The Economist

Farewell to “Lexington”

The Economist — a boring, “liberal“, opinion-disguised-as-news magazine of British origin — has for some years run a column by “Lexington”. The name refers to the location of an early military engagement of America’s Revolutionary War: Lexington, Massachusetts. The conceit behind the name is that Lexington observes the American scene. The departing Lexington is one David Rennie — a Brit, of course — whose late father had served as head of MI6.

You see immediately the problem with Lexington. He is usually (always?) a smarmy Brit who exudes Oxbridge superiority. (Not long ago, and perhaps still, it was dominated by graduates of Magdalen College of the University of Oxford. You may demonstrate your own superiority by pronouncing Magdalen “correctly” as maudlin.)

The departing Lexington recently issued his valedictory column. It appeared in the print edition of The Economist dated September 9, 2017, under the heading “Indispensable, in Trouble”. (I have capitalized “trouble” despite The Economist‘s annoying practice of capitalizing only the first letter of the first word of a headline, aside from acronyms and the first letter of any proper noun occurring therein. This practice, it seems to me, betrays a shaky grasp of the rules of capitalization — or is a rather feeble attempt at trendiness.) Being disinclined to give The Economist even a farthing, I obtained the article online via this link, which may have expired.

What did the departing Lexington have to say about America in his final attempt (as Lexington) to assert his superiority to the booboisie — those Americans who aren’t members of America’s Europe-envying academic-media-political classes? He did what you would expect these days — he savaged Donald Trump. How tedious.

In keeping with the “fair game” principle of quotation, I herewith quote extensively from the online version of the column, so that I might annotate Lexington’s profundities with my commentary, which is in brackets and italicized:

AS LEXINGTON writes this, his 244th and final column on America, a black-and-white photograph looks down from an office wall. Taken in New York in about 1940, it shows your columnist’s late father, then a serious young man in his 20s, hard at work for a British government agency tasked with bringing America into the second world war. This mission involved both appeals to high-minded principle and to sentiment—tales of British civilian pluck were a staple—to counter the rhetoric of the America First Committee and other isolationists. [But in any event, America entered the war because — and perhaps only because — of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was that which swayed popular opinion, not “hard at work” effete Brits. Similarly, Lexington, who is heeded — if at all — by effete Americans who already agree with him, has wasted his time by writing what follows.]

During two postings to Washington, DC, this Lexington has tried to remember that history lesson. America remains an indispensable nation [for the purpose of rescuing Britain from German aggression and protecting it from Soviet threats?]. But understandably, the will to bear that burden [which Lexington lacks the grace to define] cannot be taken for granted. For Americans to remain open to the world, at once leading and profiting from a post-war order [the United Nations? NATO and other anti-Soviet alliances? globalization?] that their country in large part designed, both heads and hearts must be won. With each new generation, that work needs repeating. [What work needs repeating? The winning of hearts and minds? To what end? To save Britain once again? To protect her from the threat of succumbing to communism, which is already well-entrenched in Britain, though in the guise of liberal democracy? To join in the defense of Europe against a possible attack by Russia, which defense the Europeans themselves are unwilling to lend more than token support? What is he babbling about?]

Enter President Donald Trump [the real reason for this valedictory]. A natural demagogue [unlike Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt, of course], he spotted how, after years of the war on terror, America was weary of trying to fix an ungrateful world. [Actually, if “America” was weary of anything, it was fighting two foreign wars to little avail, especially after Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq. “Non-America” — the country’s effete elites — never wanted victory in the first place, and it was they who were most tired of foreign wars, as they have been since the end of World War II. Other than foreign wars, there was little to fix, other than to dismantle the economically and socially destructive regulatory-welfare state, unless it was to rearm against growing Russian and Chinese strength and to prevent Iran and North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons. But those fixes were staunchly opposed by the effete elites who have governed America most of the time since 1900.] He grasped how, at home, millions could conceive of no benign explanation for economic and social changes that worried or disgusted them [“free markets” being a malign explanation in the view of benighted rednecks and effete elites, alike — their sole point of commonality; social changes dictated by effete elites being a truly malign explanation], and heard no argument from the two main parties that reassured them [Republicans generally being too spineless to challenge the conventional wisdom]. He sensed that voters are more [in what ways?] than adding machines, weighing the costs and benefits of this stale tax plan or that tired promise of help. He won in part by understanding how much people need to feel that they are useful, respected and heeded [apparently an understanding beyond the reach of professional politicians]. A better man than Mr Trump could have done great things with that insight [though Lexington doesn’t get around to telling us what those great things are].

In years of reporting from a total of 46 states [in the way that a cross-country flight exposes a traveler to America], a handful of encounters stand out. They showed how, when Americans think they are arguing about points of ideology or fact (or confected para-facts) [“alternative facts”?], they are often wrangling about who is a good person, with a right to be heard. [With this sensible observation, it seemed that Lexington might yet say something insightful. But he let me down.]

Take the wilds of eastern Oregon, where ranchers spent the Obama era fearing that vast tracts of the Owyhee Canyonlands would be declared a national monument, exposing them to lawsuits from eco-absolutists bent on banning cattle from public lands. In early 2016 armed anti-government militants occupied a wildlife refuge to challenge the federal government’s right to own land at all. Visiting a few months later, Lexington heard much technical talk about water rights and grazing permits. But deep down this was a scrap about whether ranchers and miners whose great-grandfathers toiled to tame the sagebrush steppes are trustworthy stewards of the land. That row pits the old West against the new West of hikers and environmentalists, or, as one academic puts it, folk with gun racks against those with bike racks. The ranchers, meanwhile, challenged the standing of the cowboy-hatted anti-government zealots claiming to speak for Oregon. A young farmer noted that most came from out of state, adding: “Those people look like us, but aren’t us.” [But the “zealots” weren’t claiming to speak for “Oregon”, they were making a statement about the federal government’s right to own land — which is to say, seize land. Selective quotation of a young farmer hardly constitutes evidence that the “zealots” were mistaken in their position or entirely unrepresentative of the ranchers and miners of Oregon.]

Partisans on the left sometimes scoff at conservatives ascribing voter anger to “economic anxiety”, arguing that this is really prejudice at work. In real life, differing forms of anxiety cannot easily be separated [a statement which may be true but is irrelevant to what follows]. In 2012 the state of Wisconsin commissioned a scientific report into why middle-aged men were buying fewer licences to hunt deer. That sounds a dry premise. But tugging at that thread unravelled a vast, tangled skein of male angst. With women gaining economic and social power, the study found, men feel less able to head to the woods for a week’s deer camp, supremely confident in their authority as breadwinners. To be good fathers, they feel less able to skip children’s sports. “The ladies all hollered at me,” one research subject recalled after a deer-related conflict, in tones of baffled hurt. [This is just another selective and ridiculous quotation. What’s the point? That there was anxiety for Trump to exploit? Every presidential candidate since George Washington has exploited anxiety of one kind or another. Tell me something new.]

Mr Trump did not invent partisan divisions [changing the subject after introducing anxiety to no apparent end]. The 2012 presidential elections, a joyless slog [compared with what?], saw President Barack Obama traduce the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney as a heartless plutocrat and thus “not one of us”. Republicans leant heavily on slogans that lauded hard-working, taxpaying “makers” and scorning welfare-collecting “takers” [which is quite a reasonable thing to do, when facts are faced]. Millions of voters were willing to believe that Democrats won office by giving free stuff to the lazy on their dime [and they were quite right, though many of those voters were also takers of free stuff]. But they also growled that Republicans were the party that looked out for bosses, not them [because they have been brainwashed to believe in the zero-sum game called “income distribution”]. A machine repairman from Waukesha, Wisconsin, encountered during a factory visit by Mr Obama after his re-election, summarised, brilliantly, his moral code of work. “People ought to get off their duffs and get a job, but I’d like it to be a job that pays well,” he explained [as if there were an entitlement to a job that pays “well”, i.e., a lot more than his job paid]. He trusted neither party to deliver this package in its entirety [and if he did, he would be guilty of believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Genie of the Lamp].

Deadbeats v deplorables

A focus group of Trump supporters in December 2015 offered early clues that the businessman had found a way to escape voter distrust of traditional politicians. His backers spent three hours excusing their hero of each contradiction or untruth alleged by his foes. In part, this reflected their liking for certain policies: the proposed ban on Muslims, or the border wall. But an unforgettable moment came when the Trump fans were asked about Barack Obama, and responded with furious, vitriolic resentment. Everything we are good at in America, Mr Obama tells us it is a bad thing, said a woman. Another disgustedly compared the then-president to “a disappointed parent”. With Mr Trump, it was the opposite. His supporters basked in his approval. He was a fantastically successful man, who validated how they saw the world. [Of course, the contemporary supporters of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama would never, ever hold such attitudes about their heroes and their heroes’ antagonists. So what else is new, and what does it have to do with Trump’s actual policies as set forth in his budget, his cabinet appointments, his judicial nominations, and his regulatory rollbacks?]

There are plausible scenarios in which Mr Trump, a cynical and undisciplined bully [whose children, oddly seem to love and respect him], brings catastrophe to the country that Lexington was raised to love, and where both his children were born [and even more plausible scenarios in which President Trump, regardless of the name-calling that Lexington and his ilk indulge, is actually able to rescue America from its downward spiral into economic stagnation, military impotence, and politically correct oppression]. For now consider a disaster that is already certain. Mr Trump has a rare understanding of how change has left millions feeling disrespected, abused and alienated from mainstream politics. Alas, he has used that gift only to divide his country, for selfish ends [unlike Lexington and his ilk, whose effete elitism and name-calling is sure to unite the country]. This [column] is a tragic waste.

I have seldom encountered so many words with so little substantive content.

There will be another Lexington, unfortunately, and another after that one, and so on. Unless, mercifully, The Economist folds.

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