY: ...And that's why you got a Tea Party. That's why 2009, 2010 -- this wasn't a pro-Republican uprising, simply, or, you know, a fix-the-debt uprising, simply. It was a populist uprising. It was anger at bailouts. It was anger at a stimulus that was just handouts to the Chamber of Commerce. It was anger at an Obamacare that was just handouts to the drug companies and the hospitals...
To stay in the club, Carney had to play Both Sides kabuki, which meant he had to return again and again to the ludicrous notion that Wall Street bail-outs and Obamacare were both equally Despicable Acts of Bipartisan Betrayal so heinous that, when taken together, there was no way to put the pin back in the populist grenade.
CARNEY: ...You look at the bailouts of Wall Street. You look at Obamacare, where you had -- again, these are Republican leaders, the people who were put in power, Bob Dole, and Bill Frist, and Billy Tauzin -- all enriching themselves off of this corrupt law that then takes away choice from consumers...
Sure it's a stupid argument, but then pretty much all Conservative arguments these days are stupid because of the Procrustean parameters of stupidity which constrain Conservatism itself. Sure the Wall Street bailouts sucked, and Tom Delay was a crook, but the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was a major success, not a failure as Carney insisted, and for all its compromises and imperfections, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a substantial improvement over the disaster of a non-system we had before it was enacted.
But within the precincts of elite Conservative jibber-jaber, one can only safely speak the kind of heresies that used to get Liberals denounced as traitors by the precinct captains of elite Conservative jibber-jabber (Bush was an failure, the Iraq War was a fucking disaster, etc.) by taking the curse off and pairing those heresies with comforting wingnut fairy tales about the equal horrors of the Kenyan Usurper. And thus constrained to only speak in Both Siderist bunkum or get kicked off the wingnut welfare gravy train, Conservative arguments on pretty much any topic tend to be amazingly stupid.
And that's where this particular debate exceeded my expectations. It succeeded precisely because there were no Liberal on-hand to attack.
For years I have railed against the Beltway formula of staging mock combat between blood-drunk Conservatives and weak, Centrist Democrats while making absolutely sure no actual, knives-out Liberals who might grab a microphone and, say, embarrass the shit out of David Brooks by asking an actual pointed question or two were within a parsec of the place. And I stand by that -- until actual, un-muzzled Liberals are seated at the table, teevee political discussions are doomed to be reeking sewers of meaningless poll numbers, Beltway mean-girl gossip and paid political LARPers enacting Both Siderist puppet shows.
But in this case, by framing Donald Trump as a problem for which blame must be apportioned, and pitting two teams of Conservatives against each other over the question, something really interesting happened. Hell, even Jennifer Rubin (one of the many neocon throw-pillows with which Fred Hiatt decorates the op-ed page of the Washington Post) scored some easy layups:
RUBIN: My is that condescending. Kind of elitist, actually, to assume that voters don't know what they're talking about or don't know what they think. They're voting for someone who's views are very well known. Whether you and I agree with them is beside the point. We should stop infantilizing. These people are responsible. They know what Donald Trump is selling and they like it. And let's not say well, they're not the sharpest knife in the drawers. My, isn't that condescending.
But the real standout was Stephens, who locked on to the gaping hole in the Both Siderist charade and kept pounding away at it in a way that would never be allowed on Meet the Press.
STEPHENS: ...You know, for a long time I think most of us in this room kept thinking well, one day Donald Trump is going to say something that's so bad that the bubble will burst, right? And at first it was the McCain comment. Then it was the Megyn Kelly comment. Then maybe the Mussolini comment. Then maybe that horrendous comment about Judge Curiel, Gonzalo Curiel, then Mexicans as racists. No, that was before. Anyway, a whole succession of things. And I want to say at one point he's going to say something and it's just -- it's going to end it and it never happened and I kept wondering why -- why does this not happen? And I thought, you know why? I'll tell you why. Because this is like a strip club and every time he says something dirty it turns out people want more of it.And so what he was doing, what he was doing they're like take it off, take more off, take more off.[laughter]He was appealing to the pornographic instinct of a part of the American population. What was happening was the species of political pornography. Now, Mrs. Clinton just said this terrible thing, the "basket of deplorables" and we're all saying oh, it was bad politics, but you know what? It wasn't untrue. It wasn't untrue. Okay. YouGov, which is a polling agency, does a poll. There was a story in the Economist about this, which you know, last I checked was not a terrible source of media, looks like 58 percent of the respondents who said they backed Mr. Trump resided in the polls highest quartile for combined racial resentment scores and we all know that this is about right.
And also this:
STEPHENS: At Trump rallies, people wave American flags. They believe in the American creed. And when you speak to them, they'll say, "It's time people take some personal responsibility for their bad choices.” Maybe it's time that they should take some personal responsibility for their choices. The blame for the Trump phenomenon ultimately lies with them, not with you.
All in all, an intriguing exercise which was severely tempered for me by the fact that there is nothing Mr. Stephens is saying in 2016 that Liberals were not saying 20 years ago.