How Is Ken Starr Still Everywhere?

Ken Starr can look like a Pixar character: grandfatherly, dimpled, with long pillowy cheeks and cunicular teeth. It’s not distinctive; it’s the kind of face you swear you’ve seen many times. Indeed, you probably have, because if you examine a certain subset of American politics, he’s everywhere. Look at his Supreme Court connections alone: John Roberts once served under Starr. Brett Kavanaugh was his mentee. He was pals with Antonin Scalia, vetted Sandra Day O’Connor, and calls Clarence Thomas “a whole lot of fun.” Theodore Olson (the lawyer who’d go on to represent George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore and become his solicitor general) spent that fateful election night watching the results come in at his house. Ken Starr is basically the Forrest Gump of Republican America. You might not have noticed, but he’s usually around. Right now, for instance, he’s on the advisory board of Turning Point USA, a conservative activist group started by Charlie Kirk. You might also know him as a Fox News commentator or scandal-ridden ex–university president, as a member of Trump’s first impeachment team, or, most famously, as the independent counsel in the Bill Clinton years whose combination of piousness and prurience taught an entire generation of American children about oral sex.

It’s that five-year stewardship of the Clinton investigation that made Ken Starr a household name. And it’s against those five years that everything he’s done since must be measured. The sporadic headlines he’s since generated in some ways reflect the general decline of his party. Once criticized for a sense of rectitude so priggish it began to appear perverse, Starr course-corrected by defending Jeffrey Epstein and then Donald Trump. The guy who took a popular president down a peg for lying about sex lost his own job as a popular university president for presiding over a system that shielded rapists and ignored victims. And now the great investigator of Clintonian infidelity stands accused of having an extramarital affair himself.

The owner of one of the most famous conservative “brands” has mainly succeeding at muddling it. Starr’s swampward trajectory corresponds roughly to the rise of reactionary populism, but his individual decisions can still surprise; spurts of pro bono work and disquisitions on faith serve as occasional reminders—against a seamy backdrop—of what Starr’s profile used to be. It has been argued that the man many knew as a bland and scrupulously correct son of a minister changed during his stint as independent counsel—that in the course of becoming a public figure while also learning on the fly how to be a prosecutor, he became more of a persecutor too, less concerned with ethical constraints while technically respecting legal ones. (Mostly. Sam Dash, who was lead counsel to the Senate’s Watergate Committee and acted as special ethics adviser to Starr’s team, resigned in protest over what he saw as Starr’s decision to act as an “aggressive advocate” for impeachment.)

That increasingly appetitive (or deranged) prosecutorial approach earned Starr so much contempt that it has perhaps overshadowed some of his less controversial qualities. Friends and associates unfailingly describe Starr as pleasant, for instance. They also describe him as extremely hardworking. He is rarely, however, called brilliant, and this is surprising: The man almost became a Supreme Court justice. According to a 1998 Michael Winerip piece in the New York Times Magazine, Starr’s name may have been scrubbed from the Bush administration’s short list in 1990 because Starr was considered—at least then—a mite too ethical. As the senior Bush’s solicitor general, he’d sided with whistleblowers against the administration that hired him in a case involving defense contractors. The administration did not care for that. Here’s one way to gauge what this earlier version of Starr was like: The folks who chose David Souter for their nominee to the Supreme Court dismissed Starr as insufficiently conservative. He’d been faulted with, among other things, failing to disclose O’Connor’s pro-choice views to his fellow Republicans when he vetted her. It’s hard to imagine how different Starr’s public profile might be today if things had gone differently.

Black and white photo of Starr, Bates, and Kavanaugh sitting at a conference table in a drab room. Bates and Kavanaugh smile broadly.
Independent counsel Kenneth Starr, center, talks with deputy independent counsel John Bates, left, and aide Brett Kavanaugh, right, in the Office of the Solicitor General in D.C. during the Whitewater investigation on Nov. 13, 1996. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

For someone with such Zelig-like ubiquity, not much has been written about his early years. Before the Clinton Whitewater investigation, Starr, who clerked for Chief Justice Warren Burger, was rising in Republican circles with impressive and perhaps questionable speed. As Winerip writes, Starr had to learn as he went. He became an Appeals Court judge in 1983, though he had never been a lower court judge; the Solicitor General—the Government’s lawyer to the Supreme Court—in 1989, though he had never argued before the Supreme Court; the independent counsel in 1994, though he had never been a prosecutor.” This trend would continue after his stint investigating the Clintons: He was hired to helm Pepperdine’s law school and then Baylor University despite having no administrative experience to speak of. (Perhaps, given the sexual assault scandal that would later consume Baylor, experience matters.)

If the Clinton years gave him a taste of real fame—he was Time’s Man of the Year in 1998, along with Bill Clinton—the aftermath saw him trying to capitalize on it. Starr became, if not quite a mercenary himself, the mercenaries’ lawyer. He’d done plenty of that before, of course: He was profitably defending tobacco companies even while he was investigating Clinton (who was trying to regulate them). But his years digging into the president empowered him to use his prestige in a slightly different way—as the guy who maybe knew a guy. When Whitewater needed investigating, Starr had been there to do it and his reasons were at least nominally public-spirited. But when Blackwater needed defending in 2006, he was there to do that too—this time by joining a lawsuit that had been well underway in order to petition John Roberts, his former deputy in the solicitor general’s office, who had only recently joined the Supreme Court. Marc Miles, the attorney representing the families of the four Blackwater contractors killed in Iraq, said at the time, “I think that Blackwater has brought in Kenneth Starr to somehow leverage a political connection to help them succeed in a case where they can’t win on the merits.”

If this was the case, it didn’t work—Roberts rejected his former superior’s argument that Blackwater should be “constitutionally immune” to the lawsuit. (Roberts would rule in Starr’s favor the same year in Morse v. Frederick.) It wouldn’t be the last time Starr appeared to peddle his influence. When Jeffrey Epstein needed help evading charges for raping and trafficking minors in 2007, the Texan with a reputation for primness joined the pedophile’s legal team and, as described in reporter Julie K. Brown’s book, became one of the prime architects of a defense notable for its innovative savagery, which included attacking prosecutors and impugning their motives. Starr attempted to leverage his contacts in the Justice Department to try to get the federal charges dropped. It also didn’t work. But the plea deal Epstein got was famously and shockingly lenient, thanks in no small part to Starr’s efforts.

And perhaps most incongruently, when the most prolific liar in American presidential history—who paid the women he had extramarital sex with to shut them upfaced impeachment charges in 2019, Starr didn’t just rush to defend him (even though he’d once called Starr a lunatic). The author of the Starr Report, which even Diane Sawyer derided as “demented pornography for puritans,” showed up in a black cowboy hat and a trenchcoat—dressed as an almost literal black-hat version of the finger-wagging disciplinarian of errant presidents he used to be.

It’s a discordant set of jobs for someone who had built a monumental and much-mocked reputation for prudish propriety. In a plot turn that would be more poetic if it weren’t so unsurprising, it emerged this month that Starr, that avatar of good Christian values who once stood for everything the Clintons weren’t, had himself allegedly conducted an extramarital affair with a woman who had once worked closely with him. (She says it began in 2009, roughly a decade after his investigation of Clinton concluded.)

The woman, Judi Hershman, explains she is disclosing her affair with Starr (which she’d planned to take to the grave) because of his response to a story she wrote for Slate about a disturbing encounter with Brett Kavanaugh that she’d informed Starr about back in 1998. She wrote that Kavanaugh had screamed at her with “a deranged fury” when he found her working in a conference room. (In her Medium piece she adds that Starr’s response when she requested an apology from Kavanaugh was: “I’m apologizing to you for him. This is it.”) Starr’s comment on Hershman’s story in Slate was “I do not recall any mention of any incident involving Brett Kavanaugh.” But the simple denial was not enough. In what Hershman calls an “embellishment,” he added: “To the contrary, throughout his service in the independent counsel’s office, now-Justice Kavanaugh comported himself at all times with high professionalism and respect toward all our colleagues.”

We know now that this is the basic template for how Ken Starr responds to a crisis because he was recorded doing it. In a 2016 TV interview for KWTX News 10, Starr was asked about an email a woman had sent him on Nov. 3, 2015—and there the email was, in full view, bearing his email address—in which she reported being raped. The subject line, “I Was Raped at Baylor,” seems hard to overlook. Starr’s first response squishily acknowledges this: “I honestly may have. I’m not denying that I saw it.” But then a woman named Merrie Spaeth, a communications consultant and family friend he’d brought with him (and who had been Hershman’s boss during the Clinton investigation), interrupts to ask the news director not to use that portion of the interview. He refuses and she takes Starr to another room to confer. “She needs to ask you that question again. Whether you do it on camera or not it’s up to you,” Spaeth says to Starr when they return. Starr then says to the camera: “All I’m gonna say is I honestly have no recollection of that.” He then turns to Spaeth. “Is that OK?” But then he tries again and, as with his response to Hershman, he doesn’t leave well enough alone. He adds. “I honestly have no recollection of seeing such an email and I believe that I would remember seeing such an email” (emphasis mine). By 2018, two years after he’d been ousted as university president, the line had evolved beyond all recognition: “Unfortunately—and this is going to sound like an apologia, but it is the absolute truth—never was it brought to my attention that there were these issues.”Is it interesting that a man who spent years trying to prove that an evasive and lawyerly president lied ended up agonizing over how exactly to legalistically phrase his own failures? No! It is only moderately more interesting that the Starr marriage—which openly courted comparisons to the Clintons’—now appears to be in the position it smugly criticized: In 1999, Alice Starr famously said she’d divorce her husband if she were in Hillary’s place, remarking that she would “rather not be married to someone who doesn’t love me enough to remain faithful.” “We took a vow to be faithful to one another when we married,″ she said of her own marriage, adding that they’d “lived up to that vow.″ In response to Hershman’s affair allegation, Alice Starr provided a statement through Merrie Spaeth affirming her marriage to Ken: “We remain devoted to each other and to our beautiful family. Judi Nardella Hershman was Alice’s friend. Alice set up jobs and board appointments for her in McLean, Virginia.” (Ken Starr himself had no comment, according to Spaeth, who also added that because of how busy the independent counsel’s office was in the days before the 1998 House Judiciary Committee hearing, it would have been impossible for Judi Hershman to have found herself alone in a conference room with Brett Kavanaugh.)

That Alice is standing by her man is no surprise; when Ken began his tenure at Baylor, she said in an interview, “He can’t do anything but tell the truth—ethics are extremely important.” What those ethics are remains something of a mystery. Starr’s post-Clinton priorities were interesting and not altogether predictable: They have ranged from appealing for clemency for death row inmates in 2005 and 2006 to defending Epstein in 2007 to campaigning against same-sex marriage in 2008 to signing (in 2013) a letter asking that a teacher who pleaded guilty to molesting five female students get no jail time, just community service.

Put differently, Starr has occupied some strange spaces in American controversies besides the one he’s best known for. He supported Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, for instance, but he also testified about “troubling questions” at Sen. Ron Johnson’s circus of a Senate hearing on so-called election irregularities. He’s a little too odd to classify as a mere hypocrite. Even his condemnations take some surprising turns: In a chapter of his latest book, Starr comes perilously close to condoning the removal of Confederate monuments: “It’s one thing to tear down monuments of Confederate generals, as military champions of the unspeakable institution of slavery. Whether you like these desecrations or not, that reaction is understandable, albeit lawless.”

Starr’s isn’t a story of straight decline. He never really left, for one thing; that makes a comeback trickier. But neither has he ascended to become a fixture in the conservative firmament. The way he engages with modern conservatism is almost hilariously anti-strategic: Though certainly capable of partisan bile, he’s at other times so quaintly bookish that he barely seems to understand his party at all. When he addressed the young Trump-crazed Republicans at the 2019 Turning Point USA summit (other speakers included Sean Hannity, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Donald Trump Jr., to give you a sense), he interrupted the music and the lights to ask everyone to sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and then delivered a lecture encouraging them to study history, including the writings of Louis Brandeis and Lincoln’s second inaugural address.* It is bold—in a mild way—to lecture about history when you know you’re up against Guilfoyle’s incantatory shouts. It might also explain the limits of his influence. Then again, so might the lack of a consistent agenda. Starr’s lawyering has been deployed in the service of both conventional and distasteful efforts but doesn’t coalesce into any particularly cohesive sense of purpose. And while his books register a real desire to provide intellectual backing for conservative impulses, what little ideology he has—to the extent that it’s faith-based—is compromised by his own hypocrisy.

Starr does still seem to enjoy the spotlight even if he’s not especially gifted at keeping it. Thirty years after he shot to national fame, he hasn’t lost the ability to provoke an “Oh, him!” reaction when his name comes up, and Trump’s impeachments presented not one but two occasions for him to reemerge to the broader public as a voice of authority on the thing he has long been most famous for. But his interventions on those fronts have been strangely muddled. He obsessed over the finer points governing special counsels in a magazine article but then cut an absurd figure in a black cowboy hat at Trump’s side. Having made an impression neither as an intellectual nor as a firebrand, he’s now on the board of an organization fiercely touting an anti-vaccination agenda. He’s on Fox News. And he’s earning headlines for allegedly cheating on his wife. It’s not exactly the Supreme Court.

Andrew J. Bacevich, “America’s War for the Greater Middle East”

Now a retired colonel after nearly a quarter century in the U.S. Army, as well as professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, Bacevich brings a valuable dual perspective to this study of American foreign policy over the last forty years. Taking as his point of departure the fact that few, if any, American soldiers were killed in the Middle East from the end of World War II to 1983, the author of Breach of Trust and The Limits of Power investigates why the region has been the scene of constant conflict and high American casualty rates in recent years. http://www.politics-prose.com/book/97…

The Green Deal Will Make or Break Europe

The European Union’s new leadership has decided to invest much of its political capital in a plan to position Europe as the global leader in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. But if too many constituencies feel as though they are being sacrificed on a green alter, the plan will never even get off the ground.

BERLIN – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s  to lead a “geopolitical commission” is about to face its first big test. European heads of state are meeting to discuss her proposed European Green Deal, a sweeping project that could either unite the European Union and strengthen its position on the world stage, or generate a new intra-European political cleavage that leaves the bloc fractured and vulnerable.

The need for concerted action is clear. The Green Deal is a response to accelerating climate change, which poses an existential threat not just to Europe but to the entire planet. The problem does not observe national borders, and thus requires collective global action. But the transition to a carbon-neutral economy also offers far-reaching opportunities. With the right strategy in place, Europe can boost its own technological innovation and deploy carbon pricing and other fiscal policies to protect European labor markets from being undercut by lower-cost production in China and elsewhere.

Moreover, through the European Investment Bank, the EU already has a tool for  massive stores of capital for investments in infrastructure, research and development, and other essential areas. And, as Adam Tooze has argued, by issuing green bonds and other “safe assets,” Europe can secure greater economic independence from other powers and start to establish the euro as a global currency.

But alongside this positive vision are more dystopian scenarios in which the climate-policy debate creates geographic and socioeconomic divisions and fuels a populist backlash. Although climate change touches everyone, its effects are asymmetric, as are the costs of undertaking a transition to a carbon-neutral economy. The danger for Europeans is that the unequal distribution of the costs and opportunities will fuel a culture war between

  • east and west,
  • urban and rural, and so forth.

This European debate is an echo of a broader global challenge. Many Eastern European countries still depend heavily on coal for energy generation, and thus fear that the push for carbon neutrality is an underhanded form of protectionism by advanced economies like Germany. Poland’s energy minister, Krzysztof Tchórzewski, has dismissed as “a fantasy” the notion that Poland – which relies on coal for 80% of its electricity – could achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and estimates that the costs of such a transition would approach €1 trillion ($1.1 trillion).

But, in addition to the east-west divide, the Green Deal could also create political rifts within every EU member state. French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to position France as a global climate leader. But his government’s attempt to raise taxes on fuel last year backfired when millions of gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) took to the streets in protest in late 2018.

The European Council on Foreign Relations has conducted in-depth polling to understand policy preferences across Europe, and we have found climate policy to be a particularly divisive issue. On the surface, around two-thirds of Europeans in most countries polled think that tackling climate change should be a priority, even if it means curtailing economic growth. But up to one in four people do not think that climate change is a real threat, and are far more worried about Islamic radicalism and the rise of nationalism.

The gilets jaunes are not an isolated phenomenon. Recent elections have shown how a program like the Green Deal could become a useful punching bag for populists and parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and Rassemblement National (National Rally, formerly the National Front) in France.

Critically, once you move from asking people whether climate change is a problem to how it should be addressed, concerns about socioeconomic fairness and the distribution of costs prove hugely divisive. Even in the European Parliament, where 62% of MEPs were elected on green-inspired platforms, only 56% agree that the EU should be pursuing a rapid transition to a low-emissions economy. Moreover, only one-third of MEPs are prepared to take tough action against companies with large carbon footprints.

Generally speaking, then, there are two possible futures for European climate policy. The Green Deal could become Europe’s chief new cause, lending momentum to European integration and strengthening the EU’s global position vis-à-vis China and the United States. Or, it could become the next “refugee crisis,” a singularly potent issue that divides Europe between east and west, and that mobilizes populist forces within countries across the bloc.

To make the first scenario more likely, EU leaders need to listen less to moralists like the young climate activist Greta Thunberg, and more to  who understand that paying off reactionary forces has long been part of the price of progress. The only way to shepherd the Green Deal to successful implementation will be to offer large fiscal transfers to the laggards, so that they, too, will have a stake in the clean-energy transition. Without European unity, there can be no effective European response to climate change.

The polite extremist: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seemingly unstoppable rise

A Brexit ultra and profound reactionary, the eccentric MP is a strong contender to be the next prime minister. How dangerous is he?

Jacob Rees-Mogg calls it “God’s own country” – that swathe of rural Somerset south of Bath and Bristol where he was raised, and that he now represents in parliament. It is easy to see why the Tory backbencher, who conceivably could become prime minister before too long, loves it so much. When not in his Mayfair town house, or dwelling in some glorious imagined past, he, his wife and their six young children live in Gournay Court, a splendid 400-year-old mansion in the picturesque village of West Harptree at the foot of the Mendip Hills.

A short drive down the Chew River valley in one of his two vintage Bentleys, along narrow lanes flanked by neat hedgerows and pretty stone cottages, takes him back to Hinton Blewett, where he grew up in the Old Rectory with views across rolling farmland. A few miles beyond that is Ston Easton Park, an imposing Georgian pile with landscaped grounds that is now a luxury hotel. There, young Jacob – fourth of the five children of William Rees-Mogg, the distinguished former editor of the Times – spent the earliest years of his life, and was taught the Catholic catechism by his governess.

This is the storybook England of great estates, farms and elegant villages clustered around ancient, steepled churches. Here, the young Rees-Mogg was marinated from birth in English history and tradition. And now, aged 48, he would doubtless consider himself the embodiment of traditional English values.

He has never been seen (except perhaps by his wife) in anything other than a suit and tie. He speaks in sonorous Edwardian English and is unfailingly courteous. To be born British, he says, is “to win first prize in the lottery of life”. Not long ago he asked the House of Commons: “What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born Englishman [than] to listen to our national anthem… to listen to those words that link us to our sovereign who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history.” The Economist recently described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit”.

But Rees-Mogg’s many foes insist his values are those of a zealot, not those of modern Britain such as moderation, tolerance, inclusivity and compassion for the needy. His critics like him as a person and enjoy his intelligence, humour and self-deprecation, but contend that his old-school charm and civility mask extreme, doctrinaire positions not just on Brexit, but on almost every other social and economic issue including abortion, welfare and climate change. Rees-Mogg certainly has no time for “One Nation” or “compassionate” Conservatism, or for the “modernising” project begun by David Cameron. He unashamedly champions what he calls “full-blooded Toryism”. He has gained a passionate following among young Tories for whom – in an age of technocratic career politicians – the fact he is a character with  strong beliefs appears more important than what those beliefs may be. But older, more centrist members of the party are appalled.

“You would only elect him leader of the Conservative Party if you didn’t want to win an election ever again,” one grandee and former cabinet minister told me.

“I couldn’t stay in a party led by somebody like him,” said Anna Soubry, the prominent backbench Remainer, earlier this month. Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, has said the same, adding: “He’s not the modern face of the Tory party I and colleagues are desperate to prove is out there.”

Matthew Parris, the commentator and former Tory MP, was even blunter in the Times: “For the 21st-century Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock. His manners are perfumed but his opinions are poison. Rees-Mogg is quite simply an unfailing, unbending, unrelenting reactionary.”

Rees-Mogg declined the New Statesman’s requests for an interview for this profile, citing a lack of time. However, he did find time last year for an hour-long podcast interview with Breitbart, the ultra-right-wing US website that helped to propel Donald Trump into the White House. Host James Delingpole introduced Rees-Mogg as his “most exciting guest ever” and “the sexiest thing from a right-wing perspective in British politics”. Rees-Mogg, an early supporter of Trump, also found time before Christmas to meet Steve Bannon, the US president’s former chief ideologue, in a Mayfair hotel. Raheem Kassam, the former Ukip luminary who brokered the meeting, said “the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond”.

***

It may not be his fault, but Rees-Mogg has led a relentlessly privileged life. He spent his early years as a pupil at Westminster Under School, which educates boys aged seven to 13. While there, he played the stock markets using a £50 inheritance from a relative, standing up at the General Electric Company’s annual meeting and castigating a board – that included his father – for the firm’s “pathetic” dividend. A contemporary newspaper photograph showed the precocious 12-year-old solemnly reading the Financial Times beside his teddy bears.

He proceeded, inevitably, to Eton, and from there to Trinity College, Oxford, to read history. An ardent young Thatcherite who had imbibed Euroscepticism at his father’s knee, he became president of the university’s Conservative Association, debated at the Oxford Union, and would nip down to London to help out at Conservative Central Office. He had his own telephone installed in his college room. He incurred mockery for suggesting students should wear a “full morning suit”, and embraced the mortarboard – “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.” One former student who knew him at university called him a “ghastly snob”. After graduating, he worked briefly for the Rothschild investment bank. He then spent three years with Lloyd George Investment in Hong Kong, before returning to London to run some of that firm’s emerging market funds. Surprisingly, since Rees-Mogg so passionately supports the reckless gamble with the British economy that is Brexit, a recent FT investigation described him as a cautious investor whose performance was “less than stellar”.

In 2007, Rees-Mogg and several colleagues left Lloyd George to set up Somerset Capital Management – one source of his estimated £100m personal fortune. Another source is his wife, Helena, the only child of the former Tory MP Somerset de Chair and Lady Juliet Tadgell, an heiress and former Marchioness of Bristol who is said to be worth £45m. Rees-Mogg met Helena while campaigning for a referendum on the EU constitution. He proposed in front of one of the half-dozen Van Dyck paintings that hang in her family’s stately home, Bourne Park in Kent. They were married in 2007 before 650 guests in Canterbury Cathedral, the archbishop having authorised a Tridentine mass in ecclesiastical Latin in light of Rees-Mogg’s fervent Catholicism. The couple now have six children aged between seven months and ten, all bearing the names of Catholic popes and saints. Following the birth of Sixtus last July, Rees-Mogg admitted he had never changed a nappy, adding: “Nanny does it brilliantly.”

The first recorded instance of him mingling at length with common folk came when he was selected, somewhat improbably, as the Conservative candidate for Central Fife in 1997. He toured council estates with the aforementioned nanny, Veronica Crook, in tow (she was his nanny, too, before looking after his children). Something was lost in translation, however, for Rees-Mogg came a distant third, securing just 3,669 votes. “The number of voters in my favour dropped as soon as I opened my mouth,” he said.

Four years later, Rees-Mogg stood again, this time in The Wrekin in Shropshire. He came second with 38 per cent of the vote, down 2 per cent on the Tories’ performance in 1997, despite a small uptick in the party’s national vote. Thereafter, the Kensington and Chelsea  Conservatives rejected him for “lacking the common touch”, but he was eventually selected as the Tory candidate in his native North East Somerset, despite opposition from the party leadership. Cameron allegedly felt Rees-Mogg’s exceedingly patrician mien would undermine his efforts to modernise the party. The then Tory leader certainly encouraged Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, the party’s unsuccessful 2010 candidate in neighbouring Somerset and Frome, to shorten her name on the campaign trail to Nancy Mogg, but she refused.

Jacob Rees-Mogg was elected to parliament in 2010, with a majority of 4,914 that he has since doubled. He and his family spend about three weekends a month in the constituency. He responds to constituents by letter, not email, because – an aide told me – “he thinks people should get their own personally signed reply”. Even his political opponents concede that he is a diligent constituency MP, though they question his ability to understand the less affluent.

“I’ve always found him very polite. He obviously cares about his family,” said Robin Moss, Labour’s candidate in the constituency last year. “But he hasn’t the remotest idea of what it’s like to live on Universal Credit or be homeless. He’s never put his hand in his pocket and realised there’s nothing there.”

***

At first, Rees-Mogg was regarded in Westminster as a colourful, eccentric and entertaining MP, but hardly leadership material. He broke the record for the longest word uttered in the Commons chamber with “floccinaucinihilipilification” (the action or habit of estimating something as worthless). He called for Somerset to be allowed to set its own time zone, as it could before all British times were harmonised in the 1840s. He suggested council officials wear bowler hats to identify themselves as “thorough-going bureaucrats”. He joined the all-party parliamentary group for historic vehicles. He wore a top hat to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. In one interview, “the honourable member for the 18th centurystruggled to name a single pop group, and he began appearing on Have I Got News for You as some sort of amusing relic from the age of Downton Abbey.

Occasionally, he went too far. In 2013 he addressed a dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, which favoured the voluntary repatriation of black immigrants. That was “clearly a mistake”, he admitted. He also angered his party leadership by supporting an electoral arrangement with Ukip ahead of the 2015 general election.

But it was the 2016 EU referendum that raised his stature from that of a backbench ornament. Rees-Mogg campaigned vigorously for Leave, and has continued to fight for the hardest, purest form of Brexit ever since. In the wake of Theresa May’s insipid general election performance in 2017, he was seized on by young Conservatives desperate for a bold, colourful leader to take on Jeremy Corbyn – and so, the personality cult of “Moggmentum” was launched. (He joined Instagram and Twitter around the same time.) To persuade him to run for leader, two young activists, Anne Sutherland and Sam Frost, set up an online petition – “Ready for Rees-Mogg” – that now has more than 41,000 signatories, making it the biggest right-leaning campaign group in Britain. “We have a bunch of very, very boring people at the top of the Conservative Party, so someone who’s a bit different and not a classic cookie-cutter Tory minister is very exciting,” Frost told me.

Rees-Mogg’s rise continued. In September 2017 he emerged as the most popular potential leader in a monthly poll of more than 1,300 Tory members run by the website ConservativeHome, and has remained top in nearly every survey since. In October, he was the star of the party conference in Manchester, addressing packed fringe meetings while the main hall was half-empty. He has become something of a media celebrity, and gained a valuable new platform in January when he was elected chairman of the European Research Group, a cabal of 30 to 60 ultra-Brexiteer Tory MPs recently described by Peter Wilby in this magazine as “more of a party within a party than [Labour’s] Momentum”.

As the standard-bearer of the “swivel-eyed” brigade, he exerts relentless pressure to prevent May backsliding as she negotiates Britain’s departure from the EU. He speaks out when her red lines “are beginning to look a little bit pink”. He rejects any deal that would turn Britain into a “vassal state” or amount to “Brino” (an acronym for “Brexit in name only”). He objects to the negotiations becoming a “damage limitation exercise”, or to any suggestion that Brussels is dictating to Britain. He wants the UK out of the single market and customs union, even if that means crashing out of the EU without a deal. He is admired by Ukip supporters and is Nigel Farage’s preferred choice as the next Conservative leader.

In much the same way that Trump trashes the FBI to discredit its investigation of his Russian links, Rees-Mogg recently accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” to exaggerate the economic  damage of Brexit. “He’s theologically opposed to having policy driven by evidence and facts, insisting that anyone who disagrees must be lying or relying on false information,” one former Tory minister complained. But Rees-Mogg has uncompromising views that extend far beyond Brexit. He opposes the 1998 Human Rights Act, gay marriage and all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest – though he insists he would not seek to re-criminalise it. “I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whips’ Office,” he says.

He believes that “you alleviate poverty by trickle-down economics” or what some might call “sink-or-swim”. To that end, according to the website TheyWorkForYou, he has voted against a “mansion tax” on homes costing more than £2m, a bankers’ bonus tax, and tax increases for those earning more than £150,000. He has voted in favour of reductions in corporation and capital gains taxes, as well as greater regulation of trade unions.

Rees-Mogg has opposed increases in welfare benefits, even for the disabled – “the safety net [has] become a trap”, he contends. He supports zero-hours contracts, arguing that they benefit both employers and employees. He backed the controversial “bedroom tax” on council tenants deemed to be living in properties larger than they needed, and caused anger last autumn by appearing to welcome the fast-growing number of food banks. “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are,” he told LBC radio. Rees-Mogg is also a climate change sceptic who opposes costly measures to reduce greenhouse gases. “Even if the greens are right, Britain will make very little difference on her own,” he said. “I would rather my constituents were warm and prosperous than cold and impoverished as we are overtaken by emerging markets who understandably put people before polar bears.”

And so the list goes on. He opposes foreign aid because “this is not the job of the government but ought to be a matter of private charity”. He regards fox hunting as “the most humane way of controlling the fox population”. He supports the sale of state-owned forests, the mass surveillance of communications on security grounds, and restrictions on legal aid. He opposes any more devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.

He wants tougher immigration and asylum rules, and is no fan of positive discrimination. In 2006, he resisted Cameron’s efforts to increase the number of  Conservative parliamentary candidates from ethnic minorities. “Ninety-five per cent of this country is white,” he said. “The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”

“He had these sort of views when he was eight or nine. To still have them when he’s 48 seems to me to be pushing it a bit,” Chris Patten, the former Tory chairman, fellow Catholic and old friend of Rees-Mogg’s family, told me. “I don’t think they

have very much relevance to Britain’s problems in the 21st century, and the idea he could lead his party in this century is completely absurd.”

On the face of it, the idea is indeed absurd. Rees-Mogg has never held ministerial office (nor had Cameron when he became prime minister, but he had spent four years as leader of the opposition before forming a government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats). Except for his indisputable charm, Rees-Mogg comes across as a cartoon caricature of a Tory right-winger, and the ultimate toff in what is supposed to be a modern, egalitarian country. How he would play in Swansea, Sunderland or Stoke is anyone’s guess, for he seldom visits such places. Moreover, Rees-Mogg denies any interest in replacing May. If he threw his hat into the ring it would be thrown straight back at him, he protests. He has six young children, he adds.

***

And yet it might happen. “Yes it’s fanciful, but it’s not impossible,” says Paul Goodman, the former MP who edits ConservativeHome.

Few take Rees-Mogg’s protestations of disinterest seriously. As an 11-year-old he declared his intention to be “a millionaire by 20, a multi-millionaire by 40 and prime minister by 70”. He is now the bookies’ clear favourite as well as ConservativeHome’s frontrunner. He is speaking regularly at universities. “I’m absolutely sure he will stand,” a friend of his told me.

Rees-Mogg’s challenge will be to persuade the right of the parliamentary party to select him, rather than a cabinet-level Brexiteer, as one of the two candidates to be presented to the party membership.

He would be their riskiest choice, and Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, doubts he would prevail. “It’s one thing for a lot of members of the public, or the party, to think it’s great fun and admire him for never mincing his words and speaking 18th century English,” he told young activists in an unguarded moment at University College London in January. “It’s another to see that translating to being the prime minister and connecting with the whole of the country. So, no, I don’t see it happening.”

However, Rees-Mogg is a polished public performer and is untainted by last summer’s disastrous election. He has more charisma than Michael Gove, none of Boris Johnson’s personal baggage, and a substantial following among young Conservatives and those older, pro-Brexit party members who will have the final say. “In the end he’s a bit of a radical punt for his colleagues, but if he gets in the last two he will win,” said one supporter who follows the party’s internal machinations closely. Whether Rees-Mogg could win over the wider electorate is a moot point. He might prefer the fountain pen, but he is increasingly adept at social media. Supporters believe voters would warm to a politician who gives straight answers, who is funny and engaging, and whom they see as sincere and authentic even if they disagree with his views. They point to the equally improbable rise of Corbyn.

***

But the Jacobite rising faces fierce opposition. Late last week, Rees-Mogg was greeted by two separate sets of protesters when he arrived for a debate at the Cambridge Union – EU supporters and gay rights activists. “I never entertained the idea I’d see a politician like him so close to power. That’s absolutely terrifying for the future of this country,” Jessamyn Starr, one of the former, said. “He stands for bigotry and intolerance,” said Matt Kite, organiser of the LGBT “Kiss-in for Rees-Mogg”. “We won’t stand for people like him being wined and dined and applauded when his words have real consequences for people like us.”

Inside, Rees-Mogg was at ease in his dinner jacket. He spoke eloquently and humorously in support of the motion: “This house believes no deal is better than a bad deal.” He failed to address the consequences of “no deal”, but again dismissed the Treasury’s dire economic forecasts  – “if you believe those you’ll frankly believe anything” – and castigated the EU for proposing that  mobility scooters be insured. “Do we really want to make our elderly people zooming around on those marvellous mobility scooters pay an extra fee over which we have no say?” he asked.

But it was the passionate response of Rees-Mogg’s fellow Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, that stole the show. For her, the debate was no game. She tore into Rees-Mogg’s Brexiteer allies for labelling pro-Remain MPs “saboteurs”, and judges “enemies of the people”. She spelled out the catastrophic consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. “Who does want ‘no deal’?” she asked, before providing her own answer: “Those who wish this country ill and want to destabilise it. Those who want us to be a minimal tax, minimal regulation [country]. And those political ideologues who are so caught up in the majesty of Brexit that they have forgotten who loses out – including the little old lady on her mobility scooter – because our economy can’t look after the elderly properly.” The packed chamber burst into applause. Rees-Mogg looked a little shaken. The motion was lost.

Conservatives Are Hiding Their ‘Loathing’ Behind Our Flag

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.

The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?

At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.

Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.

Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.

The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.

The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.

Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”

“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”

Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.

The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.

Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.

Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”

But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the

  • black culture of Compton, the
  • Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
  • Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
  • Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
  • Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
  • Cuban culture of Miami and the
  • woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
  • conservative culture of the white small town.

But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.

Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.

The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.

To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.

Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.