There’s not much new to say about Senator Cory Booker’s performance this week. The proud-yet-fake defiance of Senate norms and rules, the preening, and the bro-bravado (“bring it!”) — most commonly associated with dudes who know that their friends over by the keg will hold them back and barking poodles confident that they will not be let off their leash — have been well documented by numerous observers (including yours truly). But as a longtime admirer of the “World’s greatest deliberative body” (stop laughing!), I look to the wisdom of the great senator Mo Udall, who famously observed, “Everything’s been said, but not everybody has said it.”
So once more let me don my kicking boots and give this dead horse another whack, not simply because Booker deserves it or because I take joy in it, but because there’s a lesson here for everyone. … For those of you who don’t know, Cory Booker heroically® (according to his P.R. operation) defied Senate rules and risked expulsion from that chamber in order to release confidential documents that the American people desperately needed to see. The people needed to understand what the dangerous bigot whom Trump nominated to the Court had written in an email about racial profiling while working in the Bush White House after 9/11.
There were only a couple of problems: The email in question was already cleared for public release (and Booker knew it), and the substance of the email revealed that the Monster Kavanaugh opposed racial profiling. It was as if Cory Booker — once a famous, if choreographed, good Samaritan — saw a mugging, leapt out of his car, tire-iron in hand, to save the day only to stop 20 feet from the assailant in front of some TV cameras, and proceed to smash the makeshift weapon into his own crotch. “I am Spartacus! Ow! I am Spartacus — Ooof!”
Like so much of life today, it all gets dumber. Booker is like the dweeby model student (treasurer of the chess club, three-years running!) who was “radicalized” by the edgy kids at theater camp and became determined to be a rebel for his senior year. The only problem: Booker seemed to have picked up his idea of being a bad boy by watching Saved by the Bell and various after-school specials. “Greetings fellow cool people: Check out my pleather biker jacket!”
On TV, Booker insists that he did in fact break the rules (“I am breaking the rules.”) but in committee, when it seemed like the Republicans believed him, he couldn’t stand his ground — even though he wanted to — and insisted that there was no rule that he had moments earlier boasted of violating. It was as if he were dragged before the principal and asked if he really had toilet-papered the math teacher’s house (as he had told people in study hall) only to confess that he was simply taking credit for it. Now, he’s back on TV reverting to his original story with a “How dare you ask if my awesome earring is a clip on?” tone.
Perhaps the most telling sign that Booker cannot commit to his bad-boy routine is the actual quote so many people are inaccurately summarizing. Booker didn’t say, “I am Spartacus!” He didn’t even say, “This is my ‘I am Spartacus moment.’” He said: “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.”
One of my ancient grievances about the pre-Orb GOP was the tendency of Republican politicians to read their stage directions rather than just play the part they wanted to play. George H. W. Bush literally read, “Message: ‘I care’” out loud. Bob Dole told an audience, “If that’s what you want, I’ll be another Ronald Reagan.”
Booker’s “this is about the closest I’ll probably ever have” formulation does something similar. His base wants a Spartacus. He desperately wants to be their Spartacus. But he can’t actually commit to being Spartacus because he has no idea how or it’s just too scary, requiring an authentic and sincere commitment that he only knows how to fake or pay lip-service to. He might as well have said, “My super-model girlfriend in Canada — who can’t make the prom — says I’m like Spartacus all the time.”
I’m also pretty sure that Booker has a thumbless grasp of what saying “I am Spartacus” even means (even though he didn’t say it).
While I was listening to one of the quirky, obscure podcasts that I sometimes dabble in, John Podhoretz reminded me that the “I am Spartacus” line from the 1960 Kirk Douglas movie was written by Dalton Trumbo, a committed Stalinist, who pushed the Soviet line at every turn. (When Stalin signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler, Trumbo dismissed concerns by saying, “To the vanquished all conquerors are inhuman.”) Howard Fast, the author of the book the movie was based on, was also a Communist. I supposed I should note that Kirk Douglas tried to take credit for the line, but that that’s unlikely. I could also point out that Karl Marx considered Spartacus the “finest fellow antiquity had to offer.”
But, like so much of the universe these days, none of this matters. The whole point of the “I am Spartacus!” scene — which is great – is that Spartacus’s comrades showed existential solidarity with the real Spartacus. Crassus wanted to execute the leader of the slave rebellion, but Spartacus’s comrades were saying, in effect, “Take me!” It’s been suggested that the scene was inspired by the apocryphal story of the Danes donning yellow stars in solidarity with the Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
How exactly, you might ask, is this remotely comparable to releasing publicly accessible emails exonerating Judge Kavanaugh of the insinuation that he supported racial profiling under the pretense that you’re breaking the rules? (No cheating off Marco, people.)
Take your time. I’ll go sculpt a model of Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes in order to figure out where the alien ship will land while you bust out the grease board to connect those dots.
Need help? Well, it’s a trick question. Because, on one level — the level Booker thinks he’s working on — it makes no sense whatsoever.
But on another level, it actually makes some sense. Here’s a hint: The heroism involved in saying “I am Spartacus” lies in the fact that it was a lie. Those guys weren’t Spartacus; they were pretending to be at great personal sacrifice.
Booker’s close-to-an-I-am-Spartacus-moment line was also based on a lie, but it was decidedly not in the form of tragedy — it was farce. Which is why the spectacle of all of those Democrats joining Booker in fake solidarity about a fake issue was so perfect. They were all shouting, “I’m Cory Booker!” and “Expel me too!” in the hopes his bravery would rub off on them, when there was none to rub off in the first place.
Booker wants to be president, and he thinks — rightly — that the base of the Democratic party wants a heroic rebel who will fight the Caesarian Trump at all costs and by any means necessary (yes, I know there were no emperors in the time of Spartacus, but shut up: I’m on a roll). The problem is that Spartacus lost, and all his fellow gladiator-slave compadres who said, “I am Spartacus” were martyred for a lost cause, too. Obviously, this effort to defeat Kavanaugh was a lost cause.
But the greater irony is that the Resistance is likely to be a lost cause, too — if it keeps going in this direction. Trump’s greatest vulnerability in 2020 stems from the fact that he never stopped being a chaos agent. Many current and formerly Republican-leaning voters hate all the drama that sustains the GOP base and radicalizes the liberal base. These voters — particularly college-educated white women — may like many of Trump’s policies and appointments, but they feel like they’re overdosing on crazy pills or trying to elude a monkey that escaped from a cocaine study. The more Democrats act like would-be Spartacuses, the more the craziness on both sides of the equation cancel each other out. That leaves a (presumably good) economy and the devil they know in the White House as a potentially preferable option to the devils promising “socialism” and a left-wing culture-war agenda.
As I wrote earlier this week, liberals are increasingly desperate to live in an alternate reality in which calling themselves “the Resistance” isn’t ironic but heroic. For example, this week we literally saw Handmaid’s Tale cosplayers pretending they weren’t making fools of themselves, playing make-believe to own the cons.
We’ve seen this before, of course — just not on this scale. Naomi Wolf and her crowd were utterly convinced that George W. Bush was Hitler. It never dawned on them that if Bush were Hitler (or even Mussolini or, heck, Woodrow Wilson), people like her would never be allowed to say so. It’s bravery on the cheap. I don’t think anyone who reads this “news”letter needs to be reminded that I am not big booster of Donald Trump. But the guy isn’t Hitler, for any number of reasons, the most important of which is that Americans aren’t Nazis. We’re not even Germans. Hitler’s rule was possible because there was a market demand for a Hitler and a wider tolerance for a Hitler.
By all means, let us ridicule and ostracize the Tiki-Torch Brigades and their alt-right sympathizers. But cherry-picking your enemies and holding them up as representative of millions of Republicans and Trump voters isn’t merely slanderous, it’s incredibly stupid, and not only because it’s wrong morally and factually — it’s also wrong because doing so fuels radicalism on both sides.
(Let me head-off the Whataboutist assault: The same is true of many on the right who play the same game leftward. The Democratic party may have been the party of the Klan, but it’s not today. By the way, the weird overlap between left-wingers and right-wingers who think my book, Liberal Fascism, “proved,” or tried to prove, that contemporary liberals are Nazis is both dismaying to me and flatly wrong.)
The Nazi philosopher Carl Schmidt famously said, “Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.” I despise Schmidt, but he was brilliant nonetheless, and this aphorism has deep insight behind it. Whether you want to consult evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, or the literature on negative polarization, we live in an age in which many of us define who we are by who — or what — we hate.
This is a big enough problem on its own, but it gets monumentally worse when you liberate yourself from the shackles of reality. What tactic isn’t justified if you convince yourself that your opponents are “literally Hitler”?
Here’s what Senator Booker said when Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, an eminently qualified judge who would have been on any Republican’s shortlist including, by the way, John McCain’s.
This “has nothing to do with politics” but with “who we are as moral beings.”
“I’m here to call on folks to understand that in a moral moment, there is no neutral. In a moral moment, there is [sic] no bystanders,” he said. “You are either complicit in the evil, you are either contributing to the wrong, or you are fighting against it.”
I bring up John McCain for a reason. We’ve just been through a melancholy riot for the lost world of John McCain, in which every establishment Democrat openly pined for McCain’s style of bipartisanship. Well that cuts both ways. McCain can’t be a hero for refusing to demonize his opponents while it’s okay to claim that anyone who disagrees with you about Kavanaugh is complicit in “evil.”
Booker’s you’re-with-the-forces-of-good-or-you’re-with-the-forces-of-evil shtick surely plays well with the base of his party, as does Donald Trump’s similar garbage rhetoric on the right. But that’s the point. They’re opposite sides of the same sh***y coin.
And say this for Trump: He seems to honestly believe it. Booker’s playing a role precisely because the politics of this craptacular moment demand it, and, like a leaf on the wind, he’s going where the strongest breeze takes him.
I very much doubt Booker will ride those winds to the White House, because he’s a fugacious firebrand, and the script we’re stuck in demands the real deal to the play the role. The sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and the Democrats now want their own Trump knock-offs (which is great news for celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti).
That’s always been the greatest danger of Trump’s corrupting influence on the GOP and the country: that his violations of norms would invite return fire, only more intense (just as Obama’s violations invited Trump). The next Democratic president (in 2020 or 2024 or whenever) likely won’t talk like Trump, but if we stay on the track we’re on, he or she will also act like a war president, where the real enemy isn’t a foreign power but fellow Americans the base doesn’t like. That’s the inevitable consequence when you define yourself by a caricature of your enemy.