In 1993 The Wall Street Journal published a famous editorial called “No Guardrails,” which tried to locate the source of the moral chaos that had engulfed much of America. “How, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, did so many become undone?” the editors wanted to know.
Their answer, in a nutshell, was 1968 — specifically, the culture of excess, excuses and permission that abruptly supplanted the old American ethic of modesty, responsibility and restraint.
“Certain rules that for a long time had governed behavior also became devalued,” the editorial noted. “Whatever else was going on here, we were repeatedly lowering the barriers of acceptable political and personal conduct.”
I’ve always admired that editorial, but it needs updating. How did so many of the same people who spent the past 50 years bemoaning the decline of morality and decorum become the agents and enablers of the most morally grotesque administration in American history?
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On Wednesday, Anthony Scaramucci, the then-newly announced director of communications in the White House, phoned Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker to demand the name of an alleged White House leaker. Scaramucci was quoted (and later re-quoted in The New York Times) saying the following:
Of the now former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus: “Reince is a f------ paranoid schizophrenic.”
Of the White House’s chief strategist: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own c---.”
Of the Beltway “swamp” that wants to undermine Donald Trump: “They’re going to have to go f--- themselves.”
Of his new colleagues in the administration: “They’ll all be fired by me.”
Scaramucci is now out of a job himself. But we’re long past pretending that this is not the way the leadership of the country speaks. Every vote cast for Donald Trump was a vote for vulgarity. His supporters got exactly what they paid for.
A more interesting question is how the conservative movement came to embrace it.
Did it happen in the 1990s with the movement’s embrace of titillated outrage against Bill Clinton?
Did it come with the defeat of John McCain in the 2008 presidential election and the conclusion by rank-and-file conservatives that concepts of honor, service, integrity, independence, compromise and statesmanship — the virtues that just saved the GOP from a political disaster of its own devising in Friday’s health care vote — were for suckers?
Or was it Trump himself who shook free the old restraints, like some kind of reverse Jonathan Edwards preaching a doctrine of sinners in the hands of a bored God who wants to be amused?
Readers will have their own views. Whatever the case, it’s worth noting a striking parallel between 1968 and 2016. In “August 1968,” The Journal noted in its editorial, “the Democratic National Convention found itself sharing Chicago with the street fighters of the anti-Vietnam War movement.”
The editorial continued: “The real blame here does not lie with the mobs who fought bloody battles with the hysterical Chicago police. The larger responsibility falls on the intellectuals — university professors, politicians and journalistic commentators — who said then that the acts committed by the protesters were justified or explainable. That was the beginning. After Chicago, the justifications never really stopped.”
Agreed. So it needs to be asked of the conservative intelligentsia today: et tu?
Trumpism wasn’t just some bottom-up movement. It, too, had its professors, politicians and journalistic commentators — the theoreticians, enablers, sanctifiers, excuse makers and Never Never-Trumpers — who gave the movement a patina of intellectual respectability and moral seriousness that Trump himself had done nothing to earn.
They are our new Antinomians, who believe the president and his administration are bound by no law, even the Mosaic one, because they have already been saved by a new version of grace — in this case, the grace of defeating Hillary Clinton. Thought exercise for Trump’s media defenders: If the president were to sexually assault a woman in the Oval Office tomorrow, would you still justify your vote on the view that Neil Gorsuch’s elevation to the Supreme Court made it all worthwhile?
“The first duty of a revolutionist is to get away with it,” Abbie Hoffman said in Chicago in 1968. This might as well be the slogan of this administration and its supporters, too.
In the meantime, we have a “No Guardrails” presidency, in which Trump’s contempt for law, procedure and decorum are a license for the behavior of his minions and a model for future American demagogues and their apologists.
Scaramucci’s outburst — to a reporter, no less — is insignificant in itself. He’s gone. But what he said exactly continues to represent what this administration is and will continue to be, with the blessing of an intellectual class that has done as much to betray honorable conservatism as the liberal intelligentsia of the ‘60s did to betray honorable liberalism.
As Scaramucci said, paraphrasing a proverb, “The fish stinks from the head down.” Yes, it does, Mooch. And you’re merely the mouth.