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Jonah Goldberg: Institutional failure & weirdness

| Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, 7:24 p.m.
Touching the glowing orb in Riyadh in May were, from left, Egypt's president, Saudi Arabia's king and U.S. President Donald Trump.
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Touching the glowing orb in Riyadh in May were, from left, Egypt's president, Saudi Arabia's king and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Ever since Donald Trump touched the Orb, praise be upon it, I've been making “This is what you get when you touch the Orb” jokes.

On his trip to the Middle East in May, Trump, along with the Saudi king and the president of Egypt, laid his hands on a glowing white orb for two minutes. The image was like a mix of J.R.R. Tolkien and 1970s low-budget Canadian sci-fi.

Ever since then, when things have gotten weird, I've credited the Orb. For instance, when Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore was plausibly accused of preying on teenagers and evangelical leaders rallied to his defense, invoking biblical justifications for groping young girls, I admired the Orb's cunning. And when Moore decided to give one of his only interviews to a 12-year-old girl, I marveled at the Orb's dark sense of humor.

But I know it's not the Orb's fault things have gotten so weird; rampant weirdness predates the Orb-touching by years.

I have a partial theory as to why, and it doesn't begin with Trump. It begins with a failure of elites and the institutions they run.

Polls say nearly three-fourths of Americans cannot identify all three branches of the federal government and one in three can't name a single branch. Multiple surveys find that Americans, particularly younger Americans, are increasingly ambivalent, or downright hostile, to free speech and democracy.

Even as knowledge of, and commitment to, our system of government has been eroding, partisan loyalty has intensified. Some studies find that partisan identification is now at least as predictive of behavior and attitudes as race or gender. As we lose our old meaningful attachments, we find new ones in shallow tribalism.

While one can point a finger of blame at the people, particularly these kids today, that wouldn't be fair. Many older Americans haven't exactly been model citizens either. Dismayed with the direction of politics, they often grew as angry at the system as the young radicals. The real blame falls to elites — political, journalistic, economic and educational. Every generation has a responsibility to instruct the next on what is important. As an empirical matter, they — we — failed.

The failure runs deeper, though. Throughout American history, institutions outside the government have played a vital role in binding people together and giving them a sense of meaning and rootedness. Our politics were always downstream of these institutions.

That intricate ecosystem has been supplanted by virtual communities, which serve not so much to educate and civilize but to reinforce pre-established beliefs. Elites who once guided media outlets, universities, even Rotary clubs to temper and channel anger have been replaced by leaders who are more like followers, chasing the online mobs wherever they want to go. And all eyes are on Washington to solve our problems. Our politics are upstream now.

Trump is less an aberration than a leader for his time. In his contempt for free speech, ignorance of basic constitutional facts, addiction to drama, and personalization of every political question and conflict, he breathes new life into H.L. Mencken's definition of democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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