Useless Idiots

The 94th post from the Journal of American Greatness originally published in May, 2016.

Someone named James Lileks doesn’t like us. Who is James Lileks, you ask? I had no idea, either, until I looked him up after being informed of his animadversions against this august Journal. For anyone who cares to know, Lileks blogs for National Review on occasion, mostly about Star Wars (the film franchise, not the Reagan-era aerospace program). He’s also a guest on a few podcasts. Overall, he seems to be an enthusiastic adherent of the Jonah Goldberg style of punditry, in which every argument is expressed through a dorky reference to GenX pop culture. But Lileks’ real claim to fame, according to Google search at least, is that he got fired from the Minneapolis local newspaper some years ago. After reading his sloppy arguments and failed attempts at humor, I can understand why. It is frankly a waste to spend time on Lileks’ rubbish, but some things need to be clarified, and correcting Lileks’ silly errors might reveal some important truths.

First off, Lileks doesn’t like our website design. We’ll give him that one, but if it makes him feel better, he can think of it as occupying the bleeding edge of the return to 1990s internet aesthetics. Consider it the online equivalent of normcore.

More substantively, he doesn’t like that we have attempted to understand “Trumpism” and the reasons for its surprising popularity beyond the utterances of Trump himself:

…the authors seem to have a remarkable amount of confidence that Trump will implement the philosophy they have named after him. The last time I saw this much projection on a blank object my ticket said IMAX. [Hahahaha! I guess conservative humor is now as lame as its policy….]

Of course, we have no such confidence that Trump himself will implement our “philosophy” (though we do think that voters could reasonably have more confidence in the blank slate of Trump than in the thoroughly discredited Bush agenda). Personally, however, I hold no stake in whether anyone votes for Trump or not. Our purpose has always been to investigate how Trump managed to defeat several talented candidates for the nomination, whether there is anything to his at times incoherent message, and why it resonated with voters. Is it all just reality TV antics and racism, as Lileks and his crowd suggest? I doubt it.

The phenomenal excitement around Trump demonstrates that he represents something to his voters–and to his opponents–much larger than his actual candidacy. We have tried–sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously–to contextualize, interpret, and even articulate whatever that might be, consciously going far beyond any campaign planks. Pardon the pretentious Straussianism, but at the heart of Socratic political philosophy is questioning whether the imperfect–often buffoonish, even Lileksian–opinions of the city might point to something higher. In living memory, there has been no better opportunity for this sort of activity than that occasioned by the rise of Trump. And we have taken to writing about it on an amateur blog only because most of the pundits who get paid to do this are too stupid to do it themselves (which itself contributed to Trump’s success). We have said this many times before and hopefully will not have to say it again. If Lileks wants to write campaign talking points, he is welcome to do it, but that is not what we’re doing.

But the most objectionable sentence in Lileks’ screed (and the reason I take such a hostile tone toward a fellow niche blogger) is this:

Trumpism, as they describe it, is National Greatness. They cite the paleos – Buchanan and Sam Francis, presumably without the latter’s fears of race-mixing and letting the blonde stock sleep with the lower dusky sorts.

Presumably, whenever Lileks encounters an argument he disagrees with, his first recourse is not to smear it as racist through misleading implications. In fact, the article in which Sam Francis is referenced explicitly denounces his “deservedly criticized statements on race” and “undeniable lapses in judgment and decency.” Our rejection of those views is not merely presumable; we repudiated them beyond all doubt. Lileks could have mentioned that but chose instead to leave it at an insinuating presumably. He could also have mentioned that we have cited the works of everyone from Plato to Tocqueville to Leo Strauss, along with Irving Kristol, David Frum, Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman (some of them in the same article). But that would spoil the cheap shot of dismissing everyone he disagrees with as racist “paleos.” To repeat a now common refrain, this sort of thing is precisely why “conservative” “intellectuals” like Lileks have been so ineffectual in opposing academic “political correctness” and in the “culture war” more broadly. I’m surprised he doesn’t demand a trigger warning and a safe space as well.

Indeed, the alacrity with which Lileks resorts to the shaming tactics of campus protesters is intellectually inexcusable. Yes, Sam Francis said some morally repugnant and just plain stupid things, but that does not necessarily mean that everything he said was repugnant or stupid.  Heidegger, for example, was a Nazi, but that does not mean everything he wrote is inherently inseparable from Nazism or that everyone who reads him is a Nazi. By Lileks’ logic, the American founding documents he claims to cherish so much must be instruments of oppression, since they were written and adopted in part by slaveholders, and in original form institutionalized slavery. Even Lincoln would have to be disavowed. Norman Podhoretz, too, and on and on. But I suspect we could purge all the authors of the western (and non-western) canon and it wouldn’t bother Lileks at all. At least there is no evidence that he has ever read any of them. As long as he gets to watch Ghostbusters, he’ll be happy.

Lileks becomes even more ridiculous when he attempts to make a real argument:

The authors harbor a general and specific animus towards the commutariat [commentariat?], the Davos crowd, the rootless internationalist, and there’s a familiar tone of the faculty-lounge envy in their work. It’s not so much rule by elites they don’t seem to like it’s rule by the wrong elites.

Strictly speaking, our animus is directed more toward the Davoisie ideology of internationalism and the doctrine that human beings are just interchangeable cogs in the global economy, rather than any specific persons. But Lileks’ latter point is more interesting insofar as it is at least factually correct. Indeed we do not pretend that any society could exist without “elites.” We are not now and have never been communards. Yet the character and beliefs of those elites are critical in determining the nature of the society, and we emphatically wish for (though do not expect) their replacement by something more salutary (again, let’s leave Trump himself out of it for now). Lileks can call that “faculty-lounge envy” if he likes (hey, it’s better than press-room envy!), but we would call it a defining element of politics. If anything, we have attempted go beyond quarrels over which politicians hold executive positions to address issues of cultural power (the regime, so to speak), which we consider more fundamental. By contrast, it is Lileks and his crowd who think that all would be well if only Paul Ryan were in a position to implement his ill-conceived ideology.

Though how he would evaluate political success is unclear. Regarding our preference for judging government action on the basis of whether it helps or harms Americans, Lileks trowels out this nonsense:

Something cannot be good for all Americans, but good in general for the majority. It would be good for the majority to confiscate the annual accumulated wealth of anyone who makes more than $50 million a year, and distribute it in the form of vouchers redeemable for fruit. Of course that is not what Trumpism proposes, but when you start to introduce utilitarian calculations, then any sort of action that troubles a minority but benefits the majority is possible – and once you admit that, then the justifications for proscriptions are easily summoned.

I’m not sure where the fruit vouchers come from–I guess that’s what our celebrated humorist considers a joke?–or exactly what this means. In response, we could construct equally slippery slopes: Is Lileks arguing that if any one person objects to any particular law, then it should automatically be repealed? Can we have a government at all?

But of course none of this is serious. At issue here is whether it is possible to posit an American national interest and act on it effectively. To this, obviously, we say yes, and we would also argue that the national interest is not equivalent to majority rule. Both, admittedly, can be complicated issues in practice, though not really in concept. In any event, only someone completely ignorant of both our work and political thought generally could conclude that our arguments are premised on Benthamite utilitarianism, which we leave to the Davoisie.

So, to interpret charitably, Lileks seems to be arguing that there is no national/political interest but only individual interests and/or that any assertion of a national interest inevitably leads to tyranny. He’s welcome to that view, and if he is capable of articulating it intelligently, we’ll be happy to debate it respectfully. In the meantime, we’ll only point out that it seems to be his side that is drawing up proscriptions.

Lileks goes on:

There’s no time frame for the “goodness” that actions might bestow, which means all sorts of things might be good. It is good for Americans to forgive all mortgages. It is good for all Americans to make college free. It is good for Americans to provide universal high-quality health care. It is good! For a while. Then it isn’t.

These straw man examples notwithstanding, we wholeheartedly embrace the general point. Although some philosophic questions may be eternal, political “actions” are not. Many things are good for awhile until they aren’t. Adopting the right policies at the right time is the essence of political prudence and perhaps even virtue. It is also common sense. Tariffs, for example, were shrewd in Hamilton’s time, while expanding free trade was sound policy after World War II. We consider it a legitimate question whether it was sound policy during the last ten years or whether it will be during the next ten. Likewise, the first Gulf War was prudent. The second one was not.

We add only that exercising such judgment requires having the ability to define a national interest. Perhaps that is why any such judgment totally eludes Lileks, who seems to think that the rote repetition of his ideology for all eternity is the highest form of politics. But perhaps it is unfair to expect prudence from someone who could not hold a job reporting on zoning committee meetings in Wayzata.

Absent from their manifesto is the idea that the something Good for Americans might necessitate the expansion of the State. Perhaps because that doesn’t seem to trouble them.

Actually, it’s not absent. We state plainly that the expansion of the state, in and of itself, does not trouble us. It is at times necessary and beneficial. Would Lileks have opposed the expansion of the state needed to fight World War II? Did he oppose the Bush era expansion of the security apparatus to prevent terrorism? Rather, such expansion is troubling when it occurs for the wrong reasons or in the wrong circumstances, or, as has happened historically, remained long after the exigency which necessitated it had passed. I am not arguing for any of Trump’s proposals specifically, or that these issues are unimportant, but only that they are as much issues of prudence as they are of abstract principle.

But there’s Greatness, and there’s Goodness….You can be good without being great – indeed America was good before it was great, maybe the first time a the nation became great because it was good. Putin’s Russia aspires to be Great as the Soviet iteration; it would not be good. China is great, and its rise has allowed some new freedoms, but it has not cohered into an instrument that fosters liberty.

Giving credit where credit is due, at least Lileks does not falsely attribute the above reasoning to de Tocqueville, and he actually raises a serious point without adolescent peevishness. His principles, however, once more appear to allow no opening for prudence. But how does one advance one’s principles without prudent deviations from them on occasion? And how principled is someone, really, who is content with hollow symbolism, who shrinks from any difficult actions needed to advance his principles? Should the U.S. have refused to cooperate with Stalin or declared war on Franco in 1941 on principle? It is certainly possible to take a principled stand for a lost cause, but is principled political action confined solely to idealistic blogging?

Although we have unequivocally affirmed our commitment to the larger principles of the American founding, we are not so historically naive. America did not become great through fine speeches alone. U.S. treatment of indigenous peoples, the Mexican Cession, the Spanish-American War, and all manner of devious maneuvers during the Cold War, among many other things, could hardly be considered entirely consistent with good principles. Yet they certainly enhanced American power.

Thus, if their argument for America’s goodness stands and falls only on abstract cliches like “fostering liberty,” it is no surprise that conservatives have failed both in government and in defending their precious principles. Their historically and philosophically illiterate dogmas of universal “democracy” ultimately cannot comprehend any real politics, i.e. politics of necessity. Their professions of goodness fail both intellectually and politically insofar as they cannot justify the greatness necessary to establish or defend any form of goodness. They have refused to confront this problem–indeed they cannot even see it–and have no answer to it. Lileks does not, either, and his brush with serious argument is fleeting, soon giving way to the more comfortable ground of petty and foolish sniping:

So. The Constitution, limited government, local governance: useless, as long as the wrong people are at the helm.

Not saying that’s the case here, but: some people don’t give a rat’s ass for the Constitution if it means more Mexicans. Others are impatient with devotion to that flimsy piece of parchment, because it impedes the steps necessary to restore Greatness. They mention Caesarism a lot, usually talking about other people’s clammy, silly fears – but as one of their writers notes here and there, a rotten republic produces Caesars, and we’re certainly a rotten republic, so a Caesar is inevitable – why not make him one of us?

And the “one of us” they choose is someone their site regards as an imperfect manifestation of the ideas he “represents,”….

First of all, as he admits, mean-spirited opposition to Mexicans is not the case here, so why even say it here? Can Lileks not resist impugning everyone who disagrees with him as racist? As for those fringe characters who do make such claims, Lileks is welcome to favor them with his profanities if he so chooses, but he should do so separately. For we are not them and have explicitly repudiated those claims. For what it’s worth, I would gladly trade the entire population of Latin America for the opportunity to deport ten or twenty “conservative” pundits.

But while we’re on the subject, in what sense can the American Constitution be construed to “mean more Mexicans” (or fewer)? The framers seem to have wisely left matters of immigration policy to the prudence of subsequent governments. In addition, there are many reasons (e.g. economics, security, etc.) that might justify more restrictive immigration policies in certain circumstances and that have nothing to do with racial animosity. But of course our exalted constitutional scholar cannot condescend to acknowledge those.

As for the rest, we did not choose Caesarism, and we did not choose Trump (though we are flattered to be thought so influential). We are neither advocating for nor predicting the cultural degradation that renders true republican government impossible. We are merely observing it–and honestly acknowledging the obvious realities before us. The Founders wrote a great deal about the reliance of republican institutions on cultural institutions. Lileks should look it up sometime when he is done blogging about his household repairs.

It’s debatable, of course, but I continue to maintain that in the present cultural environment, reciting platitudes about the Constitution, limited government, and local governance is useless. On this question, it is telling that the very people who talk most about these principles know the least about them. Any genuine restoration of republican government is not merely a question of getting new “people at the helm,” in the sense of electing a true “conservative” or whatever. In the present moment, when conservatism has been routed on all important cultural and intellectual questions, restoring true constitutional–or even merely competent–government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America. Is Trump capable of accomplishing that? Probably not. But however slight the possibility may be, it is greater than the absolutely zero chance offered by pundits like Lileks and their own increasingly incoherent version of “conservatism.”

Finally, on this point, I suspect that what motivates so many of Lileks’ and his set’s moronic and futile gestures against Trump and “Trumpism” is the dawning realization of their own insignificance. Admittedly, some of the concerns about character and even “conservative principle” are neither disingenuous nor groundless. But the fevered intensity of Trump derangement syndrome, which has risen to levels far beyond any opposition to Obama’s policies or the Clinton campaign, suggests something more.

It suggests an underlying fear that Trump’s popularity will expose the fact that most of our conservative “elites” are not elite in any respect. With few exceptions, conservative “elites” lack meaningful experience in government, the military, business, or even academic credentials. Meanwhile, those who do have government experience presided over some of the worst economic and foreign policy catastrophes in our nation’s history. As a result, these “elites” only maintain their positions by demonstrating a rigid adherence to a particular ideology. And their only claim to such status is the pretense that they speak for and influence a nontrivial “conservative” minority and that they can channel its political power. The fact that Trump has prevailed against all of them precisely by rejecting their ideology, however, reveals that they cannot even do this.

Thus, whatever their principles, unlettered and inexperienced non-entities such as Lileks have a definite class interest in opposing Trump. His victory already casts doubt upon their ability to offer themselves to donors as useful idiots in the future. Presumably, Lileks is not the total idiot that he appears to be, but as both a “thought leader” without thought and a partisan without a party, he is totally useless.



Lileks’ argument that it would be “good” to confiscate wealth is nonsense and shows a lack of understanding both of political theory and economics.  Economics 101 tells us why it would not be good: state-sanctioned—and a fortiori state-practiced—theft destroys the incentive structure necessary to make an economy work, and thereby lowers productivity, standard of living and overall wealth.
Theft, it should be needless to say, is also most of the time unjust, and injustice is ipso facto never good.  (If I have Plato right, justice is always good, but the good is not necessarily always just.)  Things that most of the time are unjust may in fact be just in certain circumstances, and hence good, but this is not one of them.  Massive tax levies in a national emergency might qualify but that’s clearly not what Lileks is talking about.  We would also say (in a departure from “conservative” orthodoxy that may further upset Lileks) that in times of rampant and rising inequality, economic and tax policies that seek to narrow that gap are just, and thus good.  It’s curious, though, to read a conservative who would presumably oppose closing tax loopholes and raising rates on the rich praise confiscation as “good.”
Moreover, in perhaps the only useful work that Arthur Brooks ever did, he demonstrated using conventional social science tools that “earned success” is good for human beings.  Unearned windfalls erode their work ethic and corrupt their virtue.  There’s something to the cliché of the lottery winner whose life is subsequently ruined in debauchery and depression.
So there is really no sense in which Lileks’ proposal is “good” for anyone.  This points again to the core reason why conservative punditry is so bad: it is based either on bad “philosophy” or else has no grounding in philosophy at all.  Hence it can speak of “the good” without any conception what that rationally means and can say absurd things like theft is “good.”  Lileks and others like him are in a cave beneath even Leo Strauss’ cave beneath the cave.


4 thoughts on “Useless Idiots

  1. Jackson Gazette,

    It’s a pity but you don’t have all the original material, and the related jagrecovered google links are dead. Googling the article names doesn’t point to any archive. If you have them, will you post them here?

    Pretty please?


  2. Brian,

    You may also be interested to know that Decius has resumed posting on a new blog called simply “American Greatness” However, American Greatness does not carry any of the original JAG articles that you can find here, and in my opinion the writing at American Greatness is not quite so compelling, since Decius is surrounded by a different set of authors who contribute to it.



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