Our Narcissistic Politics

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks to reporters outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., October 19, 2021. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
Narcissism is the essence of democracy. And a politics of narcissism is a politics of envy.

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His Majesty, the Baby

One of the many awful things about our tax debate  — and our tax system — is its infantilization of the American people and its degradation of citizenship. A tax system that is designed to fund the needful things the federal government does — from making roads to making war — is a tax system pure and simple, the goal of which is to collect sufficient revenue while doing a minimum of violence to the economy, private enterprise, and private fortunes. It is those private fortunes that arouse the moralists. And a tax system or a tax-policy debate that is primarily moralistic in character is an invitation to grubbiness: “How much of the wealth of those people we don’t like very much can we pry away for people like us?”

King Baby has only one law: “I want!”

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It surely is the case that, as a scientist, Sigmund Freud was a man whose name was one vowel away from being the perfect aptronym, but he was a pretty good literary critic, and some of his diagnoses are dead wrong as medicine but dead on as politics. Please forgive a long quotation:

If we look at the attitude of affectionate parents towards their children, we have to recognize that it is a revival and reproduction of their own narcissism, which they have long since abandoned. . . . They are under a compulsion to ascribe every perfection to the child — which sober observation would find no occasion to do — and to conceal and forget all his shortcomings. . . . Moreover, they are inclined to suspend in the child’s favour the operation of all the cultural acquisitions which their own narcissism has been forced to respect, and to renew on his behalf the claims to privileges which were long ago given up by themselves. The child shall have a better time than his parents; he shall not be subject to the necessities which they have recognized as paramount in life. Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restrictions on his own will, shall not touch him; the laws of nature and of society shall be abrogated in his favour; he shall once more really be the centre and core of creation — ‘His Majesty the Baby’, as we once fancied ourselves.

Narcissism — by which I do not mean a specific psychiatric diagnosis but the bundle of attitudes and behaviors to which the diagnosis refers, the common moral failings that are magically transmuted into a medical condition — is a basic ingredient in democracy. You can’t make a democracy without narcissism for the same reason you can’t make banana pudding without bananas — it’s not the only ingredient, but it’s the ingredient that makes the thing exactly what it is. Freud’s detection of a father’s own dormant ambitions and latent desires in his hope for his children is confirmed by commonplace (though by no means universal) experience: If you have in your circle of friends a former quarterback whose life peaked on the varsity football team with a teenage son who also plays football, then you have seen this at work. (My Manhattan readers may think of stage mothers, with “mothers” in that expression having embraced members of both sexes long before it was fashionable to do so.) That is a situation which has only two possible outcomes, neither of them desirable: failure and disappointment or success and envy.

A politics of narcissism is a politics of envy. Narcissism and envy are not the same thing, but each is mixed up in the other. But the Freudian point absolutely stands here: When such specimens as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lament “inequality” and spend their days dreaming up ways to make the wealthy less wealthy, they do not really do so on behalf of the class of people who work as waitresses at Denny’s or stock Walmart warehouses — they do so on behalf of the class of people who make comfortable six-figure salaries teaching at Harvard or park their Teslas in front of the Whole Foods while on one of those endless errands of “public service.” As Megan McArdle once put it, in Washington, “very rich” means “just above the level a top-notch journalist in a two-earner couple could be expected to pull down.” Barack Obama, one in a long line of Rolex-wearing class warriors, once promised not to raise taxes on people making $200,000 a year or less. Joe Biden, his senescent epigone (and another Rolex aficionado), has raised that to $400,000 a year — times are very good, indeed, for the power-adjacent class.

Senator Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) has offered to support a wealth tax as part of his horse-trading strategy for the Democrats’ big, insane spending bill. Senator Manchin is not a very serious man in most ways — the best way to think of him is as a kind of congressional TSA agent: He doesn’t have to be all that sharp to stand between you and where you are trying to go, and so you have to deal with him. (I would prefer to see all Senate standoffs settled by a series of spelling contests between Ben Sasse and Patty Murray.) A tax on wealth probably doesn’t sound like a very big deal to a senator representing the second-poorest state in the Union. (Oh, Mississippi, the federal statisticians will all be jumping out of windows if you ever get your act together!) Senator Manchin’s big idea for making West Virginia better off is not helping the proud citizens of the Mountain State make the most of their own labor, creativity, and resources — it’s just taking money from somebody else and dumping it on them. That’s been the West Virginia way for a long time, which is why every third pile of rocks in the state is named after the late Senator Robert Byrd.

(Or, as Bill Clinton called him, “the other Exalted Cyclops.”)

There are many good arguments against a wealth tax. For one, it is unconstitutional. (Yeah, Sunshine, I hear you, and you may think the apportionment clause is dumb, but it’s not imaginary. And the 16th Amendment gives Congress only the “power to lay and collect taxes on incomes,” not wealth.) It would be impossible to efficiently administer (even Switzerland got rid of its federal wealth tax, though there is one at the local level, and, in any case, we are not Switzerland), which is why most of the European countries that have had one have abandoned it. The most obvious problem (though there are many more) is that shares and other financial instruments can fluctuate substantially by the second — Virgin Galactic shares, for example, went from $15.50 to $56 over the summer, which makes establishing a sensible tax valuation difficult. Wealth taxes are redundant in that we already tax income derived from wealth (that’s what a capital-gains tax does), which is much easier to pin down. Wealth taxes penalize saving and reward consumption. Wealth taxes will make housing more expensive, especially for renters — that is, the people who actually pay the taxes on their landlords’ portfolios.

But the biggest problem with a wealth tax is that it entrenches King Baby politics. It is a great bawling cry of “I want!” A wealth tax is only an invitation for the majority of the population to put its hand into a minority’s pocket. And that is straight-up looting. If we were going to have a wealth tax, then we should do it the way the Swiss do: Instead of starting it at $50 million in wealth, as Senator Warren proposes, we should start it at $250,000. Our progressive friends say that taxes are a way of showing that we are all in this together. But they are always eager to put somebody else’s money where their mouth is.

Words About Words

Of course Hertz prefers electricity. The car-rental company has ordered 100,000 new Teslas.

It was similarly inevitable that the telephone would be invented by a man named “Bell.”

An aptronym is a name that is amusingly appropriate: The beef-association spokesman named John Hamburger, sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper, Fox News meteorologist Amy Freeze. Dennis Rodman’s father, who had 26 children by 16 mothers, is the late Philander Rodman. (Dennis Rodman says he is one of 47, but, really, can you take Dennis Rodman at his word?) A food charity accused of corruption was run by Robin Mahfood.

There are inaptronyms, too: Philadelphia’s new police commissioner is Danielle Outlaw. The chief Catholic clergyman in the Philippines for many years was Cardinal Sin. Frank Beard was for years the only clean-shaven member of ZZ Top, though lately he’s been sporting a modestly manful growth.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader is irritated with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, whose august members write:

That’s good to hear. But the reason that clarification was necessary is because the Oct. 4 memo he issued calling for federal involvement followed a letter to President Biden from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) describing school-board protests as possible terrorism.

Do not write, “the reason is because.” Just write, “the reason is.”

Because is a conjunction. As a conjunction, it joins parts of a sentence. That sentence can be simple or compound: “The game was canceled because of the rain,” or “We could not finish the game, because it was raining.” The Wall Street Journal editors could have written: “The clarification was necessary because the Oct. 4 memo . . . ” or “The reason the clarification was necessary was that the Oct. 4 memo . . . .” Writing “the reason is because” is not exactly ungrammatical, but it is redundant and clumsy.

Because often functions as an adverb, an “adverb of cause and effect.” It wants to expand on the verb or adjective that precedes it: “I tripped because I’m clumsy, and I’m clumsy because I’m distracted.”

Why follow this rule?

Because — that’s why!

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

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Donald Trump Is a Hilariously Incompetent Thief

Sometimes, Donald Trump’s boundless dishonesty collides with his bottomless stupidity in a particularly amusing way. Tell me: What kind of genius steals something that is given away for free?

Trump, as you may have heard, is making a second go at starting a social-media company, having failed once already with his Twitteresque “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” microblog. You can see the attraction of such a play for Trump: He almost certainly needs money, and a tech startup is a good way to attract some; he has been kicked off Twitter and Facebook and is desperate to get back in the game; right-populists hate Silicon Valley, and they would be pleased to see Trump put a dent in Big Tech’s collective arrogance, if not its profits.

The problem comes, unsurprisingly, when you put Donald Trump, arguably America’s least-competent businessman, in charge of something.

Trump’s new social-media product is based on code stolen from Mastodon. We know this because the theft was so ham-fisted and incompetent that Mastodon’s logo displays on one of the first pages users of the Trump app are likely to see: its error page. Mastodon is also mentioned right there in the code, which was plain as soon as anybody bothered to look.

The funny thing is: Mastodon’s code is open-source. If Trump wanted to use it, all he had to do was copy it, acknowledge the copying, and leave that code open to the public on the same terms. Instead, he slapped a “proprietary” label on somebody else’s work, turning him from an open-source collaborator into a thief. But Donald Trump has made his living by putting his name on other people’s work for so long that it just comes naturally to him.

But it gets better. (Of course it does!) Trump is threatening to sue another social-media startup, one that advertises itself as “uncensored” and charges users $5 a week. The app makers use Donald Trump’s image to advertise their product, highlighting the fact that he is banned on many social-media platforms. Trump is, of course, furious. Cease and desist, the lawyers say.

But, at the same time, his own social-media app is circulating marketing materials made up to look as though Variety and the New York Times have signed on as users — which, of course, they haven’t. TechCrunch is depicted as a user, too: “The headline displayed next to our logo has never appeared on this site,” the company says, “and TechCrunch does not have an account on” Trump’s platform.

Variety and the New York Times — that is who Trump really cares about, as much as he may protest to the contrary. When he wants to phony up some credibility for himself, he doesn’t recruit OANN or Newsmax — he pretends to be working with the New York Times.

As he used to say on Twitter but can’t anymore: Sad!

The last time we saw a criminal mastermind this incompetent, he was thwarted by a talking moose and a squirrel.

Beast News

We had some friends in town staying with us, and Katy and Pancake kept a careful eye on them. Well, maybe “careful” is not exactly the right word.

(Photo: Kevin D. Williamson)

I like that our software now generates suggested captions, in this case: “Two dogs lying on a couch.” I should put that on my door instead of the house number. Truth in advertising and all that.

In Closing

Last week, the National Review Institute held its annual William F. Buckley Jr. Prize Dinner, honoring the big brains behind the Federalist Society, Leonard Leo and Eugene Meyer, and the tireless man behind the Philanthropy Roundtable, Adam Meyerson. It was one of our first in-person events in some time, and it was good to see old friends in their tuxedos and gowns. The Federalist Society was founded in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was on the ropes early in his presidency and the success of his program far from certain. The Philanthropy Roundtable was founded just a few years later. Conservatism is by nature a sensibility and a project rather than a discrete contest; I am in the habit of repeating T. S. Eliot’s observation that there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. The world is always falling apart and always being rebuilt. Today, the Federalist Society enjoys real influence, and it has seen some of its program come to pass. It took decades — liberty is a long game, and, as Leo and Meyer and Meyerson all were at pains to point out, no part of its success is the work of one man. It is fashionable to sneer at committee meetings, panel discussions, and chicken dinners, but the real work of citizenship is rarely exciting or dramatic.

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