What Happened to Conservatism?
Maybe it was always like this.
1. They Are Who We Thought They Were?
Let’s start today with an email from reader J.S.:
I was thinking about your comments on The Next Level about the conservative movement. I know you're still trying to figure out "what happened" because I've also been trying to figure out what happened and how I didn't see it. I spend lots of time thinking about it and I feel like I hardly make a dent for all the effort. Sometimes, I wonder whether it is worth it to try right now, as I don't think the crazy train has reached the station yet.
I am not sure how much "fault" there is, but I think a big problem was that a large part of the conservative base thought that [conservative elites] were dog whistling when we were on the level. Conservatives three decades ago talked about Western Civilization and Great Books. In retrospect, it's amazing to me to think that people really thought the conservative base was interested in things like Aristotle or Shakespeare or Beethoven. (I was very naive.)
We talked about “markets” and the wisdom of the masses—and then a plague hits and people scoff at basic safety measures.
We said “personal responsibility”—and they heard that African Americans were poor because they deserved it.
If I had to do it over again, I am not sure I would have figured out the problem any faster. I would not have imagined that so many people were faking it. It wasn't an intellectual error so much as being a poor judge of character.
Which is funny—because we conservatives thought we had such a hard-headed view of human nature. But all along it turned out that we were deeply sentimental in wanting to believe that “like-minded” people cared about the same things we did, for the same reasons.
This is a question that fascinates both on the macro level and on the individual level.
By “individual level,” what I mean is this:
When you see someone who was formerly respectable—and not just respectable, but really quite admired—suddenly become a crazy person . . . well, did they become a crazy person? Or were they always like that, and the failure was one of perception?
Today I’m thinking about Alan Dershowitz, who was once upon a time kind of an iconoclastic giant, but has become a crank. But the world is full of people who fit this description: Rudy Giuliani. Richard A. Epstein.
How are we supposed to explain these transformations? There are a few options.
(1) The late-stage crazy is an aberration. They really are serious people beneath what we see now.
(2) The crazy is real, brought on by some physical or chemical change.
(3) They were always crazy, and we just didn’t realize it for whatever reason. (Confirmation of priors, naiveté, etc.)
(4) Their innate character was such that the kind of crazy they possessed was once valuable, but eventually veered into the demented. It takes a certain kind of crazy to be an iconoclast in the first place. It’s only when that leads to an intellectual cul-de-sac that it becomes a liability.
I don’t know what the answer is. And it’s important to note that this has nothing to do with Donald Trump. You see these transformations on both the right and left, throughout history.
I mean, for the love, look at Al Haig. The man was the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, White House chief of staff, and Secretary of State. And then he flipped out, tried to take control of the government when Reagan was shot, mounted a quixotic campaign for president, and joined up with Newsmax.
Was he always like that? Even when he was the most important military commander in the United States? Or did something happen to that normal guy to turn him crazy?
I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s important. Not just for understanding Al Haig and Alan Dershowitz, but for understanding what has happened to American conservatism.
Before we start, I want to ask your indulgence. Because this item is all about me.
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for the last year and a half, then you’ve gotten pretty good insights into the world around you before it unfolded.
I told you Trump was likely to draw a primary challenger. He drew three of them.
I told you—over and over—that Joe Biden was a heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination and that people were crazy for sleeping on him. Biden is the nominee.
I told you that the coronavirus was going to be a very big deal, that it could kill scores of thousands of Americans and reshape our economic, cultural, and political landscape for years to come. It has.
I told you that the natural balance of the 2020 race was Biden +5/+6 and that the race was likely to tighten again from the gaudy margins of the summer. That’s where we’re heading right now.
Some of this is luck. Because of my background, I happen to know more about molecular biology and epidemiology than most people in the media.
Some of this is experience. I’ve always been pretty good at seeing around corners in politics.
Some of it is that I’m free to tell you exactly what I think. Because I’ve never been beholden to any party or movement. Being a man without a country isn’t always fun, but it does have its advantages.
That’s the preamble. Now on to the good news and the bad news.
The good news is that I’ve had a great time writing this newsletter for you.
Over the last 20 months, the number of subscribers has grown quite a lot. We started from zero and we’re at 75,000 daily readers without ever spending a dime on advertising.
Thank you for that, and for being with me. My goal has always been to try to add some value for you as you look at the world.
Now the bad news: Starting soon, The Triad is going to be only for donors to The Bulwark.
We’re launching Bulwark+ and moving The Triad, Charlie’s Morning Shots, and two of our podcasts (The Next Level and the mysterious Secret Podcast) over to Substack and they’ll only be available for people who come onboard to support us.
We’re building something special here and Bulwark+ is the next step in that journey.
I hope you’ll come be a part of it. Here’s the button:
If you’ve been with me for a while, you know how strongly I feel about supporting publications. I’ve plugged probably a dozen outlets that I think are worth your attention. Now I’m asking you to support what we’re doing.
Thanks for thinking about it. And if you decide against it right now, no hard feelings. I’m grateful to everyone for reading and you’ll still have most of The Bulwark here for you, for free, with no ads, ever.
But I hope you can swing it. Because it’s important.
Now let’s get moving. We’ve got a country to save.
3. Beating the Lottery
One of my favorite micro-genres is: “People who hack gambling.” And this HuffPo piece is one of the classics of the form:
Gerald Selbee broke the code of the American breakfast cereal industry because he was bored at work one day, because it was a fun mental challenge, because most things at his job were not fun and because he could—because he happened to be the kind of person who saw puzzles all around him, puzzles that other people don’t realize are puzzles: the little ciphers and patterns that float through the world and stick to the surfaces of everyday things.
This was back in 1966, when Jerry, as he is known, worked for Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was a materials analyst who designed boxes to increase the shelf life of freeze-dried foods and cereals. “You ever buy a cereal that had a foil liner on the inside?” Jerry asked not long ago. “That was one of my projects.”
He worked in the same factory where the cereals were cooked, the smells wafting into his office—an aroma like animal feed at first, and then, as the grains got rolled and flaked and dried, like oatmeal. Near his desk, he kept a stash of cereal boxes made by Kellogg’s competitors: Cheerios from General Mills, Honeycomb from Post. Sales reps brought these back from around the country, and Jerry would dry, heat and weigh their contents in the factory’s lab, comparing their moisture levels to that of a Kellogg’s cereal like Froot Loops. It wasn’t the most interesting job, but both of Jerry’s parents had been factory workers, his father at a hose-fitting plant and his mother at the same Kellogg’s factory, and he wasn’t raised to complain about manual labor.
One day Jerry found himself studying a string of letters and numbers stamped near the bottom of a General Mills box. Companies like Kellogg’s and Post stamped their boxes too, usually with a cereal’s time and place of production, allowing its shelf life to be tracked. But General Mills’ figures were garbled, as if in secret code. Jerry wondered if he could make sense of them. After locating a few boxes of General Mills and Kellogg’s cereals that had sat on store shelves in the same locations, he decided to test their contents, reasoning that cereals with similar moisture must have been cooked around the same time. Scribbling on a piece of scratch paper, he set up a few ratios.
All of a sudden, he experienced the puzzle-solver’s dopamine hit of seeing a solution shine through the fog: He had worked out how to trace any General Mills box of cereal back to the exact plant, shift, date and time of its creation. “It was pretty easy,” Jerry would recall decades later, chuckling at the memory. In a more ruthless industry, cracking a competitor’s trade secrets might have generated millions in profits. This, however, was the cereal business. . . .
So perhaps it was only fitting that at age 64, Jerry found himself contemplating that most alluring of puzzles: the lottery. He was recently retired by then, living with Marge in a tiny town called Evart and wondering what to do with his time. After stopping in one morning at a convenience store he knew well, he picked up a brochure for a brand-new state lottery game. Studying the flyer later at his kitchen table, Jerry saw that it listed the odds of winning certain amounts of money by picking certain combinations of numbers.
That’s when it hit him. Right there, in the numbers on the page, he noticed a flaw—a strange and surprising pattern, like the cereal-box code, written into the fundamental machinery of the game. A loophole that would eventually make Jerry and Marge millionaires, spark an investigation by a Boston Globe Spotlight reporter, unleash a statewide political scandal and expose more than a few hypocrisies at the heart of America’s favorite form of legalized gambling.