Bill O’Reilly’s Nostalgia Factor

by Jonah Goldberg
Before there was Trump, there was O’Reilly’s populism infused with a New York sensibility.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (I said “reader.” This will not be the venue for Caitlyn Jenner’s nude debut.),

Bill O’Reilly is leaving Fox, and I can’t say I’ll miss him.

I don’t mean that to sound too harsh (not that he much cared about sounding too harsh). The truth is I almost never watched his show, unless it was on someplace where I didn’t have control of the remote.

That’s not quite the slight it may seem to be either. My job often makes me feel like Lucy at the Chocolate Factory. The last thing she wanted to do after a Sisyphean day of eating chocolate off the conveyor belt was tuck into a big box of chocolates at home.

I watch the news at 6 p.m., and then unless there’s some compelling work-related reason, I’m done with that stuff until morning. (True story: The first time I appeared on Special Report I told Bret Baier that I was worried I might have an episode since the show was my body’s Pavlovian cue to have a cocktail.) I’d rather watch the same episode of Game of Thrones over and over than spend an hour watching a new episode of The O’Reilly Factor. But that goes for Rachel Maddow and certainly that Lawrence O’Donnell guy and the rest of them just as much, if not more so.

(I love hearing ads for Maddow’s show on satellite radio in which she promises to “report the news without fear or favor” — which is sort of like the hosts of America’s Next Top Model saying they only care about inner beauty.)

Of course, I’d occasionally stumble on O’Reilly’s show and rubberneck at the spectacle. But I didn’t enjoy it. I was never on the show much. I don’t enjoy being a meat prop for hosts to make the points they want to make, and I guess it showed the few times I was on. O’Reilly was the master of making his long and often well-crafted statements in the form of a question. “Now, I think . . .” “This is the way I see it . . .” “This is where I come down on this . . .” often preceded a jeremiad that concluded with, “Do you agree?” The answer was merely punctuation for the next “question.”

Some people got better treatment — Dennis Miller, the other Goldberg — but for the most part guests were there either to serve as a Greek chorus or as ritual human sacrifice for his smartest-guy-at-the-bar routine.

And it worked. Well. People can scoff and roll their eyes, but O’Reilly’s talent is impossible to dispute on objective grounds. There are lots of acts I don’t like but I can respect for the skill behind them. I don’t like hip-hop, or opera for that matter, but I can still see the difference between people who are really good at it and people who aren’t.  As with the man in Don Quixote who could inflate a dog through its butt, one doesn’t have to like the show to appreciate the expertise. 

I guess what I always resented was the way O’Reilly — and some of his cheaper knock-offs — claimed an authority to speak for me.

Alinsky to the Left of Me, Alinsky to the Right of Me

Ian Tuttle and David French both wrote excellent pieces for NRO yesterday, and I agree with both of them for the most part. David’s point that celebrity conservatism is swamping intellectual conservatism is particularly well-taken.

David writes:

The cost has been a loss of integrity and, crucially, a loss of emphasis on ideas and, more important, ideals. There exists in some quarters an assumption that if you’re truly going to “fight,” then you have to be ready to get your hands dirty. You can’t be squeamish about details like truth or civility or decency. When searching for ideological gladiators, we emphasize their knifework, not their character or integrity.

I agree with David that this is partly a feature of the culture generally these days. “Watch [Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, etc.] DESTROY” this or that Republican is just one facet of the riot of confirmation bias and tribalism that defines our times. And conservatives play the same game. My friend Tucker Carlson has had a meteoric run of late in part because he is so good at bringing fresh lambs to the slaughter every night, first at 7 p.m., then 9:00 p.m., and now in O’Reilly’s spot. I fully expect Tucker’s ratings to be just as spectacular as O’Reilly’s were, if not at first then in short order.

And we should not pretend this is as new as it may seem. The novelty is in the degree, not the phenomenon. Even the sainted William F. Buckley derived no small part of his appeal from the fact that he could always one-up any condescending liberal egghead. That was a big part of his legacy. At a time when the media wanted desperately to paint conservatives as paranoid, anti-intellectual bigots in the George Wallace mode, Buckley’s sesquipedalian erudition served as a kind of reassurance.

But Buckley brought something else to the table: civility, self-deprecation, and a playful wit that could be intellectually devastating without being humiliating. Even when he explained that Robert F. Kennedy was ducking his invitations to appear on Firing Line — “Why does baloney reject the grinder?” — liberals had to chuckle in admiration.

It’s that touch which has largely gone missing of late. Intellectually, Buckley was a passionate believer that liberalism was the Enemy. But liberals themselves were merely the opposition (Gore Vidal notwithstanding).

Where did that come from? Again, much of it is a product of the times, stemming from new technology, economics, and other deep-rooted causes. But I want to focus on one. Over the last decade, conservatives have developed a severe case of Alinsky envy.

It is one of the oldest insights into human nature that envy corrupts the soul. (Aquinas defined envy as sadness for the good of others.) But Alinsky envy is corrupting in a different way. For years now conservatism has convinced itself that the Left wins by, in effect, cheating. They lie. They only care about power. They demonize and slander their opponents. I’m not going to sit here and claim that there’s zero merit to that argument. There’s a lot of merit, even if it’s often an exaggeration.

My objection is the conclusion conservatives draw from it: We’ve got to take the gloves off and play by the same rules! Alinsky’s rules! As David Kahane (eye roll) puts it: “Become what you behold.”

A whole cottage industry on the right has thrived around this argument, and on the whole, it’s grotesque. You cannot argue that your enemy is evil and uses evil means and at the same time argue, “We should do it too!”

It’s particularly hypocritical given that Alinsky envy blossomed alongside obsessions with conservative purity. It is a circle that will not square: Our ideology has a monopoly on virtue, but in order for virtue to triumph we must act like people we claim are virtueless. The effort to make this argument work is inherently corrupting because it inexorably replaces ends with means. “Winning” gets redefined before our eyes into anything that fuels our ecstatic schadenfreude over the suffering of our opponents. Whenever Trump did something indefensible the “defense” “But he fights!” would pour forth.

And that brings me to Ian’s piece. I have some subtle disagreements with it. I think Ian paints too bright a line between younger conservatives supposedly alienated by Trump and older Fox News demographic conservatives. I wish it were true. But the throngs of young people who go to big-tent revivals headlined by Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos — not to mention more serious-minded but nonetheless Alinsky-ensorcelled types like Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz, and others — don’t reassure me.

The Long Island Captivity

I think there’s an element to the story that Ian — and pretty much everyone else — has missed in how Donald Trump won over so many people at Fox News and beyond.

A little backstory. I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. Oswald Spengler couldn’t do justice to the dismay that was bound up in the city’s decline. Lots of people left the city for the suburbs, particularly places like Long Island, long an enclave for working-class and more affluent suburbanites who make their living in, or off of, the city but for understandable reasons don’t want to raise kids there. Whether you stayed in the city or got out, there was a sense that liberalism, broadly defined, was destroying the city. Then along came a white knight from the outer boroughs and Nassau County in Long Island.

Rudy Giuliani transformed New York, literally saving the city. But he wasn’t really that conservative. He was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and pro-immigration. That didn’t stop his enemies from calling him a fascist and extremist. Remember, these were the days when you were considered a right-winger if you thought porn theaters were a blight and that drug-addled homeless slubberdegullions terrifying old ladies and small children were merely exercising their civil rights. Giuliani was a bit authoritarian, but he needed to be to fight the Democratic machine, the media, and the remora-like lawyers, racial-hucksters, and bureaucrats that were running the city into the ground.

Giuliani’s politics were a nostalgia-laden homage to the memory of a Big-Apple-that-was and a kind of conservative common sense. His greatest ally in the press was the urban-populist New York Post, which always could be counted on to take the side of the little guy and the tots (innocent children) against Mordor’s army of pervs, reprobates, pimps, fat cats, and corrupts pols. Giuliani’s promise was, in effect, to Make New York Great Again. And, again, he largely succeeded. Just as important, he humiliated his enemies in the process.

Bill O’Reilly grew up in Long Island before the city started to decline, but he is incontestably a product of the nostalgia-besotted working-class worldview that Giuliani tapped into. He doesn’t call himself a conservative, but a “traditionalist.” And his vision of tradition isn’t Burkean, Oakshottian, or Hayekian. He doesn’t harken to Russell Kirk’s Mecosta, but to Levittown. And to an extent that’s fine. America could use a bit more 1950s Levittown morality. Sean Hannity, born in New York City but raised in Long Island, is another who largely fits that mold. More broadly, as I’ve written dozens of times, Fox News was always more populist than conservative, but its populism is often infused with a New York sensibility.

This was always the core of Donald Trump’s act, even when he was a proud Democrat. A bridge-and-tunnel billionaire, he always had a chip on his shoulder about New York elites. It wasn’t quite the same Irish-Catholic chip that O’Reilly had, but the similarities are more interesting than the differences. O’Reilly’s intellectual insecurity drives him to churn out gimmicky histories, written by someone else. Trump’s spills out in boasts about his grades and his superior brain. They both insist they’re the smartest man in the room and that people who disagree with their meniscus-thin judgments are not just wrong, but bad or stupid.

Trump’s nostalgic appeal to Make America Great Again using common sense to defeat the pinhead elites combined with his implied promise to humiliate his enemies with his strength and will was simply a variant of O’Reillyism. Indeed, Bill O’Reilly was the John the Baptist of Trumpism long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene.

I should say that I wish Donald Trump were a Rudy Giuliani, and I hold out the barest glimmer of hope that he could turn into one. But my suspicion is that he is a creature who mimicked the aesthetics and style of a Giuliani without anything like his discipline or expertise. And that in itself is a sign of the toxic corruption of celebrity conservatism that David French describes. Too many people think being a conservative is all about the public posture, the performance in front of the camera and not the performance on the job.

I have no idea if O’Reilly will find his way back on TV, but if I had to bet I’d bet big that he will. TV is a drug for some people. For some it’s about the money and doing good work, to be sure. But for others they come to believe that they will cease to exist if people don’t recognize them at airports. (Greta Van Susteren, for instance, is a multimillionaire, but I have every confidence that she thinks she’d dry up and blow away if she weren’t on TV.) Lord knows O’Reilly doesn’t need the money, but that’s not the itch people like him need to scratch.    

Various & Sundry  

I started writing this in the Main Street Diner in Grove City, Pa. I am finishing it in the parking lot of a Fairfield Inn in Slippery Rock. I know it sounds weird that I should be hurling epistolary and eristic brick-bats at Donald Trump’s politically fissiparous rodomontade through the machicolations of the Internet. But I was invited to share my hortatory stylings at Grove City College last night (I had a great time even though the fake news media will never tell you how huge the crowd was). I required sustenance, hence the Main Street Diner. I’m in the parking lot at the Fairfield Inn because I am smoking a cigar with the top down on my car and I need someplace to park in the shade. I know I shouldn’t smoke in the morning but sometimes I suffer from a lack of cacoëthes scribendi and this is the only way to extravasate my creative juices.

But what explains this apparent exercise in sesquipedalian epeolatry? The other day I was baited into a Twitter affray, or social media argle-bargle, by a dasypygal rantallian who made the following claim:

So I thought it a propitious opportunity to share my effulgent logophilia, even if I risk being accused of the sin of batrachomyomachy by taking so much time to respond to an anencephalous troll. I don’t want to be seen as absquatulating before I demonstrated my point, subjecting me to a severe case of Torschlusspanik. But as the kids say, I think I’ve thrown enough shade in a splendiferously umbriferous manner.

Canine Update: The beasts are still adjusting to the fact that the Fair Jessica is working outside the house for the first time in almost a decade. They become much needier and more excited when I come home. But they’ve also learned to amuse themselves more when they are not dreaming of more exciting adventures. Pippa has developed a new theory. She seems to think that if she holds perfectly still we won’t notice her in places she’s not supposed to be. I wish I had more stories to share, but I can’t think of any, so instead: Puppy pictures!

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File.

Trump’s pivot to easy wins.

Death penalty opponents are being dishonest.

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Naked mole rats can survive in oxygen-free environments
Scientists name a shrimp with (literally) killer sound after Pink Floyd

Breaking down 6 popular fictional languages

Are redshirts really the likeliest to die in Star Trek?

How to escape from a car in water

California’s super bloom is visible from space

On the China-North Korea border

Herd of cattle watches lone beaver

Doberman saves 17-month-old’s life

Dog skateboards

When the CIA’s cafeteria had a food fight

Mary Poppins as a horror movie

The Shining as a heartwarming family film

Behold: the museum of failure

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg