John McCain and the End of Romantic Conservatism

McCain’s deepest idealism, which he reserves for nato and the defense of the West, is not much shared in the Republican Party now, subsumed as it is by Trump and nationalist retrenchment.

.. the homage has been so personal that it has obscured the political matters of why the President continues to make an enemy of him, and of what conservatism will lose when McCain is gone.

..  “I’ve worked for him for thirty years, I’ve listened to him so much. I can impersonate the guy,” Salter said. “In terms of pop-culture sensibility, it’s more Rat Pack—kind of smart-ass, a little bit of a wiseguy. But he can also be quite sentimental. He’s like a romantic cynic. I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not. It comes out of this grand-gesture sensibility.”

.. He’s seen the very worst that humanity can produce and he expects it at any moment. And it gives him a sensibility—that’s why he can identify with these hopeless causes in Belorussia or wherever. He knows how to hold on to hope when it’s for suckers.”

..  I asked what, for McCain, had been the worst moment of Trump’s ascendance. “The Khans,” Salter said.

.. the event that stuck with him most, Salter said, was a reënlistment and naturalization ceremony that David Petraeus held in Iraq on the Fourth of July, in 2007, for soldiers who had yet to become citizens. “And there were two pairs of boots on two chairs,” Salter said. “Two guys who were about to become citizens but they were killed that week. And he’s told me that story a hundred times and he cries every time he tells that story. Petraeus had some line—‘They died for their country before it was their country.’ It was like a gut punch to him. That’s who the Khans’ son was to him.”

.. McCain spent the months after Trump’s Inauguration on an international reassurance tour, telling overseas allies the story that some Republicans in Washington were telling themselves—that Trump’s authoritarianism would be constrained by those around him, that this was a phase that would pass. “He has a lot of faith in Mattis,”

.. McCain, without naming the President, delivered a broadside against Putin, Trump, and the national retrenchments across the West that struck some valedictory notes. “I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries,” McCain said. “I am a proud, unapologetic believer in the West, and I believe we must always, always stand up for it.”

.. “That speech was really, ‘Hey, this thing we’ve done together is the greatest thing an alliance of nations has ever done in history. Be proud of it. It’s worth preserving. Don’t give up on us.’ ” Of course the nativism he so despised had taken hold of his own political party, and his choice of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential nominee marked an obvious pivot toward Trumpism.

.. It fell to Salter and Rick Davis, another longtime aide, to inform McCain: “We told him, ‘If you get the flu, you’re not going to survive it, John.’ ”

.. By the late nineties, journalists had the outline of the character: the war hero possessed by regrets. “One of the traits McCain’s staff finds most maddening in their boss is his tendency to recall for journalists only his most damning moments,” Michael Lewis wrote, in 1997. “Ask him about Vietnam and he’ll tell you about the time he stole a washrag from the guy in the adjoining cell. Ask him about his first marriage and he’ll leap right to his adultery.”

.. Conservatives could celebrate the extremity of McCain’s patriotism, and liberals could detect a recognition that war breaks men.

.. McCain’s story was one small way that Americans reconciled themselves to the waste and failure of Vietnam, and it was this reconciliation that Trump went after when he said his own war heroes were the men who hadn’t been captured. Trump imagines war without suffering, which leaves no room for McCain.

.. The closest thing that McCain has to an heir is the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who is a former military lawyer and shares McCain’s faith in American power, but who is also a more conventional partisan figure and has at times sided with Trump (including, most recently, about his decision to revoke the security clearance of former C.I.A. director John Brennan).

.. Lindsey really believes,” Salter said. “But he always makes a joke of it—‘We’ve got to get out of here, they’re going to kill us.’ ”

I said, trying to get the contrast between McCain and Graham right, “So McCain’s the more—”

Salter cut me off. He said, “The more romantic.”

 

Only a Country Like Canada Could Produce a Guy Like Jordan Peterson

There is a certain image that Canada projects to the world, one that is particularly compelling to Americans. It’s the image of Canada as a tolerant, progressive, kind and humanitarian nation, populated by mild-mannered and polite people.

.. The idea of Canada the Good — a Scandinavian-style socialist democracy, with the added bonus of multicultural harmony — is an attractive one, helpful in providing Canadians with some kind of national identity, and left-leaning Americans with a handy rhetorical device for political arguments: Look at what’s possible, right next door!

.. But it’s worth remembering that this image of Canada, currently personified by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is a relatively recent construction, largely put forth by Mr. Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Before that — and for most of the intervening years, between Trudeaus — the public face of Canada has looked a lot like, well, Jordan Peterson.

.. Canada is home to many more Jordan Petersons than Justin Trudeaus.

.. Mr. Peterson is — to use one of his favorite terms — something of a national archetype, the default setting of the Canadian male: a dull but stern dad, who, under a facade of apparent normalcy and common sense, conceals a reserve of barely contained hostility toward anyone who might rock the boat.

.. those who make a fuss are bothersome and ignorant at best, and probably dangerous and destructive too.

.. This is how “peace, order and good government” came to be the Canadian answer to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

.. Charisma is suspect here, and when Mr. Peterson uses that word to describe Mr. Trudeau, it’s not a compliment.

.. Suspect, too, is any whiff of revolutionary spirit. Pierre Trudeau might have technically been a liberal, but he was the kind of liberal who declared martial law in 1970 when a bumbling handful of Quebec separatists were deemed enough of a threat to justify suspending civil liberties en masse.

.. Our politics reflect our sense of unease with anything radical.

.. Liberals who think of Canada as a lefty haven should look to our most recent federal election: the New Democratic Party, ostensibly the major party farthest to the left, ran its last campaign on a platform of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. Not even the Green Party dares to suggest divesting from Alberta’s oil sands.

.. On every issue, from peacekeeping to pipelines, carbon targets to Indigenous relations, Mr. Trudeau has largely continued the policies set by his predecessor.

.. Canadian conservatism is not brash. It not belligerent, it is not loud. It is not Fox News. But our most popular columnists all deliver the same message: Things are the way they are for a reason. Those who agitate for change are stepping out of line.

.. He reserves particular ire for young activists. I tell 18-year-olds: Six years ago you were 12 — what the hell do you know? You haven’t done anything,” he says. “You don’t have a degree, you haven’t finished your courses, you don’t know how to read, you can’t think, you can’t speak.”

“It’s just not right,” he says, “to tell people in that situation that they should go out and change the socioeconomic structure of the culture!”

.. Delivered as a fiery sermon, this impassioned plea for humility and self-improvement gets laughs from Peterson fans. But in practice, it’s actually an argument for submission to the status quo that would have prevented any number of people, from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Emma Gonzales, from ever speaking up.

.. Americans are raised to believe that individuals, even flawed ones, can indeed change the world, and sometimes should. Canadians, for all that we’ve managed to construct a society that Americans sometimes envy, lack this ethic.

.. The resulting mind-set, disdainful of idealism and suspicious of ego, is one we are now, evidently, exporting.

.. Jordan Peterson is considered a heroic figure of historical importance, the man who finally said “Enough!” to political correctness run amok, to mobs of rabid Social Justice Warriors, to an ideologically driven “leftist-Marxist” movement hellbent on destroying Western civilization itself.

.. Mr. Peterson can be more accurately described as a previously obscure Canadian academic who believed, erroneously, that he would soon be forced by law to use gender-neutral pronouns and who refused to bow to that hypothetical demand. The proposed human rights policy that made Mr. Peterson famous is now Canadian law, and no instance of “compelled speech” has occurred as a result of it or resulted in criminal charges, as Mr. Peterson feared. On the issue of legal requirements for pronoun use, things remain the way Mr. Peterson wanted them — the same.

.. Mr. Peterson was taking a stand not against power in that instance but on behalf of it. His acolytes, some of whom might consider themselves to be walking in the tradition of rugged American individualism, should note that they are in fact taking marching orders — “Rules for Life,” no less — from a line-toeing Canadian, preaching a philosophy not of American defiance but of Canadian deference.

 

 

Trump’s Empty Culture Wars

The secret of culture war is that it is often a good and necessary thing.

.. But in the sweep of American history, it’s the battles over cultural norms and so-called social issues — over race and religion, intoxicants and sex, speech and censorship, immigration and assimilation — that for better or worse have often made us who we are.

.. A bad culture war is one in which attitudinizing, tribalism and worst-case fearmongering float around unmoored from any specific legal question

.. a master, too, of taking social and cultural debates that could be important and necessary and making them stupider and emptier and all about himself.

.. he is unique as well in that unlike most culture warriors — who are usually initially idealists, however corrupted they may ultimately become — he has never cared about anything higher or nobler than himself, and so he’s never happier than when the entire country seems to be having a culture war about, well, Donald Trump.

.. Trump has made it much, much worse, by multiplying the reasons one might reasonably kneel — for solidarity with teammates, as a protest against the president’s behavior, as a gesture in favor of free speech, as an act of racial pride — and then encouraging his own partisans to interpret the kneeling as a broad affront to their own patriotism and politics.

.. So now we’re “arguing” (I use the term loosely) about everything from the free-speech rights of pro athletes to whether the national anthem is right-wing political correctness to LeBron James’s punditry on the miseducation of Trump voters … and the specific issue that Kaepernick intended to raise, police misconduct, is buried seven layers of controversy deep.

.. First, can we have the greater accountability for cops that activists reasonably demand, in which juries convict more trigger-happy officers and police departments establish a less adversarial relationship to the communities they police

.. Second, can we continue the move toward de-incarceration — supported, not that long ago, by Republicans as well as Democrats — without reversing the gains that have made many of our cities safe?

.. we need a social and cultural debate focused on the substance that Colin Kaepernick’s choice of protest unfortunately obscured, and Donald Trump’s flagsploitation has deliberately buried. Not an end to culture war, but a better culture war — in which victory and defeat can be defined, and peace becomes a possibility.