One of the more reliable themes in literature and popular culture is the idea of “staying on the path.” In Breaking Bad, Walter White plays a decent, hardworking high-school chemistry teacher. By the end, he’s a mass-murdering drug lord. The journey, like all such journeys, begins with a simple plan to take a single small step off the path.
.. Staying on the path is for lesser, weaker men.
.. In one sense, staying on the path is the simplest thing in the world. But as anyone who has tried to stay on a diet, go to the gym regularly, or start writing that term paper well ahead of the deadline can attest, the simplest things in life can often be the hardest. As Al Pacino, after his late-in-life graduation from Over-Acting School, says in Scent of a Woman, during the final “trial” scene:
I’m not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: He won’t sell anybody out to buy his future!! And that, my friends, is called integrity! That’s called courage! Now that’s the stuff leaders should be made of. Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard. Now here’s Charlie. He’s come to the crossroads. He has chosen a path. It’s the right path. It’s a path made of principle — that leads to character. Let him continue on his journey.
.. Ron Haskins, also of the Brookings Institution, has identified what he calls the “success sequence”: “at least finish high school, get a full-time job and wait until age 21 to get married and have children.” If young people do just these three things, in that order, they are almost guaranteed to climb out of poverty. “Our research shows that of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year).”
This is the path that almost guarantees a relatively decent life for poor people. And yet, many don’t follow it. Why? One reason: because it is hard. The pull of human nature is strongest when we are young — all those hormones! All of that adolescent arrogance! We think — feel, really — that the rules are for other people and that we can handle all of the possible consequence of indulging our glandular impulses. (Another reason more people don’t follow this path: Our culture and many of our elites heap scorn on it.)
.. Staying on the path may be the most conservative concept there is. “What is conservatism?” asked Abraham Lincoln. “Is it not the adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?” People who think conservatism is opposed to all change miss the point entirely. Paths go places. They might not get us where we want to go as fast as we would like. But the conservative is deeply skeptical of shortcuts and simple plans to save time or effort. The rationalist temptation to “out think” the simple rules — what Oakeshott called “making politics as the crow flies” — may not always lead to tyranny or oppression, but the odds that it will are too great to justify the attempt.
.. Of course, he doesn’t deserve anything like all of the blame; conservatives often responded to his norm-breaking with norm violations of their own. The culture itself was ready for a president like Clinton, and that is its own indictment. Indeed, as Bill has often suggested, he was a victim of a breakdown in media practices and other norms that once would have protected him. That’s why he loves to hide behind whataboutist arguments about JFK’s transgressions. But it wasn’t just the sex. He broke norms, legal and otherwise, like a tornado ripping through town. Shaking down foreign donors , the White House travel-office firings, “Filegate,” selling pardons, the list goes on.
.. And Hillary Clinton wasn’t just standing by her man baking cookies. She was part of the racket. From her impossible genius at playing cattle futures, to her insidious cultivation of Sidney Blumenthal and David Brock, to her off-book email server, Hillary Clinton has always seen norms as something that should constrain other people.
.. I know liberals hate any “This is how you got Trump”
.. Donald Trump cast himself as a capitalist übermensch, who transcended the rules of a corrupt system he boasted about being a part of. He was one giant middle-finger to the norms, and he has invited a responding counter-attack on norms — from journalists, judges, and, it seems, at least a few FBI agents.
.. For instance, in a normal time, a man with his sordid sexual history could never get near the Republican nomination, never mind the presidency. But we live in a moment of whataboutist asininity when hypocrisy is considered a worse sin than the actual transgressions we’re hypocritical about.
.. It’s as if a murderer, who had a history of preaching against murder, is seen as more of a villain for violating his principles than for killing someone. No wonder Donald Trump could neutralize his transgressions simply by pointing to Bill’s. The common denominators cancelled out the numerators.
.. Point out that no reputable economist thinks we lose money from trade deficits the way Trump constantly insists, and the retort is, “Why don’t you want to make America great again?”
.. Point out that Trump Inc. is making money off the presidency in ways that would make the Clintons green with envy, and the reply is either eye-rolling or a fecal fog of whataboutism.
.. To paraphrase Nietzsche: Norms are for losers. Fighters make their own norms. Unity is the creed of MAGA, and its mantra of the One True Prophet is the order of the day. And if that means supporting a white-nationalist wannabe for the Senate, so be it. Campus conservatives used to define their intellectual rebelliousness by their support for certain ideas, now some define it chiefly by their fawning over a single politician.