B. Carroll Reece delivering a speech at the Republican Convention. (Photo by Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
It’s become fashionable to praise the idea of agonistic politics, but many of these same people tend to sniff at any actual agonism when it’s put forward, especially from the right.
In response to the New York Times’ Nick Kristof picking up on a story the conservative press has been talking about for the last 18 months or so, that the smut monopoly PornHub is profiting from rape and child porn, Aaron Sibarium makes the counterintuitive case that it proves conservatives should be more deferential to the mainstream media. The “war and enmity” posture of postliberals like Sohrab Ahmari might scare a gumshoe like Kristof off the trail. He writes:
The problem is that by taking this attitude, conservative postlibs have set themselves against the institutions best situated to move public policy and shape public opinion. Wielding power, which liberalism’s critics claim to want, requires some engagement with the levers of power as they actually exist today, and it’s not clear how all-out war with them achieves that.
I’m one of the people he’s responding to, so here are two pointed questions: In what sense does Nick Kristof hold a lever of power? I don’t disagree, but I want Sibarium to show his work. And second, is there not a lot of ground to cover between what he seems to want, which is for us to beg New York Times columnists to keep an open mind about what the religious freaks are saying, and “all-out war”? Between the two is where you find many of the great moments in liberalism’s own history, which as a rule emerged from violent contests: the Magna Carta, the Peace of Westphalia, the American Revolution. Not all-out war, sure, but limited war, in defense of old rights or to establish new ones, to be continued until an acceptable settlement is made. Nobody is talking about marching on the New York Times building, but we are talking about the time-honored American tradition, when those in power have declared an appetite for our liberties, to bare one’s teeth and warn them, not one step further, or there’ll be trouble. Rebellion in this sense is not unique to the anglophone world, but it is very characteristic of it; I’d wager English-speaking nations have the highest proportion of rebels who didn’t get their heads cut off after doing so, though the whole concept depends on the willingness to take that risk. This is agonistic politics.
To say one needs Nick Kristof to fight the porn wars is to misunderstand what the role of people like Kristof is. His piece didn’t unearth undiscovered facts about PornHub’s parent company. It would be great if the New York Times could devote its considerable resources to figuring out the details of how, after being founded by a German criminal, it took over the porn industry, vertically integrating every bit as efficiently as Andrew Carnegie, but that’s an allocation of resources the New York Times reserves for making stuff up about ISIS or interrogating President Trump’s tax returns.
Nick Kristof’s purpose is to tell stories that make persuasive moral cases to liberals about things they might otherwise have reservations about, such as the Iraq War, which he boosted, as the president might say, bigly. But whatever the merits of Nick Kristof’s case for sweatshops, we should admit this is not a man in the business of afflicting the comfortable. That’s why Kristof’s Wikipedia page quotes Jeffrey Toobin and Bill Clinton praising him as the conscience of the journalism profession. Sibarium writes, “maybe Kristof went viral, raised awareness about an important issue, and, though a combination of the free press and the free market, pressured the companies to act.” Maybe he was honestly trying to sort out who did those anthrax attacks, too.
We may credit Kristof nonetheless for spoiling liberals’ sexual utopia by pointing out that it rests on the systemic exploitation of children. But Sibarium suggests that one must be a wild-eyed radical prepared to demolish honored American institutions if you think it might be a problem that Bill Clinton’s conscience is deciding the weighty moral issues of our day. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s true that we really need Kristof, either. The New York Times doesn’t pass laws in this country, they just think they declare who wins elections.
I’ll give Sibarium this: there is a certain type of movement conservative who constantly seems to be on an adrenaline IV, the whole #WAR mentality, that appears from time to time among postliberals as well. There’s a time and place for it, but if you act that way all the time, you’ll go crazy. So I’ll explain, very calmly, how and why the Republican Party should treat institutionalized liberalism as the enemy, a plan guaranteed to send Kristof’s colleague Michelle Goldberg reaching for the klonopin. It’s also a plan to restore to its rightful preeminence the most important of American institutions, Congress.
Let’s set Trump himself, and even his administration to the side for a moment. The left got overextended this election cycle, and they are now waking up with the worst hangover of their lives. The revelation in the past four years of just how much of our liberal order rests on raw power has been a wake-up call to tens of millions of Americans, and they aren’t going to forget it.
Over the last four years, top men and women in the intelligence community, with a record of having spied on members of Congress, sought to delegitimize the presidential election, taking up roles as public commentators in a way unprecedented in American life, with the support of a supine media that willingly supported their effort. The largest charitable foundations in the country have supported groups linked to the burning of American cities, and are in league with America’s foreign adversaries. The companies which control the people’s access to this information are hostile to conservatives and willing to act to suppress information damaging to their political allies in the Democratic Party, as big tech did with the Hunter Biden story. The education system is engineered such that young people coming out of it are discouraged from ever noticing any of this.
Sounds like a pretty dire situation! What, indeed, could possibly be equal to the task? It is fairly likely that Republicans will retake the House in 2022, and the future of the United States depends on what they decide to do with it. An offensive strategy for conservatives rests on using Congress’s investigative powers much more freely, with the creation of two committees, both of which are repeats of past ones: a new Reece Committee, to investigate the power of the big foundations, and a new Church Committee, to investigate the deep state.
Both committees should seek out discrete acts of wrongdoing or betrayal of public interests, though that is not their purpose. The purpose of both is to prosecute a case to the American people that these two agglomerations of power, which more or less represent institutionalized liberalism, do not serve them well. To my mind this is not a hard case to make, because it’s obviously true. The alliance between the left and big business must be broken. You can do that with boycotts, forcing companies to face consumer pressure from people who aren’t leftists and thereby making them behave better, or you can go directly after the glue holding the Democratic coalition together, which is foundation money. The 1950s Reece Committee was led by a Tennessee congressman who had previously served as RNC chairman. Carroll Reece argued that the foundations had colluded with radicals to impose a socialistic ideology on the United States, an insight so trivially correct that it had to be suppressed. This wasn’t some back-bench rebellion acceded to by the party establishment, back then the party understood the threat the foundations represented. But it was swept away in the backlash to McCarthyism, and since then very few people venture to use the word “subversive” in public.
The disparity in expectations between the left and the Democratic donor class has never been greater than it is right now, so it’s a fine time to throw a wrench into things. A well-timed, aggressive investigation into whether the foundations are truly serving public purposes could blow the whole thing up. Asking these sorts of questions is precisely what Congress is for, though we have forgotten that in the last hundred years or so.
A new Church Committee is a bigger ask, but its goal is to ask even more fundamental questions about the American regime. The circumstances of the Cold War arguably made a certain amount of insulation from political control necessary for the intelligence agencies and civil service. In the absence of that, either the political branches reassert control, or the long-run result is that they will rule the country. Right now, you could make a good case that they do. Either members of Congress have enough respect for the body they sit in to impose consequences on an intelligence community that has illegally spied on them, or they make it clear where power actually lies. There’s no middle ground. Apply Sibarium’s argument here and you see the absurdity: “We understand the CIA is an important liberal institution we’ll need to make change, but please, John Brennan, think twice about spying on us next time.” However tiresome you find the postliberals, the right word for this is cowardice.
In the case of both committees, this plan depends on the investigations being real and not fake, which is not a given when congressional Republicans would be leading them. Given the record of the intelligence community’s interference with Congress—which also dates back to the McCarthy era—there’s every reason to expect this would be among the dirtiest fights in American political history. You’d basically need to get the Republican caucus together in a Faraday cage, read them the Agincourt speech from Henry V, strongly suggest that anyone with potentially blackmailable material in their past resign, and tell everyone to get ready for the fight of their lives. I’m only slightly kidding.
A fake investigation designed to placate the base, like many others in the past, is worse than nothing. The Benghazi inquiry, for instance, was a fake investigation, driven by a desire to wave the bloody shirt while refusing to show the public what the CIA was actually doing there. The case to make selling this plan to the GOP establishment is a public-spirited one: ultimately having these fights out, publicly, is the only way to convince the tens of millions of Americans who think their country has been taken from them that their government is still able to openly debate issues of this kind of gravity. As conservatives we must deal with the world as it is, not how we wish it were. There is a huge number of people today with fundamental doubts about the integrity of American government. Insisting they are wrong, even if they are, is not going to make the problem go away, because it’s not the job of the people’s representatives to tell the people they’re wrong. There is a very real sense in which Republicans who insist Trump’s supporters sit down and shut up, rather than vetting claims in public, are abetting a legitimacy crisis.
There is no getting around the fact that this plan to restore Congress to its rightful place as the preeminent branch will be called McCarthyism (you see how this works?). So if it be McCarthyism, make the most of it. In all likelihood the next Speaker of the House will even share the same last name as the Wisconsin senator, though unlike him, the California congressman has never bared his teeth at anything. Much depends on whether Kevin McCarthy, who spent his early political career toddling around Silicon Valley with a tin cup hoping the money spigots might turn on for his party, has the honesty to admit that hasn’t worked and recognize an enemy when he sees one.
Some good old-fashioned red-baiting is well-suited anyway to an incoming administration led by a man whose son and brother have been involved in corrupt deals with a communist power. The Ford Foundation gave $80,000 to the party school of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China to help them research the impact of developments in domestic Chinese politics on their relations with the UK and U.S. If ever there was a proper use of the term “subversive,” this is such a case. Was there anyone in the intelligence agencies or the DOJ who slow-walked or obstructed efforts to get to the bottom of what appears to be a widespread Chinese blackmail operation carried out against elected officials across the nation? Do the media conglomerates’ business relationships with that government color their willingness to cover these issues aggressively? I’d like to know. And the American people deserve answers.
The second-order problem is having tools to speak directly to the American people without the intermediation of a hostile media (please subscribe to TAC!), otherwise the same thing will happen that happened the last time there was a Reece Committee and an investigation of un-American activities like those of the Ford Foundation. But it’s important to remember that’s a second-order problem. The primary problem is getting Republicans to sign on to an effort like this. If they do it, they will take the largest step ever made to restore constitutional governance in the United States. If they don’t, we can expect things to get worse.
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