In recent years, though, Lincoln Center has weathered an equally unprecedented series of crises. The New York City Opera stopped performing there in 2011 and closed its doors two years later. Shortly thereafter, the Metropolitan Opera was forced to contend with a fiscal meltdown that threatens its very survival. Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic, whose concert hall is closing in 2019 for desperately needed interior renovations, announced that Alan Gilbert, its music director, will be stepping down from that post in 2017 after a tenure widely regarded as lackluster. And though Peter Martins, the ballet master-in-chief of the New York City Ballet, has said nothing of his own plans for retirement, it is unlikely that the 68-year-old choreographer will stay at the helm much longer. Only Lincoln Center Theater, the smallest of Lincoln Center’s top-tier constituent groups, is by all accounts both managerially and artistically sound.
Hence it is unusually timely that Reynold Levy, who served as Lincoln Center’s president from 2002 to 2014, has published a memoir noteworthy both for its candor and its smugness. As its title suggests, They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center is even more self-serving than most books of its genre.1 Levy all too clearly sees himself as the heroic figure who single-handedly wrought “transformational change” in the face of “seemingly intractable problems,” and he believes that most of Lincoln Center’s remaining difficulties are the result of certain of its constituents having stubbornly refused to take his advice.
But he was genuinely successful in putting much of Lincoln Center on a sounder footing, and They Told Me Not to Take That Job, for all its vanity, supplies a necessarily biased but nonetheless illuminating account of what happened to the New York City Opera and the Met on his watch—as well as hinting at what may happen to other organizations that make the same mistakes.
In the case of City Opera, Levy argues that the blame can be placed mainly on Susan Baker, the chair of the board of directors, who made two devastating blunders. First, she brought in as general director Gérard Mortier, who canceled the company’s entire 2008–09 season while the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) was being renovated, then announced a follow-up season of modern operas devoid of the box-office appeal that had built up the populist reputation of a company originally known as “The People’s Opera.”
Having delivered this near-fatal blow to City Opera’s already shaky finances, Mortier suddenly resigned and fled to Europe. Baker and the board then replaced him with George Steel, an inexperienced manager with similar musical tastes who administered the coup de grâce by moving the company out of Lincoln Center, where it had performed without a break for four decades, and transforming it into a part-time troupe that mounted four productions a year at various locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. (At its peak, City Opera had presented 20 full-scale productions each season.) It went bankrupt shortly thereafter.
Undeceived by the progressive repertory choices that fooled many critics into taking Mortier and Steel seriously, Levy saw at once that they were both incompetent to manage an American opera company and that Baker and the board had thus been grossly negligent in hiring them:
All of his professional life, Mortier had operated in the European way. National and municipal governments supported opera, with very generous sums. He had hardly ever raised funds in the private sector or fretted about the state of the box office…Nothing emerged from months of Mr. Steel’s [subsequent] tenure to instill confidence in the organization’s future. Indeed, in his first full year as director, Mr. Steel presided over a $5.9 million deficit, hardly a source of encouragement.
In the case of the Met, by contrast, Levy places most of the blame on the shoulders of one man, Peter Gelb, who became the company’s general manager in 2006. If anything, he is too kind to Gelb, saying only that his “management and artistic responsibilities are simply too much for any one executive to shoulder, no matter how creative and hard-working.” In fact, Gelb is an irresponsibly big spender with erratic artistic judgment who was unwilling to demand substantial cuts in labor costs from the Met’s powerful unions until it was too late. Faced with a credible strike threat, he hinted that he would do anything necessary, up to and including a lockout, to drag the company back from the brink of the financial apocalypse whose approach he had accelerated by drawing down the Met’s fast-shrinking endowment fund to meet current expenses. In the end, though, Gelb settled for face-saving token pay cuts, abandoning the hoped-for work-rule reforms that have long eluded other big-city managers and leaving once-sympathetic onlookers wondering whether he had exaggerated the company’s plight as a negotiating tactic.
Levy’s indictments are plausible as far as they go. They ignore, however, the fact that Lincoln Center’s original designers made irreversible miscalculations whose long-term consequences are now glaringly apparent and increasingly dire.
To begin with, Lincoln Center’s key venues are too huge to be used with any kind of artistic flexibility. They are suitable only for large-scale presentations, thereby diminishing the intimacy that is more and more intrinsic to the appeal of live performance in the age of on-demand home entertainment. This is especially true of the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera House, whose cavernous interior swallows up any production conceived on a less-than-spectacular scale, as well as the 2,600-seat Koch Theater, whose idiosyncratic acoustics and backstage facilities were tailored specifically for the performance of large-house ballet. It was never meant to accommodate an opera company and has not done so adequately at any time in its history. In addition, Lincoln Center’s performing spaces, in common with other concert halls and opera houses built in the ’60s, lack the inviting aura of 19th-century auditoriums like Carnegie Hall or the Vienna Staatsoper. Not only are they “modern” in an anonymous, off-putting way, but their public areas are famously uncomfortable.
Can Lincoln Center overcome these built-in weaknesses? Certainly the demise of the New York City Opera, which allowed the Koch Theater to be used exclusively for dance, represents a vast improvement over the days when the theater was whipsawed between the contradictory needs of City Opera and the New York City Ballet. And as Levy rightly brags, his renovations of Lincoln Center’s physical plant—opening up the once-forbidding plaza and making it more of an inviting place to visit and hang about—made its facilities far more attractive to audiences.
Nevertheless, it is incontestable that Lincoln Center’s “footprint” is greatly diminished from the far-off salad days when it appeared to be offering American culture a roadmap to the future. One reason for this, of course, is that its constituents are no longer led by such larger-than-life artists as George Balanchine, Leonard Bernstein, and Beverly Sills. No matter how well run the New York Philharmonic may be today, a talented but uncharismatic conductor like Alan Gilbert cannot hope to attract the attention that Bernstein drew effortlessly throughout his tenure, any more than a second-rate choreographer like Peter Martins was able to make the public at large care about a company that had once been led by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
But even if such giants still walked the earth, it is unlikely that Lincoln Center will ever be again as it was, for the fine arts no longer occupy a significant place in American mass culture. Because the national media (including PBS) no longer cover them more than sporadically, it is impossible for the leaders of Lincoln Center’s constituents to become generally known outside New York. Even if Alan Gilbert were as exciting a conductor as Bernstein, the fact that he does not appear on TV or make major-label recordings prevents him from becoming a celebrity.
This is why Lincoln Center has evolved into an essentially provincial entity whose activities are important to art-conscious New Yorkers, though they do not set the tone for other cities. By the same token, its problems have largely ceased to have national relevance. While it would be shocking if the Metropolitan Opera were forced to close its doors, such a development would have little or no effect on how other, smaller American opera companies go about their business. The company’s demise would merely be seen as proof that it had grown too unwieldy to survive in the fast-shrinking world of 21st-century classical music.
In the end, Lincoln Center is best understood as a historical accident, one that has had a distorting and destructive effect on the performing arts elsewhere in America.
Lest we forget, Lincoln Center was the brainchild not of a creative artist but of Robert Moses, New York’s greatest and most controversial urban planner. His purpose in building it was not to make the fine arts flourish in Manhattan but to use them as an engine of urban renewal on the Upper West Side. Planners in other cities who imitated its gigantism did so without understanding that the only reason Lincoln Center “worked” (to the extent that it did) was that it was built in the bulldozed heart of an island city whose richest citizens, unwilling to submit to the inconvenience of living on the other side of the rivers that surrounded them, could afford to shield themselves from encroaching urban decay. The well-heeled residents of those other cities opted instead to flee to the suburbs, thereby undermining the financial basis for the numerous downtown performing-arts centers that sprang up in Lincoln Center’s wake.
These mammoth multipurpose campuses, comparatively few of which house fully professional performing-arts ensembles of any distinction and most of whose auditoriums are far too large for the groups that they do house, have inevitably been forced to shortchange the fine arts in order to stay afloat. Most of them now spend more time presenting rock bands and Broadway road shows than operas, ballets, or orchestral concerts.
If a new generation of middle-class Americans chooses to move back into the inner cities, large-scale performing-arts centers might start to make fiscal and artistic sense. But even if that should happen, Lincoln Center will never again be culturally influential in the way that it was in the ’70s and ’80s. Today, high art in America is decentralized and deprovincialized, with organizations of the first rank having taken root and flourished all across the country. Regional groups such as the San Francisco Symphony, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Houston Grand Opera are now at least as influential as their older counterparts in New York. Nor has this development been anything other than desirable: America’s fine-arts culture is much healthier, now that Manhattan has ceased to be the artistic capital of the country.
But one thing about Lincoln Center is and always will be relevant. In his chapter about the Met’s financial crisis, Reynold Levy cites a remark that I made in a column I wrote for the Wall Street Journal immediately after the company and its unions reached a settlement: “Given sufficiently bad management, no arts organization is too big, too old, or too famous to fail. Not even the Metropolitan Opera.” Indeed, the Met is more likely to fail precisely because it is so big. And this may prove in the long run to be Lincoln Center’s legacy: It has had a paralyzing effect on the capacity for innovation of the fine-arts groups that once gathered together so hopefully under its outsized umbrella.
1 PublicAffairs, 376 pages
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Lincoln Center’s Dark Legacy
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?