Forces of Chaos and Anarchy

We Should Have Seen it Coming: From Reagan to Trump–A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution
Gerald Seib

I have gone missing but I have not stopped reading.

That, I suppose, is a statement always at risk of being true. If so, then it’s more true than ever lately as I find my free time diminished and my workday lengthened by an untimely staff death. Once again, the universe has unveiled a nasty streak of larceny aimed at my time.

That theft has not yet driven me to oxymoronic forms (i.e., audiobooks) but it has driven me to more than one “book” stored on my phone. As my dear departed colleague, herself an avid reader, liked to say,  “You spend so much time waiting you ought to at least have a book with you.” That notion, and a bargain-basement price, explain the present volume.

More than once I’ve referenced the role The Wall Street Journal played in my development as a young professional. Gerald Seib, the author of this book, is presently the Executive Washington Editor for the paper and for a long time penned a weekly column on doings in the capital city. He’s precisely the sort of person you meet riding the Acela corridor, where I literally once bumped into him.

Gerald Seib in the iconic WSJ dot illustration style.

Here Seib provides his version of our recent politics. Political journalists are always tossing off lengthier versions of the first draft of history and the longer form doesn’t necessarily improve things. How can I say this kindly? Journalists are concerned with a coherent storyline. The tale’s the thing. They often ask important questions. But the analysis is typically less satisfying than I like.

You could rightfully argue that they’re doing their job and if they find an expert willing to lend their interpretation then there’s no issue. I’m willing to accept that. It just strikes me as thin gruel. Maybe it’s why newspapers seem less vital to me now.

In any case, Seib essentially uses his own career as a frame for the transformation of Republican politics over the last 4 decades. That’s basically from the “Reagan revolution” to the age of “Make America Great Again.” I don’t want to pick fights, but anyone who sees these poles as two sides of the same coin, or as a story of mutation-free evolution, isn’t thinking clearly. They do, though, begin with a common impulse: throw the rascals out.

You could start a discussion of opposition and rage at the Contract With America.

The story Seib tells is, by now,  familiar. Mid-century Eisenhower/Country Club Republicans find themselves suddenly eclipsed by a group that so spectacularly lost the 1964 Presidential election that any sort of resurrection seemed beyond fanciful.  If you’d told anyone in 1964 that Republicans would be in control in less than 20 years you’d have been thought bonkers. Yet you might question that achievement when you consider what came next.

First, there was the rise of Newt Gingrich.  A would-be professor turned politician representing suburban Atlanta, Gingrich engineered a stunning Republican takeover of the House. That was just a prelude to turning himself into a legislative Icarus. But before immolating his political career Gingrich spurred real changes in legislation and in how the House operated.

Adding fuel to the fire. Homes lost. Dreams shattered. And bailouts for Wall Street.

Absent charismatic leadership those changes didn’t really stick in any meaningful way. One thing that fascinates me is cultural persistence. I’ve worked in at least two organizations that, in the name of self-preservation, decreed wholesale revolutions and overturned the majority of the staff. And yet years later self-defeating behaviors and policies remained in place. Why should the United States Congress be any different?

Yet the underlying anger kept simmering and exploded again in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. There are many ways to understand that mess. I’m particularly fond of David Harvey‘s Marxist interpretation which manages to cram in every trope I learned from the red diaper baby brigade I studied with into 11 entertaining minutes. No matter the explanation, what’s indisputable was the outcome. The malefactors–the financial elites–got bailed out, collectively, by the little people.

As a business acquaintance from the southeast always says, “Tain’t right.” And so the Tea Party movement emerged. In Seib’s telling the electoral success of the TPM in the 2010 midterms should have awakened everyone. Here was a group that could be,  and has been,  defined in many ways. Yet I haven’t seen a lot of use of the word i believe best describes their outlook: nihilism.

The great professor.
Whatever it is, he’s against it. Click the image for the musical version.

Like Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, whatever it is, they’re against it.

It strikes me that this, too, is a persistent undercurrent in the United States. However well-intentioned the present-day punditry may be in describing what they’re observing, their framing is very often too limited to “It started with _________” fill in the blank. Sometimes you get a half-hearted nod towards wanting to return to some mythic golden age, maybe the 1920s, more often the 1880s.

Such attitudes are neither recent nor novel.

Long before the Silent Majority, the Regan Revolution,  the Gingrich years and the Tea Party there was the 80th Congress, in the infamous formulation of Harry Truman the “do nothing 80th Congress.”  Which is not entirely fair. What they spent an awful lot of time doing was passing laws and Constitutional amendments related to the Presidency. They actually did pass a lot of important national security acts, too. But domestically. Robert A. Taft and his colleagues would have executed a U-turn if they could have. And they certainly were going to change some rules after a 4-term Presidency.

All that is old is new again, right down to defacing the flag they profess to revere.
Photo Courtesy RSD Museum

None of what we’ve seen since 2010 (or 2016)  is new. Nativism? See the history of the 1840s, in particular the “Native American Party,” known more familiarly as the “Know-Nothings.” Isolationism? See Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s. Urban-rural conflict? See the 1890s. It’s not just the companies I’ve worked in and Congress: ideas and attitudes stick around and bad ideas appear particularly sticky, never completely disappearing. It’s more like they go dormant waiting to be discovered anew, Gresham’s law applied to intellectual matters.

Is there no hope? In the faith tradition of my forebears, hopelessness is a grave sin.  So I won’t go there. But I fret that my children will face as fraught a time as any this nation has faced.

And like the song says, that ain’t good.

I Had a Real Good Mother and Father

Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir
Christopher Buckley

When it comes to enshrining the obvious, you have to acknowledge the preeminence of the US Supreme Court. “Death is different,” they told us in 1976. The clarification hardly seems necessary.

Yet death, that most unwelcome of drop-by visitors, often seems to bring out the best in some writers, Continue reading

He’s Been Tensing Up His Arms and His Legs

The Best American Sportswriting 2009
Leigh Montville, Guest Editor; Glenn Sharp, Series Editor

I am hopelessly clumsy though not quite an oaf. If one of the seven intelligences is bodily-kinesthetic, that’s the one in which I came up short.

The basics–walking, for instance–I find manageable,  but much more than that presents a challenge. Even the sorts of things that supposedly benefit from drills Continue reading

I’m Gonna Go Fishing

Surfcaster’s Quest
Roy Rowan

It’s just a fortnight or so past the Feast of St. Stephen,  with sub-zero wind chills and the remnants of a snowstorm lying about less than deep and crisp and even. So, what better time to turn one’s thoughts to fishing?

Allow me to cut to the chase. The present volume offers Continue reading

A Fleabit Peanut Monkey

Bad Monkey
Carl Hiaasen

I used to be a serious person. Or at least I thought of myself that way. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

Some clarification may be in order. I was never a grind, at least the way I understand that term. Grinds, if I’ve got it right, care about things like grades, and credentials and Continue reading

Hit It Then Quit It

The Best American Sportswriting 1994
Tom Boswell, Guest Editor; Glenn Stout, Series Editor

Why,  you may wonder, is anybody spending time reading an anthology of sportswriting from 1994? Even if the contents were confined to coverage of the Little League World Series the subjects would be on the cusp of middle age.

So what gives? I attribute its appearance to a particular Continue reading

Seen it All in a Small Town

Pop. 1280
Jim Thompson

We’ve been here before.

Here is Thompson country. Thompson is Jim Thompson, a post-war writer of crime fiction with a notable penchant for exploring the darker side of life.

And when I say country I mean country. Like many other Thompson tales, this novel is set well away from the urban centers some folks would like us to believe are Continue reading

Fables and Troubles

Aesop’s Fables
Aesop, trans. by V.S. Vernon Jones

As I grow older, I wonder if conservative thinkers aren’t on to something when they talk about how people are more alike than not. Although I’m the first to advise ignoring anecdote in favor of seeking more robust evidence, I don’t think I’m alone, as a parent, in Continue reading

Pictures of Matchstick Men

A Box of Matches
Nicholson Baker

It happened gradually, starting sometime. after I
turned 40.

Always an early riser–always being defined as since age 12 or so when my dad helpfully taught me to get up on my own to deliver the Sunday Long Island Press by grabbing the mattress handles and dumping me in a heap–I started Continue reading

He’s a Magic Man

Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince
J. K. Rowling

While in the middle of reading this volume aloud to the lad and lass, I stumbled across an article by Crispin Sartwell entitled Why They Suck: Harry Potter.”  Though Professor Sartwell and I have disagreed,  I find myself in some alignment with him on this matter.

Growing up alongside these tales of the wizarding world’s St. Saviour, one might not notice Continue reading