When I first met Jonah Goldberg, he boasted that he came from “one of the great New York Times-hating families.” They hated it, he told me, but respected it.“My father paid it the high compliment of thinking it deserved his enmity.”
Jonah has been a conservative intellectual for much of his adult life: From 1998 until 2019, he was an editor at the National Review, and his first book, “Liberal Fascism,” became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, which, given the context, I’m not sure is a mark of achievement or shame.
But like many prominent conservative intellectuals in the era of Trumpism, Jonah has had a strange few years. In 2019, he left National Review to found The Dispatch (of which I’m a devoted reader). More recently, he walked away from his contract at Fox because, as he put it: “I didn’t want to be complicit in so many lies.”
On the anniversary of the January 6 riot at the Capitol, I wanted to hear from him about what, if anything, he learned that day about the conservative movement, the GOP, and the country. His excellent essay is below.
And on today’s episode of Honestly, I spoke to Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican lawmaker who has probably paid the highest price of anyone in Washington for standing up to Donald Trump about his role in the events of that day.
Click here to listen or just press play:
What does it say about the state of the conservative movement and the Republican Party that these two conservative Republicans now find themselves at the periphery rather than at the center? Just as old-school liberals find themselves on the outs with the new, riotous left, so too classic conservatives are finding themselves out of step with a right-wing that seeks revolution rather than conservation. — BW
I’ve come to resent the word “narrative” because it’s both overused and indispensable. For a slew of academics, full-time media critics, freelance postmodern theorists, and chin-scratchers generally, calling something a “narrative”—or, dear God, a “metanarrative”—is a way to delegitimize different perspectives and simply pretend you have all the facts on your side.
Before you reach for your bong, let me get right to the subject at hand: I was asked to write about what January 6, 2021, taught me about the right and the country. The challenge for me is that that day taught me little. But it confirmed a lot. Specifically, it confirmed for me that narrative maintenance—constructing or sustaining stories that serve the psychological needs of political combatants—is the defining project of American politics today.
Yes, yes, I’m aware that politics has always involved some degree of storytelling. But those stories depended on facts that were deployed in the service of arguments. Arguments are wonderful things, because the goal of a good argument is persuasion, which is what politics is supposed to be about. Despite all the nonsense we hear from politicians about the need for unity, democracy, in fact, is about disagreement.
Not all persuasion in politics is derived from argument, of course. Some of it comes from haggling and horse-trading. But even that sort of back-scratching depends on a certain amount of persuasion. Agreeing to trade votes is only possible when you—or your constituents—believe that politics isn’t a zero-sum existential struggle. In a world where one side’s victory is definitionally the other side’s defeat, argument and persuasion are pointless.
The conservative movement I fell in love with and grew up in was about arguing. Indeed, all of my intellectual heroes—William F. Buckley, Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Sowell, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson et. al.—were dedicated to making arguments, marshalling facts and reason in an effort to persuade.
What’s changed, and what January 6 confirmed, is that storytelling has entirely supplanted argumentation in American political life. It’s worth reviewing how we got here.
My late friend Charles Krauthammer used to say that Trump exposed the need for a word, preferably German, to describe the feeling of being surprised but not shocked. It’s easy to forget that early on Donald Trump would do so many stupid, weird, mean, false or just plain crazy things that we became incapable of being shocked, even as we were surprised.
Trying to find consistency in Trump’s statements and actions was like trying to find a predictable pattern in a runaway firehose. This proved a grave problem for Trump’s defenders, who were desperate to find a coherent ideological framework called “Trumpism.” But Trumpism isn’t a worldview as much as a chaos-dominated mode of action.
Over time, pundits and politicians, as well as a new generation of very ambitious, Very Online young activists, realized that the only rhetorical harbor was to put your faith in The Man. Whatever Trump did or said, you’d never get in trouble if you just said: “I trust his instincts. Or: “Donald Trump was elected to be a disruptor.”
This cult of personality dynamic hastened the elevation of narrative over ideology. There were other factors at play. Social media is designed to arouse passion in pursuit of monetizing dopamine hits. Gatekeeping institutions that once imposed standards by filtering out demagoguery and bad faith, lost their power and influence.
Previous Republican presidents were judged, on the right, by how well they conformed to a knowable, recognizable thing called conservatism. Obviously, the meaning of conservatism was always contested, but it was contested within a fairly broad and deep consensus about its basic contours. Not Donald Trump.
But even members of a cult of personality need their heroes to do something. Okay, that something might be fake. That something might be “something.” It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Republican voters and their well-paid influencers were able to remain inside the story. Politics has become a form of entertainment for millions of people, and the rule for entertainers is to give the audience what it wants.
In movies, the hero needs his MacGuffin—the object of his desire that advances the plot the way an electric bunny entices greyhounds around the track. There were many MacGuffins of the Trump years: owning the libs, Supreme Court Justices, building the wall. Some a conservative like me could get behind. But what really mattered was the struggle itself. Or the “struggle.” The greyhounds chasing a bunny they could never catch. Trump acted like a wartime president, with the enemy being his domestic opponents. He was also adept at bringing allied institutions and individuals in line by responding to any disagreement as proof of malingering or cowardice in the war effort.
Across the rightwing firmament, the conservative mission was repurposed to the task of sustaining the narrative of Trump. Every struggle was now allegorical, with Trump as a protagonist battling the forces of evil. The rule was to start with the conclusion Trump was right and then construct a story to fit. Often, all the evidence required to demonstrate Trump’s rightness was the outrage of the left. In such a world, facts are demoted or disregarded, and what’s true is the best story you can come up with.
The story, in other words, wasn’t a vehicle for furthering an agenda. It was the agenda.
The events of January 6—and the lies that have been told for the past year about that day—taught me that the power of narrative would outlive the power of Trump’s cult of personality, that this was something much bigger than one man.
You see, I had assumed (rightly) that Trump would continue to have his fans and that the remoras who attached themselves would carry on. But I had also assumed (wrongly) that all or at least most of the Republican politicians and pundits who secretly told me they couldn’t wait to end the Trump chapter would actually start acting like it. The right is actually full of what I call “closet normals”—people who understand to one extent or another that it’s all a show.
What I didn’t appreciate was how many of them had committed to the proposition that the Show Must Go On, even after Trump left the main stage. (The most dismaying evidence for this has nothing to do with January 6, so I won’t dwell on it here. But the fact that anti-vaccine foolishness is thriving despite Trump’s support for vaccines is a terrible omen for the future of conservatism.)
But let’s turn back to that day. I’ve ignored the foibles of the left here, even though they are just as addicted to their fact-resistant narratives. For 75 years, the left has wanted to see itself at war with domestic fascism, and while Donald Trump and January 6 gave them material to work with in ways Goldwater, Reagan, and Bush never did, the simple truth is that Trump was never the bogeyman they wanted him to be because being a truly effective dictator takes more work and intellect than Trump could ever muster. Trump may have a fascist’s instincts, but he doesn’t have a fascist’s work ethic.
Similarly, the least interesting people involved in the Capitol riot were the rioters. For the left, the goons smashing windows and defecating in the halls when not chanting “Hang Mike Pence” were fascists, white supremacists, and insurrectionists. No doubt, some fit those descriptions.
But most were like Douglas Jensen, who recorded a selfie video of himself touching the wall of the Capitol proclaiming: “This is me touching the fucking White House, this is why we’re here.” (The judge in Jensen’s case cited the video as proof the defendant was too stupid to be a ringleader.)
The mob’s idiocy is significant for a number of reasons. First, it undercuts the story of January 6 that progressives want to tell. It is now an article of faith on the left that these goons were determined to “destroy democracy.” But that wasn’t their actual intent. They believed Trump’s story. They believed they were saving democracy from a coup.
When Jake Angeli, the dude who looked like a cross between Erik the Red and a member of Fred Flintstone’s Royal Order of the Water Buffalo, found his way into Mike Pence’s chair in the Senate, he gave a prayer that ended: “Thank you for allowing the United States of America to be reborn. Thank you for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists and the traitors within our government.” And I think he meant every word.
This doesn’t let any of them off the hook for their actions any more than the stupidity of most criminals absolves them of their crimes. But, with the exception of some of the ringleaders who were actually in on the lie, most of these people thought they were saving democracy, not trying to destroy it.
In a healthier society, Steve Bannon, Ali Alexander, Peter Navarro and the rest of that coprophagic phylum would spend years in prison for willfully obstructing the legal, democratic, and peaceful transfer of power. It says something nice about America that we don’t actually have a lot of laws on the books against legalistic coup-plotting, so it’s doubtful they can be prosecuted the way they deserve to be. But there are laws against impeding the proper functioning of government, and it seems like Liz Cheney has read them all. As for the Republican politicians who sought to advance the plan, at minimum, that same healthier society wouldn’t think twice about voting them out of office.
But that won’t happen, because narrative now trumps not only Trump but the country itself. And that is truly shocking.
If, even six months before the election, I had predicted what actually transpired on January 6, virtually everyone involved would have sworn that they would have had no part in such a scheme. People like Ted Cruz would have been outraged—or at least had the good manners to feign outrage—at the mere suggestion he might take part in such a democracy-defying effort. I would have thought that everyone would take the position Lindsay Graham took on the evening of January 6, when he extracted his head from Donald Trump’s nethers, gasped air, and declared: “Count me out.”
We now know that even the shock of that day—a day when Graham literally implored the Capitol police to shoot the rioters (“What are you doing? Take back the Senate! You’ve got guns. Use them.”), and Kevin McCarthy and various Fox personalities begged Trump to call off the rioters he instigated—that few of them would have the courage or patriotic commitment to resist the narrative’s undertow.
Bear in mind that there have been exactly zero new facts that remotely justify the supplication to the narrative we’ve seen over the last year. Indeed, everything we have learned about that day and the events that led up to it have reinforced what we already knew: The President of the United States manufactured a series of lies to stay in power. For the likes of Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, it took hours, not even days, to realize they needed to come up with a serviceable script and stick to it. For the politicians, it took a little longer, and the process of script-doctoring was ugly. Congressman Andrew Clyde, who was caught on camera helping to bar the door of the House chamber, soon claimed that “You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”
For much of the right, all that matters is coming up with a story about January 6 that sustains the narrative of the right being a Chosen Nation within the United States that is persecuted for its decency and commitment to democracy. The sophisticated ones are savvy enough to know that you don’t admit it. But the younger set doesn’t even know you’re not supposed to say the quiet part out loud.
Just the other day, over at American Greatness, the Pravda of Trumpism, some former Trump White House intern explained that, so long as the left’s narrative about January 6 is bad, conservatives should stop condemning the rioters and embrace them as heroes: “If their aim is to make January 6 their Reichstag Fire, then we should go forward celebrating the events of that day as our Storming of the Bastille; a day where a symbol of the degeneration of our ruling class into total corruption and tyranny was challenged, and the elites were shown just what happens when millions of freedom-loving citizens finally grow sick and tired of a boot perpetually stomping on their necks.”
Never mind that while neither story about January 6 is true—it was neither the storming of the Bastille nor the burning of the Reichstag—the author openly admits that “our” side should just pretend their story is true. Of course, this whole thing is a piñata of immoral asininity; you can bash it from any angle and yield some reward. But one additional point is worth emphasizing: The degeneration of the ruling elite most responsible for the riot has nothing to do with leftwingers, Deep Staters or globalists—never mind pedophillic bloodsuckers dreamed up by QAnon. That mob was there because they were lied to by a president with a thumbless grasp of the truth and an utterly pagan understanding of the constitutional order.
In 2016, I wrote about how the right was succumbing to a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dynamic whereby, one by one, principled conservatives would suddenly discover that blind loyalty to Trump was the essence of conservatism. For a long time, I thought I could argue my friends and fellow conservatives out of their conversion. It took me a long time to realize that as Marshall McLuhan put it, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is a hallucinating idiot . . . for he sees what no one else does: things that, to everyone else, are not there.” I do think the blind loyalty to Trump is fading at the margins. But the addiction to good-versus-evil narratives pitting the honorable and decent “us” against the villainous and sinister “them” is as strong as ever—and there is little appetite for the kind of argument and persuasion that sustains democracy.
With apologies to the English poet Ralph Hodgson, we increasingly live in an age where some things have to be believed to be seen.