A couple of incisive comments by conservative op ed columnist George Will, who’s been making himself widely available for interviews on the publication of his new book (actually a collection of his Washington Post columns), titled American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008-2020. Kirkus describes it as an “overstuffed collection of the conservative columnist’s reviews and rarefied reflections from the Washington Post, geared toward his enduring ‘intellectually upscale’ readers.”
Most of it strikes me as vintage George Will, but what he says about the dyspeptic 1790s, 1850s and today … status grievances … and the difference between conservatism (which sounds a lot like the formulations of civic religion) and “beating up on Mexicans, or whatever [Trump] says” … strike me as eminently well grounded in US history … and eminently quotable.
Also this in the interview with Zack Stanton: “If someone came along and said, ‘Really, now. Calm down. Deep breaths.’ I think the country would be so ready for that.”
Excerpts, MSNBC interview by Garrett Haake:
[1:20] The Republican Party obviously is in a very unique position in that most Republican officeholders are terrified of a good portion of their voters. They’re afraid that any sulphuric belch from Mar-a-Lago by tweet can send them into private life. As a result, if you’re frightened of your voters, you don’t much like your voters. If you don’t like them, you don’t respect them. And sooner or later this gets communicated between the leaders and the voters.
[3:35] We’ve had dyspeptic moments in our nation before. The 1790s when we were just beginning to understand the party system and what being a loyal opposition meant; the 1850s when the nation was arguing about really big questions. Could some human beings own other human beings? Should slavery expand into the territories, et cetera. What makes today dyspeptic in a different way is: It’s hard to know what you could do with a law that makes people happy. People are happy about their status and the perceived condescension of others. It’s hard to write a political program to address status resentments like that. Which is why this is a cultural and class conflict we’re having, and not political as we normally understand politics at all.
Politico interview by Zack Stanton:
One of the striking things to me about our politics is that the grievances — which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious — are very difficult to address with “politics” understood as “legislation and policy.” I mean, if people feel condescended to, how do you write a bill and take care of condescension? It’s very hard to address, which is why politics becomes sort of cut off from the normal stuff of politics. Donald Trump says, “these people despise you and we should despise them.” What do you do politically? I don’t get it.
Did the success of Donald Trump make you reconsider what you thought of as “conservatism”?
No. No, no, no. It made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked. But no: Conservatism, by golly, is what I say it is. [Laughs]
In my last book before this one, “The Conservative Sensibility,” the common question — and it’s a good one — was: What do conservatives want to conserve? The answer is the American founding, which is basically three things. First, there is a constant human nature — we are not just creatures who acquire the impress of whatever culture we’re situated in. Second, there are natural rights — that is, rights that are essential to the flourishing of creatures of our constant human nature. Third, governments are, as the declaration said, instituted to “secure” — the most important word in the declaration —those rights, which preexist government. And the structure of government must be such that, in our Madisonian way, government is strong enough to protect the rights, but not too strong to threaten our rights.
That’s conservatism. And along comes Mr. Trump, who says, “No, conservatism is beating up on the Mexicans” or whatever he says.
This brings to mind a conversation I had earlier this year with a devout Christian who expressed alarm at the number of people who self-identified as evangelical Christians but whose idea of what that means is entirely cultural instead of being rooted in scripture. It feels like you’re describing something similar with Trump: That there are self-identified “conservatives” whose idea of what conservatism means is entirely based on cultural identity and cultural grievance instead of those tenets of conservatism as a philosophy. Do you think that that’s a fair comparison?
I think it is. Donald Trump is the purest expression of the current pandemic of performative politics — politics cut off from anything other than making one’s adherents feel good. And people nowadays feel good by disliking the other team.
Long ago, when I was a child and the world and I were young, there was a radio program called “Fibber McGee and Molly.” And Molly would say to her husband, “Fibber, if it makes you happy to be unhappy, then be unhappy.” A lot of people are only happy when they’re unhappy now. It makes them feel alive to define themselves not in terms of positive affirmations, but of hostilities. And I don’t know what to do about it.
Personnel matters — that is, who’s up and who’s down in politics. One of the things we’ve learned from Donald Trump is the enormous capacity of one individual to alter the tone of our civic life. You can’t unring the bell and you can’t unsay the things he said — and they have consequences. However, you can get someone different to ring a different bell.
It’s not easy for people who are not demagogues to have the kind of dramatic effect a demagogue can have. But I do think someone with Eisenhower’s smile or Reagan’s chuckle would make a big difference. If someone came along and said, “Really, now. Calm down. Deep breaths.” I think the country would be so ready for that.
Do you think of yourself as part of the “establishment”?
[Pause] Let me give you two answers.
People are always talking about the “Republican establishment.” I tend to think the Republican establishment died at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in the summer of 1964, when they decided to stop [Barry] Goldwater, and they said, “Bill Scranton, come on down.” There was an establishment up to that point. They had a newspaper: the New York Herald Tribune. They had a bank: Chase. They had the Rockefeller brothers. They had Bill Scranton. It was an establishment — and Goldwater beat them. The Herald Tribune died, as I recall, in April ‘66, and it hasn’t been quite the same since.
That said, the phrase “Republican establishment” is a little bit like Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking about the “international community” — as though that phrase actually denoted something. Rwanda and Denmark? I mean, what are we talking about?
But on the other hand, yeah! Look: I’ve been in Washington for 50-some years. I love Washington. It’s my home now; I’m a Washingtonian. I love the monuments. I love driving around the city and seeing them. And I suppose in some sense, someone who appears regularly in the hometown newspaper — and in a few hundred others — is part of the establishment. Guilty.
Someone on my staff tweets from my columns twice a week. That’s it. I’m told I have a Facebook Page; I’ve never seen it.
You don’t feel like you’re missing out?
I know exactly what I’m missing, and I’m delighted to miss it.
You’ve been writing for the Washington Post since 1973 — more than 48 years, 6,000 or so columns. What do you get out of writing, and is it different at this point in your life than it was when you started?
First, I get intense, almost tactile pleasure out of putting sentences together. I have a metabolic urge to write. I think a lot of writers hate to write; they like hanging out in the journalistic subculture and they like seeing their name in print at the end, but the actual writing is painful. Red Smith, the great sportswriter, said: there’s nothing to writing, you just open a vein and bleed. I think that’s nuts. I can think of nothing more fun than writing.
Review of American Happiness and Discontents: The Unruly Torrent, 2008-2020 by George Will, Kirkus Reviews, Sept. 14, 2021 https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/george-f-will/american-happiness-and-discontents/.
George Will, “Does ‘Conservatism’ Actually Mean Anything Anymore?” interview by Zack Stanton, Politico, Sept. 17, 2021 https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/17/future-politics-conservatism-george-will-512308.
“George Will: Republican Officeholders ‘Are Terrified’ Of Their Voters,” interview by Garrett Haake, MSNBC, Sept. 16, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vofmvlyww8.