“The Nashville Sound” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – An Album Review

Related image

Back when I first started writing here, I mentioned offhand that while my main focus would be political, I’d occasionally find time to write about music or movies or the like. Now, I’m not much of a movie guy, to be totally honest, but I do like listening to different kinds of music, and there have been plenty of albums in 2017 that I’d have loved to talk about. I plan to have mid-year and end of year explorations of some of these albums, but before then, it’d be weird if I didn’t have at least one standalone album review under my belt. So, on that self-critical note, let’s talk about Jason Isbell.

For the uninitiated, it’s important to note that Jason Isbell is an artist that straddles two different genres. He’s mostly known today for country music, but he got his start as a member of The Drive-By Truckers, legends in the Southern rock genre. Since leaving that band in 2007, he’s slowly grown in stature in the independent country scene, but still commands significant rock credibility as well – his last album Something More Than Free topped Billboard Magazine’s album charts for both rock and country albums. And to get my own opinion out here, Isbell deserves all of the success and critical acclaim he’s gotten and then some. Not only is he a powerfully evocative songwriter, but his instrumental prowess probably goes underappreciated on his more recent (and more country-inflected) releases. Some of the compositions on Something More Than Free approached being a blend of Americana and progressive rock, and the result was my third favorite album of 2015, even better than To Pimp a Butterfly, if you’ll believe it. And so here we are with another album from Isbell and his band The 400 Unit. Like his last two, it’s produced by Dave Cobb, a bonafide superstar in the world of country producers. Naturally, I had extremely high expectations for this project, both because of Isbell’s previous work and the song I heard in advance of its release, the harrowing If We Were Vampires. So enough stalling – did Jason Isbell make magic again?

Yes, yes he did. I’m happy to report that The Nashville Sound is another stellar entry in Jason Isbell’s already impressive discography, and easily one of the best albums of 2017 so far. I’ll have to get back to you guys on whether or not it’s better than Something More Than Free, but that’s because it’s a different animal than that last record in quite a few ways. So let’s start with music here, and my first impression here is that it’s a more fiery release than Isbell’s previous one, and more uptempo at times. If you’re more of a rock fan and want to hear some distorted electric guitars, you’ll get those on songs like Cumberland Gap, Hope the High Road, and the intro and outro to Anxiety. Those first two are the fastest-paced cuts on the album, and Isbell makes the most of it with some sticky hooks, but that’s not to say that the slower songs don’t also have some moments of real instrumental excellence as well. The smoky guitars and squealing fiddle on White Man’s World really captures the flavor of the old-school Muscle Shoals sound (something that seems increasingly common in independent country these days), and there’s some excellent mandolin and fiddle work on the closer Something to Love that adds some nice texture. One musical choice that caught me off guard was on If We Were Vampires, where the bridge features what I can only call a reverb solo, and it sends a chill up my spine every time. Dave Cobb’s an exceptionally versatile producer who can tackle a variety of different genres well, but he also knows when it’s time to strip things back and let the words carry a song, like on the opener Last of My Kind, where the guitars and fiddle are there to support Isbell’s vocals, the latter positioned at the front of the mix where they belong.

But as good as the instrumentation and production is, the main attraction of a Jason Isbell project is always going to be the lyrics and the stories that he tells, so let’s get to those. It’s important here to note that his last album was a transitional one, to some degree musically, but mostly conceptually. On Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell made a point of closing the door on his past, ending one chapter of his life and starting a new one, his old insecurities and failings behind him at last. And this album reflects that matured perspective – Isbell is married and raising a child now, and his songs are now less introspective and more concerned with the world around him. Just because he’s faced down the demons of his past doesn’t leave him entirely at ease, though. And what’s always set Jason Isbell apart as a songwriter is his unstinting, unflinching honesty; he tackles uncomfortable, intimidating subjects and cuts straight to the core of what frightens us. He did this when talking about the ugliness of dying on Southeastern, and again on Something More Than Free when he described the painful cost of teen pregnancy. On this album, I thought I’d seen the darkest of it when I heard If We Were Vampires, which has absolutely haunting observations on bereavement – true love may last forever, but lovers don’t, and one will probably have to learn to live without the other. However, the track before it, White Man’s World, proved just as shocking. Again, Isbell’s strength is his honesty and his refusal to hold anything back as he gets to grips with the legacy of white, and especially white male depredation in shaping America, and the kind of country he’s leaving behind for his daughter. And while he’s never tried to participate in that kind of oppression himself, as he acknowledges on the fourth verse, sometimes complicity is as small as looking the other way as you see someone else be cruel.

In fact, White Man’s World was another surprise for me in showing that this album would be more political than Isbell’s prior work. I expected more extroversion, but a big part of this album isn’t just focusing more on other peoples’ struggles, but also Isbell trying to see things through the perspectives of others, whether that’s the displaced rural man who worries that history is leaving him behind on Last of My Kind, or the alcoholic miner’s son desperate for escape on Cumberland Gap, or the recent divorcee looking to start over again on Tupelo. Isbell treats each of these characters with appropriate empathy even while acknowledging their failings, like the protagonist in Cumberland Gap’s inability to find his own calling, which leaves him wallowing in his cups for lack of other ideas, or the man on Tupelo’s bitterness. Isbell does well in making these songs feel lived in and three-dimensional.

That said, the character sketches are one part of this album, but the bulk is devoted to Isbell’s new role as a husband and father. On Anxiety, he observes that as much as he’s been blessed to have what he does, there’s always that lingering shadow of doubt as he wonders if it will last. And as I mentioned already, If We Were Vampires makes that fear more explicit, since he knows this marital bliss can’t possibly last, and either he or his wife will have to face losing the other and coping with that loss. These two running themes of the album, aging and the growing concern for other people, are brought together on the two tracks where Isbell references his year-old daughter. On White Man’s World, Isbell says that it’s not too late to make amends so long as you’re still breathing, but he finishes up by saying that as much as this world’s injustices have shaken his faith, he still feels something when he sees the fire in his little girl’s eyes. His wife Amanda Shires joins him in singing that final line, which just sells that moment where they both share a vision of a brighter future for their child. Lastly, there’s the album closer Something to Love, a song of advice written to his daughter. On this one, Jason Isbell talks about the formative experiences that shaped his childhood and his love of country music, and shares his hope that his daughter will find her own dreams and passions to carry through life. Musically, it’s one of the most country songs in Isbell’s discography, and it concludes this album on one hell of a high note.

So yes, I absolutely loved listening to The Nashville Sound. It’s not perfect – there’s a conspicuous flubbed rhyme on Molotov that I think breaks the momentum of the song, but this album still offers a great deal of musical and lyrical diversity, going from heartwrenching to heated to haunting to hopeful over just ten songs. Overall, I’d give this album a 9/10, and my highest recommendation. If you like either country music or southern rock, you need to hear this. Even if you don’t, I still recommend it for its impeccable storytelling and emotive delivery. If Jason Isbell’s brand of cerebral and highly melodic Americana truly became the sound of Nashville, then we’d all be better off for it.

Recommended tracks: Last of My Kind, Cumberland Gap, White Man’s World, If We Were Vampires, Anxiety, Hope the High Road, Something to Love.

Weakest track (but still quite good): Molotov.

Thoughts on the British Election

Ain’t it typical – my first post over here in months, and I find myself having to put off my essay on modern liberalism yet again. Honestly, writer’s block on that subject has been a major reason I haven’t been active in a while, and with the British election the other day, I want to get some thoughts out there while the iron’s at least lukewarm. I’ve leaned away from my usual focus on American politics once before, of course, when I discussed my thoughts on South Korean politics, but I was interested in large part because of a parallel I noticed with American politics in the past and what that might mean for the future. This will be different, because I don’t so much have a thesis guiding everything this time so much as a bunch of scattered observations, so I’ll basically be presenting things with glorified bullet points today.

I think an interesting way to start is to perform a thought exercise suggested by someone on a discussion board I frequent, and to imagine the results as if they’d happened in the last British election two years ago. Labour would, if anything, be a little disappointed to have been stuck in roughly the same position they were after 2010, with the main consolation being the defeat of Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, a fair punishment for his Party’s coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. For their part, the Conservatives would be thrilled to have gotten so close to a majority of Parliament’s 650 seats, not least since they’d have had few expectations of getting a majority anyways. Even the Scottish National Party would be happy to have won a majority in Scotland’s Parliament. The real losers of the night would be the Liberal Democrats, who’d be down to 12 seats from their 2010 high of 62, as well as losing their Party leader.

This is all to say that the results of an election, in Britain or anywhere else, hinges on expectations. The Conservatives didn’t expect to win a majority in 2015, but managed it anyways, which colors their failure to repeat the same feat this year. The Scottish National Party has retained its majority north of the Tweed, but they still took a beating compared to 2015, and having lost over twenty seats, many of them to the Conservatives, weakens leader Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for another independence referendum. Actually, the Scottish results have me wondering if the region is really as pro-EU as we’d thought back when the Brexit vote happened. And as for the undeniable winner of the night (one of them, we’ll get to the other in a bit), Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party may have only just matched its 2010 performance in terms of how many seats they won, but considering the immense disadvantage his Party was facing mere weeks ago, which was what made Prime Minister Theresa May confident enough to call this election in the first place, it was still a shockingly good night for them. And that’s only evaluating their results on average; it’s also worth noting that many of the Conservative victories, especially ones in and around London, were by very narrow margins – Home Secretary Amber Rudd has held on with barely 300 votes – had things tipped just a little farther in Labour’s direction on Thursday, then a real massacre may have ensued. As it is, they managed to win in constituencies that were previously considered inhospitable for the Party, most notably a seat in Canterbury which, in nearly 100 years since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918, has never voted for Labour before.

What does this mean for the future of British politics? Well, I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that Labour now controls the richest and some of the poorest constituencies in the United Kingdom simultaneously. It’ll be a while before I can parse the implications of this out, but my first impression is that Jeremy Corbyn might have had some success in drawing away a portion of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s voters – UKIP, once a significant enough force in British politics to make the Brexit referendum a reality, has basically collapsed afterwards, as their success means the Party now lacks a purpose. Combined with his undeniable success at turning out the youth vote, which went for him by two to one margins. Combine that with what looks like a resurgence for Labour in Northern England, the UK equivalent of the American Rust Belt, and it looks like Corbyn’s hit upon an effective response to voters concerned with the effects of globalization, and left his Party in a good position moving forwards. Not bad for a former backbencher the rest of the Party had been ignoring until two years ago.

With that general overview of the results done, some other thoughts:

  • There’s a crisis of confidence in polling – and it’s mostly needless. During the 2016 Presidential primaries, Nate Silver published a mea culpa about his failure to foresee Trump’s nomination, saying that he ultimately let his qualitative judgment get the best of him and didn’t believe the polls enough, even though they showed a Trump advantage all along. Something more complicated but similar happened in this campaign, whose results could have been foreseen if you looked at polls coming from YouGov or Survation instead of other outlets. What made those two stand out was that they correctly predicted a higher than usual youth turnout, but many observers (myself included) didn’t believe their numbers because of our deep-seated cynicism about young peoples’ willingness to turn out and vote. And so most polling outfits predicted a major win for the Conservatives on the assumption that youth turnout would tank. The sad thing is, even YouGov eventually lost confidence in their results, with their last poll before the election changing its assumptions to fit in more with the consensus. This goes to show that we should trust our data more than our instincts a lot of the time.
  • Theresa May was the big loser in Thursday night’s results, but unlike David Cameron before her, who resigned when the Brexit vote went against him, she doesn’t seem inclined to fall on her sword over this. That said, despite recriminations from within her Party coming in, I no longer expect her to be challenged for leadership of the Conservatives the way I did the night of the election. Her most obvious successor, Boris Johnson, the guy who looks a lot like Donald Trump, still faces some significant enemies of his own within the Conservative Party, which explains his failure to become Prime Minister after Cameron resigned last year. More generally, being Prime Minister just isn’t the most attractive prize right now, for two reasons.
  • Reason one is that with the Conservatives no longer enjoying a majority in Parliament, they’ve been forced into making what’s called a minority government with the help of the Democratic Union Party, a Northern Irish bloc that’s learned from the mistake of the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and isn’t joining a coalition with the Conservatives, instead voting to keep the government running and guaranteeing nothing more. The result is that in order to pass any legislation, the Conservatives need to appease the DUP for the extra votes they need. This ties into the second reason nobody would want to be PM right now, that being Brexit.
  • The negotiation of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has been really sluggish so far, and Theresa May pushed back the start of negotiations with the EU’s authorities in order to have this election. Her stated rationale was that she needed a stronger mandate from the British public to have a better bargaining position during the negotiations, hopefully achieving her personal vision of an exit that involves Britain leaving the EU’s common market (allowing the UK and the EU to put up tariffs against each other) in exchange for keeping EU immigrants out of the UK. This hope for a “hard Brexit” is definitely dead now, though, between May’s election gambit backfiring and destroying her Parliamentary majority, as well as the whims of her now political partners, the Democratic Union Party.
  • In fact, I’d say that the future of British politics runs through Belfast right now, because the DUP are in a very influential position at the moment despite only having ten seats in Parliament. The first thing they want is a softer version of Brexit, that might allow Britain to stay in the EU market in exchange for fewer immigration restrictions than a harder exit would entail. They want this in large part because Northern Ireland is dependent on trade with its southern counterpart, and they’d be hit hard if their EU neighbor got to throw up tariffs against them. So local concerns in Northern Ireland are a big driver of the DUP’s policy. Of course, this sort of parochialism has led to an embarrassing scandal coming to light recently involving the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster, so that’s another issue to contend with.
  • The other issue involving the DUP is this: they’re probably the closest equivalent in Europe to America’s Republicans. This includes opposition to gay marriage, denial of climate change, an absolutist stance against abortion even for rape victims, the whole nine yards. Also disturbingly, the DUP has been historically linked with the Protestant paramilitary side of the Troubles, which seems less like a thing of the past when you consider that Sinn Fein also did quite well in the recent elections (between them and the DUP, the more centrist UUP and SDLP parties have been wiped out in Northern Ireland), and also that Jeremy Corbyn has sympathized with the IRA in the past, an additional source of tension. In this chaotic environment, you can all understand why I’m worried about the Troubles potentially bursting open again and making things even worse. For maximum awkwardness, it’s also worth pointing out that Theresa May has a Catholic background herself.

During the campaign, Theresa May warned us about the possibility of  a “coalition of chaos” if the election went the wrong way. Half the internet has beaten me to this observation, but I can certainly say that she’s delivered on that much.

Off the Deep End – An Addendum

Okay, so I had planned on following my look at the state of conservatism immediately with the same take on modern liberalism. That’s still coming soon, but I find myself needing more time to get my thoughts in order before tackling that. In lieu of a follow-up on that, I’ll be doing a quick reprise of my deep state discussion from a little while back, mostly because I came across an article that mirrors a lot of my concerns about this growing trend.

Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Exum looks at some recent cases of generals speaking out against Trump Administration policies, namely torture and Trump’s attacks on the press. Although Exum welcomes any pushback Trump gets on some decidedly illiberal policies, he’s also aware of the dangers that come when the military, rather than remaining apolitical, take on the task of safeguarding institutional liberalism. An astute reader will probably make the connection to the Turkish military, which has traditionally justified its periodic coups of civilian government as part of its charge in enforcing the secular Constitution laid down by Ataturk. Instead, though, he makes an unexpected connection to Israeli politics, which probably doesn’t get enough exposure in Western media outside of the interminably stalled peace process. In particular, he singles out a case in which an 18 year-old IDF sergeant was found guilty of manslaughter for summarily executing a disarmed Palestinian terrorist. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot resisted right-wing calls for leniency on the sergeant, which has led to protesters saying that he’ll suffer the same fate as former Prime Minister Rabin if he continues on his “leftist” path.

Now, I think there are two distinct developments worth looking at here: first, we may be seeing a trend of more politicization in military leaders in the United States and Israel (if not other places, too), and also, that we may find ourselves looking to the military for moral or even political guidance. To the extent that the latter is true, it’s easy enough to explain, I think: in an age of disillusionment with our institutions, the military retains a great deal of trust in American society. Back when I talked about social faith, I brought up a Gallup poll showing abysmally low levels of public confidence in many key institutions in the country, but I didn’t mention that one big exception to this trend is the military, which still commanded “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence from 72 percent of Americans. The army has the legitimacy that our political leaders don’t, so why not look to the last people in Washington that we still think have a moral compass for moral guidance?

There are some troubling implications behind this thinking, and not just the obvious ones about a populace that might not be too repulsed by the prospect of military government. First of all, we need to ask ourselves if the military deserves the esteem that the public gives them, especially compared with how little other branches of government get from the same respondents. I suspect there are a couple of reasons why there’s such a large trust gap between military and civilian leadership: first, the familiar transparency problem. I’ve mentioned before that the more transparent a government organization is, the more we see its foibles and failures, and the less we respect them for it, which is why we trust the Supreme Court more than the President more than Congress. The military’s internal decisionmaking is definitely not going on C-Span any time soon, so they’re another logical beneficiary of this rewarding of secrecy. Another is that I think we absolve them of the abuses that are associated with them, pinning most of the blame on civilian leaders instead. Take Abu Ghraib, where critics raised all sorts of criticisms of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo for ordering or coming up with legal justifications for the torture that went on there. In all of the high-level recriminations, maybe we didn’t reserve enough blame for the army soldiers and CIA agents who did the actual dirty work, simply because they weren’t considered the ones who came up with the policies. But following orders is no defense, so that was an oversight on our part. Lastly, I think, just like with the Right and its regrets over abandoning Nixon during Watergate, we’re still nursing a wound from the 70’s, specifically, the (apocryphal) idea the anti-war movement back then turned on and spat at our veterans returning home, and we’re resolved as a society never to dishonor our soldiers like that again. By all means, we’re allowed to question the missions that they’re sent on and how wise they are, but the men and women in uniform aren’t to be questioned. These cultural biases and blind spots protect the military now, but the question is whether they’ll continue to do the same should generals become more politicized, just like Eisenkot has been turned into a right-wing bogeyman in Israel.

Andrew Exum sees this risk of politicization (and sees it as a farther advanced phenomenon than I’d realized, with the Parties trotting out retired Generals as partisan cheerleaders with some regularity), and the dangers in it, but ultimately decides that it’s more important that the generals, and everyone else of a similar mind, stand up for what they see as right. I am more skeptical, in part because I’ve talked at length about how standing up for what’s right isn’t good enough when everybody’s doing it and yet we still find ourselves taking different stands. That said, soldiers have their freedom of conscience like the rest of us, and when the question is whether it’s moral for our society to engage in torture or to attack its own press, the dissenters will always have an ally in me.

 

The Future of the Radical Right – Part 2

Welcome back to my outsider’s ruminations on the nature of modern (American) conservatism. Last time I mostly focused my efforts on the development of the modern conservative attitude and why it’s proven vulnerable to Trumpism after decades of unchallenged Reaganism. Today, I’ll explain where this leaves the Republican Party now, and how it shapes their view of the future. Now, the first thing to understand is that the 2016 election has given Republicans unprecedented power over government. In addition to the Presidency and both Houses of Congress, the GOP also has control over no fewer than 32 state legislatures. Two more and they could get Constitutional amendments ratified, which is supposed to be near impossible in a political scene as polarized as ours. With so much control, Republicans should be able to do anything.

Which is why it’s so confusing to many that the Trump Administration has been so slow in getting anything done so far. Almost two months in, and we’re still waiting on his Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Labor to be confirmed. More than that, the repeal of Obamacare that Republicans have promised since some time before it was signed into law is still causing Congressional Republicans to scurry about like headless chickens trying to decide on a replacement for the program. Now, some of Trump’s problems can be attributed to timing – specifically, the timing problems caused by the fact that Congressional Republicans were as surprised as everyone else by his winning the Presidency, and so they didn’t bother to come up with detailed plans for the incoming Congress. Obamacare repeal doesn’t seem like it falls under this category of issue, though, since it’s taken up so much time and thought on the part of Republican thinkers, from Paul Ryan on down, for years now. So, why, exactly, has it taken so long for Trump to come out with a proposal, one that fellow Republicans seem to oppose? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some will tell you that since Obamacare was already cribbed from the Republican alternative to Clinton’s stab at health care reform in the 90’s, there’s no further right you can go on this and still solve the problems with our health insurance. Now, this claim is actually kind of spurious, especially the idea that the Republican Party had actually coalesced around John Chafee’s plan. So that’s not exactly it, since the more conservative wing of the Republican Party opposed that rather similar proposal even at the time.

Wherefore the holdup, then? Liberal columnists like Brian Beutler and Matthew Yglesias seem to have settled on their own interpretation: namely, that the public reasons that Republicans have opposed Obamacare and the private ones are polar opposites on a philosophical level, and that cognitive dissonance means that, depending on whether you find the public or private objections more reasonable, you’re going to be attracted to wildly different plans as a consequence. “The striking thing about Republican use of the CBO report…is that Republicans weren’t exaggerating,” Yglesias observes. “They weren’t making things up, either. They were taking a genuine conservative policy critique of the law – that it was making things too cushy for people, so they might decide to quit working – and turned it into roughly the opposite argument, that the Obamacare jackboot was going to prevent people who wanted jobs from finding work.” In short, Republicans like Mitch McConnell have been going on the record as saying that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t provide generous enough coverage or subsidies, but their real concern is that it’s proven too generous, lowered copays and deductibles too much. This leaves them with a choice between a plan that would be in line with their ideology and reduce coverage, an unpopular move, or to do what Trump is doing now, and change very little about the law while pretending that it’s been scrapped. The third option in line with their rhetoric of increasing subsidies is right out, I guess. Now, Beutler and Yglesias seem to attribute this rhetorical dissonance to cynicism on the part of the Republican Party, who won’t state their true objections to Obama’s health care reform because their opinions on the matter aren’t popular. There’s some truth to this, but I think there may be more to it than that, a larger source of dissonance where this debate is merely scratching the surface.

To understand this larger problem, I’ll need to refer back to Part One of this piece from Sunday. Now, back then, I made the charge that too many Republicans have embraced the image and the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan without understanding the ethos or the rationale behind his policies. You can see this worship of Reagan’s shadow more than his Administration in the way that nuances and conservative hiccups in his record are ignored by those who would be his heirs. Take Grover Norquist and his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a literal oath to never vote to raise taxes, currently signed by 208 Republican House members and 45 Senators. Compare to Reagan, who, after passing significant tax cuts early on in his first term, found himself forced to backpedal repeatedly. On tax issues, Reagan would be an apostate in the modern Republican Party. Why did he do this, though? And why did his successor George Bush the Elder, much more embarrassingly given his rash pledge not to raise taxes? Two words: fiscal responsibility. This is, of course, a major part of the problem that the Republican Party faces, and it’s another aspect of the conflict between rhetoric and policy preference that Beutler and Yglesias were targeting, because whatever economic chicanery they employ to the contrary, Republicans always have to contend with the basic tension between “getting government out of peoples’ lives” (tax cuts) and “not living beyond our means” (deficit reduction). Now, it’s not like Democrats are immune to internal contradictions like this, but that’s a topic for next week. The issue here is that it’s actually pretty easy to square tax cuts and deficit reduction, or at least neutrality: you simply reduce government spending accordingly, and you’re good. But this gets to the real crux of the problem that Beutler and Yglesias identify, because most of the American budget is devoted to Social Security and Medicare, two programs that despite Republican efforts at repeal are still unassailably popular. Republicans have generally given up on their old goal of privatizing Social Security (although Paul Ryan seems to hold out hope on Medicare, depending on what budget he’s advancing this week), and so Trump’s defense of it really isn’t that surprising.

More interesting, though, is the consideration of that big budget item that isn’t Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid (which I’m always more concerned about, but hasn’t been killed so far): defense spending. Republicans are reluctant to look to that for deficit reduction, because the Party is expected to support a strong military, and “the I-word” (isolationist) is still one of the worst epithets a Republican can suffer. There’s a few reasons I can see for why Republicans are loathe to trim the Pentagon budget: for one, Reagan’s legacy includes an arms buildup (and yet not the arms reduction treaty he negotiated later on in his Presidency), and for another, they tend to cultivate a culture of toughness that’s useful both offensively against Democrats and to appeal to the military itself. There’s a third reason that’s most fascinating of all, though: military spending is useful. Now, I mentioned way back in my introduction that Democrats see government as useful, not as an end in itself, but as a way to spend money on the less fortunate, and that makes them different in an asymmetric way from Republicans, who oppose government for its own sake. The thing is, Republicans are expected to be skeptical of government, but they’ve still come to realize that government is useful, too. They just have different beneficiaries in mind. The defense budget is useful because the government doesn’t manufacture its weapons and logistical support services in house: we use private, for profit companies to supply us with these things, and there’s some big money in that. Of the various branches of government that use contractors, the Department of Defense is the most prolific by far, spending ten times as much as the second-most expensive Department. This spending has created an entire industry, and even put Northern Virginia on the map in the process, so there’s no denying the basic logic behind the spending as a way to enrich certain people.

Now, leaving the rage against big business, death merchants, and the military-industrial complex aside, because those are liberal objections, is there anything wrong with this? It reveals the tensions within a conservatism that’s become devoted to a caricature of what Ronald Reagan was. I talked last time about the coalition that Reagan gathered, of fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, and war hawks, but what I didn’t mention was that there was heterogeneity within this group. The “neoconservatives” got the -neo in their names, not so much because they were young and new, but because they were new to conservatism, having only abandoned the left over Vietnam and the perceived shift of that Party to the left under McGovern. And Paul Weyrich, one of the founding figures of both the Heritage Foundation and the Christian Right, was also a strong proponent of high-speed rail, an odd contrast from many of his peers. What drew these disparate factions together was an alliance of convenience, not complete agreement on all issues. But unanimity is what’s expected of modern conservatives. Business conservatives must show their faith, and evangelicals must speak the word of the Prosperity Gospel, and both have to take a hard line against America’s foreign foes. George W. Bush was the ultimate exemplar of this synthesis in one person, a scion of wealth, but also a born-again Christian surrounded by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and other noted neoconservatives. Conservatism has become a checklist, and every Republican is expected to fulfill the requirements like Bush did. I see this as a problem not because I’m some squishy centrist who’s allergic to the idea of purity testing, but because there are internal contradictions within this coalition. The neoconservatives will never be able to balance the budget the way the business class wants because defense spending is so expensive, and libertarians in the Republican coalition either have to betray that label like Rand Paul has, or else face down the Christian Right over gay marriage and abortion. The Party insists that the one Reagan size fits all, but the synthesis they’ve settled on is a compromise at war with itself.

The biggest tension of all is the rhetorical one about government, though. Opposition to “big government” is a big part of the glue that holds the coalition together, but government is useful to each of the three major factions that make up the Party. I’ve explained the neoconservatives at length, but social conservatives also need government regulations to create the moral society that they want, with abortion outlawed, tax exemptions for their activities, and whatever other legislation they think is necessary in order for society to be harmonious and moral. They’re social engineers at heart. And business, perhaps the most vociferous of all about tearing down government, may also have the most use for it. You’re probably thinking you’re way ahead of me here on what they want: big, juicy subsidies and contracts from the federal government. And those are considerations, but the most important thing that government can do for business is have more of the one thing that they complain about the most (besides taxes): more government regulation. The regulations that business usually whines about are ones that make their normal operations more expensive or less profitable, but there are also regulations that can make it harder for new firms to enter a market, barriers to entry as economists call them. These ones are extremely useful as a check on competition within a market, which would drive down profit margins for the firms in that market. This is one reason introductory economic logic isn’t a great guide to public policy: it usually assumes that there are no such barriers, and it’s easy for new firms to come in and challenge an existing one’s dominance, but it often doesn’t work that way in the real world, in no small part because big government has been appealed to to cut down on the competition. And with that in mind, you see why I thought Matthew Yglesias was only at the tip of the iceberg when it came to contradictions between public and private positions in the GOP.

These demands on government from different wings of the Republican Party are all potential items on Donald Trump’s domestic agenda, of course. He’s been slow in getting them done for a number of reasons including unpreparedness, Obamacare repeal taking up so much energy, Democratic intransigence, et cetera. But time is of the essence for them, because having so much control over government means that Republicans have no more excuses left for any inability to advance the agenda they’ve run on, and no more time in which to delay dealing with the internal contradictions I’ve laid out here. For the Party that deems government the problem and not the solution, their political fortunes for the next four years are predicated on proving themselves wrong.

The Future of the Radical Right

Now, one thing that political commentators are expected to do is to provide some sorts of prognostications of the future – after all, what good is the study of politics and political science if none of it’s prescriptive? And a lot of what I’ve been doing, with these posts that keep referencing ones I’ve written previously, and letting ideas and concepts build on each other, is to try and acclimate you guys to my way of thinking, so that when I do lay everything out on the table and explain where I think American politics is going in the future, it won’t seem radical so much as a logical (albeit distressing, spoilers) progression from where we are now. I’m not ready to do that just yet, and nor do I claim infallibility in my vision, of course – in fact, given how grim the future looks from here, I desperately hope I am wrong in significant ways. But that’s the future piece that I’m building towards, and before I get there, I’m going to address the more immediate issues facing the political left and right in this country. Now, as you guys may remember from my introduction, I think it’s fallacious to see the left and the right as mirror images of each other, so what troubles the left is very different from the issues that plague the right. That said, I don’t think the order in which I address them matters too much, so let’s start with the right.

Now, these readings of the tea leaves are going to be more ambitious than what I’ve been writing so far – in the past, I’ve been condensing things for space, but for this I want to do these concepts and philosophies justice, so I tried to decide whether I should greatly expand the length of the individual posts, or make these two-parters each for left and right. In the end, I’ve decided to split the difference; this will be longer than usual, but I’ll be wrapping up the discussion of the right on Thursday.

Now, you’ll note the title today talks about the future of the “radical” right specifically – the reason for this is that the right has a different story than the left, where it’s accepted routine for the fringes of far-right thinking to be drawn into the mainstream of politics and challenge conservative orthodoxy. This tradition goes back a long way, as well, with Steve Bannon and his ilk merely being the latest incarnation of this dynamic. As weird as it looks for CPAC to welcome Donald Trump and celebrate all that he is, when just a year beforehand they were working overtime to stop his bid for the Republican nomination, it’s not much weirder than a sitting Congressman (a Democrat, oddly enough, but the 70’s still had right-wing Democrats) becoming President of the John Birch Society in 1983, the organization that William F. Buckley called “far removed from common sense”. Or how about 1987, when Alan Greenspan, a devotee of Ayn Rand, traditionally verboten on the right for her atheism, became chairman of the Federal Reserve? For all of the progressive fretting about “normalization” in the wake of Trump’s election, normalizing the far right goes back as far as there’s been a recognizable far right. And speaking of Ayn Rand, the man who’s second in line for the Presidency famously requires his staff to read Atlas Shrugged.

Of course, Paul Ryan holds the Speakership of the House of Representatives precisely because his veneration for Ayn Rand has become, well, normalized; the dark side of this word we’re using is that not only will radical and potentially dangerous ideas come into the mainstream of our political discourse, but that more radical thoughts will replace them at the fringes, leaving someone like Ryan as a compromise choice. And that dynamic explains the place the right is at right now – Ronald Reagan’s mix of Rand and John Birch-influenced economics, politicized evangelicalism, and neoconservative foreign policy has become trite and rote, which explains why his name has become so deified on the right. This collection of different policies has been the conventional dogma of the Republican Party for decades, but because it’s dogma, the Jeb Bushes and Marco Rubios of the world no longer understand why Reagan stood for this particular policy synthesis and how these disparate positions fit together, and so they invoke Reagan’s name and catchphrases like “conservative values”, to try and recapture that synthesis for reasons they don’t understand themselves because they don’t know what else there is. So, not only has Reaganism become self-justifying in the Republican Party, but a mix of policy failures and shifting social dynamics also mean that it doesn’t hold the same relevance to voters that it did back in the 80’s. Rod Dreher touches upon the artificiality of these policy stances when he deconstructs David Brooks’ reaction to Trump’s recent address to Congress:

“Do you realize that there are as many years between the time Reagan left office and Trump was sworn in as there was between Eisenhower’s inauguration and Reagan’s? The Republicans coasted on Reaganism for a long time. Trump instinctively sensed that the House That Reagan Built was riddled with termites, and wouldn’t stand if given a shove…George W. Bush’s calamitous war in Iraq destroyed the eagerness of Americans to serve as the world’s policeman. The fact that average Americans have fallen farther behind, and more economically insecure, while most of the economic gains of the past decades have accrued to the top of the economic pyramid has disillusioned many about the virtues of free-market ideology…as for social conservatism, that’s complicated, but I think it’s mostly a matter of people not believing in it anymore, except in a nominal sense, and of people prioritizing other concerns.”

Now, I actually think there are some differences between Bush’s foreign policy and Reagan’s – Reagan didn’t share Bush’s faith in democracy as a transformative power, since that was a product of the peaceful fall of communism in Eastern Europe that only came after Reagan left office – but otherwise, Dreher touches on one major reason that Republicans are willing to abandon Reaganism at the behest of Trump. They don’t see Reagan’s old catechisms as being the solutions for the problems America faces right now, and because they’ve all but literally become catechisms, their defenders can’t easily fall back on the inherent logic behind these positions to defend them – they’re not used to having to justify them. There’s one other major reason why Trumpism is supplanting Reaganism, and I think it speaks to the unrecognized glue that has held the far-right together for as long as it has; Trumpism is accepted because Trump advocates it, and, more importantly, Democrats quite clearly despise Trump. To explain why this is important, I’m gonna have to talk about Richard Nixon and his role in shaping modern conservatism.

Now, Nixon is a complicated figure to say the least, and his relationship with the far right is equally so since he wasn’t really one of them, and for much of his career was mistrusted by self-proclaimed “principled conservatives”. Nevertheless, Watergate threw this tension, like so many other political arrangements, into chaos. I’ve found two excellent pieces on the conservative movement’s rally in the defense of Nixon during the scandal. Although I think the second, written by Rick Perlstein way back in 2005, offers a good portrait of how conservative honor has been contorted by the defense of Watergate, the first one, appearing in a blog mere days before the 2016 election, paints a more vivid picture of people’s reactions from the time. Nixon’s attempts to defend himself under scrutiny are familiar not only to people older than me who actually lived through Watergate, but to anyone who’s watched a politician face an embarrassing scandal: he attacked the investigation as a partisan witch hunt, claiming that “If I were a liberal, Watergate would be a blip”. These kinds of self-serving rationalizations are familiar, but perhaps more surprising is that for all that Congress, even its Republicans, were ready to go through with impeachment if the standoff continued, Nixon was still able to find allies elsewhere. Indeed, for some on the far right, it was his perceived persecution that constituted the entirety of his appeal to them: as Young Americans for Freedom founder M. Stanton Evans famously quipped, “I never liked Nixon until Watergate”. This is negative partisanship at its most pure – Nixon became virtuous in the eyes of the far right the moment he became a target for liberals, and the more zealously they investigated him, the more virtuous he became.

And that’s why I’m concerned about the threat posed by Trump – if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s offending the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that there aren’t hundreds of legitimate reasons for it, and as a Democrat myself, I agree with most of the left’s grievances, but we need to recognize that our expressions of distaste give Trump more credibility on the right than a thousand invocations of Reagan’s name and ideals ever could. And this is also why I consider the idea of successfully impeaching Trump to be a fantasy – it would require that Congressional Republicans agree to remove him from office, but even if Republicans are increasingly no longer the Party of Reagan, they are still the Party of Nixon, with Tricky Dick serving not as inspiration or philosopher, but as martyr. To abandon one of their own in the face of left-wing attack is something that they’re sworn to never allow again, and in the face of radical shifts in what the Republican Party stands for, I’m still pretty convinced that this is one Rubicon that they’re not ready to cross. As for Democrats retaking Congress, well, be back Thursday, when I talk about Republican electoral power and what they can do with it. Suffice to say, I don’t think it’s too likely in the foreseeable future.

A Dive off the Deep End

I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over this post, and deciding when would be the right time to take a crack at it, only really deciding last night that now’s as good a time as any to get it over with, especially in light of what I wrote about on Sunday, but we’ll get to that. Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one: a United States Senator appeared on Meet the Press, talking about the NSA and the dangerous surveillance powers it’s been given. He said this:

“If government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know…I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”

The Senator was Frank Church of Idaho, and the year was 1975, but his warning is more relevant than ever four decades on. The NSA hasn’t gotten any better, between the revelation of their massive collection of personal information on millions of Americans, or Director James Clapper’s lying about it under oath in front of Congress. Now, Clapper did see fit to retire after that minor oversight…this past November, more than three years after the fact. So yes, we still have intelligence agencies maintaining and even expanding surveillance activities, and far from operating within the law and under supervision, they’ve proven a willingness to break laws in order to dodge proper supervision by Congress. Of course, there’s hardly any arrests when this sort of misconduct does come to light. I wish I could tell you guys for sure why this never happens, but the best I can come up with is threefold: one, members of the intelligence community will retreat behind their walls of secrecy, and so long as they refuse to hand over incriminating evidence or testify against each other, securing convictions would be difficult. Second, members of Congress don’t want to be seen as impeding national security by hampering our intelligence gatherers. And lastly, we as a society just don’t expect any better. These sorts of shady activities have been in the public consciousness at least since the Church Committee and its related Congressional investigations over forty years ago, there weren’t any high-profile arrests then, either, and we’ve just accepted lawbreaking CIA spooks as a fact of life. It all goes back to faith, as I keep saying; we don’t have any faith that they can be punished, so we don’t care if they’re not.

Of course, the longstanding history of the deep state (the umbrella term for the CIA, FBI, NSA, and other military and intelligence outfits that make important policy decisions and actions without democratic oversight and accountability – and yes, I know that experts of Turkish and Egyptian government take issue with this term being used in democracies, but I don’t care, the difference between those countries and ours isn’t capacity, but abuse) and its treating the Fourth Amendment as a trifling inconvenience does raise another question. If the infrastructure for an American police state already exists, but it hasn’t been turned on an Administration’s domestic opposition in a flagrant or systemic way in all of this time, then what’s got me worried now? One thing: the various agencies that comprise the American deep state seem to be getting highly invested in domestic politics lately.

It’s only been a couple weeks since Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign for reasons that, depending on who you talk to, range from treasonous collusion with the Russian government before the election to being the fall guy in a shadow war between Trump and the CIA. Whatever else is true, it’s undeniable that Flynn had a bad relationship with the intelligence agency, and that the furor that led to his resignation began with an anonymous leak of his conversations with the Russian ambassador. It’s also easy to see a more widespread enmity between Trump’s Administration and the CIA, with high-profile former officials having endorsed Hillary Clinton during the campaign, part of the general trend of national security-oriented conservatives being the most skeptical of Trump. Apparently, the only Never Trumpers that ever mattered were in the deep state the whole time. Now, this isn’t to say that the deep state is a partisan monolith out to destroy Donald Trump. We all remember James Comey’s famous letter to Congress that, again, depending on who you talk to, was decisive in tipping the election against her. With the revelation that Trump was under FBI investigation himself at the time the letter was penned, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that yes, this double standard in disclosure was a deliberate attempt to influence the election, whether on Comey’s preferences or to appease those beneath him who may have preferred Trump. Regardless, we’re seeing a pattern whereby deep state agencies are taking advantage of the intelligence they gather and investigations they conduct, and selectively disclosing parts of these to the public in order to get what they want.

So, FBI=Republican, CIA=Democratic, then? No, I don’t think so. It’s not a good description of the CIA, and it’s probably oversimplifying the FBI, too. As for why the CIA really backed Hillary, what’s worrying when you dig into those CIA endorsements of her that I linked earlier is their conspiracy-mongering about Donald Trump and Russia, with former Acting Director Michael Morell calling him “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”. Now, I’ll have something in the future on what I think about Russia and its influence in other countries’ politics, but hearing open Russophobia from the CIA kind of confirms my longstanding suspicions that they’ve never left the Cold War. This is a problem for any number of reasons, but what’s concerning here is that, well, the CIA went to some pretty extreme measures to combat Moscow during the Cold War, and didn’t show much respect for democracy at all along the way. To have an organization with that kind of track record decide it should pick winners and losers in American politics as well to me is just as unsettling as the alt-right. The difference between the two is that the CIA also has a successful track record of destroying the democracies it touches.

And that brings me to the reason I thought this post should follow the one from Sunday: the press. Trump has always been a ratings gold mine for the media, and the pressure to come up with more content, more stories about his troubled Administration makes them ideal patsies for deep state agencies looking to damage their rivals. Like I said on Sunday, the press is deeply dependent on government sources for access and corroboration of stories. The intelligence community is one part of government that’s not only able and willing to provide such access, but just the mere mention of “anonymous sources within the intelligence community” adds an imprimatur of additional gravitas to whatever half-baked assertion is coming next. That makes the leaks coming out of the Trump Administration dangerous – we can’t know what’s real and what’s politically motivated nonsense ourselves, since the Administration has already plumbed new depths of surrealism, and journalists are too credulous and desperate to do it themselves, so it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s false anymore. In this kind of environment, where uncertainty reigns, the deep state has all the reach, power, and outside credibility it needs to rule from the shadows.

On the Powerlessness of the Press

It seems so characteristically Trump to do what he did on Friday, and cancel his press secretary’s scheduled press briefing in favor of an off-camera event in which particular news outlets would be barred from attending. And yet, at the same time, it also seems like a logical progression in the American government’s relationship with the media that I can neither claim surprise or even as much dismay over this as I probably should. At its core, this decision just showcases the power dynamics between the press and the government and the way they’ve changed over time. Now, traditionally, we expect journalists to have power over the government, the power to investigate wrongdoing. And if the government puts up barriers in a reporter’s way, well, that’s a story in and of itself. Between public pressure for transparency and the ever-present potential for leaks and whistle-blowers, the truth should out one way or another.

Things have changed, though, and there’s one word that explains why: access. Simply put, journalists need access to government sources to write their stories, and that makes them dependent on the same government that they’re supposed to investigate and hold accountable for wrongdoing. And you can see that shift exemplified in the career of Bob Woodward, whose Watergate fame has ensured him lifetime access to the inner workings of different Administrations…so long as he limits his observations to anodyne book reports in the vein of Bush at War. And Washington is more than aware of this change in power, and they’ve been exploiting it long before Trump took office. Hell, it’s not even limited to people in government: it’s mostly been forgotten by now, but we should remember that during the Summer of 2015, Hillary Clinton’s campaign took some drastic measures to limit the free movement of reporters at her campaign events. When scenes like the one below go without much comment or outrage, you can’t expect the general public to go to bat for the Fourth Estate at all:

And we were wondering why the email issue was in the news for so long. Anyways, this all puts Trump’s actions in context, but we shouldn’t elide the danger. The muzzling of the media by government and campaigns is possible because of the media’s need for access and increasing difficulty in turning a profit in the digital age, but it’s happened without much public protest because most Americans don’t trust the media. And as much as I’d like to link this with the more general decline in trust in institutions, the Gallup poll I just linked will tell you that the decline has been asymmetric, with Republicans in particular believing that mainstream journalism is biased in favor of the left. And this has consistently been a part of Trump’s strategy from the beginning, accusing critical journalists of treating him unfairly, whether it’s Megyn Kelly or the Washington Post or whoever happens to be his particular bugbear today. By discrediting the sources of negative news about his Administration, he insulates his base from information sources that will say anything other than how hunky-dory his Presidency has been so far.

Now, it’s one thing for his Administration to discriminate against certain news agencies, but we’ll know we’re in real trouble if any of the networks that Trump has blacklisted start making concessions towards him and moderate their coverage in an attempt to get back in his good graces. And as gloomy as I’ve been in a lot of the posts I’ve written here, I still don’t see that as too likely. For one, journalists still have a lot of pride in the role they play in our democracy. As much as the Clinton camp may have disliked it, you could see that pride at work in their overzealous scandal-mongering of her presidential campaigns; they all aspired to be Bob Woodward, but the young Woodward, the one who did investigative reporting and could challenge the White House. And for another, Trump’s Administration hasn’t had a shortage of leaks so far, which means that outlets like the Washington Post aren’t starved for news items. All of this means that I still don’t really expect the Post or the New York Times or other outlets to start kowtowing to Trump; the harder they try to clamp down on negative coverage, the more leaks will slip through their fingers.

But while I’m managing expectations, I should also weigh in on the fragmentation of the news media. I’ve already written at some length about the polarization of America along geographic and moral lines, and it’s unsurprising that the media, driven by profit and rather desperate as it is, has catered to this divergence, with certain networks catering to specific sides of the divide. Now, the example of Fox is well known, but I’d say it’s also important to consider the example of MSNBC, which reinvented itself during the Bush Administration to be the left-leaning alternative to Fox; where it had previously welcomed the likes of Tucker Carlson, it’s now become the network of Rachel Maddow. Both networks can do what they want, of course, but what they’ve done is define a niche in which to market their respective products, as opposed to trying to appeal to the country as a whole. We just don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore. And this has implications for the Trump Administration and whatever criminal misconduct may emerge from it. In this environment, I don’t expect a Watergate-level scandal anytime soon, even if Watergate-level or even worse wrongdoing comes to light, simply because scandal itself has become a partisan affair. The coverage simply wouldn’t reach over to the Fox-Breitbart side of the divide in the same form that it would appear in the New York Times. And even if it did, impeachment is still the responsibility of Congress, so I’m afraid that that will have to remain in the realm of liberal fantasy for the foreseeable future. None of this means the Fourth Estate shouldn’t do its level best to find the facts in what already seems a profoundly corrupt Administration, but whatever they find, we should still expect Trump to leave office not with a bang, but with a whimper, when his presidential term(s) expire.