Trump's Tweets Are a 'Narnian Wardrobe to His Lizard Brain'
A conversation with the writer Jonah Goldberg about dysfunction on the right and why the president of the United States can’t stop tweeting about Hillary Clinton.
Some of the most interesting people in the world to me right now are the homeless conservatives, that not-so-merry band of right-leaning ideologues and idealists who reject Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and who find it more pleasurable to stand outside Mar-a-Lago and throw rocks than to make believe that what is happening inside is normal.
One of the most important of these homeless conservatives is Jonah Goldberg, who has been a stalwart anti-liberal voice for a generation. But Goldberg, a senior editor at the National Review (which is itself a kind of shelter for Never Trumpers) has seen many of his friends accommodate themselves to the new reality.
“The slow takeover of the right by the Trumpets is akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” he told me on a recent episode of our podcast, The Atlantic Interview. “All of a sudden, you see a close friend of yours talking about Comrade Trump, and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, they got you!’”
The cult of personality is strong, he says, and the social consequences for conservatives who argue against Trumpism are harsh. “If you don’t speak in these silly euphemisms, like ‘Maybe he should tweet less,’ you piss people off.”
I wanted to interview Jonah because I find him provocative and sharp, but also because I have as a goal the disaggregation of all media Goldbergs. I am frequently confused for Jonah, and sometimes I’m blamed for the things he writes. He is blamed for the things I write, of course, and we sometimes get each other’s mail. This interview was a chance to convince podcast listeners that we are, indeed, two separate people.
Below you will find an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, but my advice to you is to listen to our conversation, not only for its rapid fire qualities (if that is, indeed, your thing) but because we chose not to capture in this transcript my back-and-forth with Jonah on the identities and characteristics of our all-time favorite Goldbergs.
Jeffrey Goldberg: Let’s talk about your life as a homeless conservative. Trace the arc from the moment you realized that these folks who say that they are conservatives are not actually conservatives. And then talk about the first time it became uncomfortable for you.
Jonah Goldberg: I’m not ideologically homeless. The problem is I’m politically homeless. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is the Republican Party get either dragged along or leap ahead into essentially a cult of personality. A cult of personality is somewhat misleading because it’s only a handful of people who really think that Comrade Trump will deliver the greatest wheat harvest the Urals have ever seen. But for most of them, it’s more like—and I don’t mean to be glib about this. My brother was an addict. He died a few years ago. And I watched how my parents would try to rationalize his behavior. Every time my brother had a good day, it was the first day of the rest of his life.
Jeffrey: “This is the day he became president.”
Jonah: Yeah. This is the thing with Trump. It’s constantly, “This is the day he became president. This is the pivot. He’s off on the right foot. He can change.”
Jeffrey: So there are two camps. There’s a camp of actual true believers. And then there’s a larger camp to say, “No, it’s not as bad as you think.”
Jonah: I mean, so, it’s funny. A year and a half ago, at Fox and other places on the right, I remember being so unbelievably disheartened by how many pundits and commentators—not just at Fox, but talk radio, all over the place—lied. They would say, “Trump is fantastic. Trump is awesome. Trump is a genius. He’s a businessman.” All this stuff. And then the camera goes off, and the microphone goes off, and then they would say, “I can’t believe I have to defend this guy.”
Jeffrey: That’s terrible.
Jonah: It’s horrible.
Jeffrey: By the way, that’s the swamp.
Jonah: It’s totally the swamp. And what I’ve found though, a year later, you now find people who aren’t lying. Now, you don’t find a lot of people saying, when the camera goes off, “I can’t believe I have to defend this guy.” They believe their own bullshit.
Jeffrey: The Republican Party that you thought you belonged to—it wasn’t the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s not actually a Republican. The base turns out to be populist and racist, much of it. Did it happen in a flash?
Jonah: No. I wrote over a year and a half ago comparing the slow takeover of the right by the Trumpists as akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All of a sudden, you see a close friend of yours talking about Comrade Trump, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, they got you!” It happened, one by one, with lots of people, lots of friends of mine.
Jeffrey: Have you lost these friends?
Jonah: I’ve lost some friends for sure, and I’ve lost a lot of fans. On the right, Trump is still sort of controversial. Just talking about him is divisive. Some people are all-in and some people are against him. And if you get asked the question, and you take a strong stand against him, and you don’t speak in these silly euphemisms, like “Maybe he should tweet less,” you piss people off.
Jeffrey: His tweeting does cause a disproportionate amount of the destabilization that we are experiencing. Are you saying that telling him not to tweet is akin to putting Bacitracin on a tumor? Because it seems like that’s a stand-in for a whole set of impulsive behaviors that if they did not exist might bring us to a saner place.
Jonah: The tweeting is a symptom. People tweet. Barack Obama tweeted.
Jeffrey: No one would confuse their two Twitter feeds.
Jonah: No. And the problem with Trump’s Twitter feed is that it is like the Narnian wardrobe to his lizard brain. It just vomits out whatever his raging sphincterless id has got going at the given moment. It gets him into an enormous amount of trouble.
I could talk until I’m blue in the face about the various forms of right-wing wagon-circling that is going on with Trump. And you know one of the biggest ones is anti-anti-Trump-ism. Which is that we should focus more on the hypocrisy of The New York Times.
Jeffrey: This is Tucker Carlson.
Jonah: It’s a big thing at Fox generally, on the opinion shows.
Jeffrey: It’s why they’re still talking about Hillary’s emails.
Jonah: If you can’t defend Trump on the merits, all you can do is attack the critics. So, if Barack Obama did something lawless—which I think he did quite often in terms of executive orders—and you went ballistic as a conservative about it, if then Donald Trump does it, it’s fine to say The New York Times is hypocritical for going ballistic when Donald Trump does it but supporting it when Barack Obama does it. It’s good and useful to point out that hypocrisy. But you also have to acknowledge that you were against it when Obama did it, so you have to be against it when Trump does it, too. Or at least explain why you’re not.
Jeffrey: Let me ask you how a person who is non-conservative, completely transactional, has no higher thoughts about America and its role in the world, and has no ideological thoughts per se—how did he so easily take over an entire party?
Jonah: There are a thousand different variables. One was simply the structural, game-theory nature of a 16-person race, which was a huge problem. I think, in terms of important long-term trends, there was a certain psychic break that occurred with the tea parties. The general thrust of the tea parties was exactly the kind of response that I would want from Americans—back to basics, back to the Constitution, limited government, living within our means. They were wholesale written off as racists and bigots. People overlooked the fact that many of the leaders of the Tea Party, their preferred candidates, were African Americans—Herman Cain, Ben Carson. That was a tell. That was them saying, “We don’t like being called racists.”
A lot of people, including some serious intellectuals, said, “Well that project doesn’t work. We’re heading towards tribalism, so we might as well develop our own kind of tribalism.”
Two other factors are here. One is, Trump broke the blood-brain barrier of entertainment into politics.
Jeffrey: We needed 15 years of reality TV to bring about this shift.
Jonah: I think that’s right. A lot of Hollywood liberals were encroaching on politics for a very long time, chipping away at this barrier. It’s just ironic that Donald Trump was the first one over the fence. This is why I think in the long term, this is bad news for the left. The Republican celebrities—our bench is mighty thin—Kid Rock, Scott Baio. But meanwhile, I think in the summer of 2016, if Oprah, George Clooney, Tom Hanks jumped in—
Jeffrey: Well, Oprah very well might.
Jonah: She might! The last thing is hugely important, and it’s lost on big chunks of the right and of the left, is that people did not like Hillary Clinton. They just didn’t like her. And whatever you thought of Bill Clinton—Lord knows I wasn’t a fan—everyone could recognize his political skills. I mean, that guy, you could pull him off an intern, slap him with a flounder, and say, “Give me 45 minutes on intellectual property rights in the Third World,” and he could just go. Hillary Clinton’s idea of extemporaneous speaking was leaping from her prepared remarks to prepared notecards. She’s the lady who says no eating in the library. She was also seen as much more left wing than her husband. Fair or not.
Jeffrey: Not fair, by the way.
Jonah: But what Trump doesn’t understand, what Steve Bannon doesn’t understand, is that Donald Trump’s mandate was: Don’t be Hillary Clinton. He accomplished that on Day One. Some part of his brain understands that, which is why I guarantee you that in the last 48 hours, Donald Trump has tweeted something about Hillary Clinton. Sean Hannity has done some raging scandal about Hillary Clinton. Psychologically, one of the things these guys have to do to justify their support for Trump is to remind people constantly, “You could have had Hillary.”
You hear echoes of this all over the place. I was on a National Review cruise three months after the election, and this person was asked, “How’s Trump doing?” And they said, “I judge it entirely by how much better this is than what Hillary would have done.” You hear this all over the place on the right. To me, this is a profoundly screwed up way of thinking about things. I don’t know of any other Republican or Democratic president that we said, six months into their presidency, “Well, Bush is making some mistakes but at least he’s not John Kerry.” That’s meaningless. Just one click better than the person that you thought would have ruined the country?
Jeffrey: My view is that you either have to be a racist to vote for Donald Trump or someone who’s willing to overlook racism and misogyny. Am I wrong in thinking that a process that began in 1968, this is the culmination?
Jonah: A lot of the trends that gave us Trump have more to do with broader trends in the culture than stuff on the right. First of all, large swaths of the country can tune out identity politics. Mitt Romney was called a racist monster because of a speech about Obamacare that he gave to the NAACP. He was mocked mercilessly for his “binders full of women” comment, which was him admitting that he did exactly what women’s groups want politicians to do—which is ask for suggestions to staff his government so it would be more diverse and more gender-balanced.
Jeffrey: His clumsiness was mistaken for some kind of misogyny. But you did not believe that race is the motivating, underlying factor in Trump’s election? That the election of Donald Trump was not a white reaction to a radically changing America, or the perception that America is radically changing, as personified by this black guy with a strange name?
Jonah: There’s some of that. That’s where I was getting to about the psychic break that happened with the tea parties. You get a lot of people who said, “We’re going to be called racist no matter what. So why not just give in to our tribalism?”
Robert Putnam did this massive longitudinal survey about the role of immigration plays in society. He hated his findings. He delayed a year trying to disprove them and couldn’t. He found that immigration is deeply corrosive, at least in the short term, to civil society. It is not because of racism. Everyone wants to say it’s xenophobia. It is because shared cultural norms are transmitted through language, through traditions, through customs. And when you introduce large numbers of new people into a society, into a community, people have a tendency to hunker down, to pull into their shells. I personally think that we get Trump because civil society in this country is in really rotten shape. The mediating institutions that traditionally give us meaning and a sense of belonging are being eroded. Instead, people are looking to Washington to provide meaning. Read Obama’s second inaugural; he gets deep into this. He basically describes a country where it’s the federal government and the individual with nothing in between. Added into this is this problem of the changing role of media. We retreat to virtual communities, and they tend to reinforce this tribalism. We tend to watch politics as basically this reality television show.
So, yeah, the race stuff played definitely played a role in it. The failure to do anything on immigration played an enormous role. A lot of people out in the country just simply feel like they are the butt of everyone’s jokes, that they are considered the source of all evil in this country, and that the coastal elites look down on them. Then here comes this guy who appealed to their sense of resentment, and appealed to their sense of betrayal by elites who aren’t living with the consequences of policies that come from Washington. They felt betrayed by both talk radio people who overpromised and underdelivered, and they felt betrayed by the Washington GOP establishment who overpromised and underdelivered.
So they looked to Trump. Yeah, you do have to overlook a bunch of racist, nasty crap that Trump said, but they’ve completely tuned out elites who say this makes him unacceptable. They figured, “Well, if he’s willing to say this crazy stuff, then at least that signals to me that he's not a typical politician.”
Jeffrey: Which party is going to disintegrate first, the Democratic Party or Republican Party?
Jonah: I think probably the Republican Party. All the problems that we’ve been talking about that gave us Trump—they’re all made worse by more dysfunction on the right. If serious people don’t think seriously about immigration and deal with people’s legitimate frustrations with it, then unserious and irresponsible people will step in and take up the issue. I think Trump definitely proves that. If Washington does not get anything done anyway, why not treat it like a circus?
Jeffrey: The Republicans are spiraling down faster?
Jonah: They’re spiraling down faster. But a huge part of the reason for the Democratic Party and the Republican Party’s existence is to not be the other party. You take away the Republican Party, and you can get a catalytic effect where they can overtake each other in their dysfunction.
Jeffrey: What replaces the Republican Party if it disintegrates?
Jonah: I think we could be heading into some 1948-style election where you have a four-way race. Game theory says the more entrants you have, the less you need to be the winner. You can see all sorts of independent kind of runs. But let me put it this way: If the Republican Party goes first, I think what we know is the Democratic Party is soon to follow.