One thing that every late-stage ruling class has in common is a high tolerance for mediocrity. Standards decline, the edges fray, but nobody in charge seems to notice. They’re happy in their sinecures and getting richer. In a culture like this, there’s no penalty for being wrong. The talentless prosper, rising inexorably toward positions of greater power, and breaking things along the way. It happened to the Ottomans. Max Boot is living proof that it’s happening in America.
The author of the above paragraph goes on to tell us that Max Boot is the military “expert” who made the Case for American Empire in 2001, and in 2011, demanded that Qaddafi Must Go. We then get a history of how the Democrats reemerged as a party of war.
By sending aid and weapons to the Afghan resistance, Reagan helped weaken the Russian position in Afghanistan, and ultimately the Soviet Union itself. Democrats fought him on the policy from the beginning. Republicans accused liberals of being effectively pro-Soviet, and some of them were. Yet decades later you’ve got to wonder how wise it was to arm Muslim extremists waging a holy war in Southwest Asia. Both Osama bin Laden and Taliban founder Mohammed Omar got their first taste of warfare in the Afghan mujahideen. Ironically, though, by the time it became clear that America had played a leading role in training its own enemies, liberals were in no position to complain. By that point, they were nearly as prowar as the Republicans.
Were these paragraphs authored by someone at the Quincey Institute or someone associated with the Bernie campaign? Not quite. The paragraphs appear in Tucker Carlson’s polemic, The Ship of Fools (2018). David Brooks hesitates from a full endorsement of Carlson as an advocate of working-class Republicanism.
Behind these public figures there is a posse of policy wonks and commentators supporting a new Working-Class Republicanism, including Oren Cass, Henry Olsen, J.D. Vance, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Saagar Enjeti, Samuel Hammond and, in his own way, Tucker Carlson.David Brooks, New York Times, Aug 8, 2020.
On Trumpism after Trump, see Tom Meaney’s [high brow] report in Harper’s. But what does Brooks mean by the qualification, ‘in his own way’? Tucker Carlson is irredeemable not because he has been canceled. Perhaps due to the Coronavirus, he is the most watched political commentator of all time this summer. Tucker Carlson’s problem has to do with the culture of American elites. In a system where status is allocated in proportion to school prestige, Carlson read at St George’s School in Rhode Island and then Trinity College in Connecticut. Carlson has no graduate degrees either.
But wait, you say. Perhaps Brooks is alluding to Carlson’s intellectual chops? Where does Ship of Fools stand in the hierarchy of high-brow, middle-brow and low brow? The London Review of Books in the highest brow periodical of general interest followed by the rest of the elite media sorted on prestige. The top 10 news newspapers by circulation, for instance, can be sorted on prestige: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, New York Post, Star Tribune, Newsday and finally, USA Today, a low brow newspaper if there was ever one.
The hierarchy really comes into its own in the Books section. The author Brooks is missing is Michael Lind. The intellectual gap between Lind’s New Class War and Carlson’s Ship of Fools is obvious. So is the gap, more generally, between monographs and essays on the one hand, and essays and polemics on the other. It is hard for essays to rise to the quality of top-notch monographs like Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain or Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design. Essays like David Edgerton’s England and the Aeroplance can certainly be top-notch and high brow enough to qualify. Polemics range from low brow to middle brow; rising only rarely to high brow. Perhaps what Brooks means is that Lind’s is high brow and Carlson’s is middle brow.
As an interesting instance of low brow nonfiction, consider Dave Hayes’s Calm Before the Storm (Q Chronicles). The Q phenomena poses a potential terrorist threat, according to US intelligence analysts. They are right to be concerned. The threat is particularly serious for Hillary Clinton, the principal devil in the QAnon imaginary. Counterintelligence should also be concerned. It is possible that Q is a lone wolf in a basement, an intelligence buff who got caught up in the webs he started spinning and somehow found himself a large audience. Given the situational awareness displayed by Q, it is also possible, perhaps probable, that Q is an intelligence operation by a foreign intelligence agency. Can we rule out scenarios with rogue elements in US intelligence running Q, whether or not with Trump’s knowledge? No. None of these hypotheses can be ruled out at this stage.
Whether or not Tucker Carlson is canceled, whatever his ratings, whatever his status, and whatever the quality of Ship of Fools as a polemic, he does have a point about Markovitz’s [high brow] Meritocracy. Precisely because school prestige is your ticket to high-status, once you’re stamped, you can cruise. That’s a recipe for ‘a high tolerance for mediocrity’. That Tucker thinks that this is true of ‘every late-stage ruling class’ is diagnostic of middle brow status. Although it must be said that the cyclical theory of elite-mass relations that Tucker assumes can be grounded in Peter Turchin’s Structural-Demographic Theory where the forcing variable is elite overproduction. But even with that embedding, Ship of Fools does not make the cut.
In the summer of COVID, protests, riots, crime waves, moral panics, cancellations, and while the number crunchers are expecting a crushing defeat for the folk devil-in-chief, the contours of a backlash are emerging. Tucker Carlson would be at the center of the storm if it comes [Q pun unintended]. It is not clear whether Biden can compete with Trump’s screen presence. (No, Biden cannot chicken out of the debates.) Recall that there will be two nations watching the debates, just as there were when Buckley debated Vidal in 1968. To the creators of Best of Enemies (2015), Buckley obviously lost. The evidence offered is that he, Buckley, made an ad hominem attack by calling Vidal a “queer.” That doesn’t compute on three levels. First, Buckley was responding to Vidal’s own ad hominem attack — “crypto-Nazi.” Second, “queer” was a slur but no worse than “crypto-Nazi,” even though it had the opposite valence. Third, and what’s diagnostic about the film’s middle brow status, is that the debate cannot be reduced to that heated exchange. And it cannot be so easily disembedded from history.
In 1968, two Americas watched as cops beat professional class kids and Buckley debated Gore in the shadow of a presidential election. To the cultural elite, Buckley lost the debate, Nixon ought to have lost the election, and Chicago was an atrocity by Mayor Daley. The masses disagreed. They put Nixon in the White House. And reckoned that Chicago was just comeuppance for draft-dodging hippies. It is safe to say that for working class America, Buckley won.
In 2020, professional class kids again waged pitched battles with police and federal troops. The prestige media demonized the police and threw its weight behind middle brow professional antiracists and their hare-brained schemes to defund and abolish the police — strongly opposed even by majorities of African-Americans. The police, not fans of being treated as folk devils, abandoned the streets to hooligans. The riots and the lawlessness of American cities led to a spike in homicides, looting and arson. It got so bad that the New York Times had to break its silence about the lack of security on American streets when it was forced to report on a major lawsuit brought by small business owners in Seattle.
It does not take a genius to figure out the contours of the emerging backlash. Minds will concentrate when the polls narrow, as they almost certainly will. The Democrats’ fall-back position is coming around to throwing Antifa under the bus: in order to distance himself from the rioters while embracing BLM, Biden will condemn Antifa. Since Biden has gone radio silent, much depends on the veep pick. We also don’t know what happens to the polls when Biden has to speak. Or do his people think that he can coast to the white house without a campaign?