The Unwisdom of Crowds

by Jonah Goldberg
The heroic unit in the American political tradition is the individual, not the mob.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Treasured Peruser (including those who will brook no innovations in the “Dear Reader” gag),

I am writing this before Donald Trump’s inaugural address, which is a weird thing to write. I expect I’ll have reactions to the address itself up in the Corner.

I didn’t go down to the Mall today, but it’s not because I was “boycotting” Trump. A team of scientists could harvest the DNA of Abe Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, Phil Gramm, William F. Buckley, Winston Churchill, and Rowdy Roddy Piper and create some sort of super president with laser vision and a Kung Fu grip and I still wouldn’t want to go down to the Mall, get bumped by other people, and stand in the cold for hours only to hear a speech in the rain.

There’s something that people don’t know about me — and they never will because I never used my real name and then I burned that motel down to the ground.

But there’s something else people don’t know about me. I’m not a big fan of enthusiasm, particularly among large numbers of people. When large numbers of people get really into something, I tend to go the opposite direction.

I guess the one place it doesn’t bother me is sports. As you know, I’m not a big sports guy, but I am a guy and I get the appeal of going all in for your squad out on the diamond and shouting, “Acquire more points!”

But beyond that, I’ve never much liked events where spectators get too into anything. I like music, but I find concerts where everyone is all agog vaguely creepy. I sometimes feel like everyone else has been hypnotized and I’m expected to play along. Or sort of like I’m the only stoned one in the crowd (when it’s actually closer to the other way around). I don’t mean this as a smug thing. I wish I could get more into things like that. It certainly looks fun and, back in the day, the chicks seemed to dig it.

SLIDESHOW: Donald Trump Inauguration

I think the fact that I’m a “don’t just do something, sit there” type of guy informs a lot of my politics. It’s certainly a huge part of why I’ve never liked youth politics and think so little of young people who take so much pride in being young: a) You didn’t do anything, everyone who has ever lived past, say, 21 accomplished “being young,” too; b) there is no ideological content to youth politics; c) if the best thing you’ve got going for you is that you can boast you were born later than other people, you’ve really got nothing going for you; d) shut up kid, you’re bothering me; e) Grumble!; and f) Harrumph!

The Unwisdom of Crowds

But the realm where crowds and enthusiasm bother me the most is politics. The cult-like adoration for Obama made me feel vaguely unsafe, like when someone a bit too chatty opts for the urinal next to yours after walking past ten empty ones. Okay, that’s not exactly the right analogy, but that makes me feel unsafe, too.

And so did stuff like this:

Look, I like kids. But crap like that makes me want to run through the room in a bloody clown suit while revving up a chain saw. (Don’t worry: Even in my darkest thoughts I wouldn’t hurt anyone — but I would like to see them scurry.)

Similarly, I am a big fan of volunteerism so most of this is harmless even if it makes me uncomfortable.

But when Demi Moore ends this thing by pledging to be a “servant of our president” it makes me want to peel off my face like the plastic film on the screen of a new iPhone. (Though I do think it would be fun to make Charlie Cooke watch it using the Ludovico technique just to see how long it took before he turned green, grew out of his restraints, and started shouting in that fake accent of his, “British Hulk shall smash neo-feudalism in my new country!”)

I bring this up for several reasons. First, because I couldn’t think of anything else to write about this morning. Second, because I think it’s a relevant point lost on some Trump fans. Even if he were my first choice in the primaries, I would never have gone all in with the MAGA hysteria. And that’s not just because I have ideological problems with Trump’s nationalism. If Jeb had been my first choice (he wasn’t), I still wouldn’t have been out there waving my big foam finger, shouting “Jeb’s No. 1!” and putting mayo on everything. If George Pataki were my first choice, I’d sue my dentist for accidentally lobotomizing me with his drill because that’s the only scenario where I could see that happening. In short, Trump could be Calvin Coolidge (re)incarnate, and I still wouldn’t wear flair because I don’t do flair.

The Politics of Transcendence

I guess my point is that I don’t like crowds. I don’t trust them. Good things rarely come from them. Not all crowds are mobs, but all mobs start as crowds, and I’m a little allergic to the vibrations within in them. The heroic unit in the American political tradition is the individual, not the mob. The crowd is what makes the cult of personality a thing. Without the crowd, it’s just a person.

I ran across this quote recently from the pastor and author Eugene Peterson.

Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence — religious meaning — apart from God as revealed through the cross of Jesus: through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but at least, in America, almost never against the crowds.

I think this is a fantastic insight. That feeling I don’t like at concerts is, I think, related to this quest for transcendence by the crowd. I didn’t like it in Obama’s new-age revivalism and I didn’t like it in Trump’s old-timey revivalism.

The old cliché about how politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose gets at the same point.

Now you can disagree with me about crowds and you can think Peterson is all wet. That’s fine. But there’s an important political point here. Elias Canetti notes in his book Crowds and Power that inside the crowd, “distinctions are thrown off and all become equal. It is for the sake of this blessed moment, when no one is greater or better than another, that people become a crowd.”

“But,” Canetti adds, “the crowd, as such, disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it. . . . Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it from creeping back under their private burdens.”

In other words, bubbles pop. The sort of aesthetic or transcendent enthusiasm of the crowd is by definition unsustainable. The concert must end, the rally must stop. The old cliché about how politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose gets at the same point. Barack Obama nearly destroyed the Democratic party by thinking he could translate the transcendence of the crowd into a governing style. Donald Trump would do well to learn from Obama’s mistake.

Waiting for Calvin

Speaking of Calvin Coolidge, he’s been on my mind ever since Amity Shlaes pointed out on Twitter that Coolidge’s “inaugural” remark upon learning he inherited the presidency was, “I believe I can swing it.”

Coolidge wasn’t my jelly, he was my jam as some annoying person might say. Longtime readers of the G-File might recall some of my favorite Coolidge lines. When asked to summarize the record of his administration, Coolidge replied, “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business.” The point wasn’t that he was lazy, the point was that it takes work to stop government from doing stupid things. “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones,” he once remarked.

When Coolidge said, “When you see ten problems rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you.” Again, the point wasn’t laziness, it was confidence in the ability of society — a.k.a. the people — to figure things out for themselves. For every ten big problems our society faces, nine of them aren’t the government’s problem. Liberals think not only that all ten are the government’s problem, but that ten is an insanely low tally of the big problems the government is supposed to be dealing with. And fewer and fewer conservatives would endorse the Coolidge Ratio.

I’m increasingly convinced we’ll never have another one like him. My point isn’t that we don’t produce people like Coolidge anymore — though that’s more than a little true, too. It’s not that a Coolidge couldn’t get elected today either, though who could argue with that? It’s that even if we somehow produced a Coolidge and got him or her elected, the nature of the state is such that even Coolidge couldn’t really be Coolidge.

One of the tasks Mephistopheles has assigned me as I continue to burn in Book Hell is dancing the Lambada with Helen Thomas, our naked bodies bonded together as one with Saran Wrap. Oh wait, that’s real Hell.

No, in Book Hell, I’ve been reading a lot about the administrative state. We don’t need to get too deep into those weeds now, but one of the things I’ve come to believe is that the administrative state is unlawful and another is that it is the enemy of civil society.

Even if we somehow produced a Coolidge and got him or her elected, the nature of the state is such that even Coolidge couldn’t really be Coolidge.

I kind of think of civil society as coastal wetlands. For years, people overlooked wetlands as the kind of ugly, swampy places that served no great purpose. It turned out that wetlands are hugely important. They absorb bad runoff from reaching the ocean, they buffer the coast from soil and beach erosion, and they offer a diverse ecosystem a habitat they can’t find anywhere else. If you think of the government — particularly the administrative state — as an ocean, civil society is the wetlands that keep the ocean from eroding everything. They’re a buffer that blunts the impact of the state. Conversely, they are what stop the nine out of ten problems Coolidge talked about. Without the wetlands, all ten just roll straight into the state’s ocean-sized lap.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Man that analogy has some holes in it.” And my answer to that is: Considering the price you paid for this “news”letter, you should count yourself lucky I didn’t go with the women’s-prison-movie analogy that I wanted to run with.

The reason we can’t have a Coolidge today is that government has gotten involved in so much he would have to be an activist just to unwind a fraction of it. C. S. Lewis says somewhere that if you took a wrong fork in the road, it’s not progress to keep walking in the wrong direction. It’s progress to turn around and find the right road.

As I’ve written several times now, I feel more and more like I’ll be in the Nockian remnant for a good while. But today is not the day to rehash old arguments about Donald Trump. That day will come soon enough. Today is a day to wish him well and hope for the best.

I’m reminded of H. L. Mencken’s obituary for Coolidge, a president he first scorned but later came to appreciate. “Should the day ever dawn,” Mencken said, “when Jefferson’s warnings are heeded at last, and we reduce government to its simplest terms, it may very well happen that Calvin’s bones now resting inconspicuously in the Vermont granite will come to be revered as those of a man who really did the nation some service.”

I’m not a big fan of the slogan “Make America Great Again.” And I’m not sure what Donald Trump meant last night when he said we’re going to do things we haven’t done in “many, many, decades.” But if he can get us back to the right fork in the road, and to a place where he could be replaced by a Coolidge, or at least to a place where his bones might be revered, he will have made America greater yet — and he’ll have my gratitude.

Here’s hoping.

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Various & Sundry

Canine Update: So, things have been weird around here. First of all, neither dog seems as interested in eating as they once did and Pippa appears to be scared to come into the kitchen at dinnertime for fear that the Dingo will attack her, which she hasn’t done (to our knowledge) for a very long time. More troubling, Zoë’s wild, stubborn side is coming back. She’s just been a bad girl lately. She jumped out of the car window the other day. On Wednesday night, she got loose from my wife around 6:30 at night. She refused to come in the house until midnight. She just sits on the lawn and runs away from you if you try to get close. She pretends like it’s a game.

At first, we thought it was just the cold weather, which does seem to fill her full of beans. That seems to be part of it. But the other problem, we think, is that our neighborhood in D.C. has seen a population explosion of rabbits. Dogs may believe that “squirrels are tennis balls thrown by God” but Zoë believes that rabbits are squirrels done right. First of all, they are so hoppy and she finds the hoppiness irresistible. Second of all, and this is the really important part, they cannot climb those infernal trees. Anyway, Zoë is constantly looking for them, sniffing for them, chasing them. She’ll wait for hours with dingo-patience for a sign that one has emerged from its carrot-strewn bunkers, and then she’s off. And then there was yesterday. Perhaps in an attempt to get some olfactory camouflage, she rolled in some foulness the likes of which you’d only expect to find in Sid Blumenthal’s secret basement. The Fair Jessica gave Zoë a double bath and yet hours later she still smelled, uh, bad.

My first column this week: Why national unity is so elusive.

Friday’s column: “Anti-liberal” does not equal “anti-intellectual.”

And now, the weird stuff. (“And I thought this G-File was already weird enough!” — The Couch)

Debby’s Friday links

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A photo of Lincoln’s first inauguration

SMOD failed to destroy Earth, but this space rock could destroy Earth’s economy

The door to Hell

How many of us can hear flashes of light?

Beware the Slenderman

Is Cthulhu still calling?

What the first European visitors to Hawaii thought of surfers

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Can humans hibernate?

What do we really know about pirates?

The most overused sound in trailers today

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg