Everyone Knows the Truth About Politics
“Everybody knows everything.” That mordant observation is the first of Burnham’s Laws. James Burnham was a significant mid-20th century figure, a public intellectual and political philosopher who started out on the left — as a young follower he carried on an extensive personal correspondence with Leon Trotsky — and became in time an eloquent foe of totalitarianism in whatever its manifestation. While at National Review, which he helped found, he gave his colleagues 10 maxims or laws about the realities of life. No. 5 is the wholly true, “Wherever there is prohibition there’s a bootlegger.” No. 10 has become well known: “If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem.”
But most arresting, and richest in inference, is No. 1, which I always pare down to EVERYONE KNOWS.
The big secret is that it isn’t a secret.
In its personal application Burnham’s No. 1 Law suggests you can’t successfully or forever conceal anything bad about yourself and your nature, it will all come out and probably has. People see more than you know. Don’t focus on concealment but creation. In political terms it suggests: everyone knows your essential position and future necessities; your close-hold campaign strategies are actually obvious.
Everyone knows Donald Trump can be taken in 2020, but everyone doubts the ability of the current Democratic field to do it. Everyone knows Elizabeth Warren has successfully created and inhabited a persona — the determined, high-energy fighter full of plans — and is killing it. She knows she has gone too far left for the general electorate and will introduce nuance and an air of greater moderation once she gets the nomination. Everyone knows this.
Everyone knows the Democratic moderates are going nowhere and cluttering up every stage, but no one minds their being there because they make the party look sane.
Joe Biden may have about 30% in the polls, but that means all the candidates to his left have about 70%. Mr. Biden’s front-runner status as a perceived moderate (changes in his stands leave him to the left of Hillary Clinton ) doesn’t demonstrate that the party’s primary-goers tilt moderate. It shows they’re mostly progressive, and the perceived moderate is getting that part of the base. The Democratic Party really HAS gone sharply left, and everyone knows.
Shall we be rude? Oh, let’s. Everyone knows Donald Trump is a mental case, including I believe Donald Trump. Why else does he keep insisting he is an “extremely stable genius”? It’s as if he knows a lot of people are certain he’s neither.
It would be nice here to say, “I don’t mean mental case. I mean his mind is a raucous TV funhouse; that he is immature, unserious, and at the mercy of poor impulse control; that he doesn’t exercise power intelligently but emotionally, and with an eye, always to personal needs.” But mental case will do.
He just fired his third national security adviser, by Twitter , under contested circumstances. They had apparently argued: the president was going to invite the Taliban, that band of gangsters, mooks and morons who housed the terrorists who killed 3,000 of us 18 years ago this week, to Camp David. Camp David! The august retreat where presidents host great nations and great allies. Where FDR met with Churchill and Reagan walked with Thatcher.
No one who knows what history IS would do this. No one who knows the American people would do it. No one who felt 9/11 in his bones would do it. But a guy going for a cheap handshake and a triumphant photo would. It’s the kind of idea a mental case might readily entertain.
By my observation something is going on with Mr. Trump’s supporters. They now concede much more about him in private than they did in the past. They use words like “unpredictable” or “emotional” or “a little chaotic.” They say, “Well, he may be crazy but maybe that’s what’s needed to keep his enemies hopping.” He may not be a good man, they concede, but the swamp has defeated good men.
What is interesting is that they no longer say what they used to — “You’ve got it wrong, he’s stable, a successful businessman, a realist.” And they no longer compare him to Reagan.
His most frequent public defenders now believe he’s a screwball, which is why they no longer devote their time to lauding him but to attacking his critics.
They’re uncomfortable. He is wearing his own people down.
To Thursday night’s debate:
The great question isn’t who got the most time or who got in a good shot, those things are rarely as important as they seem at the moment. The real question is: Did the candidates in the row of podiums show any sign that they are aware they’re going too far left? That they have come across in previous debates as extreme and outside the mainstream?
Maybe a little. There seemed to be some recalibrating. No one bravely declared they’ll outlaw all private health insurance. Ms. Warren in fact repeatedly and rather brazenly ducked the question. It must be showing up in her polls that telling more than 100 million people you’ll take away their health insurance isn’t a “popular idea.” No one called for open borders, or federal funding for abortions for transgender women. There was a lot of identity politics and autobiography.
My first impression was that so many of the contenders are such accomplished TV performers with such rounded, practiced sentences that are so dramatically delivered. It is hard to remember but JFK and Nixon were a little shy to be on TV in their 1960 debate, and a little formal. Jimmy Carter, too, 20 years later, with Reagan — they had a certain muted tone. Up until 2000 or so, national TV was a place where you would appropriately feel nervous. Now candidates are so smooth, so TV-ready. Performers in their natural habitat.
This isn’t new, of course. But each cycle it seems a little more so, and a little more unsettling.
Ms. Warren was relatively quiet, almost recessive during the first half, and emerged unscathed as Bernie Sanders and Mr. Biden went at each other. Mr. Biden was fine. As Mr. Sanders spoke and gesticulated in his wide and ranty way I remembered that sometimes the thing that works against you is also what works for you. He comes across like your angry Menshevik uncle in the attic, but like that uncle he means what he says, is sincere and convinced, and that has its own power.
I close with a last thing everyone knows, if they only think a minute. When we talk about politics we all obsess on alt-right and progressive left, those peas in a sick pod, and no one speaks of the center, which is vast and has something neither way-left nor way-right has, and that is a motivating love for America itself, and not for abstractions and ideologies and theories of the case. As a group they are virtually ignored, and yet they are the center of everything. They include those of the left who are no longer comfortable in a new progressive party. And rightists not comfortable with Mr. Trump, or with the decisions and approaches of the Bush era. It includes those experiencing ongoing EID — extreme ideological discomfort.
In this cycle they continue to be the great ignored. And everyone knows.
Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.