Just Politics

Posted on 2023-08-28

(Back when I was managing editor of a group of suburban newspapers, my political column that appeared in all papers was entitled, “Just Politics.” The title was actually specific to the newspaper group, having been used by four or five writers over the course of a quarter century. It became so identified with me, though, that it was retired shortly after I left the paper. The popularity of that column when I wrote it led the station manager of a regional radio station to recruit me, thinking I was just the thing to revive what he considered a certain staleness in their lineup. It worked for both of us. When I discovered how many people were desperate for a chance to get into broadcast, I felt a little guilty about how I got in. Our program director was initially appalled by the idea of bringing in a guy with no broadcast experience – but he was also the guy who put my guilt to rest, telling me I was good and had earned it fair and square. “After all,” he said, “You won me over  – and are the best talker we have ever had here.” I was always amused at the subtle oxymoron the title conveyed if one was paying attention. So today, I trot that old title out for a final ride – though politics is now more unjust than at any time in this country’s history. -CJ)

As all who read this regularly know, I do not expect us to get to the next election before our coming ‘irrepressible conflict’ overtakes us, shuffling the deck for America, the world, and our Churches. That said, the commentary I see on the state of politics today is as shallow and vapid as I have ever seen in my life. Perhaps it is because of the general state of chaos gripping the country. Perhaps it is because all columnists now think they must always act as thinly disguised cheerleaders and activists. I certainly did my share of advocating for certain people and causes in my day in the media. But I also took my partisan hat off and often told readers and listeners that I was going to give them pure analysis – not what I wanted to happen – but how I thought it would happen. That is what you get today. Why? Because I have spent a lifetime doing it and, like an old warhorse, when the bell rings, I’m compelled to go marching off.

As I write this, the latest polling shows Trump at 56% and DeSantis at 10% in the Republican Primary. That has led all the armchair political geniuses to declare that DeSantis is dead in the water and should just quit. In the first statewide race I ever ran, starting back in 1995, the first public poll in our race did not even hit the papers until mid-September. When it did, it showed our opponent at 61% and us at 2%. In September. We won that primary race, albeit with plenty of columnists explaining how we had no chance and were delusional as we forged our path to victory.

Once I started doing primarily federal races, my specialty was putting together a path to victory for underdog candidates. It, of course, had a high failure rate, but for years around the turn of the millennium, the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee would refer candidates of substance but little name recognition to me, asserting I was the best in the country at it. Certainly, my candidates always overperformed to the extent that the Illinois press corps took a candidate I signed on seriously even if they had never heard of him before. Put very basically, I had five rules for “come from behind” campaigns that I was adamant about:

  • Theme is Critical: An ideal theme should highlight your strength while simultaneously highlighting your opponent’s vulnerability. It should NEVER be an issue, but should be like a coat rack, on which you can hang every issue. In 2016, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” was perfect, highlighting his aspirational goal while reminding people that Democrats openly claimed to want to manage America’s decline. DeSantis’ theme is something about wokeism. It should have been, “He gets it done.” Grade: D
  • Unite the Factions: Candidates often like to deal with their interest coalitions as discreet factions. That’s okay if you start with a huge lead. If you start way back, unless you can unite them, you can’t win. Whether it is gun people, pro-lifers, anti-taxers or others, each organized faction thinks itself as the “good” conservative while viewing other such groups as suspect. If you get them all working together, they discover they are all pretty much about the same things with a different emphasis and you can powerfully fuel a movement. If you can’t or won’t do it, you can’t win. For DeSantis, he has a hard way to go. Grade: Incomplete
  • Field Work is King: Putting together a solid field team is labor intensive, shows results late, and draws little media attention. But it moves mountains. If you have a committed team in place across the geography of your entire polis, support can erupt like a California fire once ordinary people first notice you – because you already have your people in place to confirm those impressions. You must use volunteers. Volunteers are committed regardless of the odds – and their validation comes from all the little successes before the eruption. You cannot win an uphill race using mercenaries, for mercenaries, wherever their paycheck is coming from, ultimately desperately want to be on the side they perceive to be winning. If they are effective early, they are vulnerable to the first sweet nothings they hear from the other side. If serious adversity comes, they wilt like lettuce in the noonday sun. DeSantis is putting a premium on field work, but at this early stage it still seems comprised of mercenaries. Grade: C
  • Diplomacy: Most seasoned operatives are more willing than most think to support an ideologically focused movement. What they are not willing to do is join a suicide run. They are also wary of losing the influence and perks they have spent a lifetime gaining. You have to effectively let them know that you mean them no harm and that, in victory, you will welcome them as valued members of the team. This is a tricky business. Ideological movements attract purists, people who will not tolerate anything less than 100 percent agreement. But politics is about multiplication and addition, not division and subtraction. If all you have are purists, you will rarely even influence, much less win, anything. Simultaneously, your base must feel confident that you will not betray them on core issues. They must feel that you are purer and more committed than they are. My core issues were always pro-life, gun rights, taxes, and individual liberty. I would NEVER make any agreement that would mitigate those issues…and the agreements I did make always helped secure those issues. It built confidence in my base and gave me a lot of latitude for diplomatic action, so long as I stayed true to our core issues. Representing a candidate at a gun group’s state convention, a newby asked me what type of guns I owned. When I replied I had never owned a gun, he said he couldn’t trust anyone who didn’t own a gun – and they should ask me to leave. The head of the group replied tartly that he didn’t know the newby so didn’t know whether to trust him or not, but had worked with me under the most intense pressure and would trust me with his life. NEVER betray a core principle. It makes all groups wonder when you are going to betray them. Use your diplomacy to show them a path to victory and they will stay ferociously loyal. Non-ideological operatives, seeing you can be a friend and dislike suicide missions as much as they do, will astonish you with their eager cooperation. DeSantis has a very tough job here, as he is campaigning from the same lane as Trump. Grade: incomplete.
  • The Big Cats Walk Late: Everything has to go nearly perfect to pull off a big upset. I always wanted the opposition not to know there was even a real threat until it was too late to stop it. That means working frantically at the organizational and diplomatic efforts that the media does not understand and, so, pays no attention to. It also means de-emphasizing flashy press issues until you already have the organization at white heat in what it is accomplishing. You have to do stuff, not just posture and preen. On the night of my first statewide primary, a lazy reporter called me to ask if we had any comment on our loss. “What loss?” I asked, “We won.” Astonished, she asked if she could come over to our victory party – and I assured her I would get her a few minutes with the victor. Staff for the Speaker of the House once told me their polling showed we would lose by 10 points a week before election. I modestly told him the polling was in error. I expected we would win a close one. We won by 10 points. If you want a lot of aggressive headlines, you only alert the opponent to the danger and allow him to defray it. And yes, playing the dumb mope is more difficult once people have taken your measure – but even then, it is easier than you think. If your opposition is arrogant and knows how shrewd you are, they LOVE to think they have outsmarted someone notably shrewd. I loved to help them along in that thinking. Stay focused on work that moves the chains, do not be a press hog, and you can move mountains. At this point, DeSantis has successfully lowered expectations, but I don’t know if there is much steam behind the scenes. Of course, if he is really shrewd about this, that is what I would expect. Grade: Inconclusive but not looking good.

I am not quite sure whether Donald Trump is the most vulnerable gifted candidate I have ever seen or the most gifted vulnerable candidate I have ever seen. Certainly, he is the best I have ever seen at taking a shrewd, tactical move and masking it as emotionally driven. That is more important than you might think, for used effectively, it is a deadly way of drawing an opponent’s natural aggression into an ambush. The problem is that Trump also frequently makes undisciplined, emotionally driven decisions. He is simultaneously shrewd and clumsy, which makes him dangerous to opponents but leaves his team constantly on the edge of chaos.

Mentally, I laid out a path by which Trump could be taken down by his own undisciplined ways…and then watched to see if DeSantis would shrewdly follow such a strategy. Done right, DeSantis’ fingerprints would barely be on it. I loved having opponents who had over-sized egos or were over-aggressive. You could take them down almost every time – and rarely leave an incriminating fingerprint behind. But DeSantis has only used the same sort of blunt object Trump favors for his opponents – and is not as handy with a blunt object as Trump is.

Trump’s temperament clashes with mine. I wouldn’t even think of supporting him if he did not have such a good track record of real accomplishment. DeSantis’ temperament is much more in tune with mine than Trump’s. Fortunately, I have never been a purist in insisting that people accomplish things in the same way I do. If they get the bulldog fed, I am a supporter regardless of how different they do it than I do. For all his histrionics, Trump did get the bulldog fed effectively.

I have not been impressed with how DeSantis has gone about running a come-from behind campaign. There is only one of my five key priorities he has seemed to take seriously – and he has bumbled at that. I understand that Trump’s flaws have largely been covered by the Biden Justice Dept’s furious persecution of him. But DeSantis seems clumsy and out of his element entirely – which is striking for one of the three or four most effective governors of my lifetime. The guy is a legitimate superstar. But there was a moment in last week’s debate where he really lost me. When the moderators asked which candidates would pardon Trump, DeSantis looked nervously around to see what everyone else was doing before he raised his hand. That frosted me. He does not usually need a poll to know his own mind – but in this case, he did. A reparable error, no doubt, but one that suggests to me it would be better for him to continue seasoning himself by successfully making Florida the archetype of liberty for a while.

Meantime the authoritarian left is determined to make this an existential battle for basic liberty with Trump as the foil. I have long believed that you cannot wait to go to war with the army you want: when liberty is at stake you go to war with the army you have. Events have conspired this time to make Trump the army we have. He has more guts than a slaughterhouse – and he fights. While he often provokes needless battles, he never shrinks from a needful one. When he governs, he governs well and for all the people – even with the occasional eccentricity thrown in. He is a known germophobe – and the left used this to sucker him into the biggest failure of his career, the badly mishandled Covid scare. I pray that, at least internally, he has contemplated how badly he got played on this and taken steps to correct the vulnerability (hopefully in a bigger way than just the Covid nonsense).

I find myself back in the Trump camp, in part because of his fighting resolve and in part, because this is the hill the left has decided to die on. If they don’t die there, liberty and justice in America will die there, instead.

Of course, as I mentioned at the start, I think America will collapse into existential dysfunction before we get anywhere near election day. It is not irrelevant, though. The habits of mind and action that will carry us through the crisis and into the rebuilding are being forged right now.

*********

I was talking with a friend of serious political substance last Friday about the Republican debate. I told him in frustration that the thing that so maddened me was that all the candidates seemed to think they were in the ‘70s or ‘80s, relatively normal times, rather than dealing with a true existential crisis for the nation. It was as if, on the Titanic as it was sinking, they were preoccupied with how they were going to change the décor in the dining hall. It was so unserious it was downright surreal.

Later that evening I read this marvelous article by the American Spectator’s Melissa MacKenzie. God bless that woman. She knows what time it is in America.

For most of my life things have developed later and more slowly than I expected them to. For the last two years, things have been happening faster than I expect them. It is like going from a horse and buggy to a Mercedes…and now it is starting to feel like a ride on a disabled plane plummeting toward earth. Unable to get its way by persuasion, the left is determined to get its way by force – and force usually breaks the thing being forced. Just a few items from the last week…

The malevolent glee with which the left parties over Trump’s mugshot is reminiscent of the White Witch’s celebration at the murder of Aslan. The feral left exults in its triumph, arbitrarily issuing orders while stomping the rule of law to display its mighty power. It is completely unaware of what it has unleashed.

Much of what the left does now is intentional provocation, such as Joe Biden’s hint that he will issue new Covid shot mandates this fall. The left is hoping to provoke violent resistance from normal Americans to justify even more extreme crackdowns and measures of control than it is using now. Serious resistance will come, no doubt. The shock for the left will be that few outside of their cadre of flying monkeys will be disturbed by it – and will NOT buy into giving the left more power. We are rushing headlong into a confrontation that will only be settled by force…if we avoid catastrophic collapse from the left’s incompetent, destructive policies long enough. The best case scenario is probably open lawfare, as I suspect several state attorneys general  and district attorneys are now planning. Typically, Democrats are more zealous to violate traditional norms, but Republicans tend to then use the violations more effectively. (See Harry Reid’s elimination of the filibuster in confirming judicial nominees). That would postpone the existential confrontation even as it made it more bitter. From the brightest standpoint, it might prod state legislators into real secession before violence became widespread. Ignore those historically illiterate folks who say secession is illegal: secession is never a question of law, but of political will.

No matter how it unfolds, expect more eruptions of violence, often senseless violence, before the existential confrontation hits. A society devolving into deep instability is always marked by increasing acts of violence, both political and non-political, before the devolution is complete. Just study the decades before the revolutions in France and Russia, then the takeover by Hitler in Germany. A dying polis is a violent polis.

There will soon be no place of neutrality as we continue to devolve. The battle lines are hardening and we all must choose our side. If you have not yet joined your talents to the CORAC community, I encourage you, again, to do so now. There is no charge to sign up nor any membership fee. It gives the best chance of standing together with the least provocations for violence. It helps you build the skills needed for chaotic times while simultaneously building a real community of support around you. If secession comes, it will be useful and influential even in captive states.

If you have hoped fervently that this madness would eventually pass over without a confrontation, I pray that you see more clearly now. It will not pass over and our best efforts should be directed now to managing the confrontation in the most peaceful way possible, while defending liberty for us all. It is risky to take a stand while the Biden Injustice Dept. busies itself indicting every conservative or Christian ham sandwich it can find. But it is deadly for your children if you do not take a stand. CORAC offers you a way to stand that does not involve suicidally stupid, futile gestures.

*********

Earlier this summer, perhaps the holiest woman I have ever known passed on. Margaret (Margy, with a hard “g,” to her friends) McGlynn of Belleville, Illinois finished a full life in her ‘90s in June. She was the Mother of two of my dearest friends. While we are never to presume that someone went straight to heaven after passing, if anyone I have known ever did, it was Margy.

I literally never heard her speak ill of anyone. The worst she would do in contemplating someone vile was purse her lips in mild disapproval.

Just after finishing my pilgrimage, I went back to Belleville to help a dear friend in a judicial race covering over 30 counties. A large multi-county race is a very different animal than a single county race, even if it is a very large county. The things that work well in a single county race can torpedo you in a multi-county race. That is one of my skill sets, so it was only natural that I would go to help my friend. While in Belleville for this project, I started almost every morning by going over to have coffee and pastries with Margy and her husband, Bob, who had long been managing partner of the oldest continuing family law firm in southern Illinois. Bob would make tartly pointed, witty comments on the issues of the day while scanning his paper, while Margy would speak fondly of her many children and friends. It may not sound like much, but those cool, easy mornings are among my fondest memories. If Bob and Margy did not quite treat me as one of their children, they certainly did treat me as their favorite nephew – whom they were always delighted to visit with.

Margy was a long-time volunteer at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Parish in Belleville, and a very active helper at the school attached to it. A Priest, speaking in memoriam of her, recounted that when he first came to town 40 years earlier, he was speaking to an elementary school class. At one point he asked if the children knew who Our Lady, Queen of Peace was. One little girl raised her hand and tentatively asked, “Mrs. McGlynn?” It wasn’t the most right answer possible, but it wasn’t exactly wrong, either.

Margy McGlynn was a joyful sign of hope to everyone who encountered her. I know she often prayed for me in life. What a comfort it is to know that she now advocates for all her children – and for me – in the next life.

*********

I just finished reading “True Grit,” by Charles Portis for the fourth or fifth time. I know most people have seen one or both of the movies made from it, but you are missing a lot if you have not read the book. I rank it in the same league with Huckleberry Finn. It is a true American literary classic. I love it so much I often lend my copies out so that others may discover this literary wonder. I seldom see it again. The two books I lend out that I never seem to get back are “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis and “True Grit.” So, when I see a paperback copy, I pick it up and savor the pleasure of reading it again. If you have never read it, do yourself a favor and pick a copy up.

If communication goes out for any length of time, meet outside your local Church at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings. Tell friends at Church now in case you can’t then. CORAC teams will be out looking for people to gather in and work with.

Find me on Twitter at @JohnstonPilgrim

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