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The Constitution Is a Mass Delusion
Once people stop believing that politics is safely liberal, it stops being safely liberal.
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1. Tom Nichols
My friend Tom Nichols published a cri de coeur in his Peacefield newsletter last week and it hit me pretty hard.
For weeks I’ve been watching a parade of Republican officials describe how they worked inside a Republican administration under Donald Trump as the GOP fell to a bunch of kooks, opportunists, racists, and aspiring fascists. I do not know how many of them still think of themselves as Republicans, and I don’t care. I’m sure, however, that many of them—like the mendacious and oily William Barr—would still describe themselves as conservatives.
Such “I would still vote for the conservative” paternosters are required among the right wing in Washington. For the rest of us, who do not think of ourselves as “liberals” and who are not members of the Democratic Party, we have to try a little harder to think through our own political identity as voters and citizens. What does it even mean to be a conservative in the Trump era?
This leads Tom to puzzle through what “conservatism” means today:
In almost every democracy, the “right” and the “left” are part of a legitimate dialogue about government. Differences between the right and the left are meaningful and important.
But what are they? And are they worth arguing over at this point in American history? . . .
I have written, in bits and pieces, about what I think—at least for me—constitutes a conservative temperament, including ideas about human nature, the role of government, civic virtue, and the balance between freedom and responsibility.
The fact remains, however, that many of us are now in a coalition with an array of groups to our left. Among our former comrades on the right, this makes us apostates, defectors, heretics.
Still, we cannot make a permanent home with our temporary liberal roommates: We don’t like the panties on the curtain rod, and they don’t like the notes we leave on the pillow. And yet, here we are, because none of the issues that would normally matter between right and left matter as much as the future of democracy. A conservative who cares about the future of the constitutional order must face the reality that the Republican Party has become a menace to the Constitution and our system of government.
Which leads Tom to two simple theses:
I approach policies and politicians with two questions that—again, for now—override my policy preferences:
1. Does this issue strengthen or weaken the Republicans as they continue to advocate for sedition and authoritarianism?
2. Does this political figure caucus with the Republicans? Will he or she vote to make Kevin McCarthy the speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell the majority leader of the Senate?
Everything else runs in third place.
The practical effect here is that I will root for GOP defeats on policy even where I might otherwise agree with them. The institutional Republican Party must be weakened enough so that it can’t carry out the larger project of undermining our elections and curtailing our rights as citizens.
Put another way, it does no good to support small Republican wins on policy if the cumulative effect is to strengthen the party so that it is larger and more cohesive when it makes another run at destroying the Constitution. Politics is an ugly business; strategy requires some painful decisions. I believe we are in an existential political crisis, and I intend to act accordingly.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Towards the end, Tom closes out with this thought:
In the Before Times, we still argued over politics instead of whether communist Muslims had taken over our Venezuelan voting machines with help from the Italian space program. I felt like it was safe to throw elbows and do some partisan high-sticking; I believed that we were all in a giant bouncy house called the Constitution, a place where we might bump skulls or sprain an ankle now and then but where there were no sharp edges and there were only soft landings.
I don’t believe that anymore.
Speaking only for myself: Same.
Many of my liberal friends who spent the ’00s being very concerned about Chimpy McHitler have long insisted that this prelapsarian view was always wrong. That the Constitution was never a giant bouncy house. Maybe they were right all along.
But maybe not.
Everything is economics, which is to say that everything is psychology. A dollar has value because people believe that it has value. If tomorrow 7 billion people decided that the dollar was worthless and that only gold—or tulips or baseball cards—had value, then the U.S. monetary system would collapse.
Similarly, a political system is stable only so long as people believe that it is stable. Instability happens the moment someone comes along and demonstrates that the system can be overturned.
Once the unthinkable becomes possible, all bets are off.
It’s like the Joker says in The Dark Knight: People are only as good as the world allows them to be.
So in the metaphysical sense, sure: The Constitution bouncy house was never really real, because no societal construct is really real. Money, democracy, law—these things are all just mass delusions that we all agree to believe in.
But even though it wasn’t really real, that Constitution bouncy house was a system that a supermajority of Americans believed. Even my most progressive friends who worried about George W. Bush becoming an unelected autocrat were scared that he and a small cabal of conservatives would pervert the system and overturn democracy. You would have had to go pretty far out on the spectrum to find liberals who thought that a near-majority of every-day Republicans wanted to overturn democracy.
Though that’s pretty clearly where we are today.
The most important theoretical questions about Trumpism are:
Did Trump cause a significant portion of America to become post-liberal? Or,
Did post-liberalism gain purchase in American politics earlier, only to alight on Trump as its champion?
But maybe this isn’t either/or. Maybe there’s a quantum answer that is and/both.
What if a significant portion of America was becoming disillusioned with liberalism and open to authoritarianism in recent years. But what if this portion of America did not believe that such a transformation was possible. They believed they were in a Constitutional bouncy house, too. Though unlike Tom and myself, they saw it as limiting, not freeing.
And since they were in the grip of this delusion that there was no alternative to the liberal order, they made their accommodations with it and their politics was defined by it.
But then Trump showed them what was possible. Trump demonstrated that the Constitution was run the honor system and that the strictures of liberalism were brittle.
Trump showed these people that they could have the politics they wanted.
He showed them that if they stopped believing in these strictures, then the strictures would hold no power over them
And so his followers did. Not all of them. Maybe not even most of them.
But enough of them that the system has been revealed as the dream palace—the delusion—it was the whole time.
I’m not sure there’s any going back.
2. But Her Emails
Cyber expert Kim Zetter has done some digging on the plausibility of the Secret Service claim that the deletion of January 5 text messages was a routine accident.
To find out if messages erased in a factory reset are lost for good, and whether the agency was following best practices when it told agents to back up phones on their own before the reset, I spoke with Heather Mahalik, senior director of digital intelligence at Cellebrite, and Robert Osgood, a 26-year veteran of the FBI who worked for the bureau as a digital forensics examiner and is currently director of the forensics and telecommunications program at George Mason University. Cellebrite’s Universal Forensic Extraction Device tool is one of the primary digital forensic tools the FBI and other agencies use to extract data from mobile phones.
Both Osgood and Mahalik said that if the phones underwent a factory reset, then the messages will still be on the phone if the data has not been overwritten by other data since the reset. But they said the messages would not be readable due to the way factory resets work, and therefore would essentially be unrecoverable. . . .
3. Get Out
Charlie Warzel has some thoughts on how to get out of the internet which—I’m not going to lie—is one of my recurring fantasies.
Kate Lindsay is my colleague at The Atlantic, where she works on the newsletter team. . . . We were chatting on Slack one day about her decision to stop scrolling on Twitter and Instagram and spending most of her social-media time on TikTok. We decided to talk about her reasons for leaving the platforms for a short newsletter, and it sprawled out into this long discussion about the internet. As soon as we hung up, I knew I wanted to share the whole thing. So here it is.
Warzel: Let’s get right into it. You write about the internet and social media and yet you’ve left all social media but TikTok. Tell me everything.
Lindsay: This has been a years-long journey that I started around when I started going to therapy. One thing I really needed the therapist to understand was Twitter. It’s [a source of] a lot of my social anxiety, and it was, very unfortunately, a huge part of my life and how I feel about my work. I felt like I couldn't leave it because of my job—that leaving it was committing career suicide. But being on it actively made me feel bad.
The way I was able to get off of it was less about social media and more about changing my attitude toward work. And coming to the—it doesn’t sound revolutionary—conclusion that my happiness is more important than my career. And that having a career that feels impressive doesn’t matter if I’m not enjoying myself. I always knew this but never committed. I’d take a month off Twitter or Instagram, but always thinking I’d come back. I always remember how quiet my brain felt. How nice it was. But then somehow convinced myself this wouldn’t work for me.
Warzel: What made Twitter so awful for you, specifically?
Lindsay: I’d describe it as the frog that doesn’t know they’re being boiled. That’s how I felt. When the war in Ukraine started and it was just this clusterfuck of news that all happened at once—that’s when I realized what a bad space Twitter put me in. It’s just this constant stream of disparate thoughts that I’m always trying to streamline. With Twitter especially, like during COVID, it was my attachment to society and community. But Twitter really flattens everything. Like, a tweet from a real, expert doctor about a COVID study would come after a tweet from somebody who doesn’t know anything and was making a glib joke about COVID case rates. Now, I can tell myself rationally that one person is qualified and one isn’t, but my brain is processing all this information together and it interprets it as similar in value. They got equal weight as it pertains to my mental health. Twitter became a really negative place.
Yes. YES. YES.
If you work in media, then not being on Twitter is bad for your career. It makes you quasi-invisible.
But it also makes you miserable. And the point of life is not to have an impressive career that makes you miserable.
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